Masaccio (colloquially, Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Cassai (December 21, 1401, San Giovanni Valdarno, Tuscany – autumn 1428, Rome) was a famous Italian painter, the greatest master of the Florentine school, a reformer of Quattrocento painting.
Masaccio was born on December 21, 1401, on the day of St. Thomas, after whom he was named, into the family of a notary named Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai and his wife Jacopa di Martinozzo. Simon, the future artist”s grandfather (on his father”s side), was a master craftsman who made cassone chests and other pieces of furniture. Researchers see in this fact a family artistic continuity, the possibility that the future painter encountered art and received his first lessons from his grandfather. Simon”s grandfather was a wealthy artisan, had several garden plots and his own house.
Five years after Tommaso”s birth, his father, who was only 27 years old, died suddenly. His wife was pregnant at the time and soon gave birth to a second son, whom she named after his father, Giovanni (who later also became a painter, known by the nickname Scegia). Left with two children in her arms, Iacopa soon remarried, this time to the apothecary Tedesco di Mastro Feo, a widower with two daughters. Iacopa”s second husband died on August 17, 1417, when Masaccio was not even 16 years old. After that, he became the eldest man in the family, that is, in fact, its breadwinner. Archival documents indicate the vineyard and part of the house, left after the death of her second husband Iacopa, but she did not use them and did not have income from them. One of Masaccio”s sisters later married the painter Mariotto di Cristofano.
Masaccio moved early to Florence. Researchers speculate that the move took place before 1418. The documents have survived, according to which Masaccio”s mother rented a dwelling in the San Niccolo district. The workshop in which the artist worked was probably somewhere nearby. Vasari claims that Masolino was his teacher, but this is a mistake. Masaccio was promoted to master painter and was admitted to the workshop on January 7, 1422, i.e. before Masolino was admitted in 1423. Moreover, no trace of that artist”s influence can be seen in his works. Some scholars believe that in 1421 he worked in the workshop of Bicci di Lorenzo and attribute to him a terracotta painted relief from the church of San Egidio. However, the stylistics of the works of these artists are too different to speak of their close contact. Nevertheless, Masaccio”s younger brother Giovanni (Scegia) worked in the workshop of Bicci di Lorenzo from 1421.
The real teachers of Masaccio were Brunelleschi and Donatello. There is evidence of a personal relationship between Masaccio and these two outstanding masters of the early Renaissance. They were his senior companions and by the time the artist matured they had already made their first advances. Brunelleschi by 1416 was busy developing linear perspective, traces of which can be seen in Donatello”s Battle of St. George and the Dragon relief – with whom he shared his discoveries. From Donatello, Masaccio borrowed a new awareness of the human personality, characteristic of the statues made by this sculptor for the church of Orsanmichele.
Florentine art of the early fifteenth century was dominated by a style known as the “International Gothic. Artists of this style created in their paintings an imaginary world of aristocratic beauty, full of lyricism and convention. In comparison the works of Masaccio, Brunelleschi and Donatello were full of naturalism and harsh prose of life. A trace of the influence of older friends can be seen in the earliest of Masaccio”s famous works.
All modern scholars consider this triptych the first authentic work by Masaccio (its dimensions: central panel 108 x 65 cm, side panels 88 x 44 cm). It was discovered in 1961 by the Italian scholar Luciano Berti in the small church of St Juvenal, near the town of San Giovanni Valdarno, where Masaccio was born, and was shown at the exhibition “Ancient sacred Art”. Berti soon came to the conclusion that the triptych was an original Masaccio work, based on the strong resemblance of the characters to other works by the artist – the Madonna with Child and St. Anne from the Uffizi Museum, Florence, the Madonna from the Pisa polyptych, and the polyptych from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
In the center of the altar is the Madonna with the Child and two angels, to her right are Saints Bartholomew and Blaise, to her left are Saints Ambrose and Juvenal. At the bottom of the work is an inscription that is no longer in Gothic script but in the modern letters used by the humanists in their letters. It is the first Gothic inscription in Europe: ANNO DOMINI MCCCCCCXXII A DI VENTITRE D”AP(PRILE). (April 23, 1422 A.D.). However, the reaction against the Gothic, from which the gold backgrounds of the triptych were inherited, was not only in the inscription. With the viewpoint from above, which is characteristic of Tricento painting, the compositional and spatial structure of the triptych is executed according to the laws of perspective developed by Brunelleschi, perhaps even excessively geometric and straightforward (this is natural for early experiments in perspective). The plasticity of the forms and the boldness of the angles create an impression of massive voluminosity such as had not existed in Italian painting before.
According to the archival documents studied, the work was commissioned by the Florentine Vanni Castellani, who patronized the church of San Govenale. The monogram of his name, two V”s, is seen by researchers in the folded wings of the angels, another V being the staffs of the saints on the left and right flaps. The triptych was painted in Florence, and in 1441 it is already mentioned in the inventory of the church of San Govenale. No memoir has survived of this work, although Vasari mentions two works by the young Masaccio in the area of San Giovanni Valdarno.
After restoration, the triptych was shown at the Metodo a Sienza exhibition in 1982, where it again attracted critical attention. It is now housed in the church of San Pietro a Cascia di Reggello.
