Renaissance Tales – II: Ghiberti, Brunelleschi & Masaccio

Renaissance Art had to start somewhere; it had to find inspiration in someone. This somewhere happened to be Tuscany, and the ‘someone’ was a group of extraordinary artists that revolutionized art after Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto had paved the way.

It’s 1401 AD in Florence. Something was about to happen, and the world of art the way we know it would never have been the same without it happening: an incident would spark the genius of two of history’s greatest artists, while a third artist would be born. Together, these three artists would be the holy trinity of Early Renaissance Art: Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Masaccio.

Masaccio was born in 1401, and it took him only 27 years (that is, till he died) to leave a lasting legacy that would inspire generations of artists to follow, breaking away with the ‘maniera greca’ and painting bodies of mass and volume, all subject to strict application of perspective. His ‘Trinity’ is the perfect examlpe.

If perspective is the game, then Brunelleschi is most definitely the name. Having rejected a shared commission with Ghiberti to sculpt the bronze doors of Florence’s Baptistery, he decided to dedicate himself to architecture. The result: while Ghiberti spent 48 years sculpting two pairs of immortal doors, one of which was described by Michelangelo as the ‘Gates of Paradise’, Brunelleschi used his skill to lift 4 million bricks over 50 meters above the ground level –without buttresses or ledges- to build the mammoth dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s Cathedral.

Not far from the scene, Brunelleschi’s friend, called Donatello, was ‘sculpting his way’ into glory through his bronze ‘David’, the first freestanding nude figure since antiquity. David stands triumphant, having slain Goliath. It comes as no surprise that Florence identidied itself with the Biblical hero, who used his wits to beat the physical strength of Goliath, just like the city itself had taken a quantum leap ahead of its more powerful enemies and rivals by focusing on a field in which it was sure to trumph: art, culture and humanist learning.

Renaissance was born, having its first overwhelming ‘monuments’ and masterpieces already dominating the streets, piazzas and churches. The cityscape of Florence has changed once and for all.

Florence Cathedral Dome - BrunelleschiTrinity - MasaccioGates of Paradise - Ghiberti

Renaissance’s Goldsmiths: From Ghiberti to Da Vinci

What do Renaissance masters like Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello and Gozzoli have in common? What ‘unpleasant start’ did they all have? The answer comes from Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King:

“Goldsmiths were the princes among the artisans of the Middle Ages, with a large scope to explore their numerous and varied talents. They could decorate a manuscript with gold leaf, set precious stones, cast metals, work with enamel, engrave silver, and fashion anything from a gold button to a shrine, reliquary, or tomb. It is no coincidence that the sculptors Andrea Orcagna, Luca della Robbia and Donatello, as well as the painters Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benozzo Gozzoli had all originally trained in the workshops of goldsmiths.

Despite its prestige, goldsmithing was not the most welcome of professions. The large furnaces that were needed to melt gold, copper and bronze had to burn for days on end, even in the heat of summer, polluting the air with smoke and bringing the danger of explosions and fire. Noxious substances such as sulfur and lead were used to engrave silver, and the clay molds in which metals were cast require supplies of both cow dung and charred ox horn. Worse still, the workshops of most goldsmiths were found in Florence’s most notorious slum, Santa Croce, a marshy and flood-prone area on the north bank of the Arno. This was the workers’ district, home to dyers, wool combers, and prostitutes, all of whom lived and worked in a clutter of ramshackle wooden houses.”

Bornze Panel by Ghiberti