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The Renaissance Born in Florence: Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Donatello

Florence, Italy

Florence, home of the Renaissance, was also home to three early artistic heroes: Brunelleschi (with his beloved cathedral dome), Donatello (with his proud statues), and Ghiberti (with his math-based 3-D baptistry panels).

Complete Video Script

[12, viewpoint from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence] The city of Florence was the epicenter of the Renaissance and, in so many ways, the birthplace of our modern Western world. And for good reason. This was where capitalism was replacing feudalism. The city had money and it knew what to do with it.

[13, Ponte Vecchio on Arno River, Florence, view from top of Brunelleschi's dome, Florence] Florence was a prosperous city — a producer of wool and fancy clothes, well-located along a busy river. Trade brought bankers who brought money. And wealthy businessmen showed their civic pride by investing in their city — commissioning splendid art from talented artists, artists who were now respected and well paid. With all this going for it, Florence of the 15th century unleashed a cultural explosion.

[14, baptistery and duomo, Florence] Three works by pioneering geniuses helped launch the Renaissance: the towering dome of its cathedral, the groundbreaking statues that decorated it, and the doors of its baptistery. Excitement over these bold projects — by three greats of the early Renaissance: Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Ghiberti — sparked a city-wide boom in art and creativity.

[15, Elena Fulceri, Florence guide,] To better appreciate the ground-breaking art of the early Renaissance, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Elena Fulceri.

[16] Elena: Some say that the Renaissance truly started here in 1401 when the city arranged a competition to select an artist for the bronze casting of the new door of the baptistry. The winning panel was made by a brilliant goldsmith named Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Ghiberti, this is a self-portrait, won the competition with this panel. He then completed the north doors of the baptistry with additional panels like this.

Rick: So, the competition doors were on the north side.
Elena: Exactly. And later on, Ghiberti was in charge of another wonderful project. He cast in bronze the eastern door of the baptistry which ended up being so revolutionary and so spectacular that it was nick-named the Gate of Paradise. And as you can see here, Ghiberti was able to use also the rules of prospettiva, perspective — mathematical laws that helped define the three-dimensionality and you can see that there is a foreground, middle ground, and background.

By doing this, Ghiberti creates a vanishing point that gives the illusion of depth — a believable 3-D scene on a 2-D surface.

Elena: They were considered revolutionary for the three-dimensionality that they offered.
Rick: It's like now the viewer is involved in the art.
Elena: Exactly. We feel part of the artwork. It's three-dimensional. It goes way beyond the shape of the panel. And it's achieved by mathematical laws. And the next great Renaissance achievement was the construction of the dome for the cathedral. It was a huge medieval church that, after 120 years, was left incomplete…with a huge hole. So, the city really needed the proper technology and the right genius. And this genius was Filippo Brunelleschi. With his innovative eight-sided design, Brunelleschi was able to finish the largest dome in a thousand years. And this is the essence of the Renaissance. You can see how art and science can create great beauty.

[17, Duomo (Florence's cathedral), dome by Brunelleschi] The Cathedral and its soaring bell tower were landmark accomplishments in architecture…and they were to be decorated inside and out with wonderful statues. For this, Florence turned to Brunelleschi's good friend and Ghiberti's assistant — the sculptor Donatello. An eccentric, innovative, workaholic master, Donatello lit up his statues with an inner soul, giving his subjects unprecedented realism and emotion.

[18, Cantoria, 1433, Donatello, Museo del Duomo, Florence] This balcony from where the choir sang, captures the exuberance of the Renaissance. Dancing and swirling in a real space, unconstrained by columns, Donatello's happy angels celebrate the freedom and spirit of this new age.

[19, Mary Magdalene, 1455, Donatello] His Mary Magdalene — carved out of wood — is provocative…shockingly realistic. Rather than a saint in glory, Donatello portrays a real person, whose entire being is about the spiritual rather than the physical. Hands folded in prayer and emaciated from fasting, she's repentant. While her neglected physical body seems fragile, she exudes strength in spirit…with a faith that salvation will be hers.