Henry Moore’s Intro to Giovanni Pisano By Michael Ayrton; Thames and Hudson (1969)
FIRST TIME I saw the sculptures of Giovanni Pisano was in 1925 when I visited Pisa on a travelling scholarship from the Royal College of Art. I must only have been able to admire, or try to admire, the sculptures on the facade and those on the top of the Baptistry, with struggle and effort, for when I could only see them at such a distance above me it was impossible to feel the true three-dimensional, face-to-face relationship which I need from sculpture. I wanted to see them as Giovanni made them, because a sculptor cannot work with a long arm and a long chisel from the ground and carve something up in the air; he must carve it in his studio as a man-to-man relationship. It was only after the war, when the big figures from the niches were taken down and put inside the Baptistry, that I saw them near-to, and then I was at once struck by the tremendous dramatic force of what I would call the hallmark of Giovanni’s sculptural quality, style, or personality. It was also after the war that I saw properly the smaller life-size figures which, for their preservation, have been removed from the architecture and put into the Pisa Museum . Then I saw in so many of them the thrusting-forward neck, the neck that goes forward at an angle of forty-five degrees or even more (but with the head itself left upright). It has been said that he carved them like that to avoid a squat, foreshortened appearance when the figure was to be seen high up in perspective, but you get the same urgent, thrusting attitude in some of his figures which are meant to be seen at eye-level, such as the Caritas on the Pisa Cathedral pulpit. This thrust, I think, was something Giovanni felt about the urgency of human communication. He simply felt that the figure needed this tremendously potent gesture forward to ‘give the message’. These sculptures are absolute presences and they made a lasting, most powerful impression on me.
Not only the figures in the Pisa Museum but, later, the Siena Cathedral facade sculptures proved me that Giovanni Pisano was a great sculptor in every sense, particularly in the sense of understanding and using three-dimensional forms to affect people, to portray human feelings and character, to express great truths. The surprising thing was to find how Giovanni had freed himself from his father Nicola. I had been taught and, later, when I was teaching, I repeated that the father of the Renaissance was Nicola and that Giovanni, his son, was his follower. Nicola, I presume, took his start from Roman sarcophagus reliefs which freed him from the Byzantine stiffness and gave him a naturalistic, more realistic, point of view about sculpture than his predecessors. But Giovanni went further; what he did was really to articulate the individual parts of the human body. I think it was Giovanni Pisano’s excitement over articulating the human body in sculpture, in a way that we know from our own physical experience that it can’t articulate, that made his sculpture new and great; we know that the head is a separate movable unit, the neck is another unit, the shoulders are another, the pelvis is another, the legs can bend at the knees and then bend at the feet. There are about sixteen individual units in the human figure: head, neck, thorax, pelvis, thighs, lower legs, feet, arms and hands all of which can bend at angles to each other. Having these units, you can place them at different angles in space. Take Giovanni’s so-called ‘dancing figure’: look at that forward-thrusting neck, that vertical head; the body ways so that the hips are pushed forward and the legs are held back. I don’t think it was meant to be figure that was actually dancing; I think he was giving energy to the figure by articulating it from inside. His father’s sculptures, wonderful as they are, are often very static and rigid. They do not have what I was searching for when I was a young sculptor, the using of real three-dimensional forms poised in space. Nicola Pisano did not use the human body as he used facial expression, and you have to use the body as you use the face if you want really to convey the fullest human meaning. This is something which Michelangelo did later on. He used the body to express his deep philosophical understanding of human nature, human tragedy and everything else. In this Giovanni had been the innovator.
But if I compare Michelangelo’s David with Giovanni Pisano’s figure of David from the Siena facade, I find that although the David of Michelangelo is an unbelievable, superhuman achievement for a young man of twenty-five, it is very different as an expression of a philosophical outlook on life; it is a marvellously realistic understanding of a young man’s body, a body exuding tremendous physical assurance… The David of Giovanni Pisano has behind it an intensity of human understanding of deep personality; it’s like comparing Benedick and Hamlet. The Giovanni Pisano has all the implications of the contradictions, troubles and worries inside its head that Hamlet had, whereas the Michelangelo, has no real troubles in its head at all, no unconquerable problems.
