Nicola Pisano and Giotto: Founders of Renaissance Classicism

Nicola Pisano

The first classical work of the Renaissance period is Nicola Pisano's pulpit for the Baptistery of Pisa Cathedral, which he signed and dated in 1260. Both its general form and the modelling and pose of some of the figures show the influence of antique sculpture, which Nicola could have studied in Apulia, where he lived as a young man. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, under the rule of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, produced a secular style of classicizing sculpture which also affected Nicola's training.310'311 Vasari relates that Nicola visited Rome, although we have no evidence for this. In any case, there were in Pisa antique sarcophagi imported from further south by the Pisan navy as booty or ballast; one of these, says Vasari, representing Mele-ager hunting the Calydonian Boar, was fixed onto the facade of the Cathedral 'on account of its beauty'. We know that a sarcophagus relief of the second century AD on the portal of the transept of S. Paolo a Ripa d'Arno, Pisa, was used as a model by both Nicola Pisano and his pupil Arnolfo di Cambio.315 Vasari states that Nicola constantly studied Roman remains, and we can see this by studying his pulpit of 1260, and comparing it with the antique sarcophagi which still grace the nearby Camposanto.

Of great importance is the actual fabric of the pulpit which, like much of the Cathedral, is made with marble and columns from the remains at Ostia and Porto. It might be that the sculptor went to choose his own second-hand stone, and saw in Rome triumphal arches which gave him the inspiration for his pulpit, which differs markedly from contemporary work. The columns of the pulpit have rich Corinthian capitals and, although the arched openings they support are cusped in the Gothic manner, the spandrels contain figures just as they do on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Again, that antique arch has figures standing atop columns, and an attic storey with sculpted scenes on it: so does the Pisa Baptistery pulpit. These scenes, which are of course religious in content, reflect a thorough study of antique work.316 With the exception of The Last Judgement, which must derive from some Byzantine ivory, and The Crucifixion, which exudes an elegance similar to contemporary French Gothic, all the scenes are antique in the spirit of antique sarcophagi. The Phaedra Sarcophagus, in the adjacent Camposanto, is one such source. In Nicola's Adoration of the Magi, Phaedra becomes the Virgin, while the nude standing before Phaedra becomes Fortitude, one of the figures at arch level, beneath the scenes.


Sarcophagus with the story of Phaedra. (It has been re-used for Christian burial.) Pisa, Camposanto.



Nicola Pisano: The birth of Christ and associated episodes. Pisa Baptistery. Panel of the pulpit, 1260.

Giovanni Pisano: The birth of Christ. Pisa Cathedral. Panel of the pulpit, 1302-10.

Nicola is a true imitator, and not a wayward pasticheur who has found an easy source to copy. Very few of the figures on the pulpit have any traceable source, for they are original creations made through a close understanding of antique and Romanesque prototypes.317 The panel of The Nativity (and associated episodes) serves to show that clarity of thought which informs both composition and figure style. In Roman fashion, the figures are few, and are scaled to the full height of their simple, flat, rectangular frame. Their dress is Roman: the tunica with its ample folds is gathered at the waist and covered by the pallium or toga, which the Virgin wears drawn over her head, in the manner of a Roman matron sacrificing. She wears a comb in her under-drilled wavy hair which, with the sober expression and the blank eyes, completes the picture of an Imperial Roman funerary portrait. In some of these, and in their Etruscan prototypes, the figure similarly reclines on a couch. The very gestures with which the human beings created by Nicola control the large and simple folds of their heavy garments add to the noble seriousness of the theme: all movements are slow and considered, all emotions restrained. Nicola has discovered how to tell the Christian story in an antique language.

His son, Giovanni Pisano, did not appreciate this Roman manner.313 And, indeed, perhaps Nicola himself found the contemporary


vogue for Gothic312'318 too prevalent to ignore, for in 1265—8, helped by his son and by Arnolfo di Cambio, he made a pulpit for Siena Cathedral which has many Gothic features. Nicola died about 1284, and his son completed pulpits for the Cathedral at Pisa (1302-10) and S. Andrea at Pistoia (1301).314 Giovanni's Pisa Cathedral pulpit is the most elaborate of all his works. Basically circular in plan, highly decorated and with the panels of the attic curved and heavily undercut, this pulpit rejects sober and simple forms, and bulky monumental garments, in favour of a more linear style. In The Birth of Christ (incorporating The Annunciation to the Shepherds and The Washing of the Child), he aims at a pleasing sweetness instead of imperial grav-itas: the Virgin still reclines, but she now smiles as she rocks the baby's cradle, which is a true cradle and no longer the Roman sarcophagus of Nicola's interpretation. Heavy folds have given way to figure-hugging garments which flow like rippling water round her body and even over her feet, adding an air of excitement to the scene which flows throughout the composition in swinging curves. These run down through the Virgin's cloak, into the body of the right-hand midwife, up again via the crinkly cave in which the birth, according to medieval lore, took place;'; then over to the excited and gesticulating angel, and to the shepherds, surrounded by their flocks and dogs, clinging to the sheer mountainside. Such a style, with its soft, sweet curves, its


