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Nicola Pisano (also called Niccolò Pisano, Nicola de Apulia or Nicola Pisanus; c. 1220/1225 – c. 1284) was an Italianmarker sculptor whose work is noted for its classical Roman sculptural style. Pisano is sometimes considered to be the founder of modern sculpture.

Early life

His birth date or origins are uncertain. He was born in Apuliamarker, as the son of "Petrus de Apulia", as stated in the archives of the Cathedral of Siena. Nicola Pisano was probably trained in the local workshops of the emperor Frederick II, and he attended his coronation. Here he was trained to give to the traditional representations more movement and emotions, intertwining Classical and Christian traditions. His only remaining works from this period are two griffon heads with a soft chiaroscuro effect.

Around 1245 he moved to Tuscany to work at the Prato Castle. The lions on the portal of this castle are probably by his hand. "The head of a young girl" (now displayed in the Museo del Palazzo Veneziamarker in Romemarker), cut in hardstone of Elbamarker, is also ascribed to Nicola Pisano in the same period.

He moved to Luccamarker, working at façade of the Cathedral of Saint Martinmarker, resulting in the relief Deposition from the Cross (on the north tympanum) and the lintel reliefs Nativity and Adoration of the Magi.
Pulpit (detail): the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi.

Pulpit of the Pisa baptistery

He moved to Pisamarker between 1245 and 1250, where his son Giovanni Pisano was born. Around 1255 he received a commission for the pulpit in the baptisterymarker of Pisa. He finished this work in 1260 and signed with "Nicola Pisanus". He was aided by several assistants, among which were Arnolfo di Cambio and Lapo di Ricevuto.

In this pulpit, considered one of his masterworks, he succeeded in making a synthesis of the French Gothic style with the Classical style of ancient Rome, as he had seen on the sarcophagi of the Camposantomarker in Pisa, such as the scene Meleager hunting the Calydonian Boar on a sarcophagus brought as booty to Pisa by its navy. Vasari relates that Nicola Pisano constantly studied these Roman remains and the Roman sculptures from Augustan times seem to have marked a deep impression on him. In the panel Representation the Madonna reminds us of the regal bearing of goddesses in late Roman sculpture, while the expressive face of St. Anne shows the ravages of age.
Pulpit in the baptistery of Pisa

The pulpit rests on a central column, raised on an octagonal pedestal. This central column rest on sculptures of animals and telamons and is surrounded by six columns of different height, three of which rest on a lion, while the other three rest on the octagonal base. The columns came from remains at Ostia. The Corinthian capitals support trefoil Gothic arches, richly decorated with Prophets and Evangelists in the spandrels. These arches are separated by sculptures of St. John the Baptist, St. Michael and the Virtues and, surprisingly, a naked Hercules.

The hexagonal pulpit itself consist of five scenes in white Carrara marble from the Life of Christ : the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Annunciation to the Shepherds are juxtaposed in the first relief, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement. The backgrounds of these scenes were originally painted and enamelled, while the eyes of the figures were coloured. This contributed to a realistic depiction of these religious scenes. All these scenes, except the last two, reflect his knowledge of the style on the sarcophagi. The figures wear a tunica in a Roman fashion. The Virgin wears a pallium over her head in the same manner as a Roman matron.

The scene The Last Judgement was probably based on a Byzantine ivory and The Crucifixion was sculpted with the same elegance as contemporary French Gothic art.

He must have found his inspiration for this pulpit in the triumphal arches, he had seen in Rome when travelling to Ostia. The form of this pulpit diverges completely from contemporary art. The sculptures are represented in the same manner as those of the Arch of Constantinemarker in Rome, with the figures standing atop columns. Furthermore, the same arch has an attic storey with sculpted scenes, as does the pulpit.

Dome of the baptistery of Pisa.
Between 1260 and 1264 he finished the work of the architect Diotisalvi on the dome of the baptistery. He increased its height with a system of two domes : a small truncated cone on top of the hemispherical dome. The two rows of traceried gables were later decorated by his son Giovanni Pisano between 1277 and 1284.

Shrine of Saint Dominic (Bologna)

During 1264 he was asked to work on the Shrine of Saint Dominic in the Basilica of San Domenicomarker in Bolognamarker. He was certainly responsible for the design, but his input was probably minimal. In 1265 he was already at work on the pulpit for the Siena Cathedral. The front side was done in his workshop, partially by Nicola Pisano himself but mostly by his assistant Lapo di Ricevuto. It would almost take 500 years to finish this shrine through the work of famous sculptors: Arnolfo di Cambio, fra Guglielmo Agnelli, Niccolò dell'Arca, the young Michelangelo, Girolamo Coltellini and Giovanni Batista Boudard. The expressive face of saint Dominic, so different from the more blander faces in the front panel "Saint Dominic resurrects Napoleone Orsini", is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio.

