Ghiberti vs. Brunelleschi: The Renaissance Competition

Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi faced off in a competition for the design of the doors of the Florence Baptistry.

Jun 12, 2024By Kerigan Pickett, BA Art History with History concentration

ghiberti brunelleschi renaissance competition


Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were both chosen for a competition in 1401 to create a quatrefoil for the Florence Baptistry doors to see who would win the overall commission of the doors. Ghiberti wrote of his victory, while Brunelleschi wrote about a tied competition from which he backed out. But who was telling the truth, and what happened in the end?


Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi: It’s a Tie

The Competition Panels (The Sacrifice of Isaac) by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, 1401. Source: The Bargello Museum, Florence


In 1401, the Arte del Calimala, a wool merchant guild in Florence, was responsible for the outer aesthetics of the Florence Baptistry of Saint John. There were elaborate bronze doors installed in the 14th century, and the guild sought to continue the tradition by finding someone to create new ornate doors for the building. They reached out to artists in the area to compete in a competition on who could make the best doors for the baptistry. The chosen subject was the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac.


Competing artists included Niccolò d’Arezzo, Simone da Colle, Jacopo della Quercia, Niccolò di Pietro Lamberti, Francesco di Valdambrino, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Filippo Brunelleschi, of which two were chosen as winners. Each artist was told to create a bronze quatrefoil for the doors, and the winner of the competition would be able to create the entire door for the baptistry, consisting of twenty-eight total quatrefoils. This commission was highly sought after, with the baptistry being one of the most important places in the city. Winning a commission such as that one could significantly impact an artist’s career. Once all the artists submitted their designs of The Sacrifice of Isaac, a panel of thirty-four Florentine natives judged the works. They concluded that it was a tie between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi.


Brunelleschi’s Reaction

Sacrifice of Isaac by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1401. Source: The Bargello Museum, Florence


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Filippo Brunelleschi felt insulted by the results of the competition. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi studied together under the Florentine goldsmith Benincasa Lotti, and Brunelleschi likely saw Ghiberti as his younger, less adept rival. Besides this, Brunelleschi had the confidence to create works alone in his studio, while Ghiberti opened his studio to others when creating a new design. He would invite the public to watch him work and make suggestions for improvement. One of his visitors was a judge on the panel charged with the responsibility of choosing a winner.


Legends claim that upon hearing the news of the tied results, Brunelleschi stormed from the building and left Florence altogether. Though he went to work in Rome for ten years after withdrawing from the competition, there is no concrete evidence that suggests he reacted in such a dramatic way when hearing the results. Nevertheless, Brunelleschi made it clear that he only worked on projects he had complete control over and did not wish to share the victory with his rival. Brunelleschi largely abandoned sculpture after this event.


Sacrifice of Isaac, by Carravagio, 1598. Source: Wikipedia


Brunelleschi’s quatrefoil is the more dramatic of the two. The bronze design depicts the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac, in which God tests the faith of Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, as he sacrificed his son, Jesus Christ. However, when Abraham went to carry out this horrific task, an angel was sent to stop him at the last moment. This is the moment that is shown in Brunelleschi’s quatrefoil.


Though both quatrefoils depict a scene of violence, Brunelleschi plays with the violence to create a strong moment of tension as the blade is pressed hard against the child’s lifted neck. The angel has a sense of urgent movement as it appears and grabs Abraham’s arm, hoping to prevent the attack before it is too late. Next to the figures of Abraham and Isaac is a lamb, which can be used in the boy’s place for sacrifice. Below them are more figures, including a young boy peering at his foot. Both of the bottom figures look down to Hell, but the young boy checking his foot alludes to Brunelleschi’s interest in classical art and his skill in looking back to the ancient world.


Sacrifice of Isaac by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1401. Source: The Bargello Museum, Florence


Only through Brunelleschi’s forfeit did Lorenzo Ghiberti emerge as the sole winner, yet he was willing to claim sole credit for his victory. He wrote, “To me was conceded the palm of victory by all the experts and by all my fellow competitors. Universally, they conceded to me the glory without exception. Everyone felt I had surpassed the others in that time, without a single exception, after great consultation and examination by learned men.”


Some theories suggest that Ghiberti’s quatrefoil was favored due to its lighter weight. Because of this it would cost less. He cast the design in a single piece, with the back somewhat hollow. Brunelleschi’s version, which has a smooth, solid back for the quatrefoil, is roughly 15 pounds heavier. However, one cannot deny the skill that went into the design.


In Ghiberti’s quatrefoil, nature is incorporated into the scene by placing the figures of Abraham and Isaac onto a rock formation. In this way, it adds to the drama by creating a stage, yet also calls to the beauty of nature to glorify the sacred tale. The figures are also more reserved, creating a more calm atmosphere despite the impending violence of the scene. The blade is not pressed to the boy’s throat but instead waits in Abraham’s hesitating hand. The angel, too, does not reach out for them and is only beginning to enter the scene from above, coming out of the back of the quatrefoil at a sharper angle of foreshortening.