Traditional pulpit by Guido da Como, 1250, detail. Pistoia, S. Bartolommeo. Contrast with N. Pisano's antiquarian innovations.

high emotion and its meticulous detailing of the outside world, is in strong contrast to his father's manner. Perhaps Giovanni even visited France, and learned from the Gothic cathedrals how to work large and powerful figures, as he did for the facade of Siena Cathedral; perhaps he simply saw imported French ivories, of the type which were to influence the maker of the first pair of doors to the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral, Andrea Pisano (no relation; doors finished 1336), and his son Nino.

I have described Giovanni Pisano's work because its obvious popularity shows that the classicism of his father was by no means the only available thirteenth-century style.325 It is as well to remember that, although the classical style might well triumph in the short period of the High Renaissance, it usually exists alongside other styles which are often as popular. Thus in spite of the way Vasari tells the story of the Renaissance in his Lives, classicism was not necessarily the most popular style in every generation of that period; it probably appealed to a restricted number even of cognoscenti and, in the fifteenth century for example, was surely outdone in quantity of production by the International Gothic and variations thereof.

Perhaps for this reason, classicism in sculpture plays little part in fourteenth-century art. Nicola's pupil, and the inheritor of his classical style, was Arnolfo da Cambio (c. 1250-1302), whose early death left the field clear for the style of Giovanni Pisano. Arnolfo had worked on the pulpit at Siena Cathedral, under Nicola, and on the Shrine of St Dominic at Bologna (1264—7), before going to Rome in 1277 where he competed with the dynasty of marble workers known as the Cosmati and imitated their use of coloured tesserae, a practice which derives directly from antique work visible among the ruins of Rome. Arnolfo's style is best seen in his Tomb of the Cardinal de Braye (Orvieto, begun 1282), where he crystallized a type of tomb monument which was to remain popular throughout the early Renaissance: the dead man lies on a bier above the tomb chest within an architectural framework animated by sculptured figures, the most important of whom is the enthroned Virgin Mary. Perhaps Arnolfo's main claim to our attention is the work that he did for the Cathedral of Florence, the facade of which he was commissioned to design in 1296. The scheme, which got as far as the tympanum, is known through a sixteenth-century drawing. Judging by the fragments which survive—a Reclining Virgin from The Nativity, or a seated Virgin and Child (both in Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo)—the effect of his facade on the artists of Renaissance Florence must have been that of Nicola Pisano's Pisa Baptistery pulpit writ large. The reclining Virgin is imitated directly from that pulpit, while the seated group, placed in the lunette above the central doorway, must have seemed heroic in its sober frontality and stern monumentality in comparison with the elegant puppets on Andrea Pisano's doors for the


Baptistery, set up in 1336. Nevertheless, it was Andrea's doors which, as we shall see, were to provide the model for that competition in 1401 which is often held to be the starting-point of the Florentine Renaissance. Yet if we are to equate the Renaissance with a truly classical style, rather than with merely a flood of antique references within a Gothic style, we must return to the very beginning of the fourteenth century, to the frescoes of a man who can justly be called the father of modern painting.


Giotto (c. 1266-1337) was a Florentine whose art was once well represented in Florence, for he frescoed four chapels in S. Croce, of which the work in two, the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, partly survives. His greatest work, however, is in Padua, in the Arena Chapel (completed c. 1306).326 So bare and simple is the interior of this chapel, with six windows symmetrically spaced along the south wall of the nave, and none along the north wall, that it may well be that Giotto designed it himself (as, late in life, he designed the campanile of Florence Cathedral). Certainly, the lack of architectural clutter ensures that his storytelling, so clearly articulated within each individual scene, gains in meaning because of the clarity of the general arrangement and hence the possibilities for parallelism and contrast between subject-matter which result.319 In the top band, above the window level, is told the story of Joachim and Anna, and that of the early life of their daughter Mary; the main bulk of the nave displays the story of the Life and Passion of Christ, read from left to right. Examples from the two main bands will demonstrate how Giotto can point a moral :321 on the north wall, The Baptism of Christ is directly above The Crucifixion, and the water of the one contrasts with the blood of the other, just as the angels in the upper scene hold Christ's garments, while below the soldiers draw lots for them; on the south wall, The Adoration of the Magi is placed over The Washing of the Feet, and these scenes echo each other structurally, but whereas the act of kneeling in the first signifies the rich and powerful falling before a weaker but greater King, in the second that same King is shown in the service of sinful humanity.


