Nicola Pisano, the Pulpits of the Pisa Baptistery and of the Cathedral of Siena

At the death of Frederick II the school of sculpture of Southern Italy stopped evolving; instead, its teaching and influences arrived in Tuscany, finally settling in Pisa in the middle of the 13th century by the works of a sculptor named Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220/1225-ca. 1284) from Apulia (Southern Italy), who was the true initiator of the new style, the father of the Italian sculpture. In his account on the biographies of Renaissance artists (The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550), Vasari attributed to Nicola a number of sculptures and architectural works made in this transitional style that are still seen in Tuscany. But it was until around 1255 that Nicola was commissioned to sculpt the pulpit of the baptistery of Pisa, which represents the glorious starting point of an artistic style already permeated with the philosophy of the coming Renaissance.

The pulpit of the baptistery of Pisa (finished in 1260). This pulpit represents a synthesis of the French Gothic style with the Classical style of ancient Rome. The structure takes the shape of a hexagon resting on top of seven columns, six of which form a ring around its outer portion while one stands in the center. It is precisely this free-standing design and hexagonal shape that make this pulpit structurally distinctive compared to most of the pulpits built before. In general, pulpits tended to be rectangular, so possibly the reason for the hexagonal shape seen here was due to the floor plan of the baptistery (rounded rather than contained within a basilica with flat walls). That is, Nicola Pisano would have recognized the lower level of compatibility between a more conventional rectangular pulpit located near an octagonal baptismal font, which in turn were both inside a centralized rounded space.

Many of the figures of this pulpit of the baptistery of Pisa were clearly inspired by marbles that we can still see in the old museum of the city of Pisa in the famous cloister of its cemetery (in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and in the Camposanto Monumentale). The reliefs of the pulpit are on the parapet that acts as a railing: in one of them representing the Adoration of the Magi, the Virgin is sitting like an ancient matron, with clothes and robe undoubtedly imitating those of a pagan sarcophagus of Hippolytus and Phaedra that is kept in the aforementioned cemetery of Pisa. In another relief representing the Birth of Jesus (Nativity), Mary appears lying on a bed, like the half-lying figures on the covers of ancient Etruscan sarcophagi, so abundant in Tuscany. In another relief, the one of the Presentation in the Temple, a priest with long beard is a clear imitation of the figures of an ancient glass also kept in the same cemetery. All these models were certainly known by Nicola in Tuscany.

The narrative panels of the hexagonal pulpit of the Pisa baptistery include five scenes carved in white Carrara marble and represent episodes from the Life of Christ: the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement. All these scenes, except the last two, reflect Nicola’s knowledge and study of ancient sarcophagi. For example, the figures wear tunics in a Roman fashion, the Virgin wears a pallium over her head in the same way as Roman matrons did. Above is the panel of the Adoration of the Magi (left), a composition for which Nicola borrowed the likeness of the Virgin Mary from the depiction of Phaedra from an ancient sarcophagi (right: Sarcophagus with the Myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, ca. 180 C.E., Camposanto Monumentale, Pisa). Christ Child wasn’t depicted in an iconic way either but here he is a chubby baby who reaches out for the gifts brought by the Magi. The horses on the top left corner of this scene were also depicted naturally, with flared nostrils and enlarged veins as if they had just come to a stop.
The Nativity panel (left) from the Pulpit of the Baptistery of Pisa. For this scene, Nicola based his reclined figure of Mary on the style of ancient Etruscan tomb sculptures as seen in the Etruscan terracotta Sarcophagus of Larthia Seianti (right), from the 3rd century C.E. (National Archaeological Museum of Florence).
Other narrative panels from the Pulpit of the Baptistery of Pisa. The panel of the Presentation in the Temple (left). The Crucifixion panel (center) depicts more classically-inspired figures, here the figure of the grieving Virgin Mary represented falling into the arms of the other women (lower left corner of the panel), adds something totally new to the iconography of this scene, something more “human” than “divine”. A definite departure from Gothic depictions, is Nicola’s composition of the Last Judgment panel (right). The scene depicts Christ with the good souls on one side (here to the left) and the bad on the other (here to the right), but in a closer look these two sides include each a disproportionate amount of space. Here, the good received a greater portion of the scene, a feature that was atypical in Last Judgment imagery.

