During the entire Quattrocento the art of painting, like that of sculpture, had Florence as its center in Italy under the decided protection of the Medici. The first painter of this period was part of the group of artists which included Donatello and Brunelleschi. He was Masaccio, that is: Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Simone (December 21, 1401 – summer 1428), his name is a humorous version of Maso (short for Tommaso), meaning “clumsy” or “messy” Tom. This probably was coined to distinguish him from his principal collaborator, also called Maso, who came to be known as Masolino (meaning “little/delicate Tom”). Masaccio was born in Castel San Giovanni di Altura, now San Giovanni Valdarno (part of the province of Arezzo, Tuscany). Masaccio’s artistic education is not documented, though during the Renaissance it was customary that painters began an apprenticeship with a well known master around the age of 12. It was because of this training that Masaccio most likely had to move to Florence, although he didn’t appear in public documents of the city until he joined the painters guild (the Arte de’ Medici e Speziali) as an independent master on January 7, 1422. He was signing as “Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia.”
The first known works attributed to Masaccio are the San Giovenale Triptych (1422) and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Sant’Anna Metterza) (ca. 1424-1425). The San Giovenale altarpiece depicts the Virgin and Child with angels in the central panel, Sts. Bartholomew and Blaise on the left panel, and Sts. Juvenal (i.e. San Giovenale) and Anthony Abbot in the right panel. Although still a traditional style of Altarpiece, Masaccio makes an effort to suggest three-dimensionality through the representation of volumetric figures and the use of foreshortening*. These characteristics reveal a revival of the pictorial approach established before by Giotto, rather than a continuation of contemporary trends prevalent during the time.
The tempera on panel with the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (ca. 1424–1425) was perhaps Masaccio’s first collaboration with the older and already-renowned artist, Masolino da Panicale (ca. 1383 – ca. 1447). It was probably that Masolino, being considerably older than Masaccio, took him under his patronage, though the style of both painters is clearly discernible in this painting. The figure of St. Anne and the angels that hold the cloth of honor behind her are thought to be painted by Masolino: the angels, with their very delicate and tender forms all painted in very pale color and gently colored, reflect a more Gothic style of painting, except for the angel located in the upper left (right to the Virgin) hand curve which reveals the hand of Masaccio. The figure of St. Anne is thought to be produced by Masolino, but her left hand, which seems to explore the depth of the space, may well be by Masaccio. Masaccio is attributed to the central image of the Virgin and Child on their throne which show a powerful volume as well as demonstrate a solid possession of space by using an accurate perspective. We can see Masolino’s figures are more delicate, graceful and somewhat flat in style, while Masaccio’s are solid and hefty, sturdy and bulky. The structure of this painting is simple yet extraordinarily monumental. The succession of planes is compact and follows an upward direction, almost creating a pyramidal shape.
Once established in Florence, Masaccio was able to study the works of Giotto and became friends with Brunelleschi and Donatello. There are a large number of anecdotes that are testimony of the intimate friendship that united these three men. Brunelleschi, being the oldest, apparently was the most conscientious of the group, indeed he was the one who taught Masaccio the laws of perspective. In fact, Masaccio was one of the first to use linear perspective in his painting, as well as the technique of vanishing point and chiaroscuro to achieve greater realism. It seems that in 1423 Masaccio travelled to Rome alongside Masolino: from around this period is his Pisa altarpiece for the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa (begun in 1426), and with it followed a continuous influence of the ancient Roman and Greek art on Masaccio’s work.
Fortunately for us, the frescoes Masaccio painted for the Brancacci chapel in 1428 (the same year of his death) have survived intact. These have always been considered his most important work. Around 1424, the powerful and wealthy silk merchant Felice Brancacci commissioned Masaccio and Masolino with a series of frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel located in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The Brancacci is a side chapel, somewhat dark. The frescoes, which occupy the plane surfaces of the walls, were begun apparently simultaneously by both, Masolino and Masaccio, circa 1425, but were left unfinished because of a trip Masolino took to Hungary and therefore were continued by Masaccio, but were finally completed a half century later in the 1480s by Filippino Lippi (April 1457 – 18 April 1504). Their iconography includes mainly scenes from the life of St. Peter, though two scenes, on either side of the threshold of the chapel space, represent the temptation and expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In the frescoes painted by Masaccio is seen the strong influence of Giotto’s style: the figures appear large, heavy, and solid; emotions are expressed through faces and gestures; and there is a strong sense of naturalism throughout the paintings. Unlike Giotto, however, Masaccio relied heavily on linear and atmospheric perspective, directional light, and chiaroscuro (the representation of form through light and color without using outlines). As a consequence, Masaccio’s frescoes are even more realistic than those of Giotto from the trecento.