Giotto's preoccupation with clarity of meaning is evident in each individual fresco because of a totally new concern with psychology, which he can 'explain' not only through gesture and expression, but also through the very way in which he composes his scenes. The first episode in the chapel, The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, demonstrates his technique. The feelings of Joachim, whose temple offering has been rejected because he and his wife are childless (in the scene below, The Nativity, his miraculously conceived daughter and her Son have also been rejected), are shown by a priest pushing him out of the temple into nothingness. The temple is portrayed as a Christian church, with its three main functions of communion, absolution and preaching represented by an altar, a priest and penitent, and a pulpit.330 By juxtaposing in credible perspective the essentials of the religion which rejects him, the 'hole' into which Joachim is being pushed presents us with an instantly recognizable metaphor of his feelings of distress, heightened by his mournful backward glance and the protective cuddling of his offering. The large and simply clothed figures are described by the light, which gives to them a statuesque bulk. They move in a setting stripped of all incidental detail, and every element of that setting helps to explain the story, just as, in the scene described, the very lines of the architecture help the High Priest to push Joachim into the void. In none of the scenes is the landscape or the architecture merely incidental: they serve to explain the action, to point the moral, and to form a convincing spatial setting for the figures. The walls of the Arena Chapel convey a sense of spiritual significance heightened by that restraint which is the backbone of Giotto's art. Underlined by the geometricality of the compositions and the powerful yet simple draughtsmanship, the physical appearance of Giotto's figures is a weighty reflection of their morality. To the Christian, the story told is that of the salvation of humanity, but it is Giotto's


Giotto: The Kiss of Judas. Padua, Arena Chapel, c. 1306.

concern with 'establishing the dignity of human fate through the material significance of the human figure'322 which makes the Arena Chapel the first monument in paint of the revived classical tradition.

Where did Giotto learn to paint in this manner? Did he take inspiration, like Nicola Pisano, from Imperial Roman sculpture? There are several cases of direct borrowings from antiquities, such as the grief-stricken figure of St John in the Pietd in the Arena Chapel: he comes from that same Meleager Sarcophagus in the Camposanto at Pisa that Nicola Pisano had studied for a figure in his Massacre of the Innocents (Pulpit, Siena Cathedral, 1265/8). Similarly, the figures of Virtues and Vices which punctuate the dado of the Arena Chapel, and which are intended to resemble statues standing in real niches, may be imitations of statues: Fortitudo is a female figure assuming the dress of some antique Hercules, or Juno Sospita; Caritas and Hope, furthermore, both wear the antique chiton. The Winged Victory held by the enthroned Justitia also proclaims an imperial prototype. The random indecisive-ness of the above suggestions should indicate that Giotto's references to Antiquity are not straight copies; he does not treat the past as a


storehouse of motifs, but as a corpus of ideas and attitudes on which he can build. The St John from the Pieta is the only direct borrowing in that scene from the Meleager Sarcophagus, but we can be certain that it was Giotto's scrutiny of such antiquities which inspired the general profile pose of the dead Christ, the emotional relationships between the figures, and that shallow relief-like staging used in the majority of the scenes. Throughout the Chapel, figures do not walk, but rather process with a slow and majestic cadence—an antique gravitas—which is a function of their heavy drapery and their considered gestures. Examine any representation of an Imperial Roman procession, or of an Emperor sacrificing (*e.g. allocutio of Hadrian from the Arco di Portogallo, Rome, now in the Capitoline Museum; illustrated Nash, A Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. edn, I, plate 87 ): it is from such works that Giotto learned the syntax of his style.324'327

We can also assume that Giotto had direct knowledge of antique frescoes and mosaics.320 He visited Rome probably in about 1298, but all that remains of his work there is the much reworked Navicella mosaic in St Peter's.323 However, he came into contact with the work of his greatest contemporary in the Roman school, Pietro Cavallini, whose major achievement was a series of frescoes in the nave of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, known to us only through prints and watercolour copies, the latter made for Cardinal Francesco Barberini in 1634.329 These copies and Cavallini's mosaics in S. Maria in Trastevere show a figure style not dissimilar to that of Giotto, and an interest in drama and naturalism that Giotto also shared. Were more Early Christian fresco and mosaic cycles available to us, the extent to which he and Cavallini studied and used them could be more clearly determined.328

Giotto had followers during the fourteenth century (including Bernardo Daddi and Taddeo Gaddi), but, like the art of Nicola Pisano, his style found great popularity only in the early fifteenth century in Florence. Perhaps the work of Giotto and Nicola was too severe and too far from accepted norms to find an appreciative audience until the time of Donatello and Masaccio.


Giotto: Flight into Egypt, c. 1306. Padua, Arena Chapel.