On January 7, 1422 Masaccio was admitted to the Guild of Arte dei Medici e degli Speciali (the guild of doctors and apothecaries, which included artists), and on April 19 of that year he participated with Donatello, Brunelleschi and Masolino in the dedication ceremony of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, located in the Carmelite monastery of Florence. Masaccio was later commissioned to immortalize this ceremony in a fresco. However, before this (researchers usually date Sagra to 1424), the artist had probably been to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee of 1423, because only this trip can explain the fact that the procession depicted in the fresco strongly resembled ancient Roman reliefs. He carefully studied the art of ancient Rome and early Christian art.
The fresco “Consecration” was painted on the wall of the Carmelite monastery and lasted until about 1600. In it, according to Vasari, Masaccio depicted a procession of townspeople approaching the church, walking across the piazza in several rows, unfolded at an angle. Only drawings by various artists, including Michelangelo, have survived, copying fragments of this fresco. It was of great novelty for its time, and probably disliked by its customers because of the too great impression of reality it produced. There was nothing in it of the usual Gothic with its aristocratism, patterned expensive fabrics, and gold ornaments. On the contrary, Masaccio depicted the participants in the procession in very simple clothing. Among them, according to Vasari, could be seen not only his friends Donatello, Brunelleschi and Masolino, but also those representatives of Florentine politics who advocated the transformation of the Republic and fought against the Milanese threat – Giovanni di Bicci Medici, Niccolò da Uzzano, Felice Brancaccia, Bartolomeo Valori, Lorenzo Ridolfi, who achieved in 1425 the treaty with Venice against Milan. Luciano Berti believes that Masaccio used the subject of the religious ceremony “to embody current civic, republican, political-patriotic ideas. It is possible that Masaccio”s realism was perceived at the time not simply as the antithesis of the Gothic, but also as democratic art of the middle classes, serving as a kind of ideological counterweight to the aristocracy.
In his Life of Masaccio, Vasari mentions three portraits. Art historians have subsequently identified them with three “portraits of a young man”: from the Gardner Museum, Boston, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Chambery, and from the National Gallery, Washington. Most modern critics believe that the latter two are not Masaccio”s works, as they have a sense of secondary and inferior quality. They were painted later, or perhaps copied from works by Masaccio. A number of scholars consider only the portrait from the Isabella Gardner Museum credible, while Berti and Raggnanti claim that it depicts a young Leon Battista Alberti. The portrait is dated between 1423 and 1425; Masaccio painted it before another portrait of Alberti, whose characteristic profile can be seen in his fresco St. Peter on the Throne in the Brancacci Chapel, which shows him to the right of Masaccio himself.
Masaccio participated in several joint projects with Masolino, and it seems that they were bound by friendship. In their temperament and worldview they were quite different artists. Masolino gravitated toward aristocratic international Gothic with its religious fabulousness, flatness and smartness, while Masaccio, according to the humanist Cristoforo Landino, was full of avid interest in the earthly world, in its knowledge and assertion of its greatness, acting as an exponent of spontaneous and materialistic forms of early Renaissance pantheism. Researchers believe that the innovations of Masaccio influenced the work of Masolino, who undoubtedly belonged to the greatest masters of the first half of the XV century. In all likelihood, the manner of Masolino, more close and understandable to most contemporaries, gave him a better chance of getting good orders, so in the duo he belonged to the leading role of the organizer of works, while Masaccio acted as his assistant, though very talented. Their first known joint work is Madonna with Child and St. Anne, from the Uffizi Gallery.
In 1424 the name of Masaccio appears in the lists of the company of St. Luke, an organization of Florentine artists. This year critics also mark the beginning of the joint work of Masaccio and Masolino (more precisely, between November 1424 and September 1425).
“The Madonna with Child and St. Anne (175 cm x 103 cm) was painted for the church of Sant”Ambrogio and remained there until it was transferred to the Florentine Academy Gallery and then to the Uffizi Gallery. Vasari considered it entirely the work of Masaccio, but as early as the 19th century Masselli (1832) and later Cavalcazelle (1864) noticed differences in the painting from Masaccio”s style. Roberto Longhi, who made a careful study of the Masolino-Masaccio collaboration (1940), concluded that the Madonna and Child and the right angel holding the curtain belong to the hand of Masaccio, while everything else was executed by Masolino, who probably commissioned the painting (it is believed that, because he soon left for Hungary, Masolino commissioned Masaccio to complete it). Other scholars – Salmi (1948), and Salvini (1952) – believe that the figure of Saint Anne is also by Masaccio, as her left hand, waving it over the head of the infant Christ, is painted in a strong perspective, necessary to convey the spatial depth. The painting has both the decorative beauty typical of Masolino and the desire to convey the physical mass and space characteristic of Masaccio.
According to the medieval iconography of the subject, usually referred to as “Saint Anne in threes,” Mary sat on Anne”s lap and the infant Christ on the latter”s lap. The iconographic scheme is preserved in this work; the three figures form a three-dimensional, properly constructed pyramid. With its coarse forms of masses and “firm, lacking grace,” Mary reminds us of the “Madonna of Humility” from Washington”s National Gallery, which some scholars have unquestioningly attributed to the young Masaccio (the very poor state of preservation makes it impossible to determine its exact authorship, even though Burnson once considered it to be the work of Masaccio). It resembles another “Madonna” from the chapel of Montemarciano, in the Valdarno area.
