His birth date or origins are uncertain. He was born in Apulia, as the son of "Petrus de Apulia", as stated in the archives of the Cathedral of Siena. Nicola Pisano was probably trained in the local workshops of the emperor Frederick II, and he attended his coronation. Here he was trained to give to the traditional representations more movement and emotions, intertwining Classical and Christian traditions. His only remaining works from this period are two griffon heads with a soft chiaroscuro effect.
Around 1245 he moved to Tuscany to work at the Prato Castle. The lions on the portal of this castle are probably by his hand. "The head of a young girl" (now displayed in the Museo del Palazzo Venezia in Rome), cut in hardstone of Elba, is also ascribed to Nicola Pisano in the same period.
He moved to Lucca, working at façade of the Cathedral of Saint Martin, resulting in the relief Deposition from the Cross (on the north tympanum) and the lintel reliefs Nativity and Adoration of the Magi.
Pulpit (detail): the "Nativity" and Annunciation to the Shepherds