The Sculptor’s Funeral | Episode 1: The Roots of the Italian Renaissance

I’m Jason Arkles. I’m a sculptor, art historian, and host of the Sculptor’s Funeral podcast and I like to look at the history of sculpture from a perspective informed not from only history books, but with the perspective of a practitioner of sculpture. Sculptors have questions, history has answers. I think we need to familiarize ourselves with what it meant to be a sculptor in the Gothic era. If we’re going to examine how sculpture from the Gothic era transitioned into the sculpture of the Renaissance, we need to understand what the Gothic sculpture really was all about. But it’s interesting, when people of the Renaissance use the word Gothic they were actually using that word as a derogatory term. Back in the Renaissance people thought generally that non-classical inspired art was ignorant, depraved, ugly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gothic cathedrals in fact are some of the most beautiful and spectacularly complex works of art ever made. Gothic art tended to emphasize spiritual concerns, down playing mortal life in favor of eternal life in heaven. Let’s imagine you are a sculptor toiling away in a dusty workshop in the year 1250. And what sort of sculpture were you making? Were you making what we do today, little bronze nudes to be sold in galleries? Of course you weren’t, there were no galleries, right? Basically, you had two clients: the church and nobility. Now if you’re working for nobility basically, you’re not producing much, maybe decorative architectural work, a mantelpiece or a family crest in stone, maybe something for the family chapel. At most you might make a tomb effigy, right. Now your real client was the church and if you’re working for the church, you are making work for churches that would involve basically architectural relief work on the facades around the walls of a church, on pulpits or alters or baptismal fronts. Other than that you had architectural decoration, relief work, also on the facade or inside and basically your subject matter was limited to Saints, Prophets, The Virgin Mary, and perhaps a crucifix. The point of Gothic sculpture was to convey theology and to tell a story using a language of imagery and symbol. Now art has always been about expression of something of course, an expression of power, an expression of morality or theology. We can use allegorical figures to express ideas and ideals like charity or fortitude. The idea of self-expression being the main focus of a work of art in the Gothic age just didn’t happen. It came very late in the game. Now, of course, there’s always been expression of some sort. John Lorenzo Bernini’s own self-portrait, which he called “The Damned Soul” is a good example of this, the idea of a sculptor making a conscious choice which reflect his personality or opinions. Of course, Bernini was working centuries after the Gothic era but there was one more limitation that we need to talk about and that was the limitation of what a sculptor was. Our modern notion of a sculptor, a figurative sculpture being someone who makes work in marble or bronze didn’t exist in the 14th or 13th centuries, Either you were a goldsmith and you cast or worked in metals or you were a carver and your worked in wood or stone, represented In fact by different guilds. A guild in Renaissance Europe was kind of like a labor union. They also control the quality of production of certain goods and they had different realms that they controlled. How you end up with a bronze relief is not how you end up with a stone relief. One of the biggest differences between the medieval carver and the medieval goldsmith is that the goldsmith’s were the ones who really knew how to model in clay or wax. When we take a look at the first steps taken by sculptors towards what we now call the Renaissance, we might be a little bit underwhelmed with what we find. But now that we understand how limited the world of art was before the Renaissance, we’ll be able to recognize how groundbreaking those first steps truly were. And so finally let’s take a look at those first steps. The great sea change from a Gothic to the Renaissance in sculpture all started with a sculptor by the name of Nicola Pisano. We don’t really know exactly where he was born or when but we assume that he trained as a sculptor in the local workshops in southern Italy. In Pisa in 1255 he received the commission to sculpt a pulpit for the baptistery of the Pisan cathedral. Now a pulpit is a small raised platform built inside the baptistery to be used as a speaking platform for when a priest was preaching a sermon or reading from the gospels and a baptistry is a sort of chapel built outside of a cathedral where new Christians could be baptized before they actually entered the cathedral itself both physically and metaphysically. It took Nicola Pisano five years to complete his pulpit and it’s considered one of his masterpieces and the date of completion of the Pisa baptistery pulpit, 1260, for many art historians is Renaissance sculpture ground zero. Renaissance means rebirth in the French language. The name for this of history implies a resurgence of interest in and emulation of classical antiquity. Now let’s take a closer look at the pulpit for the baptistery. The platform of the pulpit has a sort of a chest-high stone railings on five of its six sides and each section of railing is decorated with a relief sculpture depicting the life of Christ,. Each successive panel appears more and more infused with ideas and forms borrowed from classical antiquity. We’ll start with the panel depicting the last judgment. Now, this is a completely typical example of Gothic relief work. We see the enthroned figure of Christ in judgment at almost twice the scale of everyone else in this relief, and we see all the same souls standing, sort of scattered around, no sense of formal composition and we see the damned souls being led off by demons to hell. You see most scholars agree that a major source of inspiration for Nicola Pisano’s pulpit came from the arch of Constantine in Rome. The arch itself was built to commemorate a military victory Constantine achieved in the year 315. This victory was the beginning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and inscriptions on the arch self celebrate the divine intervention of the Christian God as well as the victory. Now, this design isn’t found in another architecture. So with Nicola Pisano, we finally have the beginnings of the manifestation of Renaissance sculpture. But Nicola Pisano was just one man and his influence was necessarily limited. Even his own son Giovanni Pisano who was the sculptor reverted back to an earlier style more Gothic in tone than the work his father had practiced. Fortunately there was one man who did pick up the mantle of classicism from Nicola Pisano and continue the tradition after Pisano’s death. This was a young sculptor who worked alongside Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, a man by the name of Arnolfo Di Cambio.

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