Like several of the great Old Masters, it is likely that Masolino (Tommaso di Cristofano Masolino da Panicale) first learned goldsmithing - in any case, according to Giorgio Vasari, he was the 'best worker in bronze'. Certainly it was to him that Lorenzo Ghiberti turned while working on the south door of the Baptistery in Florence. He was not admitted to the guild of the Mediei e Speziale in Florence until 1423, the year in which he added his name to the Madonna of Humility (Bremen Museum), a work which bears few similarities to Ghiberti. In fact he uses a suppler, broader line, a freer construction, less calculated and less academic than Ghiberti's. But his qualities as a painter emerge particularly in his use of delicate but intense colours, and of textures which grow denser in the shade, then blur and soften in lighter areas in order to avoid too heavy an insistence on the difference between light and shade. At the same time, he knew how to convey the essential quality of things, as Giovanni da Milano had before him. He remains an important contributor to Renaissance art of the early quattrocento.
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This colourful, tender vision had its origins in the International Gothic style as practised in Tuscany by Lorenzo Monaco and to an even greater extent by artists such as the 'Master of the Strauss Madonna', and the 'Master of the Bambino Vispo'. It also included certain features new to Florence, such as the fantasies of Arcangelo di Cola (who came to Florence in 1419) and Gentile da Fabriano (1422).
Early Work: International Gothic Style
On 2nd November 1424 Masolino finished the fresco painting in the chapel of the Confraternity of the Cross (or of S. Elena) in the Church of S. Agostino d'Empoli, of which today only the sinopia (reddish-brown pigment) remains, together with a few decorative fragments and the Saints from the intrados of the entrance arch. In a lunette from another part of the church, important remains of a Madonna and Child with Two Angels and the fragments of a group of Young Girls at Prayer seem to pre-date the decoration of the chapel and even the Bremen Madonna. Because of its obvious similarities with Lorenzo Monaco and the 'Master of the Bambino Vispo', the Madonna from the Contini-Bonacossi collection in Florence (now in the Palazzo Vecchio), with its exceptionally broad range of colours, both vivid and delicate, would appear to be even earlier. It undoubtedly represents the high point of Florentine painting in the International Gothic style.
Working With Masaccio
The Heads which survive from the chapel of the Cross at S. Agostino d'Empoli, on the other hand, are very similar to the Bremen Madonna, although a few of them reveal a more synthetic and more sharply defined chiaroscuro that recalls the earlier collaboration between Masolino and Masaccio on The Virgin with St Anne (Uffizi, Florence). In this latter work, the monumentality of the Madonna and the massive form of the Child reveal the hand of an artist impatient to bring his new ideas to fruition. It has been established that Masaccio painted the figures of the Madonna, the Child and the angel in the top right-hand corner, while Masolino was responsible for St Anne and the other angels.
With the aid of this identification it has been possible to clarify the respective contribution of each artist to a further collaboration between them, the religious paintings in the Brancacci chapel in the Church of S. Maria del Carmine in Florence, commissioned by Felice Brancacci from Masolino, shortly after the former's return to Florence in February 1423. During the 18th century, the vault was unfortunately repainted and a huge altar was installed against the rear wall. To Masolino may be attributed The Temptation of Adam and Eve on the pilaster to the right of the entrance. The Resurrection of Tabitha (except for the square and the buildings in the background) and The Sermon of St Peter on the rear wall. Adam and Eve Expelled from the Garden of Eden on the left-hand pilaster by the entrance, and The Tribute Money (with the exception of the head of Christ) on the left wall, as well as The Baptism of the Neophytes, are the work of Masaccio. Compared to his colleague, Masolino (whose dealings with the Church of S. Maria del Carmine are proven by documents dated 1425) seems to give his figures a more ample and monumental stature and to highlight their volume by the deliberate use of chiaroscuro. But he failed to achieve the desired effect and the shading of the faces looks more like sunburn.
He undoubtedly obtained his best effects in the fresco of the Pieta, even though it is a little heavy (now in the museum of the Collegiate Church of Empoli) and in the Carnesecchi Triptych of the Florentine church of S. Maria Maggiore, of which only the right-hand panel depicting St Julian (Florence, Seminary) now survives, although there is a panel from the predella in Montauban Museum. Here, Masolino uses a more filtered, diffuse chiaroscuro (clothing, head of the Christ-Child, left hands of the Virgin and of St Julian) and the result suggests a gentler, mellower Masaccio. The triptych was almost certainly in position by 1426 and must have been executed before 1st September 1425, when Masolino left for Hungary.
Masolino returned to Italy in July 1427. Between 1427 and 1431 he finished in Rome the frescoes in a chapel in S. Clemente (Scenes from the Lives of St Catherine and St Ambrose, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Evangelists, Doctors of the Church) and the double-sided triptych for the Church of S. Maria Maggiore.
But here too the presence of Masaccio complicates analysis of the work. In fact, he was responsible for Saints Jerome and John the Baptist (London, N.G.) in the polyptych and probably had a hand in the execution of the soldiers in the bottom left-hand corner of the S. Clemente Crucifixion. A certain difference in style between the panel paintings executed by Masolino himself suggests that he and Masaccio had already paid a visit to Rome in 1425. The Crucifixion ensemble is exceptionally sober and deep compared with the other scenes, such as that showing the Beheading of St Catherine, which reveals a marked tendency towards the anecdotal. The panel of the polyptych with St Matthias and a Pope (St Liberius) (London, N.G.) is closer in style to the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel than to the refined, elegant central scenes of the S. Maria Maggiore altarpiece (Naples, Capodimonte).
This hypothesis is further strengthened by the fact that in April of 1425 Cardinal Castiglione, who commissioned works from Masolino and who was the titular cardinal of the Church of S. Clemente, passed through Florence. In Rome, too, he was associated with Cardinal Brancacci, the brother of Felice, who had commissioned the mural painting for the chapel of S. Maria del Carmine. After executing around this time The Madonna of Humility (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) and the two Annunciations (Washington, N.G.), in 1432 Masolino painted for the Church of S. Fortunato in Todi, a fresco of the Madonna between Two Angels, which is close in style to the admirable fresco cycle in the Baptistery of Castiglione Olona (Scenes from the Life of St John the Baptist, Evangelists, Doctors of the Church, God the Father). These were certainly carried out before those of the vault of the collegiate choir (Scenes from the Life of the Virgin), finished by Paolo Schiavo and by Vecchietta, probably after the death of the painter.
Revised Version of Masaccio's Aesthetic
Here, such elements as the influence of the late International Gothic, the experience of the innovative Early Renaissance painter Masaccio, a sure knowledge of perspective and the new outlook of Gentile da Fabriano are blended into a cheerful and colourful vision of men and of things, of architecture and landscape, depicted in a range of clear, vivid colours. The artistic heritage left by Masolino served as a basis for a revised version of Masaccio's aesthetic, as applied later by Domenico Veneziano (1410-61) and Piero della Francesca (1415-92).
Paintings by Masolino can be seen in some of the best art museums throughout the world.