The fabled door

Tasneem Mehta, managing trustee of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, would like you to see the similarity between 19th century mercantile Bombay and 14th and 15th century Florence. For both cities expanded by developing great structures of art—from doors and relief work on tower walls to cathedrals and domes—as a result of mercantile patronage and civic participation.

The museum is hosting an exhibition titled The Florentine Renaissance: The City As the Crucible of Culture, showcasing the works of master sculptors like Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti through photographs and lost-wax replicas of over 600-year-old sculptures sourced from the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institute, Guild of the Dome Association and Museum of the Opera del Duomo.

The most eye-catching is Ghiberti’s The Gates of Paradise, a 16.6ft-tall edifice which formed the eastern door to the Florence Baptistery, once a temple dedicated to the Roman god of war and later reinvented as a Christian place of worship dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of this ancient Italian city. The original edifice was replaced in 1990 and now rests at the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.

Completed over 27 years from 1425-52 (incidentally the same number of years it took to complete its restoration), the door contains five panels of bronze sculptures that depict scenes from the Old Testament. Yet, true to the emerging sensibilities of the period, the bronze sculptures offer both perspective and depth. Ghiberti and the sculptors in his workshop employed a number of techniques, from low relief to free-standing sculptures, in each panel.

In the Jacob And Esau panel, for instance, one sees multiple conversations taking place between three-dimensional figures in the foreground: Isaac, the stern-looking father, sends Esau hunting, even as a street dog looks ready to nibble at the young man’s robes; to the right, Jacob kneels before a blind Isaac, who gives him his blessing believing him to be Esau.

Ghiberti’s technique of making lost- wax sculptures was revolutionary and took him 10 years to perfect, but it was his training as a goldsmith and interest in optics that dovetailed to display his true Renaissance sensitivity. Michelangelo, a contemporary, dubbed the door The Gates of Paradise and they remain widely acknowledged as one of the first Renaissance masterpieces.

However, this door wasn’t Ghiberti’s first. The sculptor beat Brunelleschi and others while he was barely into his 20s to win a contest commissioned by the guild of wool merchants in 1401. He worked with a team of sculptors for two decades to make the northern bronze doors of the Baptistery. His work made such an impression that the by-then balding Ghiberti was commissioned to make another door for the eastern entrance. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Florentine Renaissance: The City As the Crucible of Culture is on till 3 June, 10am-6pm (Wednesdays closed), at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Rani Bagh, Byculla, Mumbai. Tickets, 10 (and 5 for children); and 100 for foreigners. For details, visit www.bdlmuseum.org

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