If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Nicola Pisano, Pulpit, Pisa Baptistery; and Giovanni Pisano, Slaughter of the Innocents, Pulpit, Sant'Andrea church, Pistoia

Nicola Pisano, Pulpit, Pisa Baptistery, 1260 Giovanni Pisano, Slaughter of the Innocents, Marble, 1301, Pulpit, Sant'Andrea church, Pistoia Speakers: Dr. David Drogin, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(music) Male: Here we're looking at the Baptistry in Pisa, a building that was begun in the mid 12th century. It's in a very famous location that perhaps people have seen. Female: It is where the Leaning Tower of Pisa is. Male: That's right. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, as it's known, is actually the bell tower of the Cathedral. This building, the Baptistry, is in front of the Cathedral. Usually this is how the buildings were arranged in these late Medieval Italian cities; the Cathedral with the Baptistry in front of it as a kind of religious and civic center of the city. Female: We see that in cities like Florence, too. Male: That's right. You see the same kind of arrangement there. Baptistries were especially important buildings. Of course, it was where baptisms would be performed. That had a great, great importance in these cities which were dominated by their Christian faith and practices because it was a place where essentially the individual, through baptism, was welcomed into the Christian community of that city. Female: So it makes sense that this is a place that the city government would want to decorate. Male: They were usually very richly decorated places, focus of a lot of patronage and attention because of their importance in cities of this type. Female: Cool, so let's go inside. We're in the Middle Ages when we're thinking about the architecture, right? When we go inside, we see something ... Male: Well, inside we're seeing something that's leading to a great transition; relatively revolutionary, in fact. That's when we look at this structure here, which is inside the Baptistry. This is the Pulpit by Nicola Pisano in the Pisa Baptistry, which was finished by about 1260. Female: A pulpit would be a place where the priest would stand to deliver sermons. Male: That's right. They would climb up and these reliefs here are essentially a low wall. Then this eagle supports a little stand where a book or other writings could be placed and the preacher would speak from it. Female: So everyone could see him and everyone could hear him. Male: We see these multicolored columns with capitals. Above the capitals are these figures of virtues. Then above are these reliefs that we see here, historiated reliefs, showing narratives from the life of Christ. Those reliefs are separated by small columnettes. What I'd like to draw our attention to is this very interesting figure of Fortitude. Female: This is one of the virtues. Male: One of the virtues on top of the capital, below the reliefs. Fortitude means strength. Here we see a figure, an allegorical figure, representing the virtue of strength, of fortitude. This figure is interesting and brings about a change, points in a new direction. Female: Really doesn't look like a Medieval sculpture anymore. Male: No. It's not very Romanesque looking. As we'll see, it's definitely not very Gothic looking. What it is, though, is extremely influenced by Classical antiquity, both in terms of how it looks, but also in terms of what it means. Of course a muscular athletic figure makes sense as a representation of fortitude. We can go even further in terms of who this figure is because as you can see, there's a lion's skin wrapped around his left arm and a lion cub that he holds on top of his right shoulder. That helps us identify this nude, athletic, muscular figure as, in fact, Hercules, or Heracles, the Greek and Roman mythological half diety who is famous for his strength. Female: He's both Classical looking and a Classical figure and a Christian virtue, all at the same time. Male: That's right. It's a Christian virtue of fortitude as personified by the Classical figure of Hercules, therefore it has this Classical meaning. As you said, it also looks very, very Classicizing. Female: Incredibly so. Male: Perhaps we can best see that by comparing it to an actual Classical sculpture. Here we're looking at the figure of Fortitude by Nicola Pisano, compared to Diadumenos, a Classical figure probably by Polyclitus, a marble version of it. What you can see are the ways that obviously Nicola Pisano was emulating, copying, influenced by, the Classical sculpture from centuries before. Female: It's remarkable. They both stand in contrapposto. Male: That's right. Female: So they both look very relaxed and very natural in their pose. There's a lot of attention to human anatomy, to the muscles of the body, to a kind of naturalism of the body. Male: That's right. The body kind of twists. It looks in different directions. The hips shift. The shoulders shift. It's relatively naturalistic in attention to the musculature and the way a body stands. Also, think about how Nicola Pisano's figure, even though it's attached to the pulpit, it exists really freely of it. Female: He looks like he could walk away from it. Male: Exactly. What we're seeing here is this very, very Classical looking figure and it's also a Classical figure in terms of its subject matter a little bit because it does represent Hercules. This is pretty important because throughout the Middle Ages up until this point, occasionally you would see figures that looked sometimes Classically influenced. But usually their meaning was very far removed from any kind of Classical meaning. Here, for one of the first times in this period, we're seeing a kind of reconnection of Classical form and Classical content, even though, as we said, ultimately its representing a Christian virtue on a very Christian structure inside an extremely Christian building. What we're seeing is an increasing interest in a kind of influence and a kind of rediscovery of Classical antiquity in various ways. Female: Yeah, that's so obvious. Let's compare it to a Medieval sculpture to make that point, some Gothic sculpture. Male: Here's some Gothic sculpture. This is from the west portal at Chartres Cathedral. which is begun in the mid 12th century, Around the same time that the Pisa Baptistry was being built, these figures were being carved; a little bit earlier than Nicola Pisano's Pulpit. Female: And far away, in Paris. Male: And far away, too. But what we're showing here is very different schools of sculpture around the same general time. You can see that the Gothic style, as you may know, is really characterized by very stiff, elongated, stylized figures, purposefully distant from any kind of naturalism, with the repeating folds of the drapery, the unindividualized faces, the repeating gestures. Here are figures that do not really exist autonomously from their background. Their proportions and their appearance are really