The space is built in several planes (a technique that Masaccio repeats in some compositions of the Brancacci Chapel): in the first plane the knees of the Madonna, in the second plane the infant Christ and his hands, in the third plane the body of the Madonna, in the fourth plane the throne, St Anne, the curtain and the angels, all completed by a gold background. St. Anne”s presence in the painting may have a special meaning; she symbolizes the filial obedience of the Benedictine nuns to the Mother Superior (Verdon 1988).
The joint work of Masolino and Masaccio was continued in the next major project, the painting of the Brancacci Chapel.
The Brancacci Chapel frescoes are the main work created by Masaccio during his short life. From the fifteenth century to the present day, they have been admired by professionals and the general public alike. Nevertheless, discussions about these frescoes have not ceased to this day.
The Brancacci Chapel was added to the southern transept of the Carmelite church of Santa Maria del Carmine (built in 1365) around 1386. The desire for its construction was expressed by Pietro Brancacci, who died in 1367, his son Antonio di Pietro Brancacci states in his will of February 20, 1383, specifying that his father left 200 florins for the construction. In 1389 another branch of the family, Serotino Brancacci, donated another 50 florins to “adornamento et picturas fiendo in dicta capella” (“decorate and paint the said chapel”). In 1422 Felice di Michele Brancacci, a prosperous silk merchant, had the task of looking after the affairs of the chapel, as he states in his testament of June 26 of the same year when he was sent with an embassy to Cairo. It is Felice who is believed to have commissioned the murals. This man was a very prominent figure in the life of Florence. He belonged to the ruling class of the Republic: from at least 1412 he held prominent positions in government. He is later mentioned as ambassador to Lunigiana, then was ambassador to Cairo. In 1426 Felice was commissioner, an officer in charge of the troops at the siege of Brescia during the war with Milan. His wife Lena belonged to another prominent Florentine family, the Strozzi. In all likelihood, Brancacci commissioned the painting of the chapel soon after his arrival from Cairo in 1423. Most scholars agree that Masolino and Masaccio began work in late 1424 (Masolino was busy with an order in Empoli until November 1424), and work continued intermittently until 1427 or 1428, when Masaccio left for Rome, leaving the frescoes unfinished. Much later, in the 1480s, the unfinished work was completed by Filippino Lippi.
The frescoes in the chapel are devoted to the story of St. Peter”s life, but they do not have a chronologically consistent presentation of his life, but are a set of different stories of different times. This is probably due to the fact that the stories themselves were taken from three sources – the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Golden Legend of James of Voragin. They begin, however, with original sin. At the Brancacci Chapel, Masaccio participated in the execution of six frescoes.
Exile from Paradise
The fresco depicts the biblical story of the expulsion of the first people, Adam and Eve, from paradise after Eve violated God”s prohibition. Sobbing, they leave Eden, an angel on a red cloud with a sword in his hand points the way to a sinful earth above their heads. Dimensions of the fresco are 208 × 88 cm.
All scholars agree that it is entirely by Masaccio. The inherent drama of the fresco contrasts sharply with the scene of Temptation painted by Masolino on the opposite wall. Contrary to Gothic tradition, the Exile scene is given an entirely new psychological depth for the time. Adam is depicted as a sinner who has not lost his spiritual purity. The pose of the bitterly weeping Eve was clearly borrowed by Masaccio from the sculpture of Abstinence by Giovanni Pisano for the pulpit of the cathedral of Pisa. Researchers also cite the Greco-Roman statue of “Venus Pudica” as a source of inspiration for the image of Eve. Analogies among the sculpture have also been found for the pose of Adam, from “Laocoon” and “Marcia” to more modern examples such as the “Crucifixion” created by Donatello for Florence”s Santa Croce Church.
During the rebuilding of the church in 1746-1748, the upper part of the fresco was lost. Even earlier, however, around 1674, pious priests ordered that the genitalia of Adam and Eve be covered with leaves. In this form the fresco existed until the last restoration carried out in 1983-1990s, when they were removed.
2. The Miracle with a Statyr
Since Vasari”s time, the Miracle of the Staircase has been considered Masaccio”s finest work (some Russian books refer to it as “The Gift”).
This episode in the life of Christ is taken from Matthew 17:24-27. Jesus and the apostles came to the city of Capernaum on their journey of preaching. In order to enter the city, they had to pay a fee of one stater. Since they had no money, Christ ordered Peter to catch a fish in the nearby lake and perform a miracle by taking the coin out of its belly. The fresco depicts three episodes at once. In the center, Christ, surrounded by the apostles, shows Peter what must be done; on the left, Peter, having caught the fish, takes the coin from its womb; on the right, Peter gives the coin to the tax collector outside his house.
Many scholars have wondered why the story of the payment of the tax was included in the fresco cycle. There are several interpretations of this episode, which seems to deliberately emphasize the legitimacy of the tax demand. Procacci (1951), Miss (1963), and Berti (1964) agree that the inclusion of the story was due to the controversy surrounding the tax reform that took place in Florence in the 1420s and ended in 1427 with the adoption of the Catasto (Italian for “cadastre”), a body of law that established fairer taxation. Steinbart (1948) thought that the plots from the activities of Peter, the founder of the Roman church, might be an allusion to the policy of Pope Martin V aimed at world domination by the Roman church, while the coin from Lake Genisaret is an allusion to the profitable maritime enterprises of the Florentine Republic carried out under the leadership of Brancacci, who served in Florence as maritime consul, among others. Möller (1961) suggested that the gospel story itself with the statyr might conceal the idea that the Church should always pay tribute not from her own pocket, but using some external source. Casazza (1986), following Millard Miss (1963), considered this episode as an element of historia salutis (“history of salvation”), since this is how Blessed Augustine interpreted the story, arguing that the religious meaning of the parable was salvation through the Church. There are other opinions as well.
