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Sommario Ulisse Pisa Articles
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The art of memory
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PISA ARTE
Versione Italiana

Heirs and rivals of the Eternal City 
by Clara Baracchini

Versione Inglese

Pisa’s art in the 11th and 12th centuries is inspired by the great classical tradition, especially in sculpture and architecture. History as told in marble and bronze.
Pisa can claim the credit for a fundamental contribution both to a particular interpretation of the “Greek manner”, as Vasari calls it - the Byzantine style, in other words - and to the creation, especially in sculpture, of the new “Latin manner”: a long and elaborate process rooted in the history of a town aiming to conquer the Mediterranean and in the creation in the 12th and 13th centuries of a Pisan romanitas.
In these years Pisa, with its sculpture, architecture and poetry, at times engraved directly on the marble surface of the cathedral, shows that it considers itself Rome’s heir and even its rival, since it has defeated the Arabs just as Rome conquered the Carthaginians. Pisa identifies with a past that is experienced as present. The buildings prove it (architraves and capitals, panels and screens copied from classical models alternating with elements extracted from the ruins of the ancient capital) and so do the documents. The Roman sarcophagi re-used as tombs of illustrious citizens confirm it - true, the trend is not limited to Pisa, but in this town it is particularly frequent and impressive. Side by side with these symbols, the Cathedral also holds the booty from victories over the infidels (while maintaining peaceful trading relations with them, as testified by the over 600 Islamic ceramic basins decorating Pisa’s churches) and re-interprets their forms of architecture and sculpture - yet classic antiquity is the fundamental key to the future development of Pisan sculpture.
Pisa is the place where Guglielmi and Bonanno revived the art of historical narration in marble and bronze. To the former, who proudly signed the first pulpit created for the Cathedral between 1158 and 1162 (now in the Duomo of Cagliari), goes the credit for the reappearance of narration and full-relief sculpture, immediately reintroduced in numerous churches in the town and its surroundings, while the latter repeats the experience in the bronze doors of the cathedral in the light of the Byzantine tradition - the very one that reappears in the so-called Neo-Hellenic current of Pisan sculpture and painting: columns adorned with leaves, architraves and bas-reliefs decorating the facades of the churches, along with icons and painted crosses.
Nor could it have been otherwise, since after taking part in the first crusade (1096-1099) Pisa gained new trading routes through its privileged relationship with Byzantium, acknowledged by the exceptional honour of the election of a Pisan archbishop and political leader as patriarch of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, and confirmed by the advantageous trade agreements ratified between 1111 and 1180. However, the miraculous equilibrium attained by Pisan painting was upset by the radical revolution that put pressure on the Christian world: the preaching of St. Francis of Assisi. The unheard-of power with which he brought back the focus of attention on Christ, the new devotional technique of “praying with the mind and not with the lips”, using above all the liber Crucis Christi, brought about an equally radical innovation in the figurative arts. Giunta from Pisa was summoned (in 1236) to portray, even in the new basilica in Assisi, the new suffering Christ, his body arched in spasms of agony. The new liturgy of the Cross explains the big, elaborate Depositions in wood: the oldest is possibly the one that dominated the apse of the Cathedral (only the Christ remains, now in the Cathedral Museum), while the one in the lovely parish church of Vicopisano, whose seven figures have survived, the one in Volterra, with its precious and intact polychrome, and the Deposition in San Miniato, recently restored, all date back to the first half of the 13th century.
In the meantime an event destined to influence the fate of Italian sculpture took place in Pisa. Around 1260 a brilliant sculptor called Nicola, a native of Puglia who grew up at the court of Frederick II, came to Pisa (from then on he calls himself “Pisano”). He, his most important pupils - that is his son Giovanni and Arnolfo di Cambio - and their followers brought about the rebirth of a sculpture that definitely abandoned the Byzantine style in the wake of the new romanitas of the previous century.