dictated by the Gothic structure that they decorate. Female: Look at their feet. There's no way that they could stand. Male: They don't seem to really be standing. They don't seem to interact with any kind of psychological verity with the world around them. Female: No contrapposto. Male: No contrapposto. So again, compared to Nicola Pisano's figure, they're really a world away. You can see how he's moving very strongly away from that kind of Gothic tradition and other Medieval Romanesque traditions as well. Here's a view of the upper part of the Pulpit, the same one, so we can see our friend, Fortitude, down here. Then above, as we said, are these reliefs that represent stories or moments from the life and death of Christ. In this particular scene that we see above and to the right of Fortitude is the Adoration of the Magi, which shows the three kings coming to visit the newly born Christ and the Virgin Mary who sits here in a chair. What you can see is that this Classicizing aesthetic that's moving away from more Romanesque and Gothic styles is evident in these reliefs as well. Female: Absolutely. Male: Monumental, heavy figures with Female: Yeah, big folds of drapery. Male: Very heavy, somewhat naturalistic folds of drapery that give you Female: Very different than those lines of the drapery in the Gothic. Male: There's a little bit of repetition. There's some stylization, certainly, to be found. What we can see is that it's definitely moving away from that and heavily influenced by Classical antiquity. This is relevant to the Pisans, the people who would be using and seeing this object when it was originally built. Female: How so? Male: Because their city actually has a very strong Classical heritage. Pisa was founded by ancient Romans. The Medieval Pisans, they knew that. The heritage of that Classical antiquity surrounded them everywhere they looked. There were lots of remnants of Classical sculpture around them. One example is this sarcophagus, this carved tomb, which was, and still is, in Pisa. There were many, many fragments and pieces like this, some of which were actually incorporated into the Medieval walls and buildings of the city, so there really was this sense that Classical antiquity made up the fabric and the identity of Pisa itself. Female: Still it had been sort of neglected for a long time and is being, now, rediscovered. Male: But now they're feeling like they can reconnect with that Classical heritage and identity. This particular sarcophagus is important because it shows, especially related to the reliefs that we just looked at, how the figures are quite large. They fill up the height of the relief completely, just like in Nicola Pisano's reliefs later on. This standing male nude figure looks very, very much like the figure of Fortitude so might have been the influence for that figure. Here we see a seated female figure who, although she's seated, takes up the whole height of the relief in exactly the same way that the Virgin Mary does in the Adoration of the Magi we looked at a second ago. This might be the very example that Nicola Pisano might have looked at and it is very nearby, in a cemetery called the Camposanto, which is just a few yards away from the Baptistry. Here we can really see that Classical influence in action. Nicola Pisano, his last name means the Pisan, but he's not actually from Pisa. He's probably from Southern Italy, maybe connected to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who in his patronage and interests was revitalizing a Classical revival. Perhaps the artist influenced by that in his origins comes to Pisa, finds a city that's rich in Classical heritage, a people that are open to these new kinds of connections, and from there these changes start blossoming. Female: Makes sense. Male: Now, Nicola has a son named Giovanni. They worked together on several projects. Then around 1300, Giovanni Pisano starts his own workshop and his own independent projects. This is one of them. This is the Pulpit from the Church of Sant'Andrea in Pistoia, which is dated to 1301. This is by Giovanni Pisano. You can see the structure is essentially the same. There's colored marble columns with capitals, allegorical figures on top of the capitals below reliefs that make up the low walls of the pulpit itself. One difference you can see right away is that the corners that separate the reliefs are no longer small columns, but rather figures. What this does is give a greater sense of continuity and connection between the individual reliefs as opposed to them being very distinctly separated by the frames that we saw in his father's example from 40 years before. Female: Where they were attached columns there. Male: I want to look at one specific thing in this Pulpit, which is the relief that we see here on top of the Massacre of the Innocents. This tells a story from the New Testament where Herod orders that all the newly born male children in Bethlehem be executed because he's heard that Christ has been born and this new leader that's going to bring great changes that he doesn't want, according to the text, so he orders this execution. What we are looking at here is this really emotional, disturbing scene of Roman soldiers slaughtering children. Female: And mothers. Male: Their mothers trying to, as we see here, protect them or mourning over their dead bodies. Female: Or averting their glances. Male: Averting their eyes, running away. Soldiers with knives in their hands actually executing infants. Women covering their faces. Here's Herod giving the order. Now, in some ways Giovanni Pisano's sculpture is connected to that of his father. There's this naturalism that we saw developing earlier on. There's Classicism, especially in some of the other areas of the Pulpit. But what makes Giovanni Pisano's sculpture of the early 1300s more distinct is obviously his great interest in communicating emotions; a kind of vibrant expressionistic representation of the feelings that communicates the horrifying scene that we're looking at. It really connects with the viewer. Female: Through their gestures, their facial expressions. Male: Exactly. Those are the keys for him and other artists throughout this period, using gestures and facial expressions to tell a story as powerfully as possible. Female: Of course this is another sign of moving away from the Middle Ages, from those Gothic, expressionless faces. Male: Especially in terms of marrying those kinds of expressions, that kind of emotion, with naturalism, because sometimes in Gothic art you do see things that are very graphic or violent looking, but also very stylized. Here we have a kind of naturalistic representation that's naturalistic in terms of the physical appearance, and also naturalistic in terms of the psychological expressiveness. What's interesting is to think that this is happening in the first years of the 1300s, exactly at the same time that Giatto is doing the very same thing in painting. (music)