PISANO, Italian family of sculptors
(13-14th century)

Biography

Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Italian sculptors and architects, father and son. They were the greatest sculptors of their period and stand at the head of the tradition of Italian sculpture in the same way that Giotto stands at the head of the tradition of Italian painting. They often worked together, but their styles are distinctive.

Nicola came from Apulia, where the emperor Frederick II (d. 1250) had encouraged a classical revival, and his first known work, the pulpit in the Baptistery at Pisa (dated 1260 Pisan style, i.e. 1259) shows his brilliant adaptation of antique forms to a new context. He transformed a Dionysus into Simeon at the Presentation of Christ, a nude Hercules into a personification of Christian Fortitude, and a Phaedra into the Virgin Mary. But instead of following the Romanesque convention of separating episodes into compartments arranged in bands, he combined them into the formal unity of single pictures on each side of the pulpit with great power and dramatic effect. Several of the figures were directly inspired by ancient sarcophagi that Nicola saw in the Campo Santo in Pisa, but they are much more than simple borrowings, for he made them the vehicle for expressing richly varied human feeling.

Nicola followed the Pisa pulpit with a similar but more complex work for Siena Cathedral (1265-68). The carving is deeper, the contrasts between light and shadow sharpened, the reliefs more densely packed and full of movement. By then Nicola had a large workshop, his assistants including his son Giovanni and Arnolfo di Cambio. His last great project was the large fountain in the public square of Perugia, which he and Giovanni finished in 1278. The dozens of reliefs are a typical medieval mixture: biblical scenes, heraldic beasts, personifications of seasons and places, and local dignitaries; but the vigour and spontaneity of the carving express a new freedom and naturalness.

By 1284 Nicola was dead. Between the Perugia fountain and this date, Giovanni, alone or in company with his father, had carved the sculpture for the outside of the Pisa Baptistery (now in the Museo Nazionale). Here for the first time in Tuscany a scheme of monumental statuary was incorporated into architecture. Giovanni developed this much further in Siena, where from 1284 onwards he designed the façade of the cathedral and carried out much of the sculptural decoration (some of the figures have been transferred to the cathedral museum and a magnificent fragment is in the Victoria and Albert Museum). It is the most richly decorated of all the great Italian Gothic cathedral façades, and the statuary has tremendous energy and inner life.

Giovanni's last two great works were pulpits for S. Andrea, Pistoia (1300-01), and Pisa Cathedral (1302-10). They are modelled on those of his father, but more elegant in style (showing French Gothic influence) and also more emotionally charged. The Pisa pulpit was damaged in a fire in 1599, then dismantled and reassembled, some parts being dispersed; several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum, New York, have fragments that are said to come from it. Giovanni also made a number of free-standing statues, the best known of which is the Madonna and Child on the altar of the Arena Chapel in Padua (c. 1305). Its grandeur and humanity suggests a close kinship with Giotto, amid whose celebrated frescos it stands.