The gates of Paradise in Florence

It took twenty-seven years to make, and another twenty-seven to restore the gates of paradise. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise are now back on show for the entire world at the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. It was one of the longest most complex restoration projects in Italy. Ghiberti’s gates of paradise are a pair of massive gilded bronze doors that was once adorned the eastern entrance of the baptistery. Made between 1426 and 1452 the doors feature reliefs depicting ten stories from the old testament standing over 4 meters tall and 3 meters wide the original doors were removed in 1990 for restoration, severely damaged by pollution and the elements. A copy of the doors were placed on the baptistery that year, the same copy that millions of tourists see today. We talked to monsignor Timothy Verdon director of Florence’s Museo dell’Opera about the lengthy restorative effort.

Visited and admired by people from all over the world (Credit: Flickr / Creative Commons: House of Hall)

Even to artists historians and restorers 27 years is almost an unconscionable length of time. They took that long for several reasons the most important of which is that the technique originally used by Ghiberti to gild these doors, sometimes they called the golden doors because in fact the relief panels are entirely gilded, as are many other parts of the doors. The way in which he gilded them has not been used for a very long time because it is extremely dangerous, is called mercury gilding and it means floating the gold leaf that’s going to be applied to the bronze panel on a thin and active layer of mercury. That is fraught  with danger for the chemical characteristics of the mercury itself, since it hasn’t been used people don’t know how to restore it. A surprising amount of time was invested in the research to assure that the restoration would not damage the work. It was also a process of learning and experiments aimed at recovering areas of knowledge that had been lost for a very long time, well more than a century because of the same reasons safety that technique has not been used. In addition to scientific delays, as we can call them, there were  financial delays, the funding came in part from the Italian State, in part from the Cathedral foundation, in part from the Friend of Florence, an association of people who invest in restoring works of art in Florence. But that kind of piecemeal financing takes time, it comes together slowly and there are long periods where the money just isn’t there. The people who do the work curiously want to eat several times a day. So in the periods where there isn’t financing for one project they work on another. At least in Italy this pattern is not unusual in the restoration of major works, precisely because the problem of raising the necessary funding is great. In this case it did take a bit longer than anyone expected and its pure coincidence that in fact the length of the time devoted to restoring is the same time he spent making the doors. At the inauguration here at the museum on the eighth of September many people were saying in the future that they will thank us for taking all of this time and that probably true. Because the temptation in projects like this is to want to show a result in a very shortened time so that everyone will be happy and applauding. But this is extremely dangerous when your dealing with totally and technically complex work such as this. Nonetheless the last 27 years as a kind of record.”

Restored Gates of Paradise at the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Credit: Gabriel Reyes)

On display in huge protective glass showcase specifically designed to maintain the low humidity levels are now visible in the Courtyard of the Museo dell’Opera, however their definitive location will change once the museums enlargement project is completed over the next few years.

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