Tommaso Masaccio (c.1401-28)
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Regarded as one of the greatest Old Masters of the Florentine Renaissance, Tommaso Cassai (full name Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai) is known to us by his nickname "Masaccio", which is a diminutive of "Tommasaccio", the Italian for something like "big ugly Tom". Although Masaccio died at the early age of 27 he managed to paint a few pictures of such enormous impact as to affect not only the whole future course of Early Renaissance painting but also that of European art in general. As a result, he ranks alongside the greatest Old Masters of the quattrocento, like the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the sculptor Donatello (1386-1466) and the art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), as one of the founding fathers of Renaissance art in Italy.
His famous works include the Brancacci Chapel Frescoes (1424-8, Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence), featuring The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, The Tribute Money and others; and The Holy Trinity (1428, Santa Maria Novella, Florence).
He was born at Castel San Giovanni, the
modern San Giovanni Valdarno, located in the upper Arno valley, some 28
miles from Florence. Masaccio's father was a young notary, his mother,
Mona Jacopa di Martinozzo, the daughter of an innkeeper from a nearby
Masaccio's earliest known surviving painting, an altarpiece of the Madanna and Child with Two Angels and Four Saints (1422; from S. Giovenale di Cascia, near S. Giovanni; now in the Uffizi, Florence) does give us some idea of what his training as a painter must have been. Masaccio was 20 years old when this picture was dated. It shows us that he is already interested in space: not only do the lines in the floor indicate an attempt to grasp the laws of linear perspective, but so does the structure of the throne, with its slanted sides and curved back. The sense of space is heightened both by the apparent modeling of the robes and faces and by the use of alternating light and dark colour.
Wherever Masaccio trained, it can hardly have been in the strongly International Gothic atmosphere prevalent in early Renaissance art during the first two decades of the 15th century, where a sinuous elegant surface line was more important than depth within the picture. On the contrary his interest in modelling, in flesh tones, in space, and in light is much more characteristic of Marchigian painters. Both Arcangelo di Cola da Camerino (fl.1416-22) and Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427) show a keen interest in these things, and both were in Florence, the former about 1419-22, the latter first in 1419-20 and then again in 1422-5. It is possible that Masaccio was influenced by one or both of them. There is also one Florentine painter who shows much of Masaccio's interest in modeling and space, Giovanni Toscani, and it is conceivable that Masaccio was one of his pupils. Other possible masters to Masaccio were Bicci di Lorenzo and Francesco di Antonio. Masolino, who came from near San Giovanni, and with whom Masaccio worked on at least three commissions, was almost certainly not Masaccio's master: he may have hired Masaccio to help him with important commissions, but it was the much younger painter, Masaccio, who then influenced his senior.
The whole of Masaccio's authenticated extant
work, besides the San Giovenale painting, derives from only five other
commissions: the so-called "Matterza" Madonna and Child with
St Anne (c.1424; Uffizi Gallery Florence); the Pisa Altarpiece
(panels now dispersed); a mural painting
of The Trinity in S.Maria Novella, Florence; frescoes in the Brancacci
Chapel, S.Maria del Carmine, Florence; and Saints Jerome and John the
Baptist from an altarpiece originally in S.Maria Maggiore, Rome.
The chronology of the other known works
is not clear, although they seem all to have been painted between 1425
and the artist's death, probably some time in 1428. It seems possible
that Masaccio painted The Trinity in S.Maria Novella, Florence,
in 1425 or 1426, perhaps for the feast of Corpus Domini in one of those
years, although stylistically the painting is so advanced that it may
well date after the painter's earliest work in the Brancacci chapel. Masaccio
probably helped Masolino to plan the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel
in S.Maria del Carmine during 1425, and then began himself to paint there
some time after Masolino's departure for Hungary in September of the same
year. Masaccio must have worked at them during 1426, as well perhaps as
during 1427. The Pisa Altarpiece is, as mentioned above, dated
to the year 1426; while the panel of Saints Jerome and John the Baptist
(National Gallery, London) from the S.Maria Maggiore altarpiece was probably
painted during Masaccio's trip to Rome in 1427/28.
From the converging lines of the San Giovenale triptych, right through all his subsequent works, Masaccio developed two themes that were to remain central to the idiom of the Renaissance and to the history of Western painting. The first is the successful portrayal of a natural world within the painting, with convincing space, light, air, and objects. The second is part of this, but at the same time independent of it: the portrayal of a convincing replica of man, who dominates and gives order to that world. This is, of course, a visual version of the more general search for a correct scientific definition of man's place in the natural world, which occupies the Renaissance in all its facets.
Masaccio's religious fresco Holy Trinity (1428, Santa Maria Novella, Florence) terminates the Middle Ages by expressing the essence of medieval Christian belief in Renaissance terms. His work The Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel, on the other hand, stands clearly beyond the threshold, in the light-filled world of the Renaissance.
