First Thursdays Start Again: Dr. Kanter on the ‘Birth’ of the Renaissance

Oliver Levine

Held on the first Thursday of every month, the fall 2012 edition of Allen Memorial Art Museum’s “First Thursdays” speaker series began on Oct. 4th. This month, Dr. Laurence Kanter, OC ’76, chief curator and curator of Renaissance art at the Yale University Art Gallery, presented a lecture titled “Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and the ‘Birth’ of the Renaissance.” The decision to have Dr. Kanter speak at the Allen’s first official lecture was a fitting complement to the AMAM’s recent collaboration with the YUAG, whose generous contribution of over 30 Renaissance artworks now hangs in the Stern Gallery in an exhibit titled “Religion, Ritual, and Performance in the Renaissance.” Dr. Kanter recalled his time at Oberlin, where he majored in Art History and took his first steps toward an impressive career in curatorial work which includes a 19-year-long period of employment as the curator of the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The lecture, aided by a small projection screen, focused heavily on the competition to design a new set of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery held in 1401, famously won by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Dr. Kanter was particularly interested in the dynamic between Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and their peers and mentors, relationships only documented in a few autobiographies, which are open to some interpretation. Furthermore, Kanter questioned why the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti beat out Filippo Brunelleschi in the competition, suggesting ulterior motives and personal biases that may have persuaded the panel. Kanter provided some evidence that Ghiberti was known for brownnosing and collusion, and being a Florentine citizen may have tipped the scale in his favor. Kanter also went out on a limb and stated that Ghiberti was not an innovator, but an artist who was better than contemporaries and headed an army of “non-innovators,” making him the “safe, conservative” choice. This is an interesting observation considering that in order to carry out this commission, Ghiberti set up a large workshop in which many innovative artists trained, including Donatello. In addition, Ghiberti ushered in the return of cire perdue, or lost-wax casting, a highly innovative process that the ancient Romans used to create more accurate bronze casts in abundance. In contrast, Kanter painted a picture of Brunelleschi, as “taciturn and unpredictable” and unsuited for competition. Dr. Kanter showed side-by-side images of Ghiberti’s and Brunelleschi’s submissions to the competition — similar bronze panels depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac — and visually analyzed them, noting subtleties that show how Ghiberti’s work is superior to Brunelleschi’s.

Insightful and thought-provoking, Dr. Kanter’s lecture provided first-class insight into the beginning of the Renaissance, establishing the artists as “flesh and blood creatures” very concerned with their images. While much of the lecture was framed around interpretations of autobiographical text, most notably Ghiberti’s autobiography Commentario, there are few more suited to make such conjectures than Dr. Kanter. Interpretation and intuition in the context of the Renaissance period is a technique he seems to have mastered. After all, Dr. Kanter said it best when he laughed and added, “Finding what was said is half the task of art history.”