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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.