Masaccio, by name 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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The first great painter of the 15th century of the Italian Renaissance was Masaccio (December 21, 1401 – autumn 1428), born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone. According to Vasari, Masaccio has considered the best painter of his generation thanks to his ability to recreate realistic figures and movements giving a sense of three-dimensionality.
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In the Renaissance, art was often handed down from father to son. It is curious, therefore, that Masaccio and his brother became painters even though none of their ancestors were artists. The children, often not yet adolescents, would have been apprentices to a master spending several years in his workshop and learning the skills needed to make various types of art. Masaccio underwent this training, even if there are no traces of it. In the Renaissance, art was learned by imitation—individuality in the workshop was discouraged. The apprentice would have copied the style of the master until it became his own, this aspect is crucial for the understanding of the painter, therefore knowing who taught Masaccio would reveal a lot about his artistic training and his early works.
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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 are in the right panel. The painting has lost much of its original framing, and its surface is badly abraded. However, Masaccio’s concern to suggest three-dimensionality through volumetric figures and forms of foreshortened is evident, acting as a revival of Giotto’s approach, rather than a continuation of contemporary trends.
Collaboration with Masolino
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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. It is believed that Masaccio painted the most important Virgin and Child on their throne, while Masolino painted the figure of St. Anne and the angels holding the drape of honor behind her. While Masolino’s figures are delicate, graceful, and somewhat flat, Masaccio’s are solid and powerful.
In 1424, Felice Brancacci commissioned a cycle of frescoes from the well-known duo of Masaccio and Masolino for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The painting began around 1425, but for unknown reasons, the chapel remained unfinished and was completed by Filippino Lippi in the 1480s. The iconography of the fresco decoration is somewhat unusual; most of the frescoes represent the life of St. Peter, while two scenes depict the temptation and expulsion of Adam and Eve.
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The frescoes tell the life of St Peter. The style of Masaccio’s scenes shows Giotto’s influence. The figures are large, heavy, and solid; emotions are expressed through faces and gestures, and there is a strong impression of naturalism in all the paintings. Unlike Giotto, Masaccio uses linear and atmospheric perspective, directional light, and chiaroscuro. As a result, his frescoes are even more realistic than those of his trecento predecessor.
The holy trinity
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Around 1427 Masaccio obtained a commission for the construction of a Holy Trinity for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. There are no documents on who was the commissioner of the frescoes, but recently at the foot of the fresco references have been found to the ownership of a tomb of the Berti family a working family devoted to the Trinity, who may have commissioned the painting from Masaccio. The fresco, considered Masaccio’s masterpiece, is the first surviving painting to use the systematic linear perspective, perhaps conceived by Masaccio with the help of Brunelleschi.