When Lorenzo Ghiberti completed his gilded bronze doors depicting scenes from the Old Testament for the baptistery of the Florence Cathedral in 1452, an awestruck Michelangelo called them the Gates of Paradise, a name that has carried down the centuries and come to symbolise one of mankind's finest creations. Now, Mumbaikars can see it for themselves with the 'lost wax' bronze replica on display at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum till June 3.
Delving into the history of the magnificent artwork, exhibition curator Dr Gerhard Wolf says that it took Ghiberti (depicted in the relief from the doors) more than 25 years to complete the task. The popular story goes that it all began with a contest held by the city's cloth merchants guild to design a set of doors for the octagonal baptistery, the city's oldest civic temple, outside the cathedral.
"Ghiberti did two pairs of doors. For the first doors, a big competition in the city was held in 1401, where artists were invited to set the model for new doors of the baptistery — the north gate, not the Gates of Paradise," Dr Wolf says.
"When Ghiberti worked on the doors, he had such huge success that people understood that he was simply the best in the city with his decoration and narration in gilded bronze. Therefore, he was commissioned without a competition the second doors which he started in 1425. He completed the task only when he was 52," he says.
After Ghiberti bagged the commission, his competitor Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the greatest minds of the era, stormed off to Rome to study architecture, returning to gain fame as the builder of the cathedral's famous dome and the pioneer of linear perspective. "Brunelleschi was fully engaged with building the cupola (dome) of the cathedral. One is building the cupola and one is building the bronze gates opposite the cathedral...so this competition goes on between architecture and sculpture," explains Dr Wolf.
Dr Wolf likes Ghiberti's self-reflective nature. "He wrote a book called Commentari, meaning comments on his own life, in 1447, five years before the Gates of Paradise were put in place… for the first time we hear the voice of an artist telling us things in his own way and doing self-promotion," he says.
And how would he promote himself? "He would say that he alone had worked on the Gates of Paradise. We not only have his comments but documents which showed he had a huge workshop; it was a Ghiberti enterprise, so to speak. He also had advisors — theological advisors, philosophers or humanists who discussed the arrangement of things for him," says Dr Wolf.
Did he also take undue credit for developing the dome of the cathedral? Dr Wolf admits he did but says such behaviour shouldn't be seen it in a negative sense "It was the way Florentine culture of 15th century Florence was: very competitive and people promoted themselves."
Does this competition have any parallels in modern life? "You could say the same story is seen the competition between architects today. You have the law, you have the rules, the administrative framework and within that you have the conditions under which competition started. It was exactly the same in Florence. And who is doing this competition? It starts with committees of the city government and potential patrons."
Interestingly, Arab scientist Alhazen's influential treatise The Book of Optics finds its way into Ghiberti's masterwork. "The time of the 1420-50s was the time of the introduction and operation of the concept of linear point perspective. And Ghiberti made experiments with that in the Gates of Paradise. And to do so, he studied Arabic optics. It is important that we should not see the Renaissance as a closed culture only looking at classical antiquity," says Dr Wolf, adding that contact was being made with Arabian science and art.
There is an Indian connection too. "There was contact by means of travellers and merchants. The Medici family, almost two decades after the Gates of Paradise, had started making global collections and had Indian objects. And there were travellers whose accounts we have; from the late 13th century up to the 16th and 17th century many of them came to India which was important to the textile trade. Indian textiles have been present in Florence in the 14th and 15th century. So what do Mumbai and Florence have in common? "You know that Bombay is extremely important for the 16th and 17th century cotton industry and cotton was a highly precious material even earlier… I have worked on some series paintings where you have very transparent cloth, early cotton from Syria and India. In general, textile cities are industrial cities but they are also cities where people have a sensibility for precious fabrics. This is a basic aesthetic knowledge…"
"I think Bombay has potential which is comparable to what Florence had been centuries before. Tradition and innovation are the two pillars of urban society and this we can study very well in Mumbai," he says.
Reflecting on the reasons for the decline of the Italian Renaissance, he says, "I'm not so interested in developmental history so I don't believe so much in an evolutionary model and I also don't want to isolate the case of Florence – if you look at the case of Venice, Palermo, Naples, Cairo or Istanbul, what happened is that with the discovery of the Americas, the geopolitical situation changed. Florence saved herself by becoming the first really absolutist state in Europe called the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. And even if they didn't have the greatest artists anymore, they had an extremely successful art industry called the pietra dura or inlaid stonework which was a huge success all over the world."
This stonework can be seen in Mughal architecture. "It's there in the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. We have some people looking at Florentine models so it's not like it ends. I wouldn't say small city states lost, but they were reduced in importance in comparison with big empires like England, Spain, Portugal and Mughal India." he says.
When asked who discovered the art of inlaying semi-precious stones — India or Europe, Dr Wolf says that it was found in various cultures since classical antiquity, but 15th century Florence introduced a new level of technology. However, he rejects the idea of particular cultures having influence over others. "It's not 'Europe invents and others copy'. It's more about what they knew about the world, and Indian culture from Shah Jahan to Akbar had global knowledge".