Although the cited figures of Nicola’s reliefs are based on types taken from Classical art which he could very well discover while being in Pisa, the study of these sculptures was an import from Tuscany. There are other reliefs and other Tuscan pulpits almost contemporary of Nicola’s work, but the quality between them is immense. Generally these reliefs are poor and are scattered among mosaics, like those of the ledges of the baptismal font of the Pisan baptistery. Even the general form of Nicola’s pulpit was a novelty: the Tuscan pulpits were square or rectangular, while the pulpit of the baptistery of Pisa is hexagonal, and its moldings and the columns’ capitals were imitated from those of Castel del Monte, the fortress of Frederick II. The pulpit of Pisa is, therefore, the union ring of these first two Renaissance schools: that of the precursors, in Apulia, a school that had to die at its highest point after the death of Frederick II, and that of Tuscany, its daughter, destined to great artistic triumphs in the centuries to come.

The octagonal baptismal font located at the center of the Baptistery of Pisa was carved and inlaid in 1246 by the Gothic sculptor Guido Bigarelli da Como.  In the center of the font stands a 20th-century statue of St. John the Baptist, to whom the baptistery is dedicated.
The sculpted Virtue figures standing on top of the Corinthian style capitals were influenced by ancient forms. See for example the “Fortitude” figure (the nude figure near the center of the picture above), which appears in contrapposto. It is evident that this figure was Classically-inspired and reflects a novel use of the nude human body. The panel reliefs are framed by red marble and separated from one another by bundles of colonnettes. Resting on top of the outer ring of columns are rounded arches with carved trilobed patterns. Images of prophets were carved in the adjacent spandrels. Nicola Pisano must have found inspiration for this pulpit in the triumphal arches he had seen in Rome: for example, the sculptures are represented in the same manner as those of the Arch of Constantine in Rome (figures standing atop columns), and the mentioned arch has a top (attic) level with sculpted scenes in panels.
At the base of three of the columns of the Pulpit of the Baptistery of Pisa are sculpted lions looking inward at the base of the middle column, on which sculpted figures are shown in crouching positions. These figures have been interpreted in different ways by scholars: one interpretation proposes that they represent pagan forces, while at the base of three of the outer columns the circling lions appear to ravish their prey. Other explanation argues that the middle figures actually represent Old Testament characters (Noah, Daniel, and Job) representing the pre-Christian world, and thus the lions have been seen to represent Virtues due to their “nurturing natures” circling around the center column.

When the pulpit of the baptistery of Pisa was finished it was received with great enthusiasm. Six years later, the builders of the Cathedral of Siena (Pisa’s neighboring city), asked Nicola to carve the pulpit of their church. The Master accepted this assignment and had to move to Siena accompanied, according to historical documents, by several disciples, three of whom were to be famous: his son Giovanni, born around 1250, the Florentine Arnolfo di Cambio and Lapo di Ricevuto, perhaps the oldest of the three. Let us imagine Nicola’s entourage, with his disciples and several apprentices, settling in Siena to execute a pulpit of great proportions, even more complex than that of the baptistery of Pisa since it was projected with an octagonal floor plan instead of hexagonal although it was also supported on small columns. Even a superficial analysis of the pulpit of Siena reveals four personalities in its different reliefs. Some would be Nicola’s work, always in love with the calm and serenity of ancient models; others would be by Giovanni who, agitated as an apostate of his father’s ideal, moved his figures with a force of tragic passion that caused the reliefs to break down into zones; the other relieves would be by Lapo di Ricevuto, dull, cold, who sculpted rounded and monotonous forms; and some others, finally, were the work of Arnolfo di Cambio, the true successor of Nicola, who worked admirably by giving his figures classic beauty and majesty.

