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The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World

The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World

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by Paul Robert Walker

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A lively and intriguing tale of the competition between two artists, culminating in the construction of the Duomo in Florence, this is also the story of a city on the verge of greatness, and the dawn of the Renaissance, when everything artistic would change.

Florence′s Duomo - the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral - is one


A lively and intriguing tale of the competition between two artists, culminating in the construction of the Duomo in Florence, this is also the story of a city on the verge of greatness, and the dawn of the Renaissance, when everything artistic would change.

Florence′s Duomo - the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral - is one of the most enduring symbols of the Italian Renaissance, an equal in influence and fame to Leonardo and Michaelangelo's works. It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the temperamental architect who rediscovered the techniques of mathematical perspective. He was the dome's ′inventor′, whose secret methods for building remain a mystery as compelling to architects as Fermat's Last Theorem once was to mathematicians. Yet Brunelleschi didn't direct the construction of the dome alone. He was forced to share the commission with his arch-rival, the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose 'Paradise Doors′ are also masterworks. This is the story of these two men - a tale of artistic genius and individual triumph.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Six hundred years ago, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi finished one and two in a contest to design the decorative bronze doors that now grace Florence's beloved Baptistry. Ghiberti, the youngest entrant, was the victor and subsequent recipient of many of the city's most sought-after projects. Wounded by his loss to the upstart Ghiberti, Brunelleschi (who was better educated and from a more respectable family than his rival) set out to reintroduce the glory of Antiquity in their age. Brunelleschi went on to design the dome that has long symbolized Florence's cityscape and succeeded in popularizing the return to the architectural vocabulary of Greece and Rome. Walker, author of various YA books and Every Day's a Miracle, contends (though too often he simply conjectures) that while fighting for architectural and sculptural commissions and fuming at one another, the two artists brought out the best in each other, their peers and subsequent generations. While that may be so, this book is hurt by the author's attempts to construct his imagined narrative without sufficient evidence to do so convincingly. Descriptions lacking originality and force (Brunelleschi's dome is "a vision of curving red tile and white marble perfection set against the pale blue Tuscan sky") and weak argumentation make this a disappointing popularization of the lives and work of two very talented men. (Dec. 1) Forecast: While Brunelleschi's Dome (2000) continues to do respectable numbers in paper, this book doesn't quite have the hook of the earlier one-the Baptistry doors, while beautiful, are not on the scale of the dome-though it concerns the same figures. The doors could shut fairly quickly here. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of 20 books on subjects ranging from the Italian Renaissance to the American West, Walker here pairs off proto-architect Filippo Brunelleschi and doormaker Lorenzo Ghiberti in an often engaging version of Quattrocento Smackdown. Pitting the two masters against each other in the competition for the sculpted bronze doors of the baptistery, Walker re-creates the intrigues of 15th-century Florence as the young, possibly illegitimate Ghiberti walks away with the lucrative commission and creates one of the Western world's great pieces of art. Spurred by his loss to Ghiberti, Brunelleschi goes on to greater fame and even greater fortune as the architect of the dome for Florence's cathedral (and rediscovers linear perspective in his spare time). Though Brunelleschi and Ghiberti share billing in the title, Walker is clearly more enamored of the former, and the bulk of the story is his. Using an estimable cache of documentary materials and a supporting cast that includes the sculptor Donatello and the painter Masaccio, Walker makes a fine circumstantial case for an artistic feud. Whether such a "feud" really existed will never be known. Recommended for public libraries and young adult collections.-Martin R. Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Drawing on a wealth of original source material and contemporary biographies, this engaging account introduces readers to rivals Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, the young geniuses whose artistic visions were the beginnings of the Renaissance in Florence. Their lives and works are the main topics of this book, but Walker also interweaves the stories of other famous individuals such as Donatello and the Medicis. He frequently speculates on motivations and activities that might have taken place during undocumented years but reminds readers that he is only offering logical conjectures. He makes note of past events that impacted Florentine life of the day, such as the plague, the Great Schism, and the Guelf/Ghibelline struggle. Use of anecdotes, particularly the tale of an elaborate practical joke, shows the human side of these masters. Eighteen black-and-white photographs, some full page, some very small, show the major works discussed in the text. Extensive source notes are included.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A convincing account of one of the defining moments in art and history. Walker offers no new or startling information, but his strength lies in his ability to flesh out the historical framework-while providing enough thoughtful speculation to keep both layman and expert entertained. He presents the two key figures in this drama in true human proportions, stripped of much of the accumulated mythology that has made them appear as unassailable giants in the cultural pantheon. Building upon the earliest biographical account, written several decades after the principals' deaths, Walker establishes the atmosphere of Florence at the beginning of the 15th century as a city-state on the verge of collapse from plague, famine, warfare, religious schism, high taxation, and economic stagnation. With such a backdrop, the Renaissance becomes less a rebirth than a first birth, when the first strains of humanism, individualism, and the artist-as-hero are heard. Lorenzo Ghiberti, the gifted sculptor who designed the panels for the bronze doors of Florence's famous Baptistery, and Filippo Brunelleschi, who later designed the cathedral's dome, are introduced as youthful competitors whose intense rivalry fueled the artistic developments of the next half-century, including emotive realism and the principles of mathematical perspective. Though the account becomes sidetracked at times, such as when the author presents an unnecessary enumeration of fellow artist Donatello's ancestors and a lengthy explanation of one of Brunelleschi's convoluted pranks, these digressions are more embellishments than distractions. Ultimately, the reader is presented with a rich tapestry woven from the tangle of influences whoseconvergence resulted in a seeing of "Man as an active participant in the Universe" and led to the prodigious flowering of the artistic, philosophic, and political movements of the next half-millennium. No research surprises, but a skillful and engrossing story of one of the watershed events in Western civilization. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Harper Perennial
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Plague Of the Bianchi

