fourteenth century slowed development for a time, but it also concentrated wealth for the artists who
Florence was not controlled by a single powerful duke, as Milan was, for example; instead, it was a republic,
with representatives of the wealthiest families running the government. Guilds—organizations serving the
needs of various types of tradesmen— and religious organizations balanced the government’s power, and
all three groups commissioned works of art.
Competition among patrons and artists was keen, and contests were often held to determine who would
get the most prestigious commissions. This competition fostered a sense of ingenuity, a desire to surpass
other artists and create the most interesting, challenging, or beautiful works of art. Thus, Florence owes
much of its artistic achievements to its competitive atmosphere, as well as to the sense of civic pride that
developed after the city avoided a Milanese takeover in 1402.
In the first years of the fifteenth century, a competition was held to determine who would design the new
bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence, one of the most important buildings in the city located directly
across from the main door of Florence Cathedral. Seven sculptors from the area were invited to submit
sample bronze relief panels depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac. Only two of the panels survive, one by Lorenzo
Ghiberti (who won the commission) and one by Filippo Brunelleschi (who probably came in a close second).
Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401 Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401
The panels are interesting to compare on many points: Ghiberti’s piece is more finely worked but uses less
bronze than Brunelleschi’s expressive, but rather disconnected, entry. What they each contain, however,
is a clear quotation from classical sculpture. Brunelleschi’s quotation is seen in a boy pulling a thorn from
his foot, which is based on a Roman sculpture called the Spinario; Ghiberti’s quotation is found in the
idealized nude body of Isaac, kneeling on the altar, showing more pride than fear; a possible source is a