Morris, Roderick Conway: the first rebirth of Roman culture

Muslim craftsmen were an established feature at the courts of Frederick’s Norman precursors, and he too welcomed them. They had special expertise in cutting difficult and hard materials, such as rock crystal, onyx and porphyry, skills that were turned to the production of exquisite cameos, inspired by classical models. Cameos, ancient and modern, were particularly prized in the milieu of this cultivated but itinerant court, being both expressions of refinement and easily portable.

Also noted in the workshops was the presence of artists from north of the Alps – some, no doubt, from Frederick’s domains in Germany, others from France. The innovations of these northern Gothic practitioners in sculpting and in giving new expressiveness to the human figure also left their mark on Nicola Pisano and his fellow Italian artists. This north-south dialogue anticipated, too, the exchanges between Italy and northern Europe that played a vital role in the later Renaissance.

The level of sophistication of the artifacts, both antique and newly made, is well attested here by, for example, a wonderful first-century B.C. cameo of Poseidon and Athena, once in the emperor’s treasury, and a 13th-century cameo of Hercules slaying the Nemean lion, carved at his court. The latter carving has much in common with a vigorous second-century A.D. sculpture of the same subject also present, and such juxtapositions between full-scale sculptures and cameos illustrate the constant and stimulating interchange in the representations of the human figure between these two art forms.

Nicola Pisano may have begun his apprenticeship as a maker of cameos. His “Head of a Young Woman” here is cut from pyrite, a very hard stone. He went to Pisa, probably during the 1240s (his son Giovanni was born there in around 1245). Here he was initially dubbed Nicola de Apulia (from Puglia), recording his southern origins. In Pisa he was exposed to additional classical works in and around the cathedral, including early Christian sarcophagi, as well as further French Gothic influences.

These elements Nicola triumphantly absorbed and reinterpreted to forge the revolutionary new personal style of his pulpit for Pisa’s Baptistery. This complex combination of architecture and multifigure sculpture was based on a homily by the then-resident archbishop. He signed this sermon in stone Nicola Pisanus (“the Pisan”). So precious was this masterpiece that the church authorities of his adopted city, in Holy Week, ringed it with armed guards lest it be damaged. Giovanni’s pulpit for the Cathedral was less fortunate. It was dismantled after a fire in 1595, and suffered further harm through restoration.

The influence of Nicola, his son Giovanni, who developed a strong and distinctive style of his own, Nicola’s onetime pupil Arnolfo di Cambio and their followers spread from Pisa to Siena, Florence, Pistoia and on to Perugia, Bologna, Orvieto and Rome. In due course, this continually evolving school had a profound effect on the painters of the region, especially Giotto.

None of Frederick’s grander, classically inspired monuments survived. His artistic and cultural contributions were for centuries obscured by the damnation of his memory by the Catholic church. Dante placed him in the sixth circle of hell, eternally burning in a fiery tomb along with other Epicurean heretics.

At the end of the exhibition is Andrea Pisano’s “The Invention of Sculpture,” a panel carved for Giotto’s campanile for Florence’s duomo, nearly a century after Frederick’s death. It depicts an ancient Greek sculptor carving a statue of a male nude. And the spirit of the art-loving emperor who presided over the first great rediscovery of the classical arts is still palpably present in it.

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