The figures of the characters are lined up along a horizontal line, but the group of apostles in the center forms a clear semi-circle. Researchers believe that this semicircle is of ancient origin because Socrates and his disciples were depicted in this way in ancient times, later this pattern was carried over into early Christian art (Jesus and the Apostles), and in the early Renaissance with artists such as Brunelleschi it acquired a new meaning – the circle symbolizes geometric perfection and finality. The circular construction was used by Giotto in his frescoes in Padua and by Andrea Pisano in the Florentine Baptistery.
All the characters in the fresco are endowed with a bright personality, they embody different human characters. Their figures are dressed in tunics in the ancient manner – with the end thrown over the left shoulder. Only Peter, taking a coin from the mouth of the fish, took off and put his tunic next to it so as not to stain it. The poses of the characters resemble those of Greek statues, as well as reliefs from Etruscan funeral urns.
Roberto Longhi concluded in 1940 that not all of the fresco was done by the hand of Masaccio, the head of Christ was painted by Masolino (the head of Adam in the fresco “Temptation” created by Masolino in the same chapel is extremely similar to the head of Christ). Most scholars agreed with this conclusion (Parronchi and Bologna, 1966). Thanks to the restorations carried out in the 1980s, this view has been confirmed – the pictorial technique in the execution of the head of Christ is different from the rest of the fresco. However, Baldini (1986) argues that Adam”s head and Christ”s head are executed with different pictorial techniques.
3. Baptism of the neophyte
The episode is taken from the Acts of the Apostles (2:41): “So those who willingly received his word were baptized, and they were joined that day with about three thousand souls. The restoration of the 1980s, during which a layer of soot from the candles and the fire was removed, exposed the beauty of the light colors of this fresco, its magnificent execution, and confirmed the rave reviews that it had been awarded since the time of Maliabecchiano and Vasari.
The fresco depicts the apostle Peter performing the rite of baptism. In the background are figures of neophytes ready to accept the new faith. The ancient authors particularly admired the naturalistic pose of the naked young man, freezing in anticipation of the rite. The entire group, representing “about three thousand souls”, consists of 12 people (Peter the 13th), and with their number echoes the twelve apostles who form the “human Colosseum” (Christ the 13th) from the fresco “The Miracle of Stylar”.
In the past, several scholars have argued that this fresco was not entirely by the hand of Masaccio, that either Masolino or Filippino Lippi took part in it. Longhi (1940) believed that the two figures to the left of Peter were the work of Filippino. He was supported by F. Bologna (1966). Procacci (1951) believed that Masolino also painted the head of Peter himself, but after the restoration of the 1980s he has no doubt that the fresco is entirely by Masaccio. Parronchi (1989) argues that the two portraits to the left of Peter were painted by an unknown assistant of Masaccio, and that Peter”s head is of such low quality that it cannot be the work of either Masaccio or Masolino. After the restoration, discussion of the cooperation between Masolino and Masaccio reignited: for example, Berti (1989) claims that Masolino is the author of the entire landscape background in this fresco.
4. St. Peter heals the sick with his shadow
The subject of the fresco (230 × 162 cm) is taken from the Acts of the Apostles (5:12-16); in the book it immediately follows the story of Ananias, which is depicted in the adjacent fresco on the right. The apostles performed many miracles, which increased the number of believers. Believers carried the sick into the streets of Jerusalem in the hope that Peter would cast his shadow over some of them. People even came from other villages and everyone was healed.
Scholars have never doubted that the fresco is entirely by Masaccio. Since the time of Vasari, who considered the man in the red armband a portrait of Masolino and placed him on the page of his biography, scholars have tried to identify the characters depicted with historical figures. Möller (1961) believed that the bearded man folding his arms in prayer was a portrait of Donatello, while Berti (1966) believed that Donatello was an elderly man with a gray beard who was depicted between Peter and John.
The artist placed the events in a contemporary Florentine street. Masaccio depicted it in perspective, going behind the backs of the apostles. Researchers believe that this depicts the area of the Church of San Felice in the Piazza; its memorable column with its Corinthian capitol can be seen behind John”s back. The street is lined with houses typical of medieval Florence. The lower part of the façade of the extreme left building resembles Palazzo Vecchio and the upper one the Palazzo Pitti.
5. The Distribution of Property and the Death of Ananias
The story is taken from Acts (4:32-37 and 5:1-11). This section of the book describes how the early Christian congregation gathered property for common use in order to distribute it according to just principles. However, a certain Ananias, after selling his possessions, withheld some of the proceeds when he joined the congregation. At the reproachful words of the apostle Peter, Ananias was seized with such fear that he died instantly. Masaccio depicted two scenes in this fresco (230 × 162 cm): Peter distributing the possessions donated to the apostles and the death of Ananias, whose breathless body lies at John”s feet. The distribution scene is given a certain epic solemnity. All scholars have agreed that the fresco is entirely by the hand of Masaccio. A recent restoration revealed that John”s pinkish cloak and the hands of Ananias were copied by Filippino Lippi over a Masaccio fresco (Baldini, 1986).
