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Issue Date:  November 23, 2007

-- Courtesy of Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/
Antonio Quattrone

Adam and Eve relief from the east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Italy
Renaissance masterpiece, missed in Florence, turns up in New York


On a recent trip to Florence -- our first -- my husband and I noticed a small, intently curious crowd gathered in front of the doors on the building behind the Duomo, the city’s major cathedral sporting Filippo Bruneschelli’s majestic dome. So commanding is the cathedral that the much smaller octagonal building behind it, which I later learned is called the Baptistery, could easily be dismissed. It was the crowd that caught my eye. This wasn’t one of the ubiquitous tour groups obligingly trailing a guide, easily identified by such features as an umbrella held aloft, or a long stick tied with scarves. A glance in the direction of the Baptistery was enough to tell me that this was a spontaneous gathering of people intently interested in the doors. Alternately, they would consult their guidebooks and peer closely at what was before them.

-- Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Goldsmith, bronze-caster and sculptor Lorenzo Giberti (1378-1455) from a fresco at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Carrying a guidebook that didn’t rate historic or artistic sites but treated them as if all were equal -- a mistake we will not repeat -- we had paid scant attention to the Baptistery. We later learned what more seasoned travelers may already know: that the Baptistery of San Giovanni is one of the oldest and most beloved buildings in Florence, and for that reason, it was chosen as the site for Lorenzo Ghiberti’s celebrated 15-foot-high doors. When we got close enough to the doors, the east doors facing the Duomo, I was transfixed by the exquisitely detailed, three-dimensional renderings of scenes from the Hebrew Bible. They took 27 years to complete and are considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.

-- Courtesy of Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/
Antonio Quattrone

Jacob and Esau relief from the east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence

Once I had flipped through my guidebook and found the appropriate page, two points caught my attention. One is that Michelangelo, too, had been transfixed by Ghiberti’s masterpiece and had reportedly labeled the work Porta del Paradiso, Gates of Paradise -- a term that stuck. The other is that no matter how stunning the work before me, it was not the real thing. The doors in front of me were castings made in 1948 and installed in 1990. That year, the 15th-century gilded bronze originals were moved to the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, along with other treasures from the Baptistery’s interior.

There is more to know about the Baptistery. Romanesque in style, it dates to the 11th century and is dedicated to the patron saint of Florence, St. John the Baptist. It was the repository of the bones believed to be the Baptist’s (his jaw and two fingers; a gold casing said to contain his forearm is housed at the museum attached to the Topaki Palace in Istanbul, and several sites claim to possess his skull). Dante was baptized in the Baptistery in 1265, calling it “my beloved St. John’s.”

-- Courtesy of Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/
Antonio Quattrone

David and Goliath relief from the east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence

In Florence, our time was short, lines were long, and the experience of viewing the “fake” doors had been so profound that, somewhat regretfully, we elected to move on. On returning home to St. Louis and catching up with the news, I was consoled to find that it would not take another trip to Florence to see the real thing. The doors were not in the museum after all -- at least not in their entirety. Three of the 10 panels, along with four smaller sculpted pieces, were -- and are -- on tour in the United States.

During the spring, summer and early fall, the panels were on view in Atlanta and Chicago. Since Oct. 30, they have been on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where they will remain through Jan. 13. On Jan. 14, they will move to Seattle, where they will be on view Jan. 26 through April 6. The tour commemorates the restoration of the doors, ongoing since 2000 and expected to be complete next year. When the panels return to the museum in Florence, they will be reattached to the frames and placed in a special glass case designed to prevent further deterioration.

The narrative panels chosen for the U.S. tour depict Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, David and Goliath. Each of the panels -- replicated in the casting on site -- highlights a different aspect of Ghiberti’s enormous talent and his experiments with perspective, one of the Renaissance’s contributions to the evolution of art. A catalogue of the exhibition is available from the Metropolitan’s actual or online bookstore, or from, at prices ranging from $19.80 to $35.

When we left Florence, we were sad, knowing it was unlikely we would return soon, given the size of the world and the number of places to see. Now it appears that to see one of Florence’s greatest treasures, we need go only as far as Seattle or New York.

Pamela Schaeffer is an editor at NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2007

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