Ghiberti’s Doors at the Florence Baptistery

North Doors of the Florence Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1401. Source: Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence


Since Brunelleschi pulled out from the competition after hearing the results were tied, Ghiberti was awarded the complete victory. As was promised, he set out to create the full door for the baptistry. The South Doors of the Florence Baptistry were made in the 14th century by a Florentine artist named Andrea Pisano, giving Ghiberti a source of creative inspiration when designing the new East Doors (now the North Doors) early in his career.


While the competition was intended for only one quatrefoil, Ghiberti now needed to create an entire door of quatrefoils. He took significant inspiration from the South Doors concerning the design, but Ghiberti’s doors depicted the Life of Christ condensed into twenty-eight scenes, with the bottom eight being the Evangelists and Fathers of the Church. Scenes include Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Dispute with the Doctors, Baptism of Christ, Temptation of Christ, Chasing the Merchants from the Temple, Jesus Walking on Water and Saving Peter, Transfiguration, Resurrection of Lazarus, Entry of Jesus in Jerusalem, Last Supper, Agony in the Garden, Christ Captures, Flagellation, Jesus before Pilate, Ascent to Calvary, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Pentecost, St. John, St. Matthew, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, and St. Augustine.


They were first created from cast bronze. Ghiberti was particular about the outcome and notoriously cast and recast the artworks until he thought them perfect enough to be complete. The commission took 21 years to complete. In 1424, the doors were completed and revealed to the public.


East Doors of the Florence Baptistery (Gates of Paradise) by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1401. Source: Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence


Shortly after the North Doors (then called the East Doors) were revealed, Ghiberti was commissioned again to design the East Doors (then called the North Doors), which would later be nicknamed The Gates of Paradise by the prominent artist Michaelangelo. Ghiberti’s career was proving to be lucrative, and he was well-known across the region due to his victory in the 1401 competition.


With the outcome of his work being so satisfying to the people of Florence, Ghiberti was commissioned to create another set of doors for the baptistry—the third and final set. He took the job gladly and spent the rest of his life dedicating hours of work to perfecting the new set of doors. They consisted of ten squares depicting various scenes from the Old Testament.


Ghiberti’s skill is apparent in these doors, once he had forsaken the Gothic style for the new Renaissance style. The scenes have depth that make the space behind the figures seem infinite, while the figures are built in a classical style to remind viewers of the building’s ancient past. A 15th-century chronicler claimed that the building was once a temple to Mars, however modern archaeological discoveries do not support this theory.


When the scenes were completed in 1452, twenty-seven years after accepting the commission, they were considered so striking in their beauty that a decision was made to move them to the East Doors so they could face the cathedral the building sat next to. The original doors have been moved to a museum today, but a replica is still facing the cathedral. Lorenzo Ghiberti died three years after their unveiling, with a reputation that would last into the modern era.


Brunelleschi’s Dome

Duomo by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1436. Source: Duomo Florence


Brunelleschi, too, had a life and career of marvelous outcome. After abandoning sculpture, he turned his attention towards engineering. While staying with his friend, the sculptor Donatello, in Rome, he became fascinated with the construction of the Pantheon. He wondered how the dome stood so long without falling. Nobody had ever created a self-sufficient dome for a building before. In fact, it was one of the great engineering mysteries at the time. However, Brunelleschi knew that if the ancient Romans could do it, so could he.


When Brunelleschi returned to Florence, he thought the cathedral needed a dome like the Pantheon in Rome. He went to the authorities and asked permission to build a dome for the cathedral. The authorities were hesitant and demanded he demonstrate his plan for them. Brunelleschi showed them a rough plan by breaking off the bottom of an egg, but he needed to formulate a proper, new way to do it. The recipe for concrete that the Romans used was lost to time, so he needed to think of something new.


Brunelleschi’s Dome in the Florence Cathedral. Source: Wikipedia


He also wasn’t dealing with a circle. Instead, the dome was an octagon and nobody had ever vaulted an octagonal dome before. There was no way to build scaffolding strong enough and tall enough to hold the structure as it was being built. His ideas were revolutionary. His architectural plans showed the dome sliced in half so that the inner layers were visible for demonstration.


He made the dome hollow to be as light as possible. The inner layer was the hollow, wooden structure made of interlocking verticals and horizontals, surrounded by a layer of bricks laid in an interlocking pattern and then held together by eight ribs made of sandstone, which also aided in supporting the overall structure. To create this incredible dome, he had to invent machines to assist in building the structure. While the dome was being constructed, he ensured the safety of his workers by providing meals, watered wine, a safety net in case of accident, as well as a clock with chimes to signal the end of a work day.


At its completion in 1436, Brunelleschi’s Duomo was the tallest ever built besides St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To this day, it is considered one of the great architectural accomplishments in the world. It stands right next to the Florentine Baptistery with Ghiberti’s doors.

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By Kerigan PickettBA Art History with History concentrationKerigan has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, where she also minored in History and earned a Museum Studies Certificate. She is also certified to tutor through the Saga Coach program by Saga Education, and she interned at the Cedar Falls Historical Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She is passionate about art, history, and writing. Her favorite historical subject is Tudor history. She currently runs a blog on WordPress called Gilded Histories, where she posts her latest art historical research in the form of academic articles.