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In 1400, the government of Florence decided to commission a work of votive offering to give thanks to God for ending the plague. The commission was for two pairs of bronze doors, to be installed in the Baptistery in front of the cathedral. The competition for this project was intense, and the most prominent and talented artists of the day submitted entries. The commission was awarded to a young man of 23 named Ghiberti.
His workshop was to have an extraordinary impact on the
artistic development of the Renaissance. Ghiberti worked on this project for 50 years, finishing and installing the second pair in 1452 at a magnificent ceremony attended by the entire city. One hundred years later, Michelangelo himself declared these doors "fit to be the gates of Paradise".
As we look at the beautiful doors, many thoughts crowd upon us. The terrible sufferings of Florence during the plague, which caused their construction; the celebrated competition with its intense and passionate rivalry; the whole lifetime of work spent in their production; the school of art which Ghiberti's studio became for the entire Renaissance; and the eager band of young assistants, many of whom made names for themselves that are famous throughout the world. The final triumph when they were at last completed; the solemn function when they were erected in their place; the grey-haired Ghiberti, bent with age, who had begun them in his youth; the pride of all who had had a part however humble in their production; and the excitement and rapture of the whole city.
Lastly, the many things of of which these doors were the origin and matrix, from the sculpture of Donatello to the painting of Masaccio, and everything that grew from these; so as we look at Ghiberti's doors, we see mirrored in them the triumphs of Raphael and Michelangelo.
Thoughts such as these force themselves upon the mind as we stand in the crowded modern thoroughfare, with the cars and tourists and the life of Florence all around us, and look at Ghiberti's doors.