Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pulpit in Pisa Cathedral By Giovanni Pisano

The Carraran marble Italian Gothic pulpit is the work of Giovanni Pisano (c. 1250-1314), the son of Nicola Pisano. It took eight years (1302 to 1310) to complete from the time of commissioning.

It is hard to believe but the pulpit was not in place for over three hundred years. It was installed in the right choir but damaged by a fire in 1595 and dismantled. Most of the fragments were gathered into a problematic reconstruction in 1926, while others are dispersed in museums around the world.

It is almost impossible to take in at one sitting or viewing. It overwhelms with detail. Many hands have worked on it. The themes are many and complex. There is less stylistic unity and the decorative elements seem more profuse.

Octagonal in shape, the shape was at least partly determined by the size of the building. There is a platform at the top of the stairs, which allowed for two additional reliefs. The pulpit has 9 historiated panels, 2 flat ones on the platform and 7 on the main body of the pulpit in a new convex shape. This convex shape gives a circular impression to the monument.

The narratives read like a cohesive, unrolled scroll, aided by the heavy cornice which helps to propel the viewer's eye. Giovanni increased the superimposition of episodes and created variations on the standard Pisani narratives.

He also introduced two new subjects - one with three episodes in the life of John the Baptist, and another depicting the Betrayal, Mocking and Flagellation, as well as Christ before Caiaphas.

The reliefs are tilted towards the spectator. The undercutting is deep, so that in places, heads are freestanding and the background translucent in daylight. There are also unusual proportional dissimilarities among the figures.

The lower supports, which may not be correctly reconstructed, are the most interesting elements and include several innovations. For example, the most complex one is crowned by Ecclesia or Pisa, shown with two suckling babes at her breasts, like later Charity figures. She stands on a base with the four cardinal virtues: the female personification of Fortitude holds a lion and Prudence, depicted as a "Venus pudica" covers her genitals and breasts.

Unlike the Hercules sculpted by his father, this Hercules is an older anguished Hercules than the one in the pulpit in the Baptistry.

From the figures on the pulpit in Pisa, Prudence and Hercules rank among the major masterpieces of Italian sculpture.