In these extraordinary times, it appears that nearly all of the citizens of Florence, as well as those subject to the city and residents of surrounding cities and regions, have put on white linen garments, and ... joined in processions.
-- Provvisioni of the Signoria, September 10, 1399

In the summer of 1399, a religious movement arose in Lombardy, the northern Italian region around Milan, and began to travel southward toward Rome, attracting thousands of followers on the way. They were called the Bianchi, the Whites, for the white linen robes they wore as a sign of penitence and spiritual renewal. The pilgrims reached Florence in August, and their effect on the city was extraordinary. Shops and factories closed as citizens joined pilgrimages to smaller towns and villages, up the Arno and into the Apennine Mountains, "piously singing lauds, engaging in acts of penitence, abstaining from meat for nine consecutive days, and from wine for another day, not sleeping in beds ... the air vibrating with their voices." Old enemies swore new friendship, and there were cries to throw open the gates of the city prison.

The fervor cut across social classes, from impoverished cloth workers to wealthy merchants and manufacturers, though the rich could follow their religious path in more comfort than the poor. One wealthy merchant, Francesco Datini from the town of Prato, near Florence, wrote of joining a pilgrimage

on this 18th day of August 1399 ... clothed entirely in white linen and barefoot ... And that we might have what was necessary, I took with us two of my horses and themule: and on these we placed two small saddle chests, containing boxes of all kinds of comfits ... and candles, and fresh bread and biscuits and round cakes, sweet and unsweetened, and other things besides that appertain to a man's life.

An aristocratic and powerful Florentine merchant named Buonaccorso Pitti followed this movement from the isolation of the Palazzo della Signoria, now called the Palazzo Vecchio, or "Old Palace," the massive stone building, topped by a looming tower, where the nine members of the Signoria lived and worked during their two-month terms of office. The Signoria was the supreme executive authority of Florence, and the brief terms reflected both the total commitment required of those who served and the concept that a short term of office prevented any single man from gaining too much power. In fact, ambitious men found ways to consolidate power, but by the standards of medieval Europe, the Signoria and other Florentine institutions formed a noble experiment in republican government.

"During my term in the Signoria," Pitti wrote, "a great novelty was seen throughout Italy when people of all conditions began to don white linen robes with cowls covering their heads and faces, and throng the roads, singing and begging God for grace and mercy. While this was going on in Florence someone raised the cry: 'Open the Stinche prison and free the prisoners!' By God's grace the danger of armed riots was averted, though it was a near thing. In the end everything turned out well, for the pilgrims brought about many reconciliations between citizens." Pitti's own family made peace with the relatives of a man he had killed in Pisa, settling their difference in a written and notarized compact. Other families made similar efforts to overcome long-held vendettas, the seething, ritualized hatred of man for man and family for family that had poisoned Florentine society for centuries.

The spirit of brotherhood and forgiveness brought on by the Bianchi carried into the fall, and on September 10, shortly after Pitti's term of office expired, the Signoria issued a proclamation to the effect that "the lord priors are firmly convinced that all of this has proceeded from divine inspiration," but they could not free the prisoners who had been incarcerated for debt "without suspending those laws which prohibit this." Instead, the Signoria temporarily suspended the laws which limited their own authority to release prisoners, making it easier to show mercy in individual cases. It was a thoughtful and rational approach to a difficult situation: the Signoria could not suspend the laws that required punishment for debtors without destroying the very fabric of their mercantile society; yet neither could they ignore the will of the people.

Unfortunately, the Bianchi brought plague along with reconciliation. The pestilence had already struck Italy when the movement began, and the thousands of barefoot, white-robed pilgrims helped to carry it from town to town, so that it became known as the plague of the Bianchi. The sickness ran rampant through Florence, aided in its deadly course by a severe grain shortage in the winter and spring of 1400. By the time the carnage was over, some twelve thousand Florentines had died out of a total population of sixty thousand. It was a devastating blow to a city still struggling to recover from the Black Death of 1348, which had killed almost half the citizens of what was then among the largest cities in Europe. And it would not be the last such blow, for the plague would return with gruesome regularity throughout the Quattrocento, leaving a trail of death at the very time that Florentine art and culture blossomed with new creative life.

Beyond its personal toll, the plague of the Bianchi brought Florentine business to a halt. The timing could not have been worse, for the economy was already strained to its limits by heavy taxation to support a protracted war with Milan. Led by the brilliant despot Giangaleazzo Visconti, the northern Italian power had expanded its control throughout the decade, first in Lombardy, then moving south into Tuscany and beyond. In some ways, the Bianchi movement was a response to this militant expansion, a peaceful echo of Visconti's march; that the Bianchi proved more lethal than the army did not diminish their noble intentions. Visconti's own intentions were more questionable. He presented himself as a strong leader who could unify Italy ...

The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance. Copyright © by Paul Walker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Paul Robert Walker has written twenty books on subjects ranging from the Italian Renaissance and the American West to folklore, baseball, and miracles. A former teacher and journalist, he lives in Escondido, California, with his wife and two children.

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Feud That Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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All in all, the book was very well written and added a human touch to the superhuman geniuses presented to readers in most books. The only drawback is that the author refers to each artist by first and last name interchangeably. It takes some getting used to, but once that is overcome it is a very good book.