By Porter Anderson
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- When the artists of Florence, Italy, swung open the doors of the Baptistery of the Duomo (cathedral) now known as the "Gates of Paradise" in 1452, a new world was waiting on the other side.
Twenty feet tall and weighing three tons, this single work is considered the gateway to the Italian Renaissance, an upheaval so fundamental to how we see our world and think of ourselves that centuries later no Western culture is left untouched by it. ( See an audio slide show with curator Gary Radke )
Legend has it that Michelangelo himself is the one who dubbed these doors the "Gates of Paradise."
And as the High Museum of Art opens its exhibition of three of the doors' 10 gilt panels on Saturday, the conservation effort that brought them here will have lasted 25 years -- just two years less than it took to make the work itself. ( See a gallery of images from the set-up of the High Museum's exhibition )
Once the High showing closes on July 15, the exhibition travels to the Chicago Institute of Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The panels -- depicting the biblical stories of "Adam and Eve", "Jacob and Esau", and "David and Goliath" -- then will be moved back to Florence to be reassembled in the original doorway for permanent, hermetically sealed display at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. They are expected never to travel again.
Exhibition curator Gary Radke of Syracuse University says that the special alloy of bronze developed in the 15th-century workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti for the doors had resulted in a corrosion that had dulled the dull surfaces of the square relief-sculptures and other gilt ornaments on the doors.
The danger in trying to reclaim such works, of course, is that chemical treatments can damage the bond between the gold and bronze and take away more priceless, irreplaceable material.
So it's thanks to a specially developed laser-and-distilled-water technique that what you now can see on display is not a restoration -- not new gold leaf added, or reconstructed bronze modeling -- but the same metals Ghiberti worked with himself.
"These 'Gates of Paradise,' think about it," Radke says. "They're on the doors of the Baptistery in the center of downtown Florence, where you have walking by every day, people like Michelangelo, people like Donatello, people of all important eras, going, going there. And they (the doors) are really the school of the Florentine art of the mid-15th century, of the Renaissance. ... They're there, all day, every day, at night, under the moonlight, under the sunlight.
"Think of how many people have been through that piazza and have seen these doors. I remember them being relatively clean -- I went as a student, then went as a newlywed and thought what was on the work was dirt.
"We found out it wasn't just dirt but was actually chemical reactions between the surfaces of the gold and the bronze."
The genius of the master metalworkers of Florence had caught up with their work at last and intervention was required to save them.
Ghiberti ("gee-BARE-tee," pronounced with a hard "G") is, in a way, the artist behind the masters. Born in 1378, he won a competition to create the north doors of the Baptistery at a time when Radke says Florence was spending more money on its cultural expansion than its military endeavors.
By the time that commission had led to the "Gates of Paradise" job, Ghiberti's workshop had become the place in which Donatello, Masolino, Uccello and other key artists of the era would be trained. Ghiberti died in 1455 -- 20 years before the birth of Michelangelo.
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Now housing the reliefs in special transparent oxygen-free cases -- so no humidity can generate a galvanic reaction among the salts in the metals -- the display at the High Museum is designed not only to give you a very close look at three of the 31.5-inch square panels themselves, but also a sense for context.
Patrizio Ostricresi of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence has worked closely with the chief conservatory on the project, Annamaria Giusti. While overseeing the assembly of the protective cases for the priceless pieces in Atlanta, he points to the "David and Goliath" panel's patches of brown that show through the gold.
"Look at this," says Ostricresi. "The mountain in this scene, the helmets" on the centurions in the crowd scene, "and the David, himself. You see how the gold has been rubbed off? Removed? I will show you why."
He walks over to the full-size photographic replica of the doors the High has produced for the display. "You see, the 'David' panel was placed by Ghiberti here, at the bottom of the door. This is why the Florentines could take the gold. It was low. Within reach. But if you look at the 'Adam and Eve' panel? Perfect. It has lived for 500 years up high on the doors. Too high to reach."
And when High Director Michael Shapiro looks at the "Adam and Eve" panel, what he notices is a feat of astonishing relief work. "This angel's wing," he points out, "comes right out of the piece."
Sure enough, there's light behind the central part of the wing on one of the many angels feathering the skies over Ghiberti's glowing Eden.
Shapiro has become known in the industry for his liaisons with European art centers. Still in its first of three years, the Louvre Atlanta series of exhibitions currently is on view, its latest additions the "Decorative Arts of the Kings" show and the recent arrival of "Et in Arcadia" painting of Nicolas Poussin. ( Read more about the High's decorative arts show from the Louvre )
And in 2003, Shapiro brought Verrocchio's "David" to the museum, the first effort in the particular laser conservation technique deployed in the "Gates of Paradise" reclamation.
As might be expected, that effort in conservation involves the international cooperation and study of many experts. The High convened a special workshop in February 2006 in Florence with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (which also underwrote the show's catalog) and resulting in a commission to have the digital-art library ARTstor create a major photographic study of the "Gates."
The completion of the restoration of the bronze doors has been facilitated by special funding from a non-profit organization, the Friends of Florence.
High Museum of Art Director Michael Shapiro inspects the installation of a full-scale photographic replica of the "Gates of Paradise."