From his baptistery doors in Florence we can see that Lorenzo Ghiberti did not love dogs as much as Piero Di Cosimo. Lorenzo’s gilded bronze dogs are beautiful, just not rendered quite so lovingly, or sympathetically as Piero’s.
Here’s Piero’s painting “Death of Procris”. One thing it’s famous for is that flagrantly forlorn hound on the right, who appears to be experiencing human-like grief over the death of the woman. The picture has at times been hailed as the first instance where a dog is depicted experiencing emotions we humans can relate to. The subject comes from a Greek myth. Procris has just died. The sad tragedy is that her husband killed her in a hunting accident. Piero managed show the signs of a profound emotional bond between beast and human. Now, that’s cross species empathy.
By contrast, Ghiberti’s dogs on the baptistery doors in Florence display a diabolical presence in the scene known as “Jacob Steals Esau’s Blessing.” We’re not supposed to feel any sense of tail wagging love. The dogs appear at Jacob’s heels, and directly below a serpent in the background. Evil and deception is afoot. Jacob goes before his blind father pretending to be the elder brother in scheme to take the father’s blessing intended for his brother, Esau. Apparently this is part of a plot secure the tidy inheritance that was due Esau. It’s a complicated story anyone can read in Genesis 27, but it’s enough to say Ghiberti’s dogs appear almost reptilian in their expressions as they stand in the shadow of evil-doing.
Now, let’s do give Ghiberti some of his due. This door panel and the others are gorgeous. The Jacob panel is particularly striking in depicting perspectival depth in those receding arche. Look at what he did in creating that illusion of space, in less than an inch.
And lets keep in mind Ghiberti is of a generation that lived several decades before what could be a more enlightened time with respect to how people related to animals. Contemporaries of Piero seem more apt to hold more convivial attitudes towards dogs. More on that later.