The late Gothic art of the Italian sculptor Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250-1314) set the stage for the development of the Renaissance style.
The son of the sculptor Nicola Pisano, Giovanni Pisano was listed as an assistant to his father in the contract of Sept. 29, 1265, for the pulpit in the Siena Cathedral. The terms of his employment indicate that he must have been a youthful apprentice; hence it is assumed that he was born about 1250. Giovanni carved the holy-water font in St. Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia, in the early 1270s and collaborated with his father on the Fontana Maggiore, Perugia, which was completed in 1278. Between 1278 and 1284 Giovanni executed a group of half-length figures including a prophet, St. Mark, and the Madonna (now in the Civic Museum, Pisa).
From 1284 to 1294 Giovanni worked on the Siena Cathedral, executing a number of life-sized statues of kings, prophets, and sibyls for the facade and flank. These statues, originally placed on the level above the portals, are among his most dynamic and lively works. They are covered with heaps of deeply folded drapery that assumes an animation of its own. The generally twisting postures of the figures and the strong outward glances of their eyes create a sense of movement and vibrancy. They are, in Pietro Toesca's words, "Gothic and Michelangelesque at the same time."
Giovanni worked in Pisa from about 1295 to 1300. From this period date three standing Madonnas preserved in Pisa: one in St. Maria della Spina; one in the Cathedral Museum; and an exquisite ivory statuette in the Cathedral Treasury, which strongly suggests that Giovanni had direct contact with French Gothic sculpture either through a visit to France or through exposure to French art brought to Italy.
Giovanni's marble pulpit for St. Andrea in Pistoia, completed in 1301, is in his finest Gothic style. Like Nicola Pisano's Pisa Baptistery pulpit, Giovanni's pulpit in Pistoia is hexagonal, but he introduced Gothic achitectural elements, such as the ogive arch, whereas Nicola had used Romanesque elements. The style of the narrative reliefs is, likewise, strikingly different. Instead of concentrating attention on the figures, Giovanni emphasized the abstract movement of light and shade across the surface. The carving is deeply cut, in places undercut, to emphasize the rhythmic movements of the figures and the backgrounds. The poses and gestures of individual figures tend to be made part of an overall rhythmic design, always graceful, always elegant. Where an episode lends itself to a dramatic depiction, as in the Massacre of the Innocents, Giovanni yields to a frank emotional display.
In 1302 Giovanni was commissioned to make a marble pulpit for the Cathedral in Pisa. It is markedly different from his and his father's other pulpits. Polygonal, with curving rather than flat sides, the architectural portions are elaborate and sculpturesque. The various parts of the pulpit are uneven in execution, which suggests the presence of numerous assistants. Work on this pulpit continued until 1310, during which time Giovanni carved two standing Madonnas: the altar Madonna for the Arena Chapel in Padua, before 1305, and the so-called Madonna della Cintola for the Cathedral in Prato, after 1305. Both Madonnas are works of great charm and are considered autograph works. The Madonna della Cintola, a less than half life-size marble statue, twists to look at the Child. Her figure is covered with drapery arranged in deep folds that fall in regular curves around her hips and down her legs. The Child, whose face is on the same level as the Madonna's, looks outward toward the faithful and raises a chubby hand in benediction.
In 1313 Giovanni was called to Genoa to execute the tomb of Margaret of Luxemburg, fragments of which are now in the Palazzo Bianco, Genoa. The last documentary reference to Giovanni is dated 1314, when he was in Siena.
Two studies of Giovanni Pisano are Adolfo Venturi, Giovanni Pisano: His Life and Work (1928), and Michael Ayrton, Giovanni Pisano: Sculptor, with an introduction by Henry Moore (1970). An important background study with information on Giovanni is John Pope-Hennessy, Introduction to Italian Sculpture, vol. 1: Italian Gothic Sculpture (1955). □