Along with the understanding of the fresco”s subject as salvation through faith, there is another interpretation proposed by Luciano Berti (1964). He believes that the fresco praises once again the institution of Catasto taxation, adopted in 1427, which guarantees greater equality among the population of the Republic, believing that Ananias” punishment is a lesson to those Florentine rich men who did not want to pay taxes in full. Meller (1961) believes that the fresco contains a reminder of the client family: the man kneeling in red cardinal”s garb and extending his hand to Peter is probably Cardinal Rinaldo Brancacci, or Cardinal Tommaso Brancacci.
6. The resurrection of Theophilus” son and St. Peter in the pulpit
The fresco (230 × 598 cm) depicts the miracle performed by Peter after he was freed from prison thanks to the apostle Paul. According to the Golden Legend of James of Voragene (see above), Peter, on coming to the tomb of the dead son of Theophilus, prefect of Antioch, 14 years previously, was able to revive him by a miracle. Those present immediately believed in Christ, and the prefect of Antioch and the rest of the city were converted. As a result, a magnificent temple had been built in the city, in the center of which a pulpit had been set up for the apostle Peter. From this throne he preached his sermons. After spending seven years on it, Peter went to Rome, where for twenty-five years he sat on the papal throne, the pulpit.
Masaccio again depicted two events in a single fresco: on the left and in the center, the apostle Peter raises his son Theophilus; on the right, the apostle Peter is on the throne. The artist placed the scene in the temple, including in the composition real church characters – representatives of the Carmelite brethren of Santa Maria del Carmine – and parishioners, including Masolino, Leon Battista Alberti and Brunelleschi. Vasari pointed out that the fresco was begun by Masolino, but subsequent art historians, with few exceptions, have considered it the work of Masaccio. In the 19th century scholars returned to the view that it was begun by Masolino and completed by Masaccio. In addition, the vast majority of specialists accept the version that the final completion of the fresco was assigned to Filippino Lippi, who completed the blank spaces left by Masaccio and rewrote the damaged and smeared fragments depicting the enemies of the Medici family, which included the Brancaccis.
Vasari believed that Filippino Lippi portrayed the painter Francesco Granacci as the resurrected youth, although at the time Granacci was no longer a youth, “…and equally Messrs Tommaso Soderini, the nobleman Pietro Guccciardini, father of Messrs Francesco who wrote history, Piero del Pulce and Luigi Pulci the poet…”. After studying the iconography and possible portraits of the fresco, the Italian scholar Peter Meller, in his work “Brancacci Chapel: Iconographic and Portrait Problems” (1961) confirmed Vasari”s opinion, and concluded that the fresco, among other things, contained political overtones: The Carmelite monk (fourth from left) is a portrait of Cardinal Brande Castiglione, Theophilus sitting on the towering throne is a portrait of Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan, and the man seated to his right near his feet is Coluccio Salutati, Chancellor of the Republic of Florence, author of invectives against the Milanese government. In addition, on the right side of the fresco, next to the Apostle Peter on the pulpit are (from right to left) Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, Masaccio and Masolino.
The Pisa polyptych is the only precisely dated work by the artist; the dating of all his other works is approximate. On February 19, 1426, Masaccio undertook to paint a multi-part altarpiece for the chapel of St. Julian in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa for the modest sum of 80 florins. The commission came from the Pisan notary Ser Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi da San Giusto, who from 1414 to 1425 took over the patronage of that chapel. On December 26, 1426, the polyptych, judging by a payment document dated that date, was ready. Masaccio”s assistants, his brother Giovanni (Scegia) and Andrea del Giusto, took part in the work. The frame for this multi-part composition was executed by the carver Antonio di Biagio (probably based on a sketch by Masaccio).
In the 18th century, the polyptych was disassembled and its individual fragments dispersed to various museums. Many paintings were lost along with the original altar frame. Today, only 11 paintings remain of this large work. Christa Gardner von Teuffel suggested a variant of its reconstruction, which today most experts adhere to. However, the question of the polyptych”s middle row remains unanswered. According to one version, it was an ordinary multi-part altar. According to another, the middle part was not a many-part altar, but an entire pala, i.e. the figures of the saints to the sides of the Madonna were painted not on separate boards, but on one large board (according to Vasari, these were the Apostle Peter, John the Baptist, St Julian and St Nicholas). The state of the current fragments does not allow us to experience all the splendor of the original plan. It was one of the first altars whose composition was based on a recently developed perspective, with lines converging at a single point. Judging by the Madonna and Child central panel, all the figures in the central part of the polyptych were painted as if they were illuminated by a single source of light from the left side.
Madonna and Child
“Madonna with Child and Four Angels” (135 x 73 cm) was the central panel of a polyptych. In 1855 it was kept in the Sutton Collection as a work by Gentile da Fabriano. In 1907 Bernard Berenson identified it as a work by Masaccio. Since 1916 the painting has been in the National Gallery, London. The work is badly damaged; it is trimmed at the bottom, with paint layer losses on the surface, disfigured by retouching. The Madonna”s gown was executed in glowing red paint overlaid on a base of silver leaf. Today, the brilliant decorative effect of the work has been lost.