In these frescoes for the Brancacci chapel, Masaccio displays a highly synthetic artistic style that does not imitate the reality as it is seen, but that rather recreates it as a poetic image. Masaccio represented his own inner ghosts through his painting, and by that, he freed himself from his deep awareness of the tragedy of man, but revealing his spiritual inner self. This terrible contradiction is resolved in Masaccio’s painting with impressive serenity by transforming the human body into a monument to the spirit. Perhaps only the ancient Egyptian sculptors, 3000 years before and by very different paths, had reached such a degree of insight into the relationships between body and spirit.
One of these frescoes, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (ca. 1425), depicts an anguished Adam and Eve as they are being expelled from the garden by a threatening angel. While Adam covers his whole face to express his shame, Eve covers certain areas of her body while her face shows pain and despair. This particular fresco is famous for its vivid energy and unprecedented emotional realism. It contrasts dramatically with Masolino’s delicate and decorative image of the Original Sin, painted on the opposite wall (see picture above, top right corner): Masaccio’s concrete and dramatic portrayal of the figures stand in striking contrast to Masolino’s late Gothic scene which lacks psychological depth. Later, this fresco had a huge influence on the work of Michelangelo, due to the fact that his teacher, Domenico Ghirlandaio, looked almost exclusively to Masaccio’s work for inspiration for his religious scenes. In the case of Michelangelo, the influence of this work by Masaccio is apparent in his “Fall of Man” and “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Also in the Brancacci chapel, Masaccio’s fresco of The Tribute Money (1425) represents Jesus and the Apostles with neo-classical types. It has been consistently considered among Masaccio’s best work. The painting is part of a cycle based on the life of Saint Peter, and describes a scene from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus and the Apostles arrive in Capernaum, where Jesus directs Peter to find a coin in the mouth of a fish in order to pay the temple tax. Masaccio arranged the figures in a semicircular disposition, a pattern of classical origin (see depictions of Socrates and his disciples) that was later adopted by early Christian art (depictions of Jesus and the Apostles) and finally re-interpreted by the first Renaissance artists, such as Brunelleschi, as the geometric pattern symbolizing the perfection of the circle. The characters are portrayed with a classical fashion: dressed with tunics tied at the waist and cloaks wrapped over their left shoulder, around the back, and clasped at the front, below their left forearm. The importance of this fresco resides in its revolutionary use of perspective and chiaroscuro. This work is also considered among the first paintings to utilize a vanishing point (in single-point perspective), in this case converging on the head of Christ. Contrast is achieved throughout the painting in various ways: while the group of holy men are dressed almost entirely in robes of pastel pink and blue, the tax collector wears a shorter tunic of a striking vermilion, another way contrast is achieved is in the way (both in the central scene and on the right) the tax collector’s postures are copying almost exactly those of Peter, only seen from the opposite angle, this gives a three-dimensional quality to the figures, allowing the spectator to view them from all sides. Another technique exclusive of Masaccio was the use of atmospheric, or aerial perspective: both the mountains in the background, and the figure of Peter on the left are dimmer and paler than the objects in the foreground, creating an illusion of depth. Masaccio’s use of light was also revolutionary: in this fresco, the shadows casted by the figures fall away from the chapel window, as if the figures were being lit by it, a testimony of the approach to representing realism in Masaccio’s work. This created a chiaroscuro effect, sculpting the bodies into three-dimensional shapes.
