by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pisan Painting: from Giunta to Giotto

By Roderick Conway Morris
PISA, Italy 18 June 2005
Duomo, Pisa
St. John by Cimabue, 1301-02



'He who has not seen the Duomo of Pisa has not seen one of the finest things in the world,' wrote the medieval chronicler Bernardo Marangone.

The sparkling, white-marble Duomo was begun in 1064; the vast free-standing domed Baptistery in 1152; the lofty bell tower, which started leaning even during construction, in 1174; and in 1278, the monumental cloistered cemetery, the Campo Santo, to which were transported more than 50 galley loads of soil from the hill on which Christ had been crucified, so that the Pisans could be laid to rest in their own city in holy ground.

The massively expensive building program that created the 'Campo dei Miracoli' (Field of Miracles) complex was bankrolled by Pisa's adventurous merchants, who had established trading stations in the principal eastern Mediterranean ports, had been granted their own quarter in Constantinople and had outposts as far inland as Baghdad.

Although executed over a period spanning more than 200 years, and long before Renaissance concepts of ideal cities were born, Pisa's spacious, light-filled heart still seems all of a piece, a masterwork of architecture and urban planning. Combining elements of Islamic architecture, such as bands of black and white stone, with Romanesque arches, and ancient Roman sarcophagi, reliefs and statues unearthed locally, Pisa provided the model for the subsequent architecture of Siena, Florence and what came to be seen as the 'classic' Tuscan style.

Far less evident, but scarcely less significant, was the pivotal role Pisa played in the development of Western painting. This is now examined in an exhibition of nearly 100 pieces, curated by Mariagiulia Burresi and Antonino Caleca and reflecting important recent research. The exhibition, 'Cimabue in Pisa: Pisan Painting from Giunta to Giotto,' is at the National Museum of San Matteo. (The show continues until June 26.)

The central place of the 13th-century Pisan sculptors and architects Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni (who lived into the early 14th century) in reviving the skills, compositions and expressiveness of antique Roman stone carving while absorbing Gothic lessons from the north, was fairly consistently acknowledged down the centuries. This 'early Renaissance' in sculpture in Pisa was in many ways in advance of developments in contemporary painting and indeed had a powerful influence on Tuscan painters, including Cimabue and Giotto (traditionally believed to be the former's pupil) well into the 14th century.

Our understanding of painting during this epoch is less clear. A major reason for this has been the fragmentary nature of survivals - wood and paint being more vulnerable than stone - and later misattributions, and the failure to give credit where it was due. The waters have been further muddied by the systematic denigration by later Western commentators of Byzantine art, once the primary source of inspiration of 12th- and 13th-century Italian painters. This was spearheaded by the 16th-century Florentine art historian Vasari, whose familiarity with Byzantine art was superficial. It was also a way of belittling the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Pisan involvement with the east was intensified by the Crusades (1092-1291), which coincided with the city's rise to riches and renown. During these times, Byzantine art, too, was undergoing changes, stimulated by renewed interest in the classical past. The products of Byzantium, from icons and ivories to fabrics and metalwork, flowed into Tuscany's busiest port. Esteemed Greek artists came to work in Pisa, and some Pisan artists were very likely among the thousands of their fellow countrymen with personal experience of the east. And despite the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, it was to Greek painting that Italian artists still looked for prototypes.

Painted wooden statuary was a common phenomenon in Western churches, including elaborate scenes of the Deposition of Christ, consisting of several figures (in a spectacular example, at one time in Pisa's Duomo, the image of Jesus was more than four meters tall). Three-dimensional devotional objects had been condemned in the Orthodox east before the eighth century. In Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries, a new form appeared - full-length figures of the crucified Christ painted on flat wooden crosses. The number of flanking scenes and figures was in due course severely reduced, often to images of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist at the terminals of the horizontal bar of the cross.

Particularly associated with the diffusion of this novel crucifix were the Franciscans. The image the Franciscans favored was not 'Christus triumphans' (Christ triumphant), with eyes open, victorious even upon the cross, but 'Christus patiens' (the suffering Christ), with eyes closed and head slumped to one side. This image presented new challenges and possibilities in depicting the suffering of Christ and the representation of the Virgin and St. John mourning the terrible event.

According to local legend, the first known such crucifix, dating to the first decade of the 13th century, the so-called Crucifix of San Matteo from the Pisan Monastery of that name and now at the eponymous museum, was made by a Greek artist who had fled the sack of Constantinople by crusading armies in 1204.

The first named Italian master of a 'Christus patiens' cross was the local Pisan artist, Giunta di Capitino, or Giunta Pisano. No trace of Giunta's first recorded crucifix of 1236 remains, but three others have survived, in Pisa, Assisi and Bologna. Giunta's influence, not least on the young Cimabue, was immense. The impact of Pisan painting, both through the export of its artworks and the travels of its practitioners, was felt throughout Tuscany and beyond.

The art of mosaic was also being re-introduced with renewed vigor during this period, led by emigrant Greek craftsmen. A Pisan artist, Francesco da San Simone, was entrusted with the execution of the enormous mosaic of Christ enthroned in majesty, flanked by the Virgin and St. John, in the apse of the Duomo, but he died having worked on only the first two figures. Cimabue was summoned to complete the Redeemer and design and realize St. John. This superbly modeled figure, created between September 1301 and February 1302, is Cimabue's only documented work. While in the city, he also painted a touchingly melancholy Madonna and Child with Angels for the Church of St. Francis (now at the Louvre). These two were the artist's last known masterpieces, since by the summer his death was recorded.

In the 13th century, at the height of its success, Pisa had a population of 40,000. By the time of its final conquest by Florence in 1405, this had been reduced to little more than 7,000. And even art history, it seems, is written by the victors.

One myth that grew up around Giotto was that, effectively, he had no predecessors. While there is no denying the new naturalism the Florentine brought to painting, when we return afresh to his Pisan and Pisan-influenced forerunners, a greater sense of continuity emerges than has long been appreciated.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023