Here Masaccio has almost completely abandoned the basis of Gothic painting – the clear, flowing line outlining the silhouettes of the characters, but sculpts the form with color, simplifying it, and giving it a generalized geometric rhythm (scholars believe that the figure of the Madonna reflects the fact that the artist carefully studied the sculpture of Nicola Pisano and Donatello). He also rejects here the decorative play of patterns inherent in his joint painting with Masolino, Madonna with Child and St. Anne, which, to all appearances, were completely alien to him. Masaccio has the gold background traditional for XIV century paintings almost completely covered by a monumental antique-classical throne decorated by small columns with Corinthian order. The infant”s type is borrowed by him from the antique depictions of Hercules in infancy; the child is thoughtfully sucking grapes, helping himself to taste them better with his fingers. Researchers consider the subject of grapes to be a Eucharistic allusion, a symbol of the communion wine, i.e. ultimately a symbol of the blood of Christ to be shed on the cross. This symbolism was reinforced by the scene of the Crucifixion, which was directly above the Madonna and Child.
“Crucifixion” (size 83 x 63 cm) has been in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples since 1901. The painting was attributed to Masaccio and attributed to the Pisa polyptych by the Italian art historian Lionello Venturi. It is painted on a gold background, with only a narrow strip of earth depicted beneath the feet of the characters. The gold background symbolizes the timelessness and other-worldliness of what is happening. On the left stands the Madonna, on the right the Apostle John, at the foot of the cross Mary Magdalene stretched out her arms in despair. On the whole, this polyptych panel is in the tradition of the 14th century painting. The deformed body of Christ is considered by some scholars to be an unsuccessful attempt to convey it in perspective reduction when viewed from below. Despite the expressive gesture of the Magdalene, the scene is extremely static. Roberto Longhi has suggested that the figure of Magdalene was attributed by the master later, as she has a different halo than the other characters.
Apostles Paul and Andrew
The image of the Apostle Paul is the only piece remaining from the Pisa Polyptych in Pisa (San Matteo Museum). The dimensions of the panel are 51 x 31 cm. The painting was already attributed to Masaccio in the seventeenth century (there is an inscription on the side). Almost the entire XVIII century it was kept in the Opera della Primateziale, and in 1796 it was transferred to the Museum of San Matteo. Paul is depicted on a gold background, respecting the iconographic tradition of holding a sword in his right hand and the book of the Acts of the Apostles in his left. In his type he looks more like an ancient philosopher than an apostle. In the past, some critics considered Andrea di Giusto, an assistant to Masaccio, as the author of the painting, but all modern scholars agree that it is the work of Masaccio.
The panel depicting the Apostle Andrew (51 cm x 31 cm) was in the Lankoronsky Collection (Vienna), then entered the Royal Collection of the Prince of Lichtenstein (Vaduz), and today is in the Paul Getty Museum (Malibu). The figure of the saint is given a monumentality, the image is constructed as if we were looking at it from below. Andrew is holding the cross with his right hand and the Acts of the Apostles with his left. Like the image of Paul, Andrew”s countenance is given philosophical depth.
St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and two Carmelite monks
Four small panels, each measuring 38 x 12 cm, were attributed to Masaccio when they were in the collection of Butler (London). In 1905 they were purchased by Frederick III for the Berlin Picture Gallery. In 1906, the German researcher Schubring linked the four works to the Pisan polyptych, suggesting that they had previously adorned its side pilasters. Three of the saints (Augustine, Jerome, and a Carmelite monk with a beard) look to the right, the fourth to the left. All the figures are painted as if light were falling on them from a single source. Some scholars believe that the hand of one of Masaccio”s assistants can be seen in these small works.
All three paintings of the predella have survived: The Adoration of the Magi (21 x 61 cm), The Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Execution of John the Baptist (21 x 61 cm), and The Story of St. Julian and St. Nicholas (22 x 62 cm). The first two were purchased by the Berlin Museum in 1880 from the Florentine Capponi Collection. In 1908, the Berlin Museum acquired the third, The Story of St. Julian and St. Nicholas. For the first two the authorship of Masaccio was not doubted by anyone, regarding the third there were discrepancies: Burnson considered it the work of Andrea di Giusto, Salmi the work of Masaccio”s brother Giovanni (Scegia).
Masaccio did not use gold backgrounds in his pictures of the predella. Researchers have repeatedly noted the role of the predella in the development of Renaissance painting in general: its horizontally elongated format brought it closer to antique relief; it was also in the pictures of the predella that artists gained more freedom by abandoning the golden backgrounds.
Most scholars agree that the Adoration of the Magi was written first. Vasari particularly noted: “…in the middle are the Magi bringing gifts to Christ, and in this part several of the horses are painted so beautifully that it could not be better…”. A particular solemnity is given to the entire scene. The three wise men are depicted with an entourage in which M. Salmi (he stands in a dark headdress immediately behind the wise men, looking thoughtfully at the scene.
On the next board of the transept there are two different scenes – St. Peter, who was martyred by being crucified on an upside-down cross (in Masaccio”s case he is not hanging, but his head is resting on the ground – a repeat of the Brancacci Chapel scene), and the beheading of John the Baptist, executed by order of Herod the king. John”s executioner is shown from the back with his feet firmly planted on the ground (this footwork clearly echoes that of the tax collector in the Miracle of the Stylar from the Brancaccia Chapel) – this is the ability to convey the correct footwork (which no one before him could do) that Giorgio Vasari praised Masaccio for.
