Custom Search



Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

Spring 2014

Lorenzo Ghiberti, excerpts from his "Third Commentary" (1447-1455)

The Destruction of Ancient Art

And so in the days of Emperor Constantine and Pope Silvester the Christian faith gained the upper hand.

Idolatry suffered so fierce a persecution that all the statues and paintings, which had long been famous and venerated, were smashed and torn to pieces.

And the volumes, treatises, drawings, and precepts which had been used for training men in these great, noble, and gentle arts also perished with the statues and pictures.

And in order to do away with every ancient idolatrous custom, it was enacted that churches should be white throughout.

At the same time very severe punishments were decreed for anyone who should make any statue or picture; and so the arts of sculpture and painting and all doctrine concerning them came to an end.

Once art had ended, the churches stayed white for about six hundred years.

The art of painting started again very feebly among the Greeks, who produced some very rude works. But the Greeks of this age were as coarse and rude as the ancient Greeks were skilled. This was 382 Olympiads from the founding of Rome.

An Ancient Statue

I have also observed in a temperate light works carved most perfectly and executed with the greatest art and diligence. Among which, I saw in Rome in the 440th Olympiad a statue of an hermaphrodite the size of a thirteen-year-old girl, which was wrought with wonderful skill.

It had been discovered at that time in a sewer about eight braccia below the ground. The sculpture lay at the level of the vault of the sewer and was covered with earth up to the surface of the street.

While the area was being cleared — it was above St. Celsus — a sculptor stopped by, had the statue hauled out, and brought to Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where he was working at the monument of a cardinal — he had removed some marble from it — the better to transport it to our city.

As for the ancient statue, our tongues cannot express the skill, the art, the mastery, the perfection with which it was done.

The figure was represented as lying upon spaded soil. On this soil a linen sheet was spread.

The figure lay upon this sheet and was uncovered so as to exhibit both the virile and the feminine parts.

The arms rested on the ground and were folded. The hands were joined.

One of the legs was stretched and had caught the sheet with the big toe. In this act of pulling the sheet it showed wonderful art.

The head was missing, but the rest was complete. This statue had very many refinements, which the eye could not perceive, but the hand could detect by touch.


Sleeping Hermaphrodite
Roman copy after an original from the 2nd century BCE
Marble (Rome, Museo Nazionale Palazzo Massimo alle Terme)

Sleeping Hermaphrodite
Roman copy after an original from the 2nd century BCE
Marble (Paris, Louvre Museum)