The Challenge of Language in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Commentaries

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Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Commentaries believed to have been published c. 1455, marks the first known occasion of an artist writing about himself and his worIn doing so, Ghiberti was faced with the challenge of describing his work in words that conveyed his intentions to the audience who were to read the Commentaries. To assist Ghiberti in developing his language he looked to ancient Rome for guidance, often swapping texts by Cicero and Virgil with humanist scholars to improve his learning. Large sections of books by Pliny and Vitruvius make up the first book in Ghiberti’s Commentaries, demonstrating that he could read books in Latin, despite making errors in his translations. Pliny’s Natural History is often credited with creating the framework for the discussion of the history of art. Though, he was not alone in discussing painting and sculpture as the 1st century BC writings of Dionysius of Halicarnassus reveal comparisons of sculptors to each other and orators using adjectives to draw the similarities and contrast the differences between them. This idea of comparing rhetoric to images is found in Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, published after Pliny the Elder in the late 1st century AD, who draws clear comparisons between painting, sculpture and rhetoric. Quintilian uses language that describes the works of sculptors as ‘rather stiff, ‘less rigid’ and ‘softer. The Renaissance, as we perceive it in the twenty-first century, is the rebirth of antiquity and in early Renaissance Italy, the vocabulary used in ancient Greece and Rome about painting and sculpture is seen emerging in the contemporary text.

At the beginning of the Quattrocento, there was growing interest in biographies fuelled by the translations of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives by Leonardo Bruni and Jacopo Angeli. In the early years of the fifteenth century Bruni’s publication on the Lives of Petrarch and Dante, which was written in the vernacular and therefore accessible to a wider audience. Bruni says in his Life of Dante that the vernacular had “its esteem and merit,” “its perfection and its sound, and its polished and learned diction”.

Simultaneously, there was the increased publication of literature that focused more intently on painting, artists and sculptors. Cennino Cennini published his title, The Craftsman’s Handbook, in the late 1390s, followed by Leon Battista Alberti’s, On Painting, in 1435, giving Ghiberti further resources produced in his own time and using vocabulary that would be more familiar to him. Ten years after Alberti published On Painting, Ghiberti was to start writing his Commentaries drawing on this rich vein of literature. Unfortunately, there is no extant copy of the original Commentaries as written by Ghiberti. What survives are three books of the Commentaries that were made by a later copyist. Not only is this problematic, so is the language of the text that is being analysed and discussed today, as it is a translation into another language; English.

The academics at the Courtauld Institute of Art acknowledge that the copy contains many inaccuracies, though it is stated that is impossible to determine how much of the inaccuracy and misunderstanding is down to the copyist and how much is down to Ghiberti himself. The acknowledgement of Ghiberti’s mistakes in translating from the Latin and the difficulties he faced in translating this language into the vernacular, holds true. However, the section under consideration is Ghiberti writing on his works, the doors that became known as the Gates of Paradise, and therefore there was no requirement for Ghiberti to translate from Latin. Though, the translation into English does pose problems as Lara Broeke acknowledges in her translation of Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook: “as I proceeded with my work I became more and more aware that the English which I was producing did not reflect the Italian that I was transcribing”. Consequently, it is prudent to refer to the available Italian text when discussing the English translation, as differing translations give rise to different meanings which obscure the original meaning. The Courtauld Institute translates “Condussi detta opera con grandissima dilegentia e con grandissimo amore” into “I carried out the work with the greatest zeal and love”. Gilbert translates the same sentence to “I carried out the work with the greatest diligence and the greatest love” which seems more in keeping with the original Italian. By the Courtauld Institute removing ‘greatest’ before ‘love,’ there is potential to infer that Ghiberti carried out the work with greater diligence/zeal than he did love. More importantly, the differing English translations of ‘dilegentia’ are problematic as in English ‘zeal’ means ‘fervent or enthusiastic devotion, often extreme or fanatical in nature, as to a religious movement, political cause, ideal, or aspiration’ and takes its origin from the Late Latin, ‘zelus’. ‘Diligence’ means ‘steady and careful application; proper attention or care” and comes from the Latin ‘dilegentia’ meaning ‘care, attentiveness’.

‘Diligentia’ was used by Quintilian as part of his vocabulary to describe facets of the crafted word and the crafted image, creating a link to antiquity that was lauded by Ghiberti’s contemporaries, giving Ghiberti’s work enriched gravitas.The Gilbert translation is closer to the intended meaning in Italian. Having examined the difficulties inherent in working with historical text that has been filtered through copyists and translators, what does Ghiberti present in the text under exploration?