I have said that by making the pieces of the human body seem movable and articulated with one another, you give sculpture intensity, but by this I do not mean the portraying of actual physical movement such as walking, running etc. For Giovanni gets drama into his figures when they stand still, as Masaccio did later. In Masaccio’s The Tribute Money you feel, when Peter hands over the money, that there is a kind of electric charge in the air and this is created not by strong physical action but by a dramatic tension, something that both Masaccio and Giovanni could give in their work. The late Michelangelo has the same thing. In the Rondanini Pieta you get an absolute volte-face from his early David, through an almost expressionist antirealistic use of anatomy. It’s a change from the Renaissance back to the Gothic. It’s as if Michelangelo had come through at the end of his life to something nearer to Giovanni’s attitude. It’s the huge difference between using anatomy for its own sake and using a knowledge of the human figure to express one’s philosophy, one’s interpretation of life generally – and this is what surprises me: that Giovanni had done this so early. This is why I think he should be more widely recognized now as the great artist that he is. When you look at Giovanni’s relief carvings, it is natural to relate them to Giotto’s frescoes. So many people think that Giotto was the forerunner of the Renaissance, that he changed Italian art by using the human figure in a plastic way to express human emotions, but Giovanni was doing this earlier; for instance those triangular eyes with which Giotto expressed terrific grief can be found in Giovanni’s Massacre of the Innocents on the Pistoia pulpit. But all this does not impress me as much as the single figures I first mentioned. For me, it is possible to separate his narrative, his story-telling gift, from his gift for form, which is why to me the single figures are the most exciting.
I want to say something about stone and marble carving as a technical thing. For instance, if you carve a piece of marble freshly quarried, it is much softer than it will be a year or two later. When it is new, it is called ‘green’ (like a green tree with the sap in it), and a stone used quickly out of a quarry is twice as easy to cut and to carve as stone which has been quarried a few years. I think that having his quarry near Pisa would mean that the marble would be used very soon after being quarried. Then, again, I think Giovanni had better tempered tools than his predecessors. This would have given him more speed and freedom than his father. He would not have taken half as long to block out a big mass, and then to articulate it into his smaller masses. This could be one of the explanations for his freedom in the use of stone compared to other sculptors before him. Of course there’s a difference in the hardness of various stones. but even this relates to its time of quarrying. This applies even to very hard stones like granite. The granite in Cornwall is worked into kerb-stones and cobble-stones immediately it is quarried, and while it is ‘green’. Giovanni’s marble from San Guiliano wasn’t all that hard, which is why his exterior sculptures are so weathered. I don’t think we lose anything essential by that weathering. I even think the weathering reveals the big, simple design of his forms more clearly. It probably reduces what we see to what it had been a stage before it was finished, simplifying it back again without the detail. Nicola Pisano used the drill as part of his studio technique because with the drill you can free the stone so that you are not punching against absolute resistance but against something that will free itself; you open it up like a Gruyere cheese before you cut it away. The drill technique was a very special mark of the Pisano school, but Giovanni used it as an expressive instrument as well as a practical one. He used it to give colour and texture to a surface so that if he wanted to make a beard have darkness, he would so drill it that it would take on a colour and a texture seen from a distance. This is one of the things that amazes me about him, this expressive use of the drill, not simply to make the job easier, but to accentuate its form. If you look at really primitive stone sculpture, such as early archaic Greek or Pre-Columbian work, you will find the drill used, but most of it is what we call ‘rubbed sculpture’, that’s to say that after roughing out the forms with a punch, which breaks and stuns the stone, the craftsman got to work with abrasives, and rubbed the surface down until he got as far as he could beyond the stunning marks, and as smooth as he wanted his surface to be. By these means he got very simplified forms which are thought to be typically ‘stone’, but people think this because the sculptors did not have tools which could go beyond these simplicities; once you get a drilling technique as expert as Giovanni’s you can go deeper into the stone and give it more expression, more colour, texture, light and shade.
