Masaccio, byname of Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Cassai, was an important Florentine painter of the early Renaissance whose frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence remained influential throughout the Renaissance.
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Masaccio (December 21, 1401 – autumn 1428), born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, was the first great painter of the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance. According to Vasari, Masaccio was the best painter of his generation because of his skill at recreating lifelike figures and movements as well as a convincing sense of three-dimensionality.
In the Renaissance, art was often a family enterprise passed down from father to son. It is curious, therefore, that Masaccio and his brother became painters even though none of their immediate forebears were artists. Young boys, sometimes not yet in their teens, would be apprenticed to a master. They would spend several years in his workshop learning all the necessary skills involved in making many types of art. Certainly Masaccio underwent such training, but there remains no trace of where, when, or with whom he studied. This is a crucial, if unanswerable, problem for an understanding of the painter because in the Renaissance, art was learned through imitation—individuality in the workshop was discouraged. The apprentice would copy the master’s style until it became his own. Knowing who taught Masaccio would reveal much about his artistic formation and his earliest work.
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The San Giovenale altarpiece was discovered in 1961 in the church of San Giovenale at Cascia di Reggello, very close to Masaccio’s hometown. It 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. The painting has lost much of its original framing, and its surface is badly abraded. Nevertheless, Masaccio’s concern to suggest three-dimensionality through volumetric figures and foreshortened forms is apparent, and stands as a revival of Giotto’s approach, rather than a continuation of contemporary trends.
Collaboration with Masolino
The second work was perhaps Masaccio’s first collaboration with the older and already-renowned artist, Masolino da Panicale (1383/4–c. 1436). The circumstances of the two artists’ collaboration are unclear; since Masolino was considerably older, it seems likely that he brought Masaccio under his wing, but the division of hands in the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is so marked that it is hard to see the older artist as the controlling figure in this commission. Masolino is believed to have painted the figure of St. Anne and the angels that hold the cloth of honor behind her, while Masaccio painted the more important Virgin and Child on their throne. Masolino’s figures are delicate, graceful and somewhat flat, while Masaccio’s are solid and hefty.
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In 1424, the “duo preciso e noto” (“well and known duo”) of Masaccio and Masolino was commissioned by the powerful and wealthy Felice Brancacci to execute a cycle of frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. With the two artists probably working simultaneously, the painting began around 1425, but for unknown reasons the chapel was left unfinished, and was completed by Filippino Lippi in the 1480s. The iconography of the fresco decoration is somewhat unusual; while the majority of the frescoes represent the life of St. Peter, two scenes, on either side of the threshold of the chapel space, depict the temptation and expulsion of Adam and Eve.
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As a whole, the frescoes recount the life of St Peter as if it were the story of salvation. The style of Masaccio’s scenes shows the influence of Giotto especially. Figures are large, heavy, and solid; emotions are expressed through faces and gestures; and there is a strong impression of naturalism throughout the paintings. Unlike Giotto, however, Masaccio uses linear and atmospheric perspective, directional light, and chiaroscuro, which is the representation of form through light and color without outlines. As a result, his frescoes are even more convincingly lifelike than those of his trecento predecessor.
The holy trinity
Around 1427 Masaccio won a prestigious commission to produce a Holy Trinity for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. No contemporary documents record the patron of the fresco, but recently references to ownership of a tomb at the foot of the fresco have been found in the records of the Berti family of the Santa Maria Novella Quarter of Florence; this working-class family expressed a long-standing devotion to the Trinity, and may well have commissioned Masaccio’s painting.Probably it is the male patron who is represented to the left of the Virgin in the painting, while his wife is right of St. John the Evangelist. The fresco, considered by many to be Masaccio’s masterwork, is the earliest surviving painting to use systematic linear perspective, possibly devised by Masaccio with the assistance of Brunelleschi.
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