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In My Good Books

Portraits of the Artist

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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 corrupt manuscript.

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 in mind.

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.

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