The Pulpit of the Siena Cathedral was sculpted by Nicola Pisano and his assistants his son Giovanni Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio and Lapo di Ricevuto between the fall of 1265 and the fall of 1268. This octagonal pulpit carved in Carrara marble, with seven narrative panels and nine decorative columns represents Nicola Pisano’s exceptional talent for integrating Classical themes into Christian traditions, reason why Nicola and the Siena pulpit are considered as forerunners of the Classical revival that promoted the appearance of the Italian Renaissance. The original contract that Nicola Pisano signed to begin works on the pulpit stated that there were to be seven panels instead of five such as in his pulpit of the Pisa Baptistery and it also stated that Pisano should use the Sienese Carrara marble.

Of course it is also clear that the whole pulpit was executed under the direction of Nicola. The columns rest alternately on the ground or on the rump of lions, like those seen on the Romanesque facades of so many cities in Italy. Over the columns run tri-lobated arches, adorned with reliefs of prophets and apostles carved on their spandrels as in the pulpit of the baptistery of Pisa. But the truly admirable feature of this pulpit are the sculpted panels representing beautiful biblical scenes, especially those attributed to Nicola and Arnolfo, full of figures worthy of the great days of ancient art.

The narrative panels of the Pulpit of Siena Cathedral represent episodes of the life of Christ. One feature characteristic of these panels is that all show more than one subject at a time, except the Last Judgment panel which is told in the space of two reliefs. The panels of this pulpit share the same style borrowed from the late ancient and Roman sarcophagi. To separate each of the panels, on the corners were represented Christian symbols that help the viewer the story line of the panels to flow more effortlessly. The numerous figures in each panel carved with a chiaroscuro effect show a richness of surface, motion and narrative new for the time. Pictured above from top to bottom and from left to right: The Visitation and Nativity, Journey and Adoration of the Magi, Massacre of the Innocents, Crucifixion, Last Judgment with the Blessed, and Last Judgment with the Damned.
The structure of the attic, arches and capitals of the Siena pulpit is very similar to that Nicola designed for the pulpit of the Pisa Baptistery: columns topped with Corinthian style capitals, rounded arches with tri-lobed carvings, and Virtue figures placed on top of the capitals.
Like the Pisa pulpit, the Siena pulpit also has a central column resting on a pedestal that is encircled with carved figures, in these case representing “Philosophy” and the “Seven Liberal Arts”.
And, as in the Pisa pulpit but in greater number, the Siena Pulpit has eight outer columns made of granite, porphyry and green marble that are supported alternately, directly on the base of the pulpit and on lions.

After finishing the pulpit of Siena, Nicola’s disciples separated and went on to spread the Master’s teachings and style throughout Italy. Lapo di Ricevuto left to Bologna to carve, following the drawings of old Nicola, the marble ark that should serve as sepulcher to Santo Domingo de Guzmán (a.k.a. Arca di San Domenico), whose fame and prestige of his order demanded the execution of a magnificent work. The fact that the Chapter of the Dominican Order, present in Bologna, had called Nicola or one of his disciples from the other side of the Apennines to build the tomb of the Order’s founder demonstrated the prestige that the Pisan school had reached all over Italy in such a short period of time. While Lapo di Ricevuto was on his way to Bologna, Arnolfo di Cambio was heading to Rome and in the great metropolis of antiquity his sober artistic spirit finished its evolution.

The Arca di San Domenico (Ark of Saint Dominic) contains the remains of Saint Dominic (Dominic’s Chapel, Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna, Italy). The elaboration of this artistic masterpiece took place in separate stages by the best sculptors of their time and took almost 500 years to finish. In 1264, the Dominicans commissioned a new tomb for their founder to Nicola Pisano, who was responsible for the design of the new sarcophagus. Since in 1265 he was already working on the pulpit for the Siena Cathedral, the front side was done in his workshop, partially by Nicola Pisano himself but mostly by his assistant Lapo di Ricevuto. The crowning was added between 1469 and 1473 by Niccolò dell’Arca and several other masters. Among them was the young Michelangelo, who added the statuettes of San Petronio (the patron saint of Bologna), an angel holding a  candlestick and San Procolo (that closely remembers the likes of the statue of David, made ten years later). In 1532, Alfonso Lombardi added a step between the sarcophagus and the altar slab. Finally the whole tomb was placed on a marble altar in the 18th century. The sarcophagus itself recounts the life and miracles of Saint Dominic in a series of six carved panels.

