PISANO, Nicola
(active 1258-1278)


Marble, height 465 cm
Baptistry, Pisa

It is Nicola Pisano, one of the sculptors/architects, whom Vasari in his Vite (Lives) credits with initiating the first of three stages of Renaissance sculpture. Nicola's first authenticated work, a signed pulpit for the Pisa Baptistry, justifies Vasari's choice. Dated 1260, it fuses southern and Tuscan elements into a truly original vision, reinforcing the consensus on the artist's unknown birthplace: he was probably born in southern Italy (in two documents he is referred to as "de Apulia") and may have either been trained in Pisa or worked for Frederick II before settling in Pisa.

Precedents for Nicola's pulpit existed in the south from the previous century but they lacked the historiated (narrative) reliefs of the Tuscan tradition. Nicola's pulpit is indeed revolutionary: since it is freestanding it acts more like architectonic sculpture than a mere piece of liturgical furniture. Its shape is a function of its site. As a hexagon (symbolic of the Death of Christ), it echoes without being repetitive the adjacent earlier octagonal (symbolic of the Resurrection) baptismal font and harmonizes with the round shape (symbolic of rebirth, eternity and God) of the building.

The pulpit's shape and the geometrical organization of its reliefs have been allied to the harmonious proportional ratios - associated since Pythagoras with the divine proportion of the cosmos - established by the contemporary Pisan mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. In addition, the five reliefs (the sixth side was open for passage to the lectern) are separated by reddish brown Classicizing colonnettes. The classical manner in which they frame the white Carrara marble scenes leaves no doubt that Nicola was a talented architect and a sculptor of the first rank.

The pulpit is supported by a central column on a base with grotesque figures and animals - representing pagan elements subdued by Christianity - and by six external columns. Three of these have bases set on the backs of lions hovering over vanquished prey, a Romanesque motif symbolic of triumphant Christianity. The columns are crowned by Gothic, quasi-Corinthian foliated capitals whose deep carving and drill work is akin to late Roman techniques. They support archivolts with trilobe Romanesque arches with inlaid cusps. Nicola carved prophets and the Evangelists in the spandrels and six nearly freestanding figures (five virtues and St John the Baptist, relating to the site) between the reliefs. Appropriately for the Baptistry, the scenes emphasize Christ's infancy, revelation of divinity and sacrifice. They are: a continuous narrative with the Annunciation, Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds; the Adoration of the Magi depicted as the Three Ages of Man; the Presentation in the Temple; the Crucifixion; and the Last Judgment. Traces of pigment suggest that paint once increased the polychromy of the coloured marble, while the addition of black paste to some drill holes intensified the light and dark contrast of the carving.

Nicola's narrative panels are no less radical than the general layout of the pulpit. As was the Tuscan custom, figures dominate the scenes, but here they are unprecedented in their full height. In fact, the figures themselves create the space so that each panel resembles a Roman sarcophagus scene. Deeply undercut, they stand convincingly in front of each other. The weight of their features is heavy and their massive drapery both reveals their bodies and is separate from them. Their actions have a concentrated psychological realism and their forms are overtly sensuous. Unlike earlier sculptors who employed Classical motifs piecemeal like quotations, Nicola aimed at narrating the Life of Christ in a more integrated, naturalistic manner via a Classical style. While he borrowed from antiquity, he did so innovatively. For example, his massive Madonna is derived from the Phaedra on a sarcophagus in the Camposanto, Pisa. Her weighty form and Graeco-Roman head-dress as well as her heavy lips and chin are repeated throughout the pulpit with an Aristotelean unity of character. In both the Nativity, where she reclines like an Etruscan matron, and the `Adoration', the figure is not copied but rather studied and then mixed creatively with borrowings from other sources. More directly inspired from figures on the Phaedra sarcophagus are the wizened heads of the expressionistic prophetess Anna and St Elizabeth in the Presentation in the Temple. This scene also contains another fascinating adaptation all'antica, the transformation of a Hellenistic aged Dionysos supported by a satyr into the old priest with an acolyte. (Michelangelo used this general prototype later for his Bacchus.) Nicola adapted to a Christian context the pagan form derived from a Roman copy of a Neo-Attic carved krater in the Composanto. His borrowing also had a civic dimension because the krater was believed to have been given to the city by Augustus, thus alluding to Pisa's origins and alliance to the Ghibellines.