In the scene of the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus (1427), the pavement was painted in perspective and framed by large buildings to convey a three-dimensional space in which the figures were placed in perfect proportions to their surroundings, here Masaccio is already applying the newly discovered rules of perspective. Apparently, this fresco was also left unfinished and was later completed more than 50 years later by Filippino Lippi. The painting represents a passage according to the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) by Jacobus de Voragine, referring to a scene that took place after St. Peter was released from prison, in which him resuscitates (with the help of St. Paul) the son of Theophilus (prefect of Antioch), who had died 14 years before. As a thanksgiving gesture, people venerated St. Peter and erected a new church to him, where he was enthroned so as to be revered and prayed by all. Theophilus is seated on the left, in an elevated position within a niche and dressed in pink, the figure sitting on Theophilus’ right was the Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati. The scene of St. Peter enthroned (to the right of the painting) is set in a contemporary church, with contemporary ecclesiastical figures (actually the Carmelite friars from Santa Maria del Carmine, wearing white robes) and a congregation that includes, at the extreme right, a group of four bystanders next to the open door and whom are the portraits of Masaccio (looking away from the painting directly to the viewer), Masolino (the shortest one), Leon Battista Alberti (in the foreground); and Filippo Brunelleschi (the last). In fact, a number of portraits of contemporary figures have been identified in this fresco: the resurrected youth was a portrait of the painter Francesco Granacci (at that time hardly more than a boy), the Carmelite monk is a portrait of Cardinal Branda Castiglione, Theophilus is Gian Galeazzo Visconti (Florence’s bitter enemy). The presence of portraits of contemporary people suggests that the fresco was intended to convey a political message.
In The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias, Masaccio’s figures move inside a natural setting. The composition is tight and emotional, , involving the viewer in the heart of the event, with a background that includes buildings drawn in perspective, which we are able to recognize as from the beginning of the 15th century only because of the style of the constructions, as the style in which they were drawn (due to Masaccio’s great painting skills) appear to be done in a later date. This painting refers to the narrative in Acts 4:32;5:1–11, that each Christian, after selling their own possessions, would bring the proceeds to the Apostles, who then distributed them to everyone according to need. Only Ananias kept some of the proceeds for himself and brought only a part of it to the apostles. Severely reprimanded by Peter, he fell to the ground and died. In this painting, Masaccio brings together the two moments of the story: Peter distributing the donations that have been presented to the Apostles, and the death of Ananias, whose body lies on the ground at his feet. The scene takes place in a setting of great solemnity, and the classical composition is constructed around opposing groups of characters.
Throughout these frescoes for the Brancacci chapel, Brunelleschi’s classical spirit must have inspired Masaccio, who would also look for his models in the study of ancient marbles. In these frescoes, the figures of the Apostles, and those of the characters who attend scenes such as that of the resurrection by Saint Peter, wear wide cloaks, whose great folds fall majestic and without rigidity, like ancient Roman togas.
Some of these artistic innovations were already present in the works by Masolino da Panicale and those of an Umbrian master, born in the Marches (ca. 1370 – 1427), Gentile da Fabriano, who lived in Florence between 1421 and 1425, where he finished his famous wood panel in 1423 representing the Adoration of the Magi, originally destined for the Church of the Trinity, but today part of the Uffizi Gallery collections. We will return to this painting in other essay when we discuss Benozzo Gozzoli’s pictorial production. But in the paintings by Masaccio the desire for artistic innovation went much further. This is reflected in what Brunelleschi said when he knew about his death: “We have experienced a very great loss…” By saying we, Brunelleschi meant the whole of artistic Florence of his time. The brilliant architect clearly understood that many years would pass before the appearance of another master painter who could collect such an artistic inheritance and vision.
On February 19, 1426, Masaccio was commissioned by Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi da San Giusto to paint a major altarpiece, known as the Pisa Altarpiece, for the Chapel of Saint Julian in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa. This altarpiece was later dismantled and its individual pieces were dispersed in the 18th century. Today only 11 of about 20 original panels have been found in various collections around the world (in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples; Museo Nazionale, Pisa; Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA; National Gallery, London; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The altarpiece was a tempera painting on a gold ground and wood panel, and originally had at least five compartments organized in two registers, for a total of ten main panels, of which only four are known to this day. Another four side panels and three predella panels (two of which had a double scene) are now in the Gemäldegalerie (Berlin).