Pulpit of the Siena Cathedral

In September 1265 he was given his next major assignment : a marble pulpit for the Siena Cathedral. This pulpit, made of Carraramarker marble, was sculpted between the end of 1265 and November 1268 with the extensive participation of his son Giovanni Pisano and his assistants Arnolfo di Cambio, Lapo di Ricevuto and several other artists.

This is the earliest remaining work in the cathedral. Nicola Pisano was given this commission due to his fame by the Pisa pulpit. This pulpit, resembling the Pisa pulpit but larger, is even more ambitious and is considered his masterpiece. The whole message of the pulpit is concerned with the doctrine of Salvation and the Last Judgment.

The pulpit is octagonal in shape. There are nine columns, made of granite, porphyry and green marble. Four columns rest on a base, two are supported by lions and two by lionesses, while the central column rests on small statues of the Seven Liberal Arts and Philosophy.

On the middle level, the trefoil arches between the eight columns are separated by small statues, representing the Christian Virtue. In the spandrels, the space between the trefoils and the statues, Pisano has included statuettes of Sibyls, the Evangelist and Prophets, announcing the salvation of mankind.
The pulpit and a view on the mosaic floor.

The seven scenes on the top level of the pulpit explore further the theme of salvation. They are difficult to see because of the dark interior of the cathedral. The colonettes between the panels have been carved into small figures of prophets and angels. The upper and lower cornices are equally richly carved, giving the whole a scroll-like reading of the scenes.

The seven scenes on the parapet narrate the Life of Christ. The scenes are crammed with people, leaving no empty spot between the characters. The many figures in each scene with their chiaroscuro effect, show a richness of surface, motion and narrative. The characters express their emotions and are very aware of the unfolding drama. The faces of the Blessed and the Damned in the Last Judgment panel show realistic expressions. The different scenes in several panels are set above each other, giving the impression of a certain depth. Each panel is filled to the top with figures to avoid open spaces:
  • Visitation and Nativity
  • Journey and Adoration of the Magi
  • Presentation in the Temple and Flight into Egypt
  • Massacre of the Innocents
  • Crucifixion
  • Last Judgment with the Blessed
  • Last Judgment with the Damned

This pulpit expresses in deeper extent the French Gothic style, adopted by Nicola Pisano, while still showing a more measured classical Roman influence.

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.

Pistoia and Perugia

In July 1273 Nicola Pisano was commissioned by the Operai di San Jacopo of Pistoiamarker to make the altar of San Jacopo in the cathedral of San Zenomarker. He worked on it together with his son Giovanni. The chapel of San Jacopo was demolished in 1786. The Holy Water stoup with its three female figures was probably sculpted at the same time. Giovanni Pisano would later make his first pulpit in the same cathedral.

His last major commission was the Great Fountain at Perugiamarker (1277-1278). The fountain with three superposed basins was designed by Fra Bevignate and Boninsegna. The fountain certainly shows the delicate hand of Nicolò Pisano, but most sculpting was executed by his son Giovanni Pisano and his assistants. By its richness in details and by its iconography, this last work shows a rapprochement to French Gothic art.


He wasn't just an imitator of the Classical antiquity. His figures are original creations that came into being through a thorough study and understanding of the antique prototypes. He is the most important precursor of Italian Renaissance sculpture by reinstating antique representations. Therefore, surveys of the Italian Renaissance usually begin with the year 1260, the year that Nicola Pisano dated this pulpit in the Pisa baptistery.

However, as the pulpit of the Siena Cathedralmarker shows, Nicola Pisano was still attached to the contemporary Gothic art. However this appreciation may arise because this pulpit was finished by his son Giovanni Pisano who didn't appreciate this liking for the Antiquity in the same manner.

Both styles coexisted for several generations and International Gothic and its variations would even become more popular in the 15th century than the Classicism of the High Renaissance.

Nicola Pisano has pushed 13th century Tuscan sculpture in the direction of a Gothic art that already integrated the noble features of Roman art, while simultaneously staying attached to the Gothic art from Northern Europe.

The true inheritor of his classical style was Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1250-1302), whose early death left the field clear for Giovanni Pisano, who, by then, was already pursuing his own mixture of French Gothic and the classical style.

Giorgio Vasari included a biography of Nicola Pisano in his Lives.



  1. .
  2. Giorgio Vasari - The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors & Architects, Volume 1 online

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