Nothing could be more traditional to the
Christian age than Masaccio's Trinity theme of a predominant God the Father,
supporting his crucified human Son, joined by the white dove of the Holy
Spirit: the universal, the human, the spiritual. But nothing could be
less traditional in its expression. Vaulted by a magnificent Renaissance
triumphal arch, the divine trio appears almost suspended before a pierced
wall. This coffered Brunelleschian space seems to be a mortuary chamber,
a holy sepulchre from which the Christ is shown resurrected by His Father,
Saviour to a waiting world, presented by the Virgin and St John; this
world is symbolized by the two donors just outside. The worldly spectator
is also included in the painting by association with the skeleton under
the altar; unlike the human body of Christ, which rose intact, our worldly
bodies decay. Above the skeleton are written some words to warn the passer-by;
"I was that which you are, you will be that which I am". Inside
the sepulchre, the space has been constructed according to the laws of
linear perspective, so that the eye appears to be looking into the interior
of a magnificent Renaissance building.
As a background for the Tribute Money, in the Brancacci Chapel at S.Maria del Carmine, Masaccio used a light-filled landscape, dominated (as is the countryside at San Giovanni Valdarno) by high hills. The painter, using newly established laws of perspective, created an infallible illusion of air, light, and space. But whereas in The Trinity God is the theme, here it is Man who dominates. Masaccio places in the natural scene classical statuesque figures, also apparently modelled after the Antique, who are above all human and free to move within their own natural world.
The Tribute Money emerges as, historically,
the most important single picture in Florence today. Each individual in
the painting stands, for the first time, strong and solitary, on a natural
and benevolent earth, sustained by real air, bathed in light, master of
the world stretching all around. Masaccio threw off the gloom and mystery
of earlier times, resurrecting the forms of an ancient pre-Christian world.
In the painting Christ stands equal to Man, not dominating him: a human
being Himself, giving good advice to His followers. In The Tribute
Money we already witness a Reformation - clearly evident too in the
humanistic work of Donatello and Brunelleschi - in which Man does not
cease to believe in Christ, although he may cease to believe in the infallibility
of the Roman Church. Rather, Man ceases to believe in a triumphal Christ-God
and begins to believe in a human Christ-Man.
The fresco paintings in the Brancacci chapel, of which The Tribute Money is one, relate scenes from the life of St Peter. The whole cycle seems to have been begun by Masolino about 1425, and then continued by Masaccio. The chapel was not actually finished until much later in the 15th century, by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). The Tribute Money itself alludes in some way to Man's separate duties to the State and to the Church. In it St Peter is instructed by Christ to pay a tax to the civil authority. This must certainly be a reference to the obligations of the Roman Church towards secular authority; it probably also refers to each individual man's obligation to render separately to God and to Caesar that which is due to them.
The other paintings by Masaccio in the
chapel seem to confirm this message: St Peter is seen preaching, baptizing,
healing, and distributing alms: all corporal works of mercy. What then
is the meaning of Masaccio's stupendous fresco of The Expulsion from
Paradise on the entrance arch to the chapel? Perhaps Masaccio meant
simply to point out that the anguish of Man over his loss of paradise
can be solaced by the good works of Holy Mother the Church; the Church
is the source of grace, through which Man can be saved.
Above all else, he introduces the greatest innovation of Renaissance painting: light defined as coming from a single source, by the shadows it casts. In this painting too, one is aware of the great sensitivity and delicacy of the painter's brushwork - the angels playing lutes are of such simplicity and craftsmanship as to make them seem to sing. Two other remarkable paintings from this altarpiece are the small panels of the Crucifixion now in Naples (Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte), and the Nativity in Berlin (Staatliche Museum). In the former the animal-like figure of the crouched Magdalene gesturing towards the anguish of St John and of the Virgin is of such a simple expressive force as almost to defy analysis. Christ's stark, shadow-struck body, meant to be seen from below, is also intensely expressive. As for the small Nativity panel, its lifelike Kings, the animals, the Holy Family - all are bathed in a dawn light, clearly defining the spaces involved, throwing sharp shadows.
The London panel of Saints Jerome and John the Baptist was once part of a triptych painted on both sides for the Roman basilica of S.Maria Maggiore. This painting, which represents the founding of that church, flanked by saints, is predominantly by Masolino; for some unknown reason, however, Masaccio executed this one panel. Since Masaccio and Masolino worked together on the Uffizi Madonna, in the Brancacci Chapel, as well as perhaps in other places, it is not so surprising that they collaborated here too.
Masaccio's contribution to the Italian Renaissance and thus to Western painting is enormous. During the first two decades of the 15th century, both sculpture (primarily through the work of Donatello) and architecture (through that of Brunelleschi) began to be cast in a new Renaissance idiom. In the course of a few years during the 1420s, Masaccio managed to set Western painting on a Renaissance course, similar in essence and language to that taken by those other expressions. If Cimabue (1240-1302) and Giotto (1267-1337) had created, over a century earlier, an ideal world in which Christian myths were acted out, Masaccio secularized that world by filling it with space, light, and air, and by placing a Classical sort of man within it, surrounded by nature. This idea of man as central to a logical natural world, and master of it, was to remain the principal source of imagery for Western painting until very recent times.
Paintings by Tommaso Masaccio can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe.
For profiles of the great artistic
movements/periods, see: History of Art.