Bruno Bearzi executing plaster molds on the original Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti, after having restored them. Florence, 1947

How did casts of an Italian masterwork get from Florence to Kansas City? The doors at the Nelson-Atkins have an intriguing backstory.

In the 1940s, the Florentine foundry owner Bruno Bearzi led an effort to restore the gilded surface of the original Gates of Paradise. During this campaign, Bearzi also made meticulous plaster molds of the original doors, to create a permanent record of them. Bearzi produced wax models from these molds and created two bronze casts before selling the molds to Aldo Marinelli, whose family owned the Marinelli foundry. Bearzi's timing was fortuitous, as the disastrous Arno River flood in 1966 further damaged the original Gates of Paradise, dislodging five panels from the doors' frames and leaving another panel hanging loose.

In 1990, to facilitate conservation of the original Gates of Paradise, Marinelli's son, Enrico Marinelli, the CEO of the Frilli Gallery in Florence and former president of the Guild of the Dome, proposed making new casts from Bearzi's original molds. Combining traditional lost-wax casting and modern 3D technology based directly on Ghiberti's originals, the Frilli foundry cast two sister sets of doors. One set would replace Ghiberti's originals at the Baptistery, allowing them to be removed for restoration and permanent display in a protected environment. The other set would go to the Japanese executive and fellow Guild of the Dome member Choichiro Motoyama, who financed the project. Each cast panel, hand-worked and finished, required more than 350 hours of labor. The entire casting process was organized and fully monitored by the Ufficio Tecnico dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Based in Florence, the Guild of the Dome is a group of private sponsors, such as Motoyama, who support the preservation and promotion of Florence's most important artistic works around the world, to ensure that future generations will enjoy them. As part of this mission, Motoyama's casts went on exhibit in Mumbai, India, and Seoul, Korea, in 2014.

Now, for a moment, let's go back to a rainy day in Florence several years ago, when the Kansas City businessman and civic leader Paul DeBruce and his wife, the Nelson-Atkins docent emerita Linda Woodsmall-DeBruce, were on vacation. They were supposed to take a hike, but inclement weather necessitated a change in plans. Their tour guide, who had Kansas City connections of her own, suggested visiting the Frilli Gallery.

Prior to their arrival to the Nelson-Atkins, the contemporary casts of the Gates of Paradise were exhibited at the Doctor Bau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, India. Courtesy the Frilli Gallery.

There, the couple learned of projects related to Ghiberti's works: the new casts of the north doors that were being made as part of an effort to restore the originals, and the possibility of acquiring casts of the Gates of Paradise from Motoyama. In the spirit of sharing cultural heritage around the world, the DeBruces brought those casts of the Gates of Paradise to Kansas City and generously loaned them to the Nelson-Atkins, so that the entire community and patrons visiting from around the world may enjoy them here.

Installing the casts of the Gates of Paradise at the museum was an intensive undertaking. Structural engineers carefully planned the installation of the 9,000-pound sculpture. This required fastening the doors to the reinforced concrete of the adjacent elevator shaft. Carefully orchestrated security, design, and installation staff safely moved the doors during the museum's open hours.

This time-lapse video gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the installation of the casts of the Gates of Paradise at the Nelson-Atkins.

The addition of the Gates of Paradise to the Nelson-Atkins complements other interesting links between Florence and Kansas City. For example, the Marinelli foundry produced several bronze sculptures for Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. Also, Bearzi made bronze works for the Volker Memorial Foundation in Theis Park and the local Linda Hall Library.

Giuseppe Benelli (Italian, 1819-1961). The Wild Boar of Florence, 1857. Bronze. This popular Plaza sculpture was based on Pietro Tacca's Renaissance copy of a Greek sculpture of a boar. The Marinelli Studios cast Benelli's sculpture for the Plaza in 1962.

Ghiberti's original Gates of Paradise inspired the American sculptor Charles Keck, who designed the doors at the south and east entrances of the original building of the Nelson-Atkins, which opened in 1933.

Carl Milles (Swedish, 1875-1955). William Volker Memorial Fountain, 1952-1955. Bronze. The equestrian figure of Martin of Tours, the patron saint of France, honors the Kansas City philanthropist William Volker. The fountain was originally sited in Theis Park, but was moved in the 1990s just south of the park to Volker Boulevard and Oak Street, Kansas City.