by Lea Mattarella
The one in the Baptistery (by Nicola) marks a turning point
completed by the one in the Duomo (by Giovanni) in a
magnificent season for Pisa’s art.
For centuries, Italian art has been renowned throughout the
world. The rise of this innovative language, so dense in
beauty that it became dominant, dates back to the Renaissance
or just before, with Giotto’s extraordinary achievements which
changed the history of painting for ever.
But, looking at things a little more closely, the traces of a
major change and the birth of a typically Italian artistic
language date from an even earlier period. Before being taken
over by the Florentine masters, this amazing revolution of
image and style came about through a sculptor’s chisel - a
sculptor who came from the Puglia region to make his adopted
home in Pisa. His name was “Nicola de Apulia”.
It all happened in Pisa where an extraordinary communion arose
between a talented sculptor and the flourishing maritime city
that had become his home - the reaction between individual
genius and the surroundings that so often sparks off change.
The sculptor arrived in Pisa from Puglia. We can be sure of
this because he was known as “Nicola de Apulia” initially,
before signing with the name that would eventually become
famous, Nicola Pisano. But we also know this because his
visual sense was replete with classical references and
allusions to ancient sculpture. These aspects derived from the
influence of Southern Italy, from the artists and craftsmen
who worked on Castel del Monte and other buildings
commissioned by Frederick II, whose court strove to imitate
the greatness of Imperial Rome through a culture of literature,
figurative arts and philosophy.
Therefore, Nicola’s training and artistic growth (his birth
date is unknown, but probably around 1220) was centred on the
art of ancient times. He studied the proportions and flowing
shapes of classical sculpture, and sought out vestiges of the
past on which to base his own ideas.
When he arrived in Pisa, he found that his approach to
sculpture was much appreciated. For a hundred years or so, the
citizens of Pisa had been gathering the traces of their
ancient past. They looked to classical marble sculpture to
find the cultural roots of their fiercely proud identity - a
strong city vying for power with its neighbours (as a communal
city with ghibelline allegiance). These archaeological finds
were put on display in the cathedral as witness to the
grandeur of the city’s past.
According to Giorgio Vasari (whose book “Lives of great
artists” marked the beginning of art criticism in the 16th
century), it seems that some of these sarcophagi, inscriptions,
fragments of sculpture came from outside Pisa - in other words,
they were brought to the city to bolster its origins.
Nicola saw these remains and studied them closely. At this
point, figurative art underwent a change similar to what had
taken place with Italian poetry - the seeds sown in Southern
Italy flowered in Tuscany. In this case, the first flowering
was in marble: the renowned pulpit in the Pisa Baptistery, a
masterpiece which Nicola Pisano worked on from 1255 to 1260.
In this work, he drew on his knowledge of classical sources.
With his powerful and solemn style, he transformed a figure he
had seen on an ancient vase in the Camposanto (Dionysus with a
satyr), into Simon taking part in Jesus’ presentation at the
temple. Even the imposing Virgin Mary in the nativity scene
seems to derive directly from Etruscan and Roman sarcophagi,
while the scene representing Fortitude takes the form of a
However, Nicola did something more than just imitating and
recycling classical sources. He gave the figures a sort of
verisimilitude which created a consistent harmony between the
structure of the pulpit and the decorations that adorn it.
Such a close bond between architecture and sculpture had only
been achieved in French gothic cathedrals, so much so that
several experts suggest that Nicola may have undertaken a
journey to France at some point, as well as the usual trip to
Rome. But there is no way of knowing whether this is true or
It is generally accepted that this pulpit in Pisa cathedral
marked the beginning of the rise to fame of Italian art. From
that point on, the idea of proportions, spatial relations,
movement and the quest for reality, burst into the language of
western figurative art.
The forty years between 1260 when Nicola finished this work,
and 1300 when Giotto completed his Stories of St. Francis in
Assisi, represented a watershed in the history of Italian art.
Author Marguerite Yourcenar claims that “from the day when a
statue is finished, in a certain sense its life begins…
through the reactions of adoration, admiration, love, dislike
or indifference…”. This was certainly the case with Nicola’s
great work, and his reputation began to spread far and wide.
The beauty of the reliefs can be seen in the scenes depicting
the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation at
the temple, the Crucifixion, the Day of Judgement, with their
narrative vivacity and the solemn figures symbolising the
virtues, located in the corners of the scenes. All this
enabled Nicola to get many other commissions which took him to
Siena, Perugia, Pistoia and Bologna.
Chronicler Giorgio Vasari also describes him as one of the
most sought-after architects of the time, but unfortunately we
cannot link his name with certainty to any medieval building.
However, he travelled widely, spreading awareness of his style
- an approach that combined classical rigour with gothic
He was accompanied on his travels by his pupils, including his
son Giovanni, heir to a father whose fame was such that the
son risked being obscured. Instead he took advantage of it.
Giovanni’s date of birth is unknown but it is thought to have
been between 1245 and 1248, since he helped his father with
the pulpit in Siena cathedral in 1265. But there’s no doubt
that Giovanni was born in Pisa because we know that he worked
on the figures for the external decoration of the Baptistery.
But when his father died in 1284, Giovanni left Pisa for Siena
where he was to carry out some of his masterpieces.
When he returned to his hometown, the comparison with his
father Nicola became direct. Giovanni too was commissioned to
produce a pulpit, this time for the Cathedral in Pisa. His
father Nicola had revolutionised this type of object (previously
square-shaped or rectangular, butted up against a wall) by
isolating it and softening the shape into a hexagon. Giovanni
went even further. There are no sharp edges in the perfect
shape of his octagonal pulpit, where the surface of the
baluster curves gently and the whole piece is given an ideal
And the scenes that Giovanni depicts are full of life and
energy. His figures are the result of close observation of
real-life gestures and stances. The faces that he carved
express different feelings and characters as well as
There are unforgettable scenes such as an angel shaking an old
man who had fallen asleep in the Flight into Egypt, or the
contortion of bodies and limbs handling the child, whose
weight we can almost feel, in the Presentation at the temple.
Every corner of the pulpit is sculpted in detail, and the
figures are slightly elongated upwards (to be viewed from
below) emphasising their sense of movement. There’s no pause
in the narrative flow, events follow on from one another with
an intense rhythm, and the curved lines of the whole
composition create a luminosity never seen before.
If this isn’t enough to include Giovanni amongst the master
sculptors of all times, a visit to the Cathedral Museum will
remove any doubt. Here we can see several examples of
Giovanni’s favourite subject: the Virgin and Child.
In these works, Mary and Jesus gaze into one another’s eyes,
they communicate like any mother and child. The baby is
serene, but the mother, who knows what the future holds, has
an air of melancholy about her. We see a very human Mary
emerging from amongst the gothic tangle of bodies - a woman
with a gentle and intimate gaze who, with trust and
resignation, accepted a destiny that was much greater than her
(like her sister described in Fabrizio De Andrè’s song, the
Lea Mattarella, art historian, teaches at Brera