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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Lorenzo Ghiberti's bronze statue of St John the Baptist is an imposing sculpture that is located in one of the ornate niches of the Orsanmichele in Florence, Italy.

It took the artist around four years (1412–1416) to complete this full length figure, in part due to his other commitments within the city of Florence. Some of the projects in which he was involved were large scale architectural pieces which required ongoing consultation from Ghiberti as he instructed members of his studio on how to proceed. He would always handle the most important elements himself.

St John the Baptist was the first of several sculptures created by Ghiberti to decorate the exterior of this impressive building, with St Matthew and St Stephen following several years later. The artist was an obvious choice for these commissions having completed the doors of the Baptistery around a decade earlier.

The sculpture stands at two and a half metres tall, which is particularly tall for a bronze statue. It was a challenge for the sculptor to produce something in this material at quite a size, but Ghiberti was used to pushing the boundaries with in his career. He was also never short of confidence either. The consistent exterior of the Orsanmichele in Florence meant that each of the statues placed in the coves around it where to be approximately the same height as each other.

The choice of bronze for this statue was somewhat controversial, for a number of reasons. It was a material that was approximately ten times the price of stone at this time, so any donors would require a very good reason for it to be used instead of the far more abundant alternative. Additionally, it was very rare to produce a bronze sculpture quite this big and most statues this size would have been completed in stone.

The treasuries of local donors would take a significant hit as a result of the success of this statue plus the earlier series of doors by Ghiberti. Suddenly orders would flood in, specifically requesting that bronze be used. These influential bodies were hard to argue with, even for an artist whose skills may lie more elsewhere.

There are few sculptors or architects to have made quite the same impact as Ghiberti within the early renaissance. This series of full length figures are a true delight but tend to be overshadowed by his work on the bronze doors, which remain his career highlight. Delving deeper into his work beyond that project, there is still much to see.

St John the Baptist is a religious theme that has inspired artists for centuries, in a manner of different mediums and styles. The most famous of all was probably Leonardo da Vinci's painting, but there have also been significant contributions from the likes of Caravaggio with Holy Family with St John the Baptist, The Beheading of St John the Baptist and St John the Baptist.

In terms of sculpture, Auguste Rodin created his own bronze version of this religious figure and it can now be found in the permanent collection of the V&A Museum in London, UK. Ghiberti's pupil, Donatello, also produced a memorable statue.

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