He was by far the richest artist of his time, with an income comparable to that of a banker, not a sculptor. Ghiberti's family circumstances were unusual. His father, Cione, was the son of a notary (therefore solidly upper middle-class), while his mother, Mona Fiore, was the daughter of a farm laborer (the lowest level on the social scale). Although the historical facts are unclear, there seems to have been something seriously wrong with Cione Ghiberti because Mona Fiore soon left the marriage -- almost unheard-of at the time -- and went to live in Florence with the goldsmith Bartoluccio di Michele.
Lorenzo grew up in Bartoluccio's home, followed him in his profession, and seems to have regarded him as a father: for most of his career Ghiberti was identified in documents as Lorenzo di Bartoluccio. Lorenzo's career centered on his great bronze doors for the Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence's baptistery. He won the famous competition for the north doors in 1401, finishing the work in 1424. From 1426 to 1455 he worked on his masterpiece, the east doors of the baptistery, which have come to be known as the Gates of Paradise. While fully occupied on the doors Ghiberti, who employed an army of assistants, also found time for major commissions like the colossal bronzes of Saint John the Baptist (1412-1416) and Saint Matthew (1419-1423) for Orsanmichele -- the first monumental bronzes to be cast since antiquity.
Saint Matthew is one of Ghiberti's most stylistically innovative and technologically daring sculptures. It marks a new development in the artist's work toward a more realistic, elegantly balanced, and imposing style overtly influenced by classical culture and moving away from the Gothic expressiveness of the Saint John the Baptist, which he had just finished for the guild of the merchants of foreign cloth (Calimala).
The members of the bankers' guild (Cambio) were eager to have a bronze statue of their own patron saint, Matthew. As was customary, they appointed a committee of four to oversee the commission and recorded all activities in a special account book, the Libro del Pilastro (literally, book of the pilaster), which has fortunately survived and makes the Saint Matthew one of the best documented of all Renaissance sculptures. It is indicative of the project's importance that one of the committee members was the young Cosimo de' Medici. Ghiberti was selected to make the statue, and a detailed contract was drawn up on August 26, 1419. Most interestingly, the document clearly states that the statue was to be at least as tall and as beautiful as the Calimala's Saint John the Baptist and totally or partially gilded, at the guild consuls' discretion. The inscription on the border of the tunic of Saint Matthew, OPVS VNIVERSITATIS CANSORVM FLORENTIE ANNO DOMINI MCCCCXX (the work of the guild of bankers of Florence in the year of the Lord 1420), indicates that Ghiberti probably finished the wax model from which the bronze was cast in 1420. In May of that year Giovanni de' Medici, Cosimo's father, was reimbursed for his purchase in Venice of three thousand pounds of copper to be used for the statue. The tin for the alloy (two hundred pounds of it) was purchased on July 7, 1421, nine days before Ghiberti reported to the bankers that the casting of the Saint Matthew had partially failed. The details of the failure are not known, but the recent cleaning of the sculpture has revealed a join in the bronze at waist height, which indicates that the sculpture was cast in two campaigns and dovetails nicely with the pilaster record book. It was Cosimo de' Medici who, on January 22, 1422, reported to the bankers that the Saint Matthew was at last successfully cast. On May 2, 1422, two marble workers, Jacopo di Corso and Giovanni di Niccolo, were commissioned to build a niche for the Saint Matthew following Ghiberti's design. The pilaster book unfortunately does not record when the statue was set up in the niche, but this must have happened by March of 1423, when bankers were charged extra dues to pay for the statue. Total expenditure for the Saint Matthew was eleven hundred florins -- roughly equivalent to the cost of building a Florentine residence.
The apostle and evangelist Saint Matthew, who had been a tax collector before his calling to Christ, was a most appropriate patron for the bankers. Located on the western face of the northwest pilaster of Orsanmichele, Ghiberti's saint looks out slightly to his right to meet the eyes of passersby who move along the Via Orsanmichele toward the town center. At the same time Matthew points to his gospel book, slightly inclined toward the viewer, and opened to the first page (Matthew 1:1- 3) on which gleaming silver letters are once again legible after the statue's conservation. The silver corneas of his eyes, also newly visible, intensify his gaze, which is set off by the radiating conch form in the upper part of the niche. The recent conservation reveals that the sculpture was only partially gilded, with the sandals and the borders of Matthew's robe picked out in gold, thus emphasizing the inscription.
At eight feet, ten inches, Saint Matthew is eight inches taller than Ghiberti's Saint John for the Calimala, and admirably fulfills the bankers' instructions that the statue should be at least as large and beautiful as their rival guild's patron saint. Benefiting from the lessons of Donatello's Saint Mark, also at Orsanmichele, Ghiberti gave the figure real weight and presence with the upright position of the load-bearing left leg clearly indicated under the drapery, in contrast to the gently flexed proper right leg. While the tradition of depicting a standing patron saint on a pilaster goes back to medieval paintings, in their statues for Orsanmichele, Donatello, Nanni di Banco, and Ghiberti gave a new, realistic, and monumental form to the saints, who become actual as well as spiritual giants.