Castel San Giovanni di Altura, Italy
Summary of Masaccio
Masaccio is often credited as the first truly Renaissance artist. A tragically early end to his life cut short his progress, yet his outstanding work altered the course of Western art. The Early Renaissance was a time of cultural flourishing in Florence, and Masaccio was able to take advantage of the significant patronage of the arts among the nobility, who were keen to show off their wealth and prestige in the form of alter-pieces and friezes decorating private chapels. Little is known about his life; what we do know is that his work was unlike that of any other artist working in Florence at the time, following a rational approach that would come to characterize the broader Renaissance.
- One of the most significant innovations in art - and no less architecture and engineering - during the Renaissance, was the use of linear perspective to create the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional rendering. Masaccio took inspiration from the architectural drawings of Filippo Brunelleschi, who had rediscovered the concept of perspective, lost since Ancient Roman and Greek times, and applied it to painting, altering the course of Western art.
- By taking the principles of perspective from architecture, and the study of light and form from sculpture, and applying them to painting, Masaccio created works of remarkable realism, that were completely different to any other painting of the time. His religious figures appear as solid objects in three-dimensional space. In this way they occupy an extension of the viewer's world, as if behind a pane of glass, rather than a wholly separate, pictorial plane as in Medieval art.
- The realism of Masaccio's paintings not only demonstrates the scientific principles which were key to the development of the Renaissance, it brings the holy persons closer to the viewer, and makes them appear more human, establishing a change in the relationship between the people and their God.
Biography of Masaccio
Masaccio was born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone Cassai in the winter of 1401 in a town close to Florence. His father was Ser Giovanni di Simone Cassai, a notary, and his mother Monna Iacopa, the daughter of an innkeeper. Masaccio and his brother Giovanni both became painters, though neither of their parents had been artists. Their grandfather, however, was a maker of wooden cabinets (cassoni), which were often painted, and the family name Cassai comes from the word for "carpenter" in Italian. Giovanni continued work on such objects throughout his artistic career, earning him the nickname lo Scheggia (the splinter) on account of this, as well as his slim build.
Important Art by Masaccio
This is the earliest known work by Masaccio, dated April 23rd 1422 in the inscription running along the bottom edge of the three panels. It was commissioned by the Vanni Castellani family of Florence and originally resided in the church of San Lorenzo, before being moved to San Giovenale. It was designed as an altarpiece, presumably for a secondary chapel of the church, with the customary scene of the Virgin and Child on its central panel. On the left wing are Saint Bartholomew and Saint Blaise, and on the right are Saint Antony and Saint Juvenal (or San Giovenale), all of whom are identified by name labels in the inscription below.
The way the figures are depicted shows the profound influence of Giotto, the artist who had been at the forefront of the Renaissance a century earlier. However, the way the Virgin's throne recedes into the background, placing the figures in a realistic space behind the picture plane shows an innovative use of perspective, which was distinctly modern for the time. The simplicity of the forms and composition, along with this realistic space, show that Masaccio was already moving away from the International Gothic style, rejecting the elaborate decoration and implausible pictorial space favored by artists such as Lorenzo Monaco and Gentile da Fabriano. This early painting contains elements of the linear perspective and compositional unity that would come to characterize his future works. The inscription at the bottom is the first known example of the use of modern letters, as opposed to gothic script.
This panel, again showing the Virgin and child, this time with her mother sitting behind her, is thought to have been a collaboration with Masolino. According to Giorgio Vasari, it originally stood in the church of San Ambrogio in Florence right next to the entrance of the nuns' quarters. This seems a suitable setting for this painting focusing on the Virgin and her mother St Anne, as they were considered to be models for an ideal Christian woman. The intricate damask fabric held behind St Anne may reference the likely patron of the panel, Nofri Buonamici, who was a weaver of silk.
Whilst some parts of this painting still show the more Gothic hand of Masolino, Massacio's innovative painting style is nonetheless evident. It is visible particularly in the Christ child, who has been depicted not as a Gothic cherub but as a realistic infant. One can also see how Masaccio painted the figures as if they were illuminated by one real light source to the left, rather than the all-encompassing glow found in Gothic painting. Whilst the rounded figures show some influence from Donatello, one can also see in this panel the development of Masaccio's own individual style.
This fresco scene is one of several depicting scenes from the life of St Peter, painted by Masaccio in collaboration with the painter Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Masolino, who had already been working on the chapel for a few years, eventually abandoned the work, as did Masaccio when he left for Rome, where he died in 1428, and it was eventually completed by Filipino Lippi between 1481 and 1485. Although disastrous fires and additions by later artists have caused serious losses, the frescoes that survive are recognized as some of the most important in Florence.
This section shows Christ and his disciples in Capernicum, where they are required to pay tax. In the centre Christ and his disciples are confronted by the tax collector, on the left the fisherman Peter collects gold from the mouth of a fish, as instructed by Christ, and on the right Peter hands over the money.
This painting exemplifies Masaccio's skilful use of perspective - atmospheric perspective in the mountains to the left, and linear perspective in the building to the right,a technique that would have a significant influence on later Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello. The technical excellence of this painting has been studied and sketched by countless artists, from Michelangelo to Philip Guston. Masaccio was one of the first artists to use naturalism and perspective in this way, creating a space so realistic that the picture plane appears more as a window than a flat surface. The figures' poses emulate classical statues, and their draped clothing is reminiscent of that worn by classical philosophers. Though the painting has a narrative subject, Masaccio has focused on the harmonious arrangement of figures rather than the storyline. Art Historian Richard Offner suggests that the meaning of the painting is found "in the degree in which [the figures] reflect a universal order"; in other words the composition reflects the balance and organisation bestowed on nature by God.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Masaccio
- Florence and the Renaissance: The QuattrocentoBy Alain Lemaître / 1995
- Masaccio; Saint Andrew and the Pisa AltarpieceOur PickBy Eliot Rowlands / / 2003
- The Cambridge Companion to MasaccioBy Diane Ahl / / 2002
- Parts of The Pisa Polyptych by MasaccioBy Andrew Graham Dixon / Sunday Telegraph / September 2nd, 2001
- Masaccio and the Holy TrinityBy Mark Michael Astarita / Vanderbilt Historical Review / September 30th, 2015
- Charles Saatchi's Great Masterpieces: the painter who inspired da Vinci and MichelangeloOur PickBy Charles Saatchi / The Telegraph / September 5th, 2017