1902 Encyclopedia > Niccola Pisano (Nicola Pisano)

Niccola Pisano
(also known as: Nicola Pisano)
Italian sculptor
(c. 1206 - 1278)




PISANO, NICCOLA. (c. 1206-1278), one of the chief sculptors and architects of mediaeval Italy, was born about 1206. 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." Crowe and Cavalcaselle, as well as the majority of 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 Niccola's origin being Tuscan suppose that he was a native of a small town called Apulia near Lucca. As is the case with the biographies of so many of those artists who lived long before Vasari's own time, that author's account of Niecola is quite untrustworthy. There is no doubt that in the century preceding Niceola Pisano's birth Apulia, and the southern provinces generally, were more advanced in the plastic art than any part of northern Italy - witness especially the magnificent architecture and sculpture in the cathedrals of Salerno, Bari, Amalfi, Ravello, and many others, in which still exist bronze doors, marble pulpits, and other works of art of great merit, dating from the 11th and 12th centuries,--a period when northern Italy produced very little art-work of any real beauty. That the young Niccola Pisano saw and was influenced by these things cannot be denied, but Crowe and Cavalcaselle, in their eagerness to contradict the old traditions, go very much too far when they deny the story, told by Vasari, of Niccola's admiration for and keen study of the remains of ancient Roman sculpture which were then beginning to be sought for and appreciated. In Niccola Pisano's works it is somewhat difficult to trace the direct influence of Apulian art, while in many of them, especially the panel-reliefs of his Pisan pulpit (see figure), classical feeling is apparent in every fold of the drapery, in the modelling of the nude, and in the dignified reserve of the main lines of the composition.

For all that, Niccola was no dull copyist ; though he emancipated himself from the stiffness and unreality of earlier sculpture, yet his admiration and knowledge of the physical beauty of the human form in no way detracted from the purity and religious spirit of his subjects. Though pagan in their beauty of modelling and grace of attitude, his Madonnas are as worshipful, and his saints as saintly, as those of any sculptor the world has ever seen. With true genius he opened out to the church a new field in which all the gifts of God, even purely physical ones, were made use of and adopted as types and symbols of inward purity and love--not repudiated and suppressed as snares of the evil one. Except through his works, but little is known of the history of Niccola'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 dell' 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 Niccola 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, lie 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 mediaeval 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 Niecola'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 Niceola'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 Niccola's study of the antique is most apparent (see figure). 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 Niccola in date is the Area 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 Niccola and his pupils. The sculptured base and curved roof with its fanciful ornaments are later additions. This "Arta" was made when St Dominic was canonized, and his bones translated; it was finished in 1267, not by Niccola himself, but by his pupils. The most magnificent, though not the most beautiful, of Niccola'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 octa gon 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.





Related Page
Giovanni Pisano (son of Niccola Pisano)



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