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Tommaso Guidi, better known as Masaccio, (1401 - 1428), was a famous painter of the Italian Renaissance. He worked in Florence. Masaccio was a nickname that meant Fat Untidy Tom. He lived a very short life and only a few of his paintings exist, but they were so different to the style of other artists around him that they helped other painters to see things in a new way.
Masaccio was born on 21 December, 1401, in the town of San Giovanni Valdarno, in the valley of the Arno River, near Florence. He was the son of a notary, a person who writes legal documents. His older brother became a painter and moved to Florence to the workshop of a painter called Bicci di Lorenzo. It is not known for certain, but it is thought that Masaccio may have trained at the same workshop. Masaccio's brother was nicknamed Lo Scheggia which means The Splinter, so it is thought that he was a skinny as Masaccio was fat.
In 1422, when he was 21, Masaccio was already known as a painter, because he joined the Company of Saint Luke, which was a guild that helped artists and set down the rules for their employment.
The earliest known painting by Masaccio is the San Giovenale Triptych, dating from 1422. A "triptych" is a painting in three parts, most often used as an altarpiece. This altarpiece has in the middle panel the Virgin Mary and Christ Child on a throne. The wings, or side panels, each show two saints. Kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary are two little angels. One of the things that makes this painting different from most other paintings of the same time is that the angels are shown from the back. Their position is an invitation for the viewer to kneel down and worship the Virgin and Child as well. Masaccio used this way of making the viewer feel part of the scene in many of his paintings.
The plump solemn Baby Jesus with his fingers in his mouth, the three-dimensional look of the figures and the lack of rich decoration make this picture look very different from most other altarpieces of this time, which were painted in a style called International Gothic.
In April 1422 an event took place in Florence that was to be important in Masaccio's life. A new church was opened, and there was a grand procession and feast to celebrate. The church was Santa Maria del Carmine and Masaccio went along with his good friends, the sculptor Donatello, the architect Brunelleschi and the painter Masolino.
After the feast day, it seems that Masaccio went to Rome, probably with his friends. Brunelleschi and Donatello like to spend a lot of time poking around among the ruins of Ancient Rome. It is believed that on this trip Masaccio also spent a lot of time poking around in the ruins. What he saw were the sculptures of a previous age- more life-like and realistic than anything that he had ever seen before. Many of the sculptures showed pocessions of figures, but each figure was different from the next, so that they all looked like real individual people.When Masaccio returned to Florence he was given a job, a commission to paint a fresco of the procession that had taken place for the opening of the new church. Masaccio was inspired by what he had seen in Rome.
The writer Vasari, who must have seen the picture before it was destroyed in the late 1500s, wrote that the people were in rows that were five or six deep, but painted in such a way that they were all different, fat ones and thin ones, tall ones and short ones, some in long cloaks, some in big hats, and every single one was a portrait of a real person who lived in Florence at the time. And of course, Masaccio put his friends Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masolino into the picture. Luckily, several artists made drawings at some time in the 1500s, so part of the design has been recorded, even though the painting itself has gone.
Working with Masolino
In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is an altarpiece that shows the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne. The Madonna and Child are seated on a throne, as is usual. Saint Anne, who was the mother of the Virgin Mary, is shown standing behind Mary with one hand on her daughter's shoulder and the other hand above the head of the Baby Jesus in a sign of blessing. The painting may have been done for a convent of nuns who honoured Saint Anne.
It is believed that this painting is a collaboration; that two artists worked on it together. It is believed by Art Historians that Masaccio painted Mary and Jesus and the angel near the top right. It is believed that Saint Anne and the other four angels were painted by Masolino.
Masolino was 17 years older than Masaccio. His name was Tommaso da Panicale, so when the two began to work together, they were known as Masaccio and Masolino, which means "Little Tom". Those are the names by which they are remembered as painters.
The Brancacci Chapel
The Brancacci Chapel is a large chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine where Masaccio had previously worked painting the procession. It was sponsored by the Brancacci family who paid for its decoration. There are no written records to show why or how it happened, but it seems that Masaccio and Masolino were given the job together. At first everything went very well and then things went very badly. It looked as if the job would never be finished. In fact, it is lucky that the paintings in the chapel survived at all.
The job seems to have started in 1423 or 1424 but this is not certain. The plan of the paintings was to show firstly how Sin came into the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. A painting by Masolino shows their disobedience in taking fruit from the forbidden tree. A painting opposite it by Masaccio shows Adam and Eve in disgrace, being chased out of the Garden of Eden. The rest of the paintings show The Life of Saint Peter. This is because Saint Peter was the founder of the Catholic Church and the paintings were meant to show that the best way to know about God's love is through the Church.
It seems that Masaccio and Masolino happily planned a scheme of frescoes that went together is a pleasing way, even though they are in two styles. It is not hard to tell which scenes Masolino painted and which were done by Masaccio. Masolino's are prettier and more elegant. The thing that was most different in his painting to other artists of the same time was that the figures looked very solid and three-dimensional. He was influenced by the paintings of Giotto who had worked in Florence at the Church of Santa Croce nearly a hundred years earlier, but whose style of painting had given way to the International Gothic style.