But it’s wrong to think that form and expression are separate things. For instance, if I put my hand on someone’s shoulder, I can put it in a way that seems to be gripping or just gently touching. I may be touching it with affection and gentleness or I may be making some kind of empty gesture. All this is in the intention of the sculptor; it’s part of his expression but it’s part of form; you cannot separate the two. If you made a sculpture of Adam and Eve and Adam had his hand on Eve’s shoulder you could do it in a way that would show that he loved her or that he was ashamed of her; it’s all done by a sensitivity to form, perhaps a greater sensitivity than is needed in dealing only with simple geometric abstract shapes – and it’s in this way that Giovanni Pisano was a fully developed sculptor. His form, his abstraction, his sculptural qualities were integrated. The human and the abstract formal elements were inseparable and that is what I think really great sculpture should be.
The way Giovanni used and understood marble gave the stone life, the power to live from inside. Michelangelo said once ‘the figure is in the stone; you have only to let it out’, so that stone sculpture is not man-made but man-revealed. Giovanni let the inside of the stone come out; he freed something from the inside.
Giovanni Pisano’s humanism has a quality which is for me the same as Rembrandt’s humanism or Masaccio’s humanism or the humanism of the late Michelangelo drawings. He was a man who showed in his sculpture the whole situation of the human being. It is, for me, this quality which makes Masaccio and Piero della Francesca and Rembrandt great. If I were asked to choose ten great artists, the greatest in European art, I would put Giovanni Pisano among them. It would be because of his understanding of life and of people. I feel terribly strongly that he was a great man because he understood human beings and if you asked me how I would judge great artists it would be on this basis. It would not be because they were clever in drawing or in carving or in painting or as designers; something of these qualities they must naturally have, but their real greatness, to me, lies in their humanity.
These are the reasons why I wanted a book on Giovanni Pisano to be published. I wanted to convey by it something of the impact his sculpture had on me so that other people could see that they must go and look at that sculpture itself. I well remember going to Pisa one afternoon a few year ago to look once more at the Giovanni Pisanos and I was full of them that evening when I went to dinner with Walter and Eva Neurath at their house at Camaiore. What a shame it was, I said, that there was no book in English, so far as I knew, that gave Giovanni his due. Here was an artist who has done in sculpture things that Giotto and Masaccio would come to do in painting, but it was they who had got the credit for being the fathers of the Renaissance. I said that it seemed a pity that there was no book that tried to show what a great artist in sculpture Giovanni was.
‘Why don’t we do it?’ Walter Neurath asked. ‘Why doesn’t Thames and Hudson do this? Would you help?’
I have helped as far as I could. I have spent many hours in Pisa and Siena with Michael Ayrton who has shared my enthusiasm for twenty years and had proved it as long ago as that, by his lecture to the Royal Society of Arts from which his text has grown. Cavaliere Bessi, our photographer, was with us and I showed him in detail exactly what I wanted to bring out in the photographs. I wanted to illustrate that Giovanni Pisano approached the structure of sculpture from inside. Many early sculptors approached form from the outside, rounding it off and smoothing it, but Giovanni was one of the first Italians to feel the bone inside the sculpture and when we looked at the lions on the Pisa Cathedral pulpit and at the wolf in Siena, we could see how the elbow joints pushed out, that there was an inside structure, a skeleton to the sculpture coming out. It is not rubbed down, not sucked like a sucked sweet, which is made unified because the outside is all smoothed. Looking at that lion and seeing that there were no smooth connections between the forms, I knew how Giovanni has understood the articulations of the figure. I would not easily nowadays give up time and energy to helping with a book, but I feel that in devoting both to this one I am doing something to repay a debt for we are all indebted to Giovanni Pisano.