Born: c. 1220
Birthplace: Apulia, Italy
Died: c. 1278
Location of death: Pisa, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Sculptor, Architect
Executive summary: Classical Italian sculptor
Italian sculptor and architect. Though he called himself Pisanus, from Pisa, where most of his life was spent, he was not a Pisan by birth. There are two distinct accounts of his parentage, both derived mainly from existing documents. According to one of these he is said to have been the son of "Petrus, a notary of Siena"; but this statement is very doubtful, especially as the word
"Siena" or "de Senis" appears to be a conjectural addition. Another document among the archives of the Sienese Cathedral calls him son of "Petrus de Apulia." Most modern writers accept the latter statement, and believe that he not only was a native of the province of Apulia in southern Italy, but also that he gained there his early instruction in the arts of sculpture and architecture. Those, on the other hand, who, with most of the older writers, prefer to accept the theory of Nicola's origin being Tuscan, suppose that he was a native of a small town called Apulia near Lucca.
Except through his works, but little is known of the history of Nicola's life. As early as 1221 he is said to have been summoned to Naples by Frederick II, to do work in the new Castel del l'Uovo. This fact supports the theory of his southern origin, though not perhaps very strongly, as, some years before, the Pisan Bonannus had been chosen by the Norman king as the sculptor to cast one of the bronze doors for Monreale Cathedral, where it still exists. The earliest existing piece of sculpture which can be attributed to Nicola is a beautiful relief of the Deposition from the Cross in the tympanum of the arch of a side door at San Martino at Lucca; it is remarkable for its graceful composition and delicate finish of execution. The date is about 1237. In 1260, as an incised inscription records, he finished the marble pulpit for the Pisan baptistery; this is on the whole the finest of his works.
It is a high octagon, on semicircular arches, with trefoil cusps, supported by nine marble columns, three of which rest on white marble lions. In design it presents that curious combination of Gothic forms with classical details which is one of the characteristics of the medieval architecture of northern Italy; though much enriched with sculpture both in relief and in the round, the general lines of the design are not sacrificed to this, but the sculpture is kept subordinate to the whole. In this respect it is superior to the more magnificent pulpit at Siena, one of Nicola's later works, which suffers greatly from want of repose and purity of outline, owing to its being overloaded with reliefs and statuettes. Five of the sides of the main octagon have panels with subjects -- the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Crucifixion and the Doom. These are all, especially the first three, works of the highest beauty, and a wonderful advance on anything of the sort that had been produced by Nicola's predecessors. The drapery is gracefully arranged in broad simple folds; the heads are full of the most noble dignity; and the sweet yet stately beauty of the Madonna could hardly be surpassed. The panel with the Adoration of the Magi is perhaps the one in which Nicola's study of the antique is most apparent. The veiled and diademed figure of the Virgin Mother, seated on a throne, recalls the Roman Juno; the head of Joseph behind her might be that of Vulcan; while the youthful beauty of an Apollo and the mature dignity of a Jupiter are suggested by the standing and kneeling figures of the Magi. Certain figures in others of the panels are no less deeply imbued with classical feeling.
The next important work of Nicola in date is the Arca di San Domenico, in the church at Bologna consecrated to that saint, who died in 1221. Only the main part, the actual sarcophagus covered with sculptured reliefs of St. Dominic's life, is the work of Nicola and his pupils. The sculptured base and curved roof with its fanciful ornaments are later additions. This "Arca" was made when St. Dominic was canonized, and his bones translated; it was finished in 1267, not by Nicola himself, but by his pupils. The most magnificent, though not the most beautiful, of Nicola's works is the great pulpit in Siena cathedral (1268). It is much larger than that at Pisa, though somewhat similar in general design, being an octagon on cusped arches and columns. Its stairs, and a large landing at the top, with carved balusters and panels, rich with semi-classical foliage, are an addition of about 1500. The pulpit itself is much overloaded with sculpture, and each relief is far too crowded with figures. An attempt to gain magnificence of effect has destroyed the dignified simplicity for which the earlier pulpit is so remarkable.
Nicola's last great work of sculpture was the fountain in the piazza opposite the west end of the cathedral at Perugia. This is a series of basins rising one above another, each with sculptured bas-reliefs; it was begun in 1274, and completed, except the topmost basin, which is of bronze, by Nicola's son and pupil Giovanni Pisano.
Nicola Pisano was not only pre-eminent as a sculptor, but was also the greatest Italian architect of his century; he designed a number of very important buildings, though not all which are attributed to him by Giorgio Vasari. Among those now existing the chief are the main part of the cathedral at Pistoia, the church and convent of Sta. Margherita at Cortona, and Sta. Trinità at Florence. The church of Sant' Antonio at Padua has also been attributed to him, but without reason. Unfortunately his architectural works have in most cases been much altered and modernized. Nicola was also a skilled engineer, and was compelled by the Florentines to destroy the great tower, called the Guardamorto, which overshadowed the baptistery at Florence, and had for long been the scene of violent conflicts between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. He managed skilfully so that it should fall without injuring the baptistery. Nicola Pisano died at Pisa in the year 1278, leaving his son Giovanni a worthy successor to his great talents both as an architect and sculptor.
Though his importance as a reviver of the old traditions of beauty in art has been to some extent exaggerated by Vasari, yet it is probable that Nicola, more than any other one man, was the means of starting that new birth of the plastic arts which, in the years following his death, was so fertile in countless works of the most unrivalled beauty. Both Nicola and his son had many pupils of great artistic power, and these carried the influence of the Pisani throughout Tuscany and northern Italy, so that the whole art of the succeeding generations may be said to have owed the greater part of its rapid development to this one family.
Son: Giovanni Pisano (sculptor)
Is the subject of books:
Nicolo Pisano and the Revival of Sculpture in Italy, 1938, BY: G. H. Crichton and E. R. Crichton
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