Having explained his theories of art in the first book of his Commentaries which a great artist and sculptor must imbue in his works, Ghiberti gives us his account of various artists from the Trecento onwards that he admires. He does this using terms such as ‘composition’ and ‘relief’ in his account on Ambrogio Lorenzetti, arriving with himself and the works that he undertook from 1419, including the section of text under review on the third set of doors for Florence’s baptistery. In the main, Ghiberti details a visual description of the doors. The formal aspects are stated regarding some panels (ten) and their size (two and a half feet square), going on to detail that the source of the narratives displayed was taken from the stories of the Old Testament. A description of the inner and outer friezes is given. The inner has twenty-four figures, while the outer contains leaves, birds and animals. Scattered through this account are words which Ghiberti uses to describe the emotions of the characters playing their part in the narrative cycle he has created. Ghiberti uses ‘astonished’ to describe how the people felt who were waiting for Moses to return with the tablets from the mountain (the Ten Commandments). This gives the reader an idea of the facial expressions and the emotion that Ghiberti was striving to portray in these characters rendered in cold bronze. This feels like Ghiberti is searching for the correct words to describe what he wants viewers of this panel to understand about the narrative within the panel once he has died. Ghiberti also gives us is his overarching approach to the production of this set of doors, and in this aspect of his treatise, the link to Alberti’s On Painting is pronounced.

Ghiberti writes of seeking to ‘imitate nature… with all the outlines… [and] with composition rich with many figures’ which hark back to Pliny’s Natural History where Pliny praises Nature’s craftsmanship in the creation of insects and her invention [ingenium] in providing insects with a sting-in-the-tail. Cennini stipulates that an artist must always copy from Life and practice constantly. Likewise, Alberti states he will explain ‘the art of painting from the basic principles of nature’ in the opening to On Painting,. Writing in further pages that “The fundamental principle will be that all steps of learning shall be sought from Nature: the means of perfecting our art will be found in diligence, study and application”. Ghiberti mirrors these statements in his approach to the creation of the door panels. Here, there is clear instruction from fellow Quattrocento artists that Nature is the goal for artists to replicate from literature written just prior to, and during, Ghiberti’s production of the doors, and at least a decade before Ghiberti acknowledges that this was in his intent regarding the doors when he writes of them in his Commentaries. Ghiberti goes further in adopting the spirit of Alberti’s instruction by using the exact phraseology to describe the degree of effort he applied as ‘most diligent’. ‘Diligent’ traces its use back to Quintilian, through Alberti who regards the display of ‘diligence’ as necessary for those who want their work to be ‘pleasing and acceptable to posterity’ which reveals much of Ghiberti’s motivation for using this word to describe his efforts. Ghiberti further describes his approach by stating that the work has been “finished with every skill and proportion and talent’. The use of ‘proportion’ introduces the concept of perspective, relief and composition.

Ghiberti describes aspects of his overarching approach to the execution of the third set of doors. He refers to the ‘outlines he could produce’ and ‘with fine compositions’ leading him on to speak of the various degrees of relief he used to create a sense of three-dimensionality, just as the eye would see them. Carey purports that Ghiberti regarded the mastery of linear perspective as the foundation for structuring pictorial narrative one of the greatest challenges an artist faced in the Quattrocento. Ghiberti could reference Cennini and Alberti who both provided guidelines on relief, and certainly, Alberti provides detailed guidelines to create perspective and three dimensionality on a picture plane. In Alberti’s process towards the rendering of images as close to Nature as possible, he breaks down the component parts to; outline, composition and the reception of light. This vocabulary is used by Ghiberti in his description of the doors, drawing on Alberti’s guidelines in his quest such that graceful movements are created. Krauthinere holds that Ghiberti remained persuasive through his gentleness in the face of demands by Cosimo de’ Medici’s demands for more monumental work. Throughout Ghiberti’s text, he does not appear to have employed a broad vocabulary to describe his work. Instead, he draws on the vocabulary of artists and orators who have gone before him. Baxandall states that the Quattrocento restricted vocabulary that the Quattrocento had to describe art, limited to no more than forty words. How did this vocabulary expand in the years after Ghiberti’s death?

In Cristoforo Landino’s commentary of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Landino used vocabulary that sought to give a greater sense of the style of artists and the work they produced. Landino referred to terms such as ‘aria’, ‘scorci’ and ‘prompto’ which he seeks to describe through examples, a favoured approach in literature. However, Landino includes terms already used, such as ‘relief’ and ‘ornato’ where he again provides a more detailed description of what they mean when applied to art. Terms such as ‘aria’ had a history of application to the arts, having been used by Domenico da Piacenza in his treatise on dancing to describe aspects of dance.Ghiberti did not use this term in his Commentary, even though the Domenico da Piacenza’s treatise was published in 1450. Perhaps, Ghiberti had not seen this work to employ this vocabulary. Ghiberti’s Commentary was referenced by a later artist, Giorgio Vasari, in his famous Lives of the Artists, to help him create the narrative around Ghiberti that he desired. A Florentine man who was key to the evolution of art that emerged with the rebirth of antiquity on its projection towards the culmination of all Vasari believed art could become, embodied in Michelangelo. What Ghiberti set out to achieve in writing his Commentary he has achieved – being lauded and admired for posterity.