Giovanni Pisano
Biography of Italian Gothic Sculptor, Pistoia Cathedral Pulpit.

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Scene from Last Judgement.
Pulpit of Baptistery of Pisa (1255)
(Pisa Cathedral)

see: History of Sculpture.

Giovanni Pisano (1250-1314)

An important contributor to Gothic sculpture, during the transition from Romanesque architecture to Gothic, the Italian artist and architect Giovanni Pisano was highly influenced by his father Nicola Pisano - who was himself a renowned and innovative exponent of Romanesque sculpture. Giovanni continued Nicola's work, and is sometimes called the only true Gothic sculptor of the trecento. An influential precursor of Italian Renaissance sculpture, Giovanni's most famous work is the pulpit of Pistoia Cathedral.


Giovanni Pisano was born in Pisa in 1250, and learned the art of sculpture from his father, working alongside other apprentices such as Arnolfo di Cambio. His early work is difficult to distinguish from that of his father. In 1265 he worked on the pulpit of Siena Cathedral with his father, and this is the first time he is specifically mentioned as an apprentice.

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Andrea Pisano (1295-1348)
Filippo Calendario (pre-1315-1355)
Andre Beauneveu (c.1335-1400)
Claus Sluter (c.1340-1406)
Hans Multscher (c.1400-1467)

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Around this time, he began to work on the design and sculptural decoration of the facade for the cathedral. The cathedral, with its lavish decoration, was to become highly regarded as a centre of 'excellence' for Gothic facade decoration in Italy.

Sculptures by Giovanni Pisano

In 1270 the young Pisano was summoned to Naples on the behest of King Charles I, to work on the Castel Nuovo (also called Maschio Angioino). The castle was a new fortress which Charles planned as a home, but would in fact remain uninhabited until 1285 when Charles died and was succeeded by his son, Charles II.

Pisano’s next independent piece of work was several sculptures at the Campo Santo, a walled cemetery on the edge of Pisa Cathedral. Many claim it is the most striking cemetery in the world. According to one story, it is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha (a site outside of ancient Jerusalem's early 1st century walls), and bought to Pisa during the Fourth Crusade. There are two doorways, and Pisano executed several pieces of sculptures above these. Between 1277 and 1284, he also sculpted statues in two rows of traceried gables at the exterior of the Baptistery. The liveliness of the statues shows that he was moving away from the serene style of his father and entering a style better described at Gothic. Gothic sculpture was evolving from the stiff, elongated style of the Romanesque years into a more naturalistic style, which encorporated the treatment of drapery, facial expressions and postures of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures.



In 1278 Pisano worked on the Fontano Maggiore fountain, which is situated in the grounds of Perugia Cathedral. He worked on the fountain with his father, and it is thought that he finished the sculpture after the death of Nicola some time in 1284.

Cathedral of Arezzo

In 1286 Pisano went on to decorate a marble high altar and reredos at the Cathedral of Arezzo. He adorned both objects with countless figures and reliefs, mainly depicting the lives of Saint Donato and Saint Gregory whose bones are enshrined in the cathedral. At this stage Pisano had several apprentices of his own, and it is thought that the work at Arezzo was most probably mainly carried out by his pupils.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to judge artists like the Italian Gothic sculptor Giovanni Pisano, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Pulpit of Pistoia Cathedral

In 1301 Pisano completed sculptural work on the pulpit of Pistoia Cathedral - which is his greatest masterpiece. The pulpit has five narrative reliefs that echo the subject matter of his father's famous Pisa pulpit 40 years earlier. However, Giovanni's sculptures push the expressive characteristics of his figures to a new level of intensity. The extreme agitation of the figures in the Annunciation and Nativity pulsate throughout the panel. Animals, drapery, figures are contorted in physically impossible configurations.

With Giotto at the Arena Chapel

After Pistoia, Pisano never quite repeated the frenzy of his figurative work, instead, he returned to a classical style, very similar to that of his father. The reason for this turnabout is not clear - it may have been that his Pistoia pulpit was not well received at the time. Or it may have been the rise of Giotto's popularity - whose more classical, heroic style of art was growing in appreciation at the time. We can assume the artists met, as Pisano carved a marble statue of the Madonna and child for the Arena Chapel in Padua at the same time Giotto was painting his famous fresco there (in approx 1305).


From an architectural aspect, Pisano was equally active. Between 1287 and 1296 he was appointed chief architect of Siena Cathedral. In 1304 he directed building works of the Church of Saint Domenico, also in Siena. Little of the church remains today, however the north transept still contains his tomb of Pope Benedict XI, with a sleeping figure of the pope, guarded by angels. One of his most beautiful pieces of architecture was the little chapel of Saint Maria della Spina in Pisa. The design of the building and the reliefs and sculptures are exquisite - the actual work itself was no doubt carried out by his apprentices.

Giovanni spent the remaining years of his life in Prato, near Florence, where he worked with his pupils at the cathedral until his death in 1314 at the age of 64. His last major work dates from 1313, when he created a monument of Margaret of Brabant, wife of Emperor Henry VII.


Pisano's art, displaying a mixture of French Gothic and classical styles - soon to become International Gothic - prompted the English sculptor Henry Moore to call him "the first modern sculptor". His style was continued and developed by his students, two of whom became famous in their own right: Giovanni di Balduccio, became a respected sculptor, and Agostino da Siena, a well known architect.

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