Summary: Walker follows the lives of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti (best known for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and the bronze doors on the Baptistery of San Giovanni, respectively).
Review: Despite Walker’s stated intent to illuminate how the rivalry between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti “changed the art world,” his book offers few interpretations of the events it describes. Rather, it switches between the two men, chronicling the works of art they created, the machines they invented, and the failures they experienced. Other artists such as Donatello and Masaccio also make appearances, so that the book provides an intriguing look at what many consider the birth of the Renaissance in Florence.
Though Walker expertly describes the atmosphere of Florence in the Quattrocento, highlighting the many advances made in art and mechanics, the title of the book proves misleading in more than one way. Not only does Walker fail clearly to make connections between the works of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, but he also seems to spend significantly more time on the accomplishments of Brunelleschi. Perhaps this is understandable since the great project of the day was the building of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the commission for which project Brunelleschi received. While Brunelleschi continued to receive various commissions for Santa Maria del Fiore and thus churned out an impressive array of architectural marvels and machines to meet the challenges he faced, Ghiberti remained occupied with the bronze doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni (as well as a series of other commissions that he consistently failed to complete on time). Even so, I had hoped to learn more about Ghiberti than I was given.
Despite the imbalance of information, however, Walker largely remains impartial while describing the feud between the two artists. His admiration of Brunelleschi is evident, but he takes care to note Brunelleschi’s weaknesses as well as Ghiberti’s strengths. For instance, when describing the first competition in which the two faced each other—the commission for the first set of bronze doors for the Baptistery—Walker acknowledges that art historians argue over the artistic merits of the pieces submitted by each of the two. He also explains, however, that it is clear that Ghiberti exhibited greater technical skill in this particular competition. Thus, Brunelleschi does not get all the glory in this book.
It seems almost impossible not to compare Walker’s book with Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. While both provide lively and engaging accounts of the early Italian Renaissance, Walker includes pertinent material that King does not. Both authors note that Brunelleschi and Ghiberti at one point engaged in a sonnet war to express their hatred of each other. King explains some of the insults exchanged, but Walker actually includes a translation of one of the sonnets. Walker also includes pictures of some of the marvelous artwork he describes, whereas King does not.
The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance is a highly informative as well as interesting look at two extraordinary men and their work. Walker has a clear love for the subject and will hopefully impart to his readers some of the enthusiasm that he feels for beautiful art and clever machines.