They have faded into the shadows of the Renaissance. Two men whose work surmounts doors of the Baptistery in Florence, you might imagine, would be of the fame and stature of other Renaissance sculptors or artists in bronze, like Donatello or Cellini. While we may not, today, recognize their names, the incredible quality of their works stand as testament to phenomenal talent.
We hardly ever notice them, the giants above the doors of the baptistery of San Giovanni Batista in Florence – St. John the Baptist Baptistery. Ghiberti’s Eastern “Doors of Paradise”, so termed by Michelangelo, draw the crowds that hover around what are actually copies made from decades old casts.
While crowds admire and photograph the eastern doors, walk around to the north and south doors and look up. On the south side of the octagonal structure are doors designed by Andrea Pisano. The casting and gilding were done by Leonardo d’Avanzano, a Venetian famous for his renowned techniques with bronze. These doors were originally the eastern doors until Ghiberti won the competition for a new set of panels. It was in 1452 that the Pisano doors were moved to their present location on the building’s south side.
Above the south doors are three statues depicting the Beheading of John the Baptist by Vincenzo Danti. He was born and raised in a family with a goldsmith father and was educated in the art of sculpture in Rome. He received a commission in 1533 for a bronze of Pope Julius III which stands outside of the cathedral in Perugia.
A commission followed in 1567 for three figures to stand above the south doors of the Baptistery. These are considered to be his masterpieces.
An interesting additional detail about the figures that surmount the “Gates of Paradise” at the Baptistery. These three figures, depicting the Baptism of Christ, were started by Andrea Sansovino between 1501 and 1503. What many people do not know is that Sansovino was unable to complete the commission. Two of the figures, Christ and the Baptist, were completed by none other than Vincenzo Danti. The third figure, an angel, was not completed until 1752 by Innocenzo Spinazzi.
On the north side of the baptistery are another three figures, titled The Sermon of the Baptist. Created by Giovanni Francesco Rustici-and, many believe, in concert with Leonardo di Medici with whom the sculptor lived after meeting the maestro in Verrocchio’s workshops-the pieces were never sufficiently paid for nor credit given, according to records of the time. Yet, these incredible bronzes stand strongly in company of Sansovino and, even, Michelangelo. Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, claimed that Rustici was one of the greatest Renaissance sculptors in Tuscany.
When you visit the city, and stand before Ghiberti’s unforgettable eastern doors of the Baptistery, please take time to study the figures above all of the doors. Little known though they may have been, the bronzes are all fascinating works of art, works that introduce us to Vincenzo Danti and Giovanni Francesco Rustici.
IF YOU GO:
The Baptistery is directly in front of the Duomo in Florence.
The Baptistery of San Giovanni Battista
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – CLOSED
Thursday, Friday and Saturday – 8:30AM – 7:00PM
Sunday, 8:30AM – 2:00PM