Friday, September 7, 2012

Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise: The Return

This morning, after 30+ years of analysis and restoration,
Lorenzo Ghiberti's East Doors of the Florence
Baptistery in piazza del Duomo,
were unveiled to the press at the Cathedral Museum
(L'Opera del Duomo).

In honor of the Catholic feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary,
tomorrow (September 8), no admission will be charged to view the Gates of Paradise as well as the rest of the Cathedral Museum from 3 to 6 pm.
Later that evening, Andrea Bocelli will give a free concert of sacred music to celebrate,
but unfortunately there are no more tickets.
Keep in mind that the Cathedral across from where the Gates of Paradise were originally collocated is
dedicated to the Virgin, specifically as Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flower).

When I first came to Florence, I wished to see the gilded bronze doors
depicting stories from the Old Testament so beautiful that Michelangelo himself
dubbed them worthy enough to be "The Gates of Paradise."  These were the third set of doors commissioned for the Baptistery.  The first, by Andrea Pisano, have scenes from the life of
St. John the Baptist;  the second, by Ghiberti, illustrate stories from the New Testament.

The Gates of Paradise, created by Ghiberti between 1436 and 1452, are composed of eight panels, each weighing 7700 pounds and dedicated to a group of episodes.  The panel above has as its
 theme, the Stories of Jacob.

The Gates of Paradise reflect the vicissitudes of history.   They were dismantled and hidden in a train tunnel near Incisa Val d'Arno during WWII.  They underwent an abrasive cleaning, in line with the canons of the time, in 1948.  Later, several reliefs detached thanks to the fury of the 1966 Florence flood.  Still later, panels were removed in order to diagnose a thorough restoration.
This is how I viewed them when I arrived in Florence during the '80s.

They were no longer reflecting the light of the original gilded bronze.

Then, a copy of the entire set was installed and the originals went to Florence's state restoration laboratory, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
Thre, restorers first removed the accumulation of dirt (until recently, buses rolled by Piazza del Duomo, the Cathedral square) with a bath of New Rochelle salts.  This method, however, failed to prevent the crystallization of salts below the surface due to humidity.

Above are the restorers at work.  Together with collaborating state restoration institutes,
a new technique--the use of laser at brief intervals--was devised to dissolve the grimy film without harming the original work underneath.  The door was dismantled panel by panel, given the laser treatment, and put back together, a process that took months and years.

There was still another problem:  the formation of salt crystals would continue to form even in the protected environment of the Cathedral Museum (L'Opera del Duomo).
The solution is an enormous glass case encompassing the entire set of the Gates of Paradise, with filtered nitrogen, placed on the museum's ground floor.

Ghiberti (this is the artist's self portrait that is part of the work's freize)
surely would have been pleased.

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