Masaccio (Tommaso di ser Giovanni Cassai) was born at San Giovanni Valdarno around the end of 1401; he moved to Florence in 1419 and as of 1422 was already a member of the Guild of Physicians and Herbalists. The Giovenale Triptych that he painted for the church of San Pietro a Cascia in Regello dates from that same year. In 1424 he joined the Compagnia di San Luca, and with Masolino, painted Virgin and Child with St. Anne. The cooperation between the two artists continued in the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. In 1426 the notary Giovanni di Colino degli Scarsi commissioned him to painted a polyptych (that has been dismantled) for the church of the Carmine in Pisa. The fresco of The Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence that suggests a real space in pictorial invention is the clearest achievement of Brunelleschian perspective in painting. Sometime around 1428 he joined Masolino in Rome and together they worked on the Colonna Altarpiece for the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and on the decorations for Cardinal Branda Castiglione’s chapel in the church of San Clement. Masaccio died in 1428 during a particularly unhealthy summer that caused thousands of deaths.
It was Luciano Berti who discovered this fresco in the little country church of San Giovenale at Cascia in Regello in 1961. It is considered to be Masaccio’s earliest work. Even though the composition reveals a certain amount of conventionalism that makes it resemble to many polyptychs of the period, in the spatial arrangement of the central panel we see the beginnings of an autonomy centered on a search for more awareness in the distribution of shapes. It is for this reason that it is believed that the central panel was done last. As opposed to the lateral panels with their more curved lines and “flatness” it reveals more mature consideration of Giotto’s experiments. On the left of the Virgin Enthroned are the figures of Saints Bartholomew and Blaise, while Saints Giovenale and Anthony Abbot are on the right.
Portrait of a Young Man
Even though there is still some doubt, this painting is believed to have been done by Masaccio himself. It responded to the new taste for portraits that began in the wake the Sagra, or Consecration by Masaccio that has been lost. The Sagra, that was in a lunette in the first cloister of Santa Maria del Carmine (rebuilt between 1597 and 1614), depicted the consecration of the church in 1422 before a crowd of Florentine nobles – an event that the artist himself may have attended. The precise rendering of the ceremony and the participants as recorded by various sources and Vasari in particular, must have been highly successful at the time, and probably stimulated interest in contemporary subjects including portraits of “celebrities” of the day.
Virgin and Child with St. Anne
Until quite recently this painting was believed to have been done by Masaccio alone. Today, the consensus is that both Masolino and Masaccio worked on it even though there is not sufficient documentation to prove the theory. Roberto Longhi has attributed the figures to either of the two artists. According to Longhi, Masaccio painted the Virgin and Child and the angel holding the curtain on the right with a strong accent on spatial arrangements that is based on Giotto’s earlier works, while Masolino did the figure of St. Anne and the four other angels.
Brancacci Chapel, church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, left wall
The artistic association of Masaccio and Masolino da Panicale expressed in the Brancacci chapel gave rise to not few discussions concerning the nature of the their professional relationship and the circumstances surrounding the commission. What is certain, however, is that this fresco cycle with Scenes from the Life of St. Peter is unitary and the iconographic program coherently expresses the concept of the reunification of the Western Church as professed by the Carmelite order. The frescoes were commissioned by Felice Brancacci, a silk merchant, who held various public offices. In addition to the scene of The Tribute Money, the panel depicting The Expulsion [of Adam and Eve] is particularly interesting as it reveals the artist’s observations of classical sculpture. The figure of Eve recalls the classic pose of the “Venus pudica”.
Brancacci Chapel, church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, right wall
As opposed to the customary arrangement, the scenes in the Brancacci chapel must be read from right to left. Here we find the panel with Masolino’s The Temptation of Adam that harmonizes well with the companion panel by Masaccio, The Expulsion. What still remains to be clarified is the link between the Old Testament scenes and the Brancacci family of merchants. It is believed that the work was commissioned by Felice Brancacci, a merchant who enjoyed considerable fortune until he clashed with the Medici politics that forced him into exile. He did not, however, seem to have had any major impact on the choice of the subjects.
The Tribute Money, detail
Vasari defined the Brancacci chapel as the «school of the world», and indeed, generations of artists have studied it carefully. The painting with The Tribute Money, in the middle of the left wall is the apex of Masaccio’s career because of the extraordinary confidence revealed in the composition depicting three moments in the payment of the tribute. In the center Christ orders Peter to take the coin, the miraculous event of Peter taking the coin from the fish’s mouth (left) and the payment of the tribute itself. In his clear and rational distribution of shapes and figures Masaccio gave the scene an historic value: Christ acknowledges temporal power by paying the tax and at the same time gives Peter the task of carrying out the divine will. The group with Christ surrounded by the apostles has been considered both a reference to antiquity and to the contemporary group of Saints by the sculptor Nanni di Banco for a niche in the Florentine church of Orsanmichele.
This panel was originally the crowning of the Pisa Polyptych and is renowned for the violent drama of the scene that is played out in the contrasts between the yellow, red and the Virgin’s blue robe. To this we must add the desperate gesture of the Magdalene kneeling with arms upraised, while the Virgin’s face reveals all the agony of the moment. The figures, like the body of the Christ with his head on his chest, were conceived to be viewed from below.
Scenes from the Lives of St. Julian and St. Nicholas, detail
This is one of the panels from the Pisa Polyptych depicting the story of St. Julian the Hospitalier. Inspired by Jacopo da Varagine’s Golden Legend the scene portrays the culminating moment in which the saint fulfills a terrible prophecy and kills his parents in their sleep. From that moment on, Julian would spend his life repenting until he received divine pardon. In this case again Masaccio decided to emphasize the drama of the event through the contrasts of a few colors: red, black and yellow.Iconography
St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow
This is one of the scenes in the lower register of the chapel where we can see a marked difference with respect to the upper register. By the end of 1425 Masolino was working at the Hungarian court where he had been given some very profitable commissions, so his hand is missing. Masaccio style seems to be evolving towards a new naturalism that focuses on narrating details. In any event, the work was interrupted for reasons still unknown – perhaps because Masolino who had returned from Hungary to do paintings for the pope, summoned Masaccio to Rome. The cycle remained unfinished until around 1480 when it was completed by Filippino Lippi.
Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned
This panel is effective evidence of Masaccio’s shift towards a different attention to reality and its details. The architectural background is highly striking. The palace of Theophilus, governor of Antioch whose son was resurrected by Peter, is rendered in white marble and divided by pilaster strips, according to Brunelleschi’s module and embellished with precious details such as richly veined marble panels that evoke the paintings of Taddeo Gaddi. The painting was interrupted and was completed by Filippino Lippi over fifty years later.
This is one of the most famous paintings of the fifteenth century, and key achievement of Masaccio’s career that was drawing to a close. This fresco seems to be a condensation of all the artist, philosophical and scientific stimuli of the era. What artists such as Brunelleschi and Donatello had experimented with during that period in Florence is reflected in Masaccio’s work that was focused on rendering perspective space on a two-dimensional surface. The figures emerge frontally, clarifying the symbolic elements to which he added the skeleton in the foreground as a memento mori, a consideration on the transient nature of life on earth.
SS John the Baptist and Jerome
This is one of the six panels that comprised the Colonna Altarpiece by Masolino (the altarpiece has been dismembered). A member of the Colonna family had asked Masolino to paint the triptych for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Masolino then called Masaccio to Rome to assist with the project. The difference between the two artists can be seen in the statue-like arrangements of the two saints painted by Masaccio: they re-evoke an early form of Christianity while those by Masolino reveal faster and more tense lines.