Last week I had the rare opportunity to dedicate myself for two days to a feature story in Florence, the restoration of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Doors on the Florence baptistery and the making of a replica. After becoming discouraged about the current situation in Rome (see last post “Ravishing, Rotten Rome”) it was refreshing to spend time in the charming, well-run city of Florence and meet with artisans and restorers who represent the best of Italy.
The story was on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Doors of the Florentine Baptistery.
Florentine artist, sculptor, goldsmith and architect Lorenzo Ghiberti took over 20 years to make the bronze doors completing them in 1424. The doors have 28 panels, most with scenes from the New Testament. Each panel is a bronze engraving gilded in 24-karat gold. Over the years millions of tourists have stopped to stare at the doors, but in recent years the once magnificent panels have become grime-covered and difficult to appreciate.
Over the past two had a half years a team of nine restorers has been working to restore the doors. They finished their work this fall and the completely restored doors are now on display in the Museum of the Opera Del Duomo.
The restoration began in March 2013 when the North Doors were removed from the baptistery and taken to a nearby laboratory for the restoration, no small feat given that the massive North Doors are five meters (16.4 feet) tall and 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) wide and weigh 9 tons.
Then, millimeter by millimeter, using scalpels, lasers, chemical compresses and q-tips the nine restorers worked their way over the 600-year-old Renaissance masterpiece.
As the restorers scraped off the grime, the 24-karat gold gilding came back to light, and little creatures, such as insects and a split-tailed gecko emerged.
I had the chance to interview Stefania Agnoletti, the head of the restoring team and she explained that they used scalpels, dentists’ magnifying glasses, lasers and even tiny needles to clean tiny details on the door.
On the night of September 10th workers moved the massive door from the laboratory to its new home, the New Museum of the Opera del Duomo, where it stands in an acclimatized case next to Ghiberti’s other restored door, “The Gates of Paradise.”
The restoration of the doors has gone hand in hand with the creation of an exact replica of Ghiberti’s original doors, which is nearing completion at a foundry near Florence and will be put on the Florence Baptistery in January.
The project is being funded using a method of art adoptions. Philanthropists organized by a group called the Guild of the Dome, are each paying for the restoration and replica of one of the panels. Each panel costs a donor 150,000 Euros. By adopting a panel, each donor will have his or her name etched in the back in honor of their gift. The donors are from Russia, the US, Taiwan, India, Italy, Mexico and Israel, and Europe.
Enrico Marinelli, the ebullient President of the Guild of the Dome and also President of the Frilli Gallery drove me out to the Ciglia and Carrai Foundry where the replica is being made. The Frilli Gallery also handled the creation of the replica of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” doors, which were put on the Baptistery in 1990.
Entering the foundry I was immediately accosted by the loud noise, smoke and strong fumes. Artists and artisans were busily working with bronze, hammers, wax and chisels to complete the replica of the door in time for the inauguration on the baptistery on January 23, 2016.
There are 15 artisans on the team who have been working for the past four years to create an exact replica of the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Door. The original doors were made using a technique called Lost Wax Bronze Casting, the same method being used to make the replica at the Ciglia and Carrai foundry.
Jacopo Ciglia, head of the team making the replica, explained the process to me. Because they were not allowed to make molds from the original panels, they used 3D laser scans to create a silicon mold. From the silicon mold they created a wax prototype. They then used the same process that Ghiberti used called “Lost Wax Casting” in which the liquid bronze is poured into the wax cast which melts away. The final stages include the chiseling of all the details and the polishing of the bronze panels.
Ciglia said it has been a tough job as they have endeavored to precisely replicate Ghiberti’s work, spending days trying to accurately copy details such as eyes and feet. He said they struggled for weeks over Christ’s belly button in the crucifixion panel noting, “It was complicated trying to capture the expression of the belly button as it was in Ghiberti’s original.”
The artisans pointed out borders on clothing, designs on helmets on warriors, and a gecko’s tail split in two, apparently a sign of good luck, along the border of the door.
Andrea Romanelli, one of the Master Chiselers was carefully chiseling the fine detail into each panel. He had a box with hundreds of small metal tools similar to those used by Ghiberti to complete his task. Romanelli proudly demonstrated for my cameraman and me how he chiseled a curl in the hair of an apostle in the panel of “The Last Supper.” He noted that his replica maintains every detail in the hairstyles, the embroidery on the cloths, and the architectural designs on the panels even in areas of the panels that would be out of sight to someone looking at the door.
While the ovens burned below, upstairs we filmed sculptor Marco Degli’Innocenti as he carefully used q-tips and small wooden implements to work on a wax prototype of the panel showing “The Temptation of Christ”. Wearing thick magnifying glasses, he worked his wooden implement around the scales on the clawed foot of the devil figure. “It is called Lost Wax Casting because the wax goes away and magically it has transformed into bronze everything that was in wax,” Degl’Innocenzi explained.
The artisans spent six months studying Ghiberti’s North Doors before beginning work on the replica which has been going on for four years. Clara Marinelli of the Frilli Gallery told me in the past four years they have used 1 ton of silicon, 400 kilos of wax and 3.5 tons of bronze to make the replica of the North Doors.