interviews / profiles / critical studies  
publicity / contact

Things That Have Interested Me

The Perception of Doors

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
7 July 2007

Florence used to be a place where publicly commissioned sculpture could be seen in public, on the streets and squares for which it had been made centuries earlier. The famous exception was Michelangelo's David, which was replaced long ago by a replica. But works by many other celebrated sculptors - Ghiberti, Donatello, Verrocchio, Cellini, Giambologna - could be seen on the sites for which they were designed.

The process by which they have gradually been taken indoors for their protection is nothing new: a very long time ago Michelangelo's Slaves used to be treated as garden sculpture and were to be found in a grotto on the Boboli Gardens. But the recent pressures on works in bronze and marble have become ever greater, and you can't argue with the philosophy that says we should act to preserve these masterpieces for future generations.

Something vital, however, is being lost. When I first visited Florence in the mid-1960s, the bronze doors of the Baptistery stood intact, and you could approach them at any time of day to admire them and to learn the paradigm they offered of the development of Gothic into Renaissance. You began on the south side with the Andrea Pisano doors. That was Gothic. You went around to the north, to Ghiberti's first set of doors, and that was your transition to the Renaissance. Then the eastern doors, the so-called Gates of Paradise, represented the thorough-going triumph of Renaissance values, leaving Gothic behind for good.

This tradition of making bronze doors for ceremonial buildings is very old indeed - it goes back directly to ancient Rome, and links the earliest Christian art to our own era. There is a bronze door in the baptistery of St John Lateran in Rome, dating from the papacy of Saint Hilarius (461-468). You could plan a very peculiar holiday looking at early Christian bronze doors. It would take you as far north as Aachen, Mainz, Hildesheim and Augsburg, as far east as Novgorod, and as far south as Palermo and Monreale, with Verona (where you can increase your chances of a pregnancy by touching the belly of one of the figures), Pisa, Rome and Ravello among your other Italian destinations. Florence would then seem like the culmination of that tradition (although as I say there are many later bronze doors).

But don't rush to make this door-pilgrimage now, as the Ghiberti Gates of Paradise are still under renovation, and three of the panels are currently touring the United States (visiting Atlanta, Chicago and New York), together with elements from their exquisite frame. When these parts return to Florence, they will be restored to their proper positions on the doors, which will then be put on display in a hermetically sealed case in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, we are told, "never to travel again".

The doors are notable for their brilliant gilding, but this is something they have not always revealed. In the 18th century, they would have looked dark and perhaps rather dull, not just because of dirt but because they had been varnished to tone them down. A very deliberate aesthetic had been at work, from which bronzes to this day are only just recovering. In the Renaissance, gilding or silvering was applied to bronze to increase its splendour and to make certain parts (such as the eyes, or some element of the armour) stand out. Later centuries found this vulgar, and covered it over with varnish. When a bronze is cleaned today, and found to be part-gilded or silvered, this is generally an indication that it is a work of very high quality. There is great excitement as a result.

In Florence in 1772, when the painter Anton Raphael Mengs made a cast of Ghiberti's doors and realised they were gilded, he called for them to be cleaned to reveal all their details. But the request was refused, apparently on aesthetic grounds. The interesting catalogue of the current American show (The Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece, edited by Gary M Radke, Yale) quotes a contemporary explanation for this refusal, which sets out the aesthetics in a nutshell: "It would seem that some sculptures should be of a more uniform colour, in order to best distinguish the play of light and shadow and thus play up the actual relief. Thus drawings are made preferably from plaster casts, rather than ancient statues, which may have become soiled due to improper maintenance by the antiquarian. Uniform patinas are considered appropriate for reliefs in bronze. And if the Gates had been fashioned from solid gold, which might be more beautiful to the eyes of a miser, and in general more magnificent, this would not be satisfactory for a draughtsman, since a bronze without a patina will be filled with reflections and false lights which only confound one's sight."

This tells you a great deal about the neo-classical aesthetic: visibility was everything, which was why uniformity was so desirable; pure white marble was the best; failing that, a plaster cast was better to draw from than an antique, because there were no distractions from the pure play of light and shadow, line and form. A gold relief would be confusing because of its excessive reflectivity, and because, by strong implication, it represented the wrong kind of magnificence.

The Gates were only cleaned and repolished after their replacement in situ at the end of the second world war. Then it was that they began to show some of their splendour. But the grime of the city soon supervened and obscured them again. Then came the flood of 1966, which damaged some of the panels and partially dislodged them from what turned out to be (to the amazement of the restorers) the solid bronze structure of the doors. And this damage was the prelude to a more recent discovery - not, as one would imagine, that pollution was putting the doors at risk, but that changes in the weather effect changes in the bronze, which in turn have a blistering effect on the gilt surface.

Next year, they will be back on display, visible, in the sense of having a fully readable surface, but indoors, and behind glass, and away from their ritual spot - opening the way, on special days, from the Baptistery to the Cathedral. This time, it has taken as long to restore them as it did to make them in the first place. There will be a gain in one column, and a loss to be marked in another column. But there is no sense in measuring the loss against the gain.

Recent Articles

17 May 2008
Thomas Hope

10 May 2008
Seaman's Secret Diary

3 May 2008
Creation of Canons

26 April 2008
Handel operas

19 April 2008
V&A's Hidden Artworks

12 April 2008
Coleridge & Faust

5 April 2008
Garden at Tresco

29 March 2008
Nazi leaders & Cranach

15 March 2008
On Rooms

8 March 2008
Metropolitan Museum in New York

1 March 2008
Bach's Passions

23 February 2008
Neoclassical Sculpture

16 February 2008
Saint Sebastian

9 February 2008
Origins of the Flower Trade



Read additional archived articles at


interviews / profiles / critical studies            
publicity / contact
Last update: 24 April 2010
Official Website Since 2005
  Text and Notes Copyright © James Fenton
Website Design Copyright © Ryan Roberts
Please read the disclaimer and email questions to the webmaster