Apart from the Adam and Eve scenes, which are the smallest of the pictures, the most famous is Masaccio's picture of The Tribute Money. This large picture is set partly against a background of mountains and a lake, and partly against the background of a town which is similar to Florence. There are three scenes from the story. In the centre of the picture is a large group, Jesus and his twelve disciples. A tax collector has come to ask for a payment, but none of the men have any money. Jesus tells Peter to go fishing in the lake. Peter looks rather annoyed, wondering what good it will do. To the left, the small figure of Peter is kneeling at the edge of the lake with a fish he has caught. Inside the fish is a coin. To the right side of the picture, Peter is shown giving the coin to the tax collector. He no longer looks argumentative. Instead, he looks humble. Masaccio has expertly shown the feelings of the characters, not only by their faces, but also through body language.
Neither Masaccio nor Masolino were able to work on the frescoes continuously, as they both kept getting other jobs to attend to. In 1428 Masaccio was asked to go to Rome to paint an altarpiece for one of the most important and ancient churches, Santa Maria Maggiore. He only painted one panel, Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist, before he died at the age of 27 years. Masolino and perhaps another artist, Domenico Veneziano worked on, and finished the altarpiece, which was later broken into pieces and scattered to galleries in different countries. Masaccio's panel is in the National Gallery, London.
Masolino lived for another 19 years, but he never went back to finish the Brancacci frescoes. The Brancacci family fell into disgrace and were chased out of Florence. One of Masaccio's pictures was attacked because it had portraits of some of the Brancacci family in it. Some 50 years later, in the 1480s, all the scenes that remained incomplete or not begun were painted by Filippino Lippi, who tried to respect the styles that Masaccio and Masolino had used before him.
The chapel, which was dedicated to Saint Peter, was re-dedicated to Our Lady of the Common People and to her honour a magnificent ancient altarpiece by Coppo di Marcovaldo, dating from about 1280 was put into place. Because this image of the Virgin Mary was said to work miracles, many hundreds of candles were lit in front of it which soon stained the frescoes so that their bright colours could no longer be seen. Eventually the painting was moved to a different church. Then part of the roof fell in and had to be replaced. More damage was done in re-decorating. In 1680 the Marquis Francesco Ferroni decided that the paintings were too old-fashioned and should all be pulled down. Luckily the Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere stopped this from happening. In 1734 a painter called Antonio Pillori cleaned the frescoes. Then in the 1770, there was a fire in the church, causing worse staining and some damage to the frescoes. (Luckily the precious altarpiece had been moved.)
In recent years there have been four interesting discoveries. During a minor cleaning in 1904 two slabs of marble near the altar were moved. Underneath were the bright colours that showed what the frescoes should look like. Examination of the areas where two windows had been changed showed the plans for two paintings that had been destroyed. The final discoveries in the chapel itself were two painted roundels with little angel faces in them, one by Masaccio and one by Masolino.
There was a problem to be solved in the minds of some art historians. Despite these interesting findings, there was a scene missing from the story of Saint Peter. It is the scene where Jesus says "You are Peter, and on this Rock I build my Church." This part of the story is of the greatest importance to the Roman Catholic Church because Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and so the Pope rules as his direct line. The scene is usually shown by Jesus giving Peter the Keys of Heaven. The Keys, for hundreds of years, have been the symbol of the Pope. But the story of the Keys is completely missing.
Then, in the 1940s, John Pope-Hennessy, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, realised that the museum owned a work of art that was exactly the thing that was missing from the Brancacci Chapel. It was a thin, almost flat marble slab delicately carved with the scene of Jesus giving the Keys to Peter. It was just the right size to make the front of an altar. And although it could not be proved, it was almost certainly carved by Masaccio's friend, Donatello.
At some time while he was working on the Brancacci Chapel, Masaccio painted a fresco for another church in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, the church of the Dominican Order. This is a very remarkable painting and one of Masaccio's most famous. It shows the Holy Trinity, (or God in three parts). God is shown as the eternal Creator, as the humble Sacrifice in Jesus on the Cross and as the inspiring Spirit. On either side of the Cross stand the Virgin Mary and Saint John. The two kneeling figures are the family who paid for the painting.
Masaccio has painted this very holy scene as if it was taking place in a deep recess or small chapel in the wall of the church. He has done this by using very accurate perspective. It is believed that the architect Brunelleschi may have helped him with this, as the painted architecture looks very much like buildings that Brunelleschi designed. RealJonWills
Vasari writes that Masaccio was not very famous in his own time. In 1440 his body was brought home to Florence and buried at Santa Maria del Carmine but no monument was put up in his honour. Shortly afterwards people began to honour him as a painter. Michelangelo and many other painters and sculptors went to the Brancacci Chapel to study Masaccio's paintings. His influence can be seen in the paintings of Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Ghirlandaio and particularly Michelangelo.
- Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, translated by George Bull, Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-044-164-6
- Ornella Casazza, Masaccio, Scala/Riverside, 1990, ISBN 1-878351-11-7