Ghiberti — a branding story

Lorenzo Ghiberti — self-portrait at the Northern Portal.

It starts with the fact that Ghiberti’s year of birth is unclear, between 1378 and 1380. His mother is undecided whether the father was Cione Ghiberti or the goldsmith Bartolo di Michele. It doesn’t matter. At the golden portal of the Baptistery stays written:

Proud: Laurentii Cionis De Ghibertis. His complete name at the Door of Paradise

He decided in favor of the Ghiberti family, but for his professional career he remained with Bartolo di Michele who taught him the profession of goldsmith which based always on good drawing abilities as basis for craftmen’s execution.

Later Ghiberti became a successful Renaissance entrepreneur, who learnt to manage one of the main bronze-caster workshops in Florence with many workers. He built one of the first personal brands in early Florentine renaissance.

Ghiberti’s naming at the Norther Portal: Laurentii Florentini

But to start from the beginning. The 20 years old Ghiberti cought the right moment in 1400 to turn back to Florence and to participate at an art competition which became historic: the Northern portal of the Baptistry Saint John. The age of the participants of the competition were:

Filippo Brunellesco (23 y.o.), Lorenzo Ghiberti (22 y.o.), Simone da Colle (not known), Nicolo d’Arezzo (ca. 30 y.o.), Jacopo della Quercia da Siena (ca. 26 y.o.) Sacrificio di Isaaco an Der Porta Magna di San Petronio Bologna, Francesco di Valdombrina (ca. 30 y.o.), Nicolò Lamberti (ca. 30 y.o.). All together youngsters with a splendid career ahead. But only two of them made it into today’s awareness: Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Why?

left: Jacopo della Quercia da Siena (The Binding of Isaac at Porta Magna di San Petronio, Bologna); right: Nicolo di Piero Lamberti (Decollation of San Jacopo at Orsanmichele, Firenze)
The Binding of Isaac, interpreted by F. Brunelleschi (left) and L. Ghiberti (right)

The competition has been won by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, but later dropped out because he understood G’s intention and decided to go into the architecture. But how a nobody from outside of Florence without any known work could win this competition? Just recommendation and a prove of his stepfather’s abilities? The jury was impressed by Ghiberti’s proposal where Isaac has been represented as a strong and proud person, so as Florentines wanted to identify themselves facing the Black Death. Brunelleschi showed Isaak’s body, the future of the chosen people, rather as someone close to death. Two views were given: from outside with a brilliant future for Florence, from inside stressing more the peculiarities of the time to come. Brunelleschi was a son of a noble Forentine family with a good education as goldsmith, but a healthy sceptivism. Ghiberti, a goldsmith without Florentine tradition, wanted to be recognized by Florentines as one of them. Gave he a better financial offer, for which he got 100% of the votes? But gave he the best creative offer for which the selection committee gave the project to both, G. and B. Brunelleschi might have seen himself as an artist and might not have liked that art was compromised by a hidden agenda.

Cosimo de’ Medici with influence in the jury and probably others understood immediately that Florence needed the established families, but also newcomers should have a chance. Talents from outside of Florence were welcome. At the same time, Ghiberti made an irresistible offer knowing that its implementation would bring reputation and build awareness for him and his workshop. Once the order was in the pocket, the new workshop open, the interesting project attracted talents with will to achieve, but under price. Ghiberti managed and big sculptors worked for his workshop.

Ghiberti’s task was to keep the costs within the given limits. And in a workshop with more than 20 employees, being most of them individualists who had to sell their working time, needed a skilled and independent management. Ghiberti did that and he draw and designed while the craftsmen, future artists implemented.

In his late writing, I commentarii, Ghiberti describes that before painting and sculpturing, the drawing stays. And he referred to the Egyptians and Greeks. Why did he so? To consolidate his position as intellectual owner of the piece of art, to be recalled in later history and to build a future for his family. Instead being just the person who draw, he becomes the owner of the design. A book was the right tool to eternalize that concept an G. or his transcriber, have been the first.

Books often explain small things with many useless words. Great things need just a few words to be understandable. I commentarii contain short and clear summaries, which are consolidated with quotes from other books.

Ghiberti explains the process of creation with reference to known authorities like Apelles for the art of painting and Phidias for the art of sculpture.

Andrea Pisano: Apelles- the art of painting; Phidias- the art of sculpture, 1348–50 (Giotto tower)

To preform a transformaton and to be creative, a good knowledge in all liberal arts is needed: Grammar, Geometry, Philosophy, Medicine, Anatomy, Astrology, Perspective, History, Drawing theory and Arithmetica. The final result is a drawing or design which is the basis for the transitional stage of creation and transformation into a painting or a sculpture, into design = a job of nameless craftsmen. The final result establishes a relation between viewer and creator. It is not the artist = craftsman, but the designer = inventor.

In that context Ghiberti drops the first important word: the perspective which is basic element of the painting and sculpture. At the end it means adding a third dimension and establishing an equivalent to the Holy trinity. Because of that, has Ghiberti been a mathematician?

Why such a headdress? It seems to be typical for mathematicians at his time.

To him it is clear that perfection requires faith and humbleness. For an understanding of the human body, an understanding of the astrology including earth and heaven is necessary. Who does not know all these things, never will find out the things behind. Macro- and Microcosmos belong together.

The artist must not be a specialist of all these sciences, but he should have an understanding of it and must be able to use the knowlegde to translate the tridimensionality or to transfer the perspective into a bidimensional work.

Euclid and Pythagoras- geometry and arithmetic, Luca della Robbia 1437–39, Giotto Tower

Ghiberti showed this learning at the Door of Paradise.

Ghiberti defines a very human beginning of the arts of painting and sculpture. A Corinthian noble man had a daughter who fell in love with a young nobleman. When the young man left the house, she designed the face of that young man in such a perfect manner, that her father was impressed. And he took that drawing as inspiration and formed the face of this young man by using clay in a way that head and face seemed to be real.

Without geometry and arithmetics the painting could not been perfect as it has been shown by the Antique masters.

In I commentarii Ghiberti describes all what he knows in order to legitimate his leadership. What he states is valid for the painter but also for the sculptor as their arts were created from the shadow of the sun which came from the male form which covered the sun. The shadow created by covering partially the light of the sun and the line which describes the border of this shadow were at the beginning of the art of sculpture and painting. Great works have been produced with great knowledge, ability and geniality. Their more intellectual shadow has been multiplied by their description in many books.

Ghiberti wanted to be in that context. His I commentary consolidate his position as entrepreneur who can only draw with some lines the masterpiece which has to be implemented by skilled craftsmen who probably would never ever have such an idea, but needed the inspiration from a genius like Ghiberti it was.

Brand building seems easy, but it is clear that also Ghiberti had to hustle and work day and night to get that success. His big advantage might have been that he came from outside of Florence, was out of all parties and wanted to build something big. And he achieved it.

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