DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
This Easter Sunday, a story about the bronze and gold doors of the baptistry of the Florence Cathedral. They are among the most beloved works of Renaissance art, famed for their castings of biblical scenes by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. After a major restoration, three of the door panels are about to leave Florence for the first time and will go on tour to the United States.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has our report.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Tourist guides of different nationalities jostle for position to ensure their groups get a good look at the baptistry's monumental entrance, with its 10 panels depicting Old Testament scenes. Ghiberti completed the gilded bronze doors in 1452, 27 years after he began them.
They're considered an icon of Western art. The biographer of Renaissance artists, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Michelangelo himself remarked: They're so beautiful. They would grace the entrance to paradise.
And ever since, they've been known as the "Gates of Paradise" and Ghiberti a pioneer in the use of perspective. But many tourists don't know they're looking at replicas.
Five hundred years of outdoor exposure left layers of dirt and damaged the golden surface. A quarter of a century ago, the original doors, each 16 feet high and weighing two tons, were brought to Florence's conservation and restoration center.
Cristina Acidini, superintendent of Florence museums, says it took years to determine the nature of the damage and the best remedy - a bath of salt.
Ms. CRISTINA ACIDINI (Head, Artistic and Historic Assets Service, Florence): It is amazing. At that point, you have that brilliance and that golden surface visible for the first time after so many centuries.
POGGIOLI: The restoration took almost as long as it took Ghiberti to complete the doors. Researchers also pioneered specially designed laser beams to clean difficult-to-reach areas of the intricate reliefs, from nearly in-the-round sculpture reaching outward from the panels to distant landscape barely etched on the surface.
Anna Maria Giusti has headed the restoration team since 1996. In the lab where the panels are being packed for travel, she describes one that will be seen in the United States: the creation of Adam and Eve.
Ms. ANNA MARIA GIUSTI (Head, Restoration Team, "The Gates of Paradise"): (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: She points out that there are four separate episodes in just one three-foot-square panel: on the left, God waking up Adam; in the center, Eve helped by angels, emerging from the sleeping Adam's rib; in the top left, the temptation, with a serpent circling a tree trunk; and finally, on the right, an archway and the archangel ordering the couple out of the garden with an imperious gesture.
Giusti says Adam can just barely be seen lurking behind Eve, who's trying to cover her naked body. These are scenes, she says, of rich and intense narration and, Giusti adds, they demonstrate how Ghiberti's art is a watershed between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Ms. GIUSTI: (Through translator) He created a revolutionary style, both as storyteller and as sculptor. His space gained depth and became three-dimensional. There is so much to reflect on, and one is enchanted by the beauty, grace and exquisite nature of the figures. Ghiberti is a true heir of the elegance of the Ancient Greeks whom he dearly admired.
POGGIOLI: Ghiberti was a goldsmith, sculptor, architect, and one of the first artists to write an autobiography, but he revealed little about his craftmanship. It was only through the restoration effort that it was learned that the massive doorframes were cast in a single piece, probably not in a furnace but standing vertically in a large hole dug in the ground.
Scholars agree that Ghiberti had used the lost wax technique in which a wax model is placed inside a fire-resistant mold. Molten bronze is poured in and takes the place of the wax that melts from the heat. Giusti says Ghiberti was the first sculptor to make large bronze castings since the Ancient Romans.
Ms. GIUSTI: (Through translator) In Italy, this craft had been lost during the Middle Ages. Ghiberti was the first artist to revive it in a thousand years. We have no idea where he learned how. It's a mystery.
POGGIOLI: The Gates of Paradise will ultimately be placed in a Florence museum, in a specially designed and hermetically sealed glass case. But before that, three panels will go on view in the High Museum in Atlanta, the Art Institute of Chicago and New York's Metropolitan.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
ELLIOTT: The exhibit opens in Atlanta on April 28th.
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