As far as we know Arnolfo met again with his teacher only once. Nicola and Giovanni were called to Perugia to build the monumental fountain or Great Fountain (Fontana Maggiore) which still stands in the square, and there Arnolfo went to meet them if not to collaborate in this work, to take care of another assignment. This Great Fountain still exists and shows to the passersby the great artistic energy of the superior art of the Pisan sculptors of those times. Its layout is medieval: it has a large reservoir or cistern, with its parapet full of figures representing vices and virtues, patriarchs and saints, the signs of the Zodiac, the months, Romulus and Remus with the ancient she-wolf, personifications of the liberal arts and of the cities of Perugia and Rome, the caput mundi. The lower part has an inscription in which Nicola and Giovanni are enthusiastically praised as masters of the work, but it is clear that Fathers Bevignate and Boninsegna collaborated with them in the hydraulics. The high tank, also decorated with with sculptures, has another inscription in which only Giovanni is mentioned.

The Fontana Maggiore (Piazza IV Novembre, city of Perugia, Italy), made between 1277 and 1278 by Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni Pisano. The hydraulics were built by Fathers Bevignate and Boninsegna. The Fontana Maggiore is considered one of the finest still existing medieval fountains.
On the 25 panels of the lower basin of the Fontana Maggiore of Perugia are sculptures representing prophets and saints, the labors of the months, the signs of the zodiac, scenes from Genesis, and events taken from Roman history.

Later, old Nicola was urgently called to Pisa to direct the works of the upper parts of the baptistery. Nevertheless, when his son Giovanni came back to Pisa to work in the Campo Santo Monumentale, the old Master and glorious restorer of the art of sculpture in Tuscany had died two years ago. The work of the Campo Santo still shows the signature of Joannes magister above the entrance door; a Virgin (a work by a follower of Giovanni) placed above this same door, also testifies with her forms the influence of the style of Nicola in that building. This Virgin and another similar that Giovanni carved for the Chapel of the Arena of Padua (the Scrovegni Chapel) show that, despite his great talent and genius, he didn’t quite realize what the renewal initiated by his father had represented. These are two Gothic virgins, almost French, and if Giovanni gave these Madonnas and children an Italian character, it was due more to the models than to his art per se.

The decorated surfaces of the dome of the Baptistery of Pisa, the largest baptistery in Italy. Between 1260 and 1264 Nicola Pisano finished the work on the dome of the baptistery initiated by the architect originally responsible of the building, Diotisalvi. Pisano increased its height with a system of two domes: a small truncated cone on top of the hemispherical dome. The two rows of gables with Gothic tracery were later decorated by his son Giovanni Pisano between 1277 and 1284.
View of one of the two doorways of the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa. This particular door was crowned with a Gothic tabernacle described below.
The Gothic tabernacle crowning one of the entrance doors to the Camposanto  Monumentale. It includes figures of the Virgin Mary with Child, surrounded by four saints. It is a work from the second half of the 14th century by a follower of Giovanni Pisano.
The Madonna and Child of the high altar of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, a work by Giovanni Pisano carved between 1305-1306. The Madonna supports the Child on her hip as she turns in contrapposto, while the Child instinctively reaches for her breast.


Colonnette: (From French).  A small, thin column, especially one used to support an arcade.



Contrapposto: (From Italian, meaning “counterpoise”). Term used in the visual arts to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs in the axial plane. This gives the figure a more dynamic, or alternatively relaxed appearance. In the frontal plane this also results in opposite levels of shoulders and hips, for example: if the right hip is higher than the left; correspondingly the right shoulder will be lower than the left, and vice versa.

Pallium: (From the Roman pallium or palla, pl.: pallia, meaning a “woolen cloak”). A Roman cloak, which replaced the toga as the prescribed court garment for high-ranking citizens, and especially civil officials, up to the rank of senator. It was similar in form to the palla, which had been worn by respectable Roman women since the mid-Republican era. It was a rectangular length of cloth, as was the himation in ancient Greece. It was usually made from wool or flax, but for the higher classes it could be made of silk with the use of gold threads and embroideries. The modern use of the term refers to it as the pallium used by Catholic clergy, an ecclesiastical vestment in the Roman Catholic Church.