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The Italian painter Masaccio (1401-1428) was the first great exponent of Renaissance painting. In his brief life he produced four major works utilizing the new discipline of space defined in perspective.
Tommaso di Giovanni, called Masaccio, was born in San Giovanni Valdarno on the day of St. Thomas, for whom he was named. His father, Giovanni Cassai, died when Masaccio was 5; his mother remarried, and a stepsister's husband, the only local painter, Mariotto di Cristofano, in all likelihood took Masaccio on as an apprentice. He probably received the nickname Masaccio (Terrible Tom) to distinguish him from his collaborator Masolino (Little Tom).
Masaccio went to Florence when he was about 20 and very soon joined the most modern and prominent artist group there, headed by the sculptor-architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello. Claiming as their own the heritage of Roman antiquity and of Giotto, the great Florentine master of the 14th century, they developed a new art of space and form. It utilized exact perspective invented by Brunelleschi and anatomical realism and applied these skills to narratives depicting critical moments in human relationships. Brunelleschi and Donatello found in the young Masaccio someone who could transfer these concerns into the medium of painting, using as well realistic contrasts of light and shade and the startling novelty of continuous luminous color areas that built forms and almost eliminated drawn edges. All of these innovations were recorded in the handbook on painting written in 1435 by Leon Battista Alberti, which was dedicated to Brunelleschi and alluded to Masaccio.
The Sagra del Carmine, a fresco that was in the cloister of S. Maria del Carmine in Florence, Masaccio's only major lost work, was apparently also his first large project. The Sagra represents the consecration of the church, which took place in 1422, and the painting was executed by 1425. Such a monumental representation of a local current event was apparently an innovation. Some 16th-century drawings have been called copies of it, but this is an error. In 1425 Masolino, a leading painter of the late Gothic style, left for Hungary, and he seems to have bequeathed some work in progress to Masaccio, who came from the same region. This may account for their collaboration on the small altarpiece Madonna and Child with St. Anne. Most of the figures are by Masolino, but the Madonna appears to have been painted by Masaccio over Masolino's outline drawing, and the Christ Child is entirely Masaccio's creation. It reveals a powerful vitality evoked by glowing light and a convincing solidity of forms.
Probably also of 1425 is Masaccio's first fresco, usually called the Trinity, in S. Maria Novella, Florence. A new approach to its remarkable use of perspective, often cited as typical of the time but actually more complex by far than any other cases, has been stimulated by recent study of the circumstances of its commission, involving the learned prior of the Dominican convent of S. Maria Novella. Probably much helped by Brunelleschi in rendering the perspective, Masaccio used it to support the theological theme, the relation of the Trinity and Crucifixion, where one figure, Christ, participates in both themes and thus illustrates the dual nature of Christ as immortal God and suffering man, a doctrine, "Corpus Domini," of special concern to Dominicans. The realistic perspective spaces are cut into compartments that underline this presentation.
In 1426, as an unusually full set of documents reveals, Masaccio painted a polyptych for S. Maria del Carmine in Pisa, Donatello apparently being his sponsor. It was later disassembled, and only some parts survive: the Madonna and Child Enthroned, the central panel; two small saints, St. Paul and St. Andrew; the pinnacle with the Crucifixion; and the predella and framing columns. While the central panel recalls the thickset bodies and glowing vigor of the earlier Madonna and Child with St. Anne, the tiny scenes of the predella introduce Masaccio's narrative art, with strong, sometimes ugly people bathed in warm color and situated in tightly orchestrated spaces.
That is the style of Masaccio's last and greatest work, the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel in S. Maria del Carmine, Florence. The work, begun by Masolino for the merchant Felice Brancacci, was probably resumed by him in 1427, when he returned from Hungary, but now in collaboration with Masaccio, who did half of it, six scenes. Five are stories from the life of St. Peter, and the sixth is the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a "preface" painted in the narrow thickness of the entrance archway.
In the first scene, St. Peter Baptizing, a jostling crowd is arranged in a semicircle, much as in the predella of the Pisa polyptych. In the famous Tribute Money (the rare subject was probably chosen to propagandize for an income tax reform in Florence of the same year) Masaccio simplified the grouping, making a more skeletal geometry but also giving each figure a massive grandeur. The Expulsion takes this geometry of spatial siting of each figure to an extreme, and the figures of Adam and Eve have powerful emotional expressiveness.
The three remaining scenes, on a lower tier, are spatially more complex and sketchier in brushwork-advanced work not reached by other artists for some generations. In the Miracle of the Shadow, St. Peter and St. John walk forward, and three cripples are shown in recession in stages of being cured; where the two groups pass each other, the miracle happens, and theme and geometry coincide. In St. Peter and St. John Distributing Alms, another reference to Florentine fiscal policy, Masaccio employs a complex W-shaped space. The Raising of the Pagan King's Son was partly repainted 50 years later; for unknown reasons Masaccio went to Rome, where he died at the age of 26.
Further Reading on Masaccio
Ugo Procacci, All the Paintings of Masaccio (1962), is brief but authoritative. A full and up-to-date account is Luciano Berti, Masaccio (1967). □