The Italian sculptor Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220-1278) liberated sculpture from the hieratic Byzantine manner. His art marked the beginning of the Italian Gothic style.
The birthplace of Nicola Pisano has been the subject of speculation among scholars. His name would seem to indicate that he was a Pisan, but two documents relating to the marble pulpit of the Cathedral in Siena (1265-1268) that he executed refer to him as Nicola d'Apulia (Nicholas of Apulia, in southern Italy) rather than the more common Nicola Pisano. The significance of his birthplace derives from the remarkably classical quality of his earliest extant work, the marble pulpit in the Baptistery of Pisa, signed and dated 1260. Emperor Frederick II, whose court was near Naples, was an admirer of ancient Roman civilization. He encouraged artists to work in the more realistic style of Roman antiquity rather than the more abstract contemporary Romanesque and Byzantine styles. If Nicola had been a native of Apulia and trained in the sculptural workshops of the Emperor, the classical character of the Pisa Baptistery pulpit would be easier to explain. No definitive solution to this problem is possible, however, with the evidence presently available.
The pulpit for the Baptistery in Pisa is adorned with narrative reliefs depicting the Life and Passion of Christ on five of its six sides. Nicola reduced to a minimum the number of figures telling the story so that they dominate the rectangular field. Among them are a number of direct quotations from antique works brought to Pisa by its fleet. The style of the reliefs is remarkably classical and depends on a few monumental figures moving in a stately way across the foreground. Nothing else carved by Nicola bears such a strong resemblance to the antique.
A contract dated Sept. 29, 1265, commissioned Nicola to build a similar marble pulpit for the Cathedral in Siena. The pulpit, which was completed by 1268, varied somewhat in format and style from the Pisan one. He expanded the format by making the pulpit octagonal, and he made the narrative easier to read by substituting statuettes for the clustered columns used to divide the reliefs in the earlier work. In style they reveal a concern for the surface play of highlights and shadows, achieved by deeper cutting and undercutting, and for a growing elegance and grace among the figures, similar to that of Gothic sculpture.
The Gothicism of the Siena Cathedral pulpit continued in Nicola's great secular monument, the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia. This was a joint undertaking of Nicola and his son, Giovanni Pisano. Probably begun in 1277, the fountain was finished in 1278. It consists of two superimposed polygonal stone basins topped with a circular bronze basin carried by three caryatid figures. The lower basin is decorated with reliefs; the upper basin is decorated with statuettes affixed to the angles. In the portions usually attributed to Nicola, the style represents a resolution between the earlier classicizing tendencies and the later Gothicizing tendencies of his art. The work of Giovanni, on the other hand, was wholeheartedly in the new style, that is, the Gothic.
Further Reading on Nicola Pisano
George H. and Elsie R. Crichton, Nicolo Pisano and the Revival of Sculpture in Italy (1938), is a sound monograph. See also Georg Swarzenski, Nicolo Pisano (1926). Up-to-date information can be found in John Pope-Hennessy, An Introduction to Italian Sculpture, vol. 1: Italian Gothic Sculpture (1955).