The Holy Trinity fresco (ca. 1427) was awarded to Masaccio after winning a prestigious commission for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. This work has been widely considered as the artist’s masterpiece and is noteworthy for its inspiration taken from ancient Roman triumphal arches and for being the earliest surviving painting to use systematic linear perspective which ultimately gives the fresco a trompe l’oeil appearance. Here we can notice a giant step towards deep investigations in chiaroscuro and in the mastery of half shades and the definition of bodies in space. The fresco symbolizes the Trinity among worshipers all placed within an arch drawn in perspective. The Holy Spirit is represented as a dove, hovering above crucified Jesus and placed in front of a larger-than-life figure of the majestic Father who is supporting the Cross. The figures of the Virgin and St. John are placed to the right and left of Jesus respectively. Probably, the male patron is represented to the right of the Virgin, while his wife is to the left of St. John the Evangelist as it was customary in this type of commissioned pieces; these figures denote another important novelty in Masaccio’s innovative painting, they occupy the viewer’s own space, “in front of” the picture plane represented by the Ionic columns and the Corinthian pilasters from which the illusory vault appears to spring; they are depicted in the traditional prayerful pose of donor portraits but, contrary to tradition, on the same scale as the central figures, rather than in the usual reduced size of the late Gothic, reflecting attention to realism and volume of the figures. All these figures are represented above an image of a skeleton lying on a sarcophagus figuring a memento mori, or reminder of death. An inscription carved into the wall above the skeleton reads: “Io fui gia quel che voi siete e quel ch’io sono voi anco sarete” (I once was what now you are and what I am, you shall yet be). This skeleton is seen as a reference to Adam (whose sin brought humans to death) and a reminder to viewers that their time on earth is transitory. Thus, the imagery of the fresco suggests that it is only through faith in the Trinity that one overcomes this death on Earth.
Lastly, two other works are known from Masaccio: a tempera on wood painting of the Nativity (1427-1428) and an Annunciation, now lost, done before he left for Rome, where his colleague Masolino was working on a fresco for a chapel with scenes from the life of St. Catherine in the Basilica di San Clemente.
Masaccio died young, at the age of 26, at the end of 1428. Although little is known about the exact circumstances of his death, according to a legend, he was poisoned by a jealous rival painter. His role in the development of the Italian Renaissance painting was similar to the one played by Jan van Eyck in the development of Flemish painting, who, born ten years before Masaccio, survived him 23 years more. Masaccio is indeed regarded as the first great Italian painter of the Quattrocento in the Early Italian Renaissance. Vasari said, to praise Masaccio’s style, that he painted so modernly that his works can be compared with any other modern drawing. By saying modern Vasari was referring to the style of his contemporaries of the 16th century, that is Raphael and Michelangelo and those of their school. Such important was Masaccio’s work that influenced painters of a much later period. Vasari also said of him that all “most celebrated” Florentine “sculptors and painters” studied his frescoes extensively in order to “learn the precepts and rules for painting well”. Between the artists of his generation, Masaccio was considered the best because of his skills at imitating nature, recreating lifelike figures and movements, as well as a convincing sense of three-dimensionality. In his figures he employed nudes and foreshortenings, features that were rarely used in painting before him.
Masaccio’s career reflected that of an explorer or a true inventor, at a time when the Florentine school of painting was preparing to reach its final maturity. That was a period of trial and error, during which the problems related to perspective, the environment, the value of color, must have also intensely concerned several other contemporary artists. Such was the case of Francesco Pesellino (ca. 1422–July 29, 1457) and later, of Andrea del Castagno (ca. 1419 – 19 August 1457) and Paolo Uccello (1397 – 10 December 1475), whose activity centered almost exclusively around the resolution of those same arduous questions.
Foreshortening: Method of rendering a specific object or figure in a painting or illustration in depth. The artist records, in varying degrees, the distortion that is seen by the eye when an object or figure is viewed at a distance or at an unusual angle. Foreshortening is a type of perspective as it is basically concerned with the projection of a form in an illusionistic way, but the term foreshortening is almost invariably used in relation to a single object, or part of an object, rather than to a scene or group of objects.