The presence of St. Julian and St. Nicholas in the Pisa altarpiece and scenes from their lives are considered by scholars to be a consequence of the fact that St. Julian (Italian: Giuliano) was the patron saint of Giuliano di Colino, and St. Nicholas was the patron saint of his parents (Colino is short for Nicolino or Nicola).
A small panel (50 x 34 cm) in the form of a small altarpiece from the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg, contains two scenes: “Prayer of the Cup” and “Communion of St. Jerome.” The upper scene uses a gold background, while the lower scene is fully inscribed. The figures of the three apostles on the right are the same shape as the painting. Most critics believe it was painted immediately after the Pisa Polyptych. At the end of the 19th century the German scholar Schmarzow attributed it to Masaccio, but not all scholars have supported this attribution. Bernson attributes the painting to Andrea di Giusto, while Longi and Salmi consider it the work of Paolo Schiavo. The value of this work and the attribution to Masaccio were reaffirmed in the works of Ortel (1961), Berti (1964) and Parronchi (1966), who saw in it a pronounced originality.
This work dates from about the same time as the Pisa Polyptych. On a gold background overlaid on a board measuring 24 x 18 cm, it depicts a Madonna caressing an infant”s chin. The coat of arms depicts a shield with six stars against a yellow background. The coat of arms of Antonio Casini, who was made a cardinal on May 24, 1426, is girded in the center with a black ribbon and a gold cross. Roberto Longhi, who unveiled the work in 1950 and attributed it to Masaccio, attributed it to the time of the Pisa polyptych because of its chromatic harmony and “wonderful spatial effects.” Most of today”s critics agree with the view that it is the work of Masaccio.
In the early twentieth century the painting was kept in a private collection, then in 1952 was shown at the “Second national exhibition of works of art returned from Germany” in Rome, in 1988, was transferred to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
A story from the life of St. Julian is inscribed on a small board measuring 24×43 cm. In the left part, St. Julian, while hunting, speaks to the devil in human form, who foretells the death of Julian”s father and mother by his hand. The central part shows St. Julian”s father and mother in the bedroom, where he, mistaking them for his wife and her lover, kills them both. In the right side he sees his wife alive in shock. For a long time this small panel from the Horn Museum, Florence, was thought to be some part of the Pisa altarpiece. According to another version, this work belongs to another work in the creation of which Masaccio may have participated with Masolino, the Carnesecca Triptych.
“The Trinity is a fresco measuring 667×317 cm, painted in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and subsequently transferred to canvas. There are several points of view as to when it was made. Some historians consider it to have been painted before the Brancacci Chapel around 1425 (Borsuch, Gilbert, Parronchi), others believe it was painted alongside the Brancacci Chapel in 1426-1427 (Salmi, Procacci, Brandi) and still others immediately before Masaccio left for Rome in 1427-1428 (Berti).
The fresco depicts God the Father towering over a crucifix, with four figures of those in the presence of Mary and John the Theologian, and below them, two donors folding their hands in prayer. At the bottom is a tomb with the relics of Adam. In spite of the presence of the donor and his wife in the fresco, no documents have survived concerning the customer of this work. Some believe it may have been Fra Lorenzo Cardoni, who served as Prior of the Church of Santa Maria Novella from 1423 until early 1426, others believe it was Domenico Lenzi, who died in 1426 and was buried in this church near the fresco. It is also possible that the fresco was commissioned by Alesso Strozzi, who was a friend of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, who took over as prior of the church after Fra Lorenzo Cardoni.
“The Trinity is considered to be one of the most important works that influenced the development of European painting. As early as 1568, Vasari admired the fresco, but a couple of years later a new altar was erected in the temple, which covered it from the public, and the central panel of that altar, the Madonna of the rosary, was painted by Vasari himself. The fresco remained unknown to subsequent generations until 1861, when it was transferred to the inner wall of the façade between the left and the main entrance to the temple. After Ugo Procacci discovered in 1952 the lower part of the fresco with the relics of Adam behind the neo-Gothic altar that had been erected in the nineteenth century, it was moved to its original location.
Due to the fact that this work embodies with particular consistency the laws of perspective and the architectural principles of Brunelleschi, critics have repeatedly written that it was created under the direct supervision of that architect, but most do not share this view. In contrast to the traditional depiction of the crucifixion against a blue sky with weeping angels and a crowd at its foot, Masaccio placed the cross in an architectural interior similar to the vault of an ancient Roman triumphal arch. The whole scene is very reminiscent of an architectural niche in which sculptures stand. The technology of producing the composition was probably simple: Masaccio hammered a nail into the bottom of the fresco, from which he stretched threads, and traced the surface with a slate pencil (his traces can still be seen today). A linear perspective was thus constructed.
According to the most common interpretation of the iconography of this fresco, it refers us to the traditional medieval double chapels of Calvary, in the lower part of which was the tomb of Adam (relics) and in the upper part a crucifix (similar chapels copied the temple of Calvary in Jerusalem). This unusual iconography and pictorial design embodies the idea of the movement of the human spirit to salvation: growing out of the earthly life (Adam”s skeleton) through the prayer of those standing by, the intercession of Our Lady and John the Baptist, the human spirit is directed to the Most Holy Trinity with the hope of forgiveness and gaining eternal life.
