|Portraits of the Artist
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
25 March 2006
The first artist's life (in the western tradition)
is Antonio Manetti's biography of Filippo Brunelleschi, but
credit for the first artist's autobiography goes to the great
Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is wonderful to have
such a work by such an important figure. The reason why it's
not better known is that it is very short, and comes in a fragmentary
work, Ghiberti's Commentaries, for which the source is a single
Even if the text were better or fuller, it
wouldn't be likely to satisfy modern taste. Ghiberti offers
no trivia, and no childhood memories. He jumps straight in.
"In my youth, in the year of Christ 1400 [aged about 20],
I left Florence because of the corruption of the air and the
bad state of the country, and I went with an excellent painter
who had been summoned by the Malatesta Lord of Pesaro. He had
a room made which we decorated with the greatest diligence;
my mind was then largely bent on painting, because of the work
promised us by that Lord, and because of the honour and benefit
we would acquire."
There follows immediately the competition for
the Baptistry doors in Florence, which Ghiberti wins, thereby
setting the direction of his career. He gives an account of
his chief works, in a proud tone, with no false modesty, but
the result is tantalising rather than satisfying. For instance,
he tells us that he has brought the greatest honour to other
sculptors, painters and architects by providing models in wax
and clay, and drawings for their use. But he does not tell us
which artists benefited from these designs. On the other hand
he does give an account of his famous bronze doors, and he takes
credit for certain stained-glass windows in the Duomo and other
items which might otherwise have been overlooked.
We can also tell much about Ghiberti from what
he says about art elsewhere in the Commentaries. While it might
seem obvious that any artist or craftsman would attach importance
to examining a work of art in different kinds of light, Ghiberti
tells us of a classical sculpture which revealed certain of
its subtleties only to the touch. We know that in order to appreciate
an object fully he had to run his hands over it.
We also know that he was not an opinionated
Florentine but was prepared to give credit where he believed
it to be due. He appreciated classical sculpture and Sienese
painting. He believed that the revival of art began with Giotto,
and he is the source for Vasari's story of Cimabue finding the
boy Giotto working as a shepherd. He also, in the course of
the Commentaries, tells a story of a sculptor called Gusmin
who lived in Cologne and who worked for the Duke of Anjou.
Ghiberti's story of Gusmin constitutes a biography
in itself. He was a great sculptor, equal to the Greeks, except
that his figures were somewhat squat. "He made the heads
and the nude parts marvellously well." Ghiberti knew his
works through casts of them which would have been kept and valued
in the workshops of Florence. Gusmin made a golden altarpiece
for Louis I, Duke of Anjou (1339-1384), but the Duke needed
money for the conquest of Naples. The altarpiece was destroyed.
At this, Gusmin "fell upon his knees and
raised up his eyes and hands to Heaven saying: O Lord, Thou
who governest Heaven and Earth and hast created all things;
my ignorance be not so great that I follow any but Thee".
Then he went up to a hermitage in the mountains and spent the
rest of his life doing penance.
Nobody has been able to identify Gusmin for
certain, but Richard Krautheimer, in his great monograph on
Ghiberti, shows us photographs of the sort of northern goldsmith's
work that Ghiberti could have known through casts, and he considers
Ghiberti's story, legendary though it sounds, to have a core
of pure historic fact. Nearly all goldsmith's work of the period
was afterwards melted down, and we depend on rare examples for
scanty knowledge of it. The figure on the sceptre of Charles
V in the Louvre is the kind of work that Ghiberti may have had
It is in Krautheimer's book, Lorenzo Ghiberti
(Princeton, paperback reprint 1990) that the reader can find
the autobiographical section of the Commentaries in English
translation (it is only four pages long). I am surprised that
the whole work has never been published in English, although
a translation was done for the benefit of Courtauld students.
There is a good Italian edition published by Giunti in 1998,
introduced by Lorenzo Bartoli.