A hesitant start with sculptors from outside of Florence Arnolfo di Cambio and Tino di Camaino
It is not until the late dugento (thirteenth century) that sculpture becomes prominent, or rather, is imported, in Florence. Before this time there were hardly any statues. Sculpture was completely subordinate and in servitude to architecture. This shows with the pulpit at the centre of the dugento inside the San Miniato al Monte. The Florentines did have a classical equestrian statue, albeit heavily damaged. This statue was erected at the entrance to the Ponte Vecchio. The horseman was Mars, the same classical God that the Baptistry was devoted to according to the popular belief. This equestrian statue was lost during the flooding of the Arno in 1333. The pulpit in the San Miniato was far removed from what was produced by the workshop of Nicola Pisano (Wikipedia). His workshop produced works for cities like Siena, Bologna, Pistoia and Perugia.
Particularly, the pulpit from Pisa by Nicola Pisano was deemed a true 13th century masterpiece (click here for Nicola Pisano: Web Gallery of Art). Pupils of Pisano included Giovanni and Arnolfo di Cambio, but also sculptors like Tino di Camaino. Aside from the design of the Santa Maria del Fiore and the construction of the large city walls, Arnolfo would also produce several statues for Florence.
By the end of the dugento, Florence was clearly lagging behind other Italian cities in terms of sculpture, even with the city becoming so wealthy. In the year it was decided to construct a new, large Duomo, with the award going to Arnolfo di Cambio, the chronicler Giovanni Villani noted the following in his ‘Nuova Cronica’ in 1294: ‘the citizens decided to complete the main church of Florence, as small in stature and primitive for a city like theirs, with marble and sculpted figures.’ With it, sculpture was for the first time in Florence being regarded as an important part of a public building.
Arnolfo di Cambio: statues from the trecento in the portals of Duomo
When Arnolfo goes to work in Florence, his reputation already precedes him. For the facade of the Duomo, Cambio had placed sculptures in the recesses and lunettes above the entrance doors (reconstruction). By the late 14th century, the facade was already altered and in 1587 the facade was torn down and some statues have gone missing. Bernardino Poccetti produced a drawing of the old facade with its statues. While this drawing does not reveal Cambio’s original design, it does provide an indication to its intent. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo still has some statues of the facade including a Mary with child.
Mary with Child
This statue by Arnolfo likely meant for the lunette in the centre-portal. After all, the new Duomo is devoted to Mary under the name Santa Maria del Fiore. Mary is sitting frontally with a staring gaze that seems pervasive through the use of glass in the eyes. Jesus makes a blessing gesture with his right hand. The somewhat protruding posture of the upper body and the head of Jesus gives the figure a more human aspect despite its rigid and frontal posture. This applies equally to how the drapes fall down. With how Arnolfo chiselled the folds in Mary’s gown, we can tell he was influenced by classical sculpture.
While Cambio was a true medieval sculptor, many details were remarkable for that time. For instance, the folds were not depicted as a decorative pattern, but instead rouse the impression that they are pulled down by gravity. The way Arnolfo presents the headscarf around the head of Mary shows that he bases his designs on real volumes as with a real woman of flesh and blood. This is starkly different from the folds at a statue like John the Baptist that was produced by Ghiberti for the Orsanmichele in the early 15th century. Arnolfo definitely knew about antique sculpture thanks to Nicola Pisano. It is quite likely that he collaborated for the pulpit in Pisa. What is more, Cambio had worked in Rome for two decades and he must have seen many old sculptures.
The sculpture of Arnolfo di Cambio is a synthesis between classical and gothic elements.
Next to Mary with child were the two saints: Reparata and Zenobius (both can be seen at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo). Zenobius was a bishop in Florence at what was then the San Lorenzo cathedral. He predicted in 405 that Florence would be saved by divine intervention. And indeed, the city was actually saved. The bones of this saint were kept at the crypt of the old Santa Reparata. The holy Reparata likely stemmed from the Middle-East, though people in thirteenth century Florence were not completely informed about this. Aside from these two saints, the lunette also had two angels holding up a tent canvas made of marble as you can see in the Museo dell’Opera.’
The statues at the side-portals in the facade of the Duomo
The lunettes of both side-portals depicted scenes from the life of Mary including her death and her birth. Two statues remain to this day, with the birth statue almost certainly belonging to Cambio. These statues are kept in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Mary lifts herself, holding herself up by her elbows to look at her child in a cradle.
A source from 1580 about the portal with Mary giving birth details that the Madonna is accompanied by ‘many figures of shepherds and animals’ of which some parts have remained preserved. Still, Mary is looking rather relaxed here compared to the seated posture she is adopting with her child in the centre-portal. Cambio was clearly influenced by his master Nicola Pisano. In particular, Mary’s posture is based on the relief work, ‘The Birth of Jesus‘, at the pulpit of Pisano in the Pisa Baptistry. Cambio being a medieval artist is evident by the strange posture of the upper body compared to the rest. Something is off. The sculptor plays a trick by using two different postures in one figure: a standing and a lying woman. He happily combines them into a Mary who is lying down, but with the upper body of a standing woman. In the Ascension of Mary, Arnolfo shows that he is indeed capable of reservedly showing human emotions like sorrow.
The statues in the three lunettes of the facade were designed by Cambio as a coherent whole. For example, the sculptures above the portals can be read as a single story that honours the Mother of Christ. This is very unusual in Italy today, such coherent statues at the facade of cathedrals come from the land of Gothicism: France.
The statue of Boniface VIII from the gallery of Cambio was also made specifically for the facade. The text on the basement is modern. Boniface VIII agreed that the considerable sums paid by Florentines to the pope were to be allocated to the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore. The statue falls out of tune when compared to ‘the Mary with child’ or ‘the Birth of the Child’. There is no emotion. Bonifatius is depicted frontally and rigidly. Besides, the marble block is still very noticeable. You can tell when you walk around the statue inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The folds are rigid, particularly when you compare them to the drapes of the Birth of Mary which can be seen in the same hall of the museum.
Tino di Camaino
This sculptor was not from Florence, but was born in Siena. Like Arnolfo di Cambio, Tino hailed from the gallery of Nicolo Pisano. After first having worked in Pisa, he stayed in Florence from 1321 until 1323. His works include two tombs: one for Gastone della Torre in the Santa Croce and the other one for the bishop Orso in the Duomo. Unfortunately, both graves are no longer in their original condition. The remnants of the burial tomb for della Torre can be found at the courtyard of the Santa Croce.
Vasari took these tombs apart in the sixteenth century. The tomb of Antonio Orso was put back together in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, some parts had gone missing. The reconstruction is now back in the Duomo. What can be seen now in the Santa Maria del Fiore is but a small representation of the original that must have been much bigger.
A part of the tomb of Orso, ‘The Madonna with Child’, can however be found in the Bargello. The words, Sede Sapientiae, mean Trone of Wisdom. Mary’s head is turned towards her child. The long gowns surrounding the mother and child and how they fold create a strong unity. When we visit the Bargello, we will have a closer look at the Mary and the child.