The name of Dante is often mentioned in connection with Nicola, to explain the changes he introduced: not only does he represent the birth of a new Romance language in the figurative arts, but the intricate links between the single elements and the structure and the constant presence of a unifying poetic tone make his creations a real “religious poem”. In Nicola’s new artistic language the knowledge and imitation of the forms of antiquity goes hand in hand with a regained interest in nature and a capacity to adapt the narrative rhythm to the situation.
In Pisa Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, sculptors and architects, create the two pulpits of the Baptistery and the Cathedral, but they were also in charge of the building of the Baptistery’s second order, adorned with busts and dancing figures. Giovanni, his colleague Tino di Camaiano and their collaborators also carried out sculptures, altars, tombs and tabernacles for the Cathedral, the Camposanto, the church of S. Maria della Spina and S. Michele in Borgo. From Pisa sculptors and works of art set off to Catalonia and Lombardy, Tino di Camaiano left the town to continue his work in Siena and above all Naples, while Arnolfo da Cambio established the new style in Florence and Rome. Nor did these sculptors restrict themselves to working with marble: restoration work has brought to light a growing number of wood sculptures, while the silver plaquettes of the “cintola” (a band fastened around the Cathedral on feast days) testify to their skill as goldsmiths.
Meanwhile Pisa’s sculpture is a point of reference for Giotto’s painting, created and consolidated in Florence, while Simone Martini’s new style spreads from Siena. In Pisa too, where they left major works, they both found expert followers, but the real answer to their innovations comes once again from a sculptor, Andrea Pisano. This can be established by looking at his Pisan works in the Museum of S. Matteo and comparing them with Simone Martini’s polyptych and the Madonna by another Sienese called Agostino di Giovanni, or with the works that he, in great demand on the construction sites of the great cathedrals, carried out in Florence and Orvieto. Andrea explores man’s physical and emotional world - his linear eurhythmies and simplified, luminous volumes make his creations unforgettable. His son Nino emphasises his secular realism in an affable, cordial sense, competing with the most refined French masters in subtlety and often winning the contest both in marble and wood. Like his father, he was skilled in both marble and wood and in fact wooden sculpture is the speciality of Nino’s most important follower, Francesco di Valdambrino.
After him, at the start of the 15th century, time seems to stand still for Pisa: not even Masaccio’s revolutionary polyptych created for the Chiesa del Carmine in 1426 manages to affect the drowsy local environment, made worse by the crisis that followed the first Florentine conquest in 1406. As if stunned by its misfortune, Pisa retires from the most advanced trends and turns, in the second half of the 15th century, to skilled but definitely not revolutionary artists, finally settling for a balanced taste for simple elegance and didactic force. In the second half of the 16th century the new lords’ generous attention to the city’s plight (or rather, their decision to improve the State’s economy by encouraging the potential of a town no longer considered unruly) presented Pisa with a fundamental example of the Medici’s figurative policy, Piazza dei Cavalieri, designed in every detail of space, palazzos and church by Vasari and by Cosimo himself.
Yet only when Pietro Leopoldo decided to make Pisa the second seat of his court did the town really show a cosmopolitan vocation and was seized by an orgy of decorative frenzy, luxury and elegance that encouraged the rise of new local stars - the various Melani and Tempesti who covered private and public palaces, churches and abbeys, with illusionist decorations - and the arrival of the cream of eighteenth-century Italian painters, summoned to carry out the ambitious plan of reviving Pisa’s ancient glories (warriors, saints and holy men) represented on the huge paintings lining the walls of the cathedral. Though an aura of decadence compared with the heroic past can still be sensed, this simply increases the charm of Pisa and its Camposanto, whose fantastic alternation of myth, fable and nature in its frescoes and atmosphere makes it one of the town’s principal glories. In the 19th centuries all the great names of literature, art and philosophy visited Pisa and stayed for long periods, attracted, as Leopardi was, by its romantic “mixture of big and small town, urban and rustic” and by the mute evidence of an inexorably bygone time, like the French traveller who described it as “a deserted neighbourhood of a great Oriental town”. Today the indefinable solitude of a “town of silence” has yielded to crowds of visitors, but those who choose the right times and places can still experience, like the nineteenth-century poets, exotic, glorious medieval Pisa.

Clara Baracchini, director of Historical-artistic heritage, Pisa Superintendency


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