PISANO, Nicola
(active 1258-1278)


Marble, height 460 cm
Duomo, Siena

Presumably due to the success and fame of the Pisa pulpit, Nicola was commissioned in 1265 to sculpt another in Carrara marble for the Duomo of Siena. This second pulpit was complete by 1268 and is far more ambitious than its Pisan predecessor; it is octagonal and therefore has seven historiated reliefs. The dark colonnettes framing the Pisa panels have been exchanged for figures in white marble at the angles, allowing the narrative to flow while diminishing the classical containment. The richly carved cornice adds to the feeling of surface excitement and unity; it encourages a continuous scroll-like reading of the narratives, which is accentuated by a line of inlay above the lower cornice.

The larger dimensions and layout of the Siena pulpit resulted from both practical and aesthetic considerations. The scenes of the Pisa Baptistry pulpit are clearly visible from any location within that small structure, but in the vast dark interior of the richly striated Sienese Cathedral it is difficult to view individual scenes. Nicola must have been aware of these limitations and planned his pulpit accordingly. In addition, the number of "dramatis personae" in each scene has been increased, necessitating a reduction in their scale. Thus the serene simplicity of Pisa has been exchanged for a richness of surface, motion and narrative.

As at Pisa, the external columns rest alternately on the backs of lions (two males which devour their prey and two females which nurse cubs). The central column is surrounded not with grotesques but with figures of the liberal arts, a refinement in thought and form. Seven reliefs narrate the Life of Christ, but with significant changes. In the first scene, the Visitation is substituted for the Annunciation. In the second, the Journey of the Magi is added to the simple "Adoration". It is replete with a black magus, an entourage including mastiffs, and four trees to suggest a landscape. A new scene, the Massacre of the Innocents, surely by Giovanni, is introduced. Finally, the Last Judgment represents the Damned on the left of Christ and the Elect on the right. In 1329 the columns were replaced and in the sixteenth century stairs were added and the pulpit moved to its present location, raised on a base to afford greater visibility.

These significant differences arise from three factors. The first is an infusion of Freneh Gothic influence, seen in the beautiful Christ the Redeemer as well as in the decorative drapery and the proportions. Nicola was exposed to French Gothic ideas partly from contact with French ivories. Since a change in style often goes hand-in-hand with a change in imagery, the Classical figure of Hercules at Pisa is replaced by a more traditional female virtue. The impact of the native aesthetic of Siena is the second factor. Whereas Pisa had Classical connections, Siena, which also traced its origins back to Rome, was interested in narrative, decoration and landscape. In the Siena pulpit, Nicola catered to local taste. The third factor is the extensive participation of Giovanni and assistants. A new composition for the narrative panels also appears in Siena. Rows of figures are set above each other to suggest depth and create a dense horror vacui. This compositional device reveals that Nicola had looked at later Roman sarcophagi, which also stimulated Giovanni. The increased surface pattern, the thin somatic types, the greater amount and depth of the drilling and the "bridge" (a small piece of stone connecting heads to the relief) all signal late Roman sources. So too the increased emotion, violence and linear drapery betray a study of these precedents, coupled with a freedom of expression.