Adoration of The Magi (1425-1428). Now in Berlin. Public domain.
The question of whether the art of Masaccio can be seen as the starting point of Italian Renaissance art can be construed as misleading. Masaccio’s art has to be considered against the background of his close association with Donatello and Brunelleschi. All three were closely connected with the innovations of the Florentine literary humanists. The earliest known achievement of art in fifteenth century Florence is its realism. The roots of this achievement are found in the sculpture of Donatello and the perspective developments of Brunelleschi. In this sense, if the origin of Renaissance art is to be found with Donatello (and the sculptors led the way) then the sculptural influences in Masaccio’s painting, his perspective advances and humanist expression define him as the first true Renaissance painter.
The frescoes of Giotto (1266-1337) show a great leap forward in realism, especially his creation of rounded form by directional light and creation of shadow, as well as his expression of emotion by facial and bodily gesture. Similarly, the work of the Pisani (active around the same time) set in motion a trend towards realistic representation in sculpture. However, even though these masters made great strides in technique and representation, they are best described as precursors of rather than as Renaissance artists.
Between their work and that of the Renaissance, the Black Death intervened with the result that Giotto’s advances passed into abeyance in the aftermath of the grim passage of the plague itself in one direction and the emerging international Gothic style lyrically in the opposite. The swathe cut across Europe by the Black Death stimulated an art characterised by detailed, elegant and courtly style, characterised by a chivalric occupation with a stereotyped, fairy-tale landscape which masked the ravaged reality of the actual landscape and its town, cities and population.
Italian Renaissance art is inseparably linked with the intellectual humanism of mercantile Florence and other major Italian city states, as well as the movements’ renewal of interest in classical antiquity. This power of patronage of, and impetus to, the arts provided an atmosphere which was not available to precursors such as Giotto and the Pisano’s. The world of Giotto was still a medieval world whereas the world of Masaccio possessed the ambience of renewal, a world where the necessities of trade widened man’s horizons of exploration.
It is the humanist background of Donatello and Masaccio that inspired them to portray “…human beings and the natural space in which they lived more nearly as the appeared to the common sense observer…”, furthermore “…with regard for their human emotions and less for their symbolic significance.” (Holmes, 1969). By looking at the work of Masaccio we can examine why his art is in fact the start of Italian Renaissance painting, rather than the broader concept of Renaissance art as a whole.
Masaccio, born near Florence in 1401, and dead in Rome in 1428, was admitted to the Florentine Guild at the age of 22. His achievement was within six or seven years. From Brunelleschi he acquired his sense of mathematical proportion and understanding of perspective. From Donatello he drew knowledge of classical art forms. Yet his painting style owed little to other masters except the work of Giotto. The humanism and emotion in Masaccio’s painting are his own achievement and is why he can justly be described as the first great painter of the Renaissance and inaugurator of the modern painting era. Only four great and definite works by Masaccio survive. His earliest is the panel Madonna with St Anne
Virgin and Child and St. Anne (1424-25), with Masolino de Panicale.
painted around 1423. In this work the influence of Donatello can be seen in the solidly rounded forms of its figures with their realistic features and skin tones. It is possible that some elements of the painting were the work of Masaccio’s associate Masolino di Panicale. In this early work Masaccio already demonstrates clearly his realistic technique combined with his accuracy of showing forms in three-dimensional space. From this time he is more and more absorbed with his quest for a correspondence between painting and reality – feeding his enormous appetite to imitate from life.
Masaccio’s fresco in Santa Maria Novella painted around 1425 and known as The Trinity, can be regarded as the benchmark of Renaissance painting. Known for its use of golden
Holy Trinity (1425-28) in Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
light and soft shadows the work used full perspective in Western art for the first time. The use of classical architectural themes shows the influence of Brunelleschi and the growing revival of the antique. This fresco of Masaccio’s, like his others, demonstrates unity of style and content by avoiding the international Gothic because its details detracted in his view from the narrative. In other words Masaccio aimed at a clear and uncluttered relationship between details and the whole. A clarity of exposition not just of figures in space but of their emotions as well. In this respect Masaccio strove for homogeneity, not just of the narrative but also the spatial framework within which his theme is portrayed.
A monument to the heritage bequeathed by Masaccio are his fresco series in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, and painted around 1427. It is here that he demonstrated his great development of painting – the use of light and shade to define form and drapery. He thus created displays of light and shadow, using this technique of chiaroscuro to achieve a realistic and natural quality in his imagery. Masaccio painted six of the frescoes, of which the Expulsion from Paradise and The Tribute Money are regarded as his masterpieces. Other frescoes in the same series were done by Masolino and later by Filippino Lippi. The figures in these frescoes show rounded solidity with a maximum of emotion shown in facial features and gestures.
In the Expulsion from Paradise Masaccio represents very realistically the figures of Adam and Eve overcome by grief and shame. The scene depicts accurately the intense drama and sorrow of their predicament, the figures have definite attitudes with further gravity imposed by the cloud bound angel pointing the way to exile. The style of the works is austere and
The Expulsion from Paradise (1426-28). Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.
the figures are drawn with a masterly degree of realism. Masaccio’s figures are bulky and solid, sculpturesque as well as emotive in the style of Donatello. In this Masaccio contrasts with the lithe and lissom figures of Masolino in the opposite fresco concerning the temptation in the Garden of Eden. Again, the directional light source not only describes form but also adds to the dramatic narrative of a slow moving human couple, leaving a merely suggested Gate of Paradise in despair.
In The Tribute Money Masaccio shows his classical influences. The figures are shown in Roman attire but the tax gatherer in contemporary Florentine dress. The tax gatherer is also shown clean shaven according to local custom. The apostles are all bearded (though Roman fashion reviled at body hair) but one individual shows an obvious clean shaven and
The Tribute Money (1425). Brancacci Chapel, Florence.
classical profile. The scene is mathematically proportioned with a panoramic sweep, the characters presented as a continuous narrative. Masaccio uses colour to great effect with a directional light