The wooden tray, 56 cm in diameter, is painted on two sides: one with the Nativity and the other with a putto with a little dog. In 1834 the tondo was the property of Sebastiano Ciampi of San Giovanni Valdarno and was purchased by the Berlin Museum in Florence in 1883. This work is usually dated to the period of Masaccio”s last stay in Florence before he left for Rome, where he died. Since 1834 the work has been attributed to Masaccio (first by Gverrandi Dragomanni, then by Muntz, Bode, Venturi, Schubring, Salmi, Longi, and Burnson). However, there are those who consider it the work of Andrea di Giusto (Morelli), or Domenico di Bartolo (Brandi), or the work of an anonymous Florentine artist who worked between 1430 and 1440 (Pittaluga, Procacci, Miss).
The work is a desco da parto, a dining table for women in labor, which at the time was customary to be given to women of wealthy families to congratulate them on the birth of their child (how this took place can be seen in the nativity scene depicted: on the left, among the offerings, stands a man with the same desco da parto). Although such works were close to the work of artisans, the most famous artists of the Quattrocento did not shy away from making them. Berti saw in this work “the first Renaissance tondo,” drawing attention to important innovations and the use of perspective-lined architecture in accordance with the principles of Brunelleschi. The classical harmony inherent in this work would be continued in Fra Angelico”s frescoes.
Of the few archival documents relating to the artist”s life, a record of the Florentine tax register has survived. It is dated July 1427 and states that Masaccio and his mother rented a modest room on the Via dei Servi, being able to maintain only part of a studio shared with some other artists. In his Life of Masaccio (1568), Vasari describes him as follows: “He was a very absent-minded and unconcerned man, like those who have their minds and wills concentrated only on things related to art, and who pay little attention to themselves and even less to others. And since he never and in no way wanted to think about worldly affairs and cares, including even his clothes, and was in the habit of demanding money from his debtors only in case of extreme need, instead of Tommaso, which was his name, everyone called him Mazaccio, but not for his vice, because he was naturally kind, but for the very absent-mindedness that did not prevent him from so readily providing other such services and such pleasantries, of which one would not even dream.
Masaccio had many debts. This is confirmed by a note on the artist”s death made in 1430 by one of his creditors, who expresses doubts about the solvency of his debtor, relying on the words of his brother Giovanni (Scegi), who renounced Mazaccio”s debt-ridden inheritance. This was the state of affairs before his departure for Rome.
It is not clear how many months Masaccio spent in Rome. His death was unexpected, but there is no basis for the version of poisoning set out by Vasari. Antonio Manetti personally heard from the artist”s brother that he died at the age of about 27, that is, at the end of 1428, or at the very beginning of 1429. In the tax documents of November 1429 a notation is made in the official”s hand opposite Masaccio”s name: “It is said that he died in Rome”. Of the reactions to his death, only Brunelleschi”s words “What a great loss we have suffered” have survived. It is likely that these words testify to the paucity of the circle of innovative artists who understood the essence of the master”s work.
In 1428 Masaccio left his unfinished frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel and went to Rome. Most likely, he was called there by Masolino to work on a polyptych for the Roman church of Santa Maria Maggiore and other prestigious commissions. According to most scholars, Masaccio had time to begin the left side of the altarpiece depicting St. Jerome and St. John the Baptist. Masolino had to complete the triptych alone. In the seventeenth century this work was kept in the Palazzo Farnese, but in the eighteenth century it was dismantled and sold. The triptych was double-sided, so just as in the case of Duccio”s famous Maesta, it was sawn lengthwise so as to separate the front and back surfaces. As a result, “St. Jerome and John the Baptist” and “St. Liberio and St. Matthew” ended up in London”s National Gallery, the center panel “Founding of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore” and “Ascension of Mary” in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples, “St. Peter and Paul” and “St. John the Evangelist and St. Martin of Loreto” in the Johnson Collection, Philadelphia.
The painting (114x55cm) shows St. Jerome in full-length according to the iconographic canon: in red vestment and hat, with a lion sitting next to him. Behind him stands John the Baptist. The picture was attributed to Masaccio by the English researcher C. Clarke in his article published in 1951. However, some scholars attribute the work to Masolino or even Domenico Veneziano.
According to Vasari, Masaccio gained “the greatest fame” in Rome, enough to be commissioned by the Cardinal of San Clemente to paint the Chapel of St. Catherine in the Church of San Clemente with stories from the life of the saint (frescoes today considered the work of Masolino). However, his participation in the murals raised serious doubts among scholars later on. Some (Venturi, Longhi, and, with reservations, Berti) believe that Masaccio may belong to the synopies (preliminary drawings on plaster) in the crucifixion scene, specifically in the depiction of the knights on the left. All attempts to separate Masaccio”s hand from Masolino”s hand in these frescoes do not go beyond speculation. The fresco with the scene of the Crucifixion is badly damaged and remains in a condition that does not allow us to make any accurate analysis and conclusions.
The work of Masaccio had a profound influence on the development of Renaissance painting, and more broadly on the whole of European painting. His work has been studied by many generations of artists, among them Raphael and Michelangelo. The short but extraordinarily rich in creative discoveries life of the outstanding master took on an almost legendary form in Europe and resonated in works of art. Numerous books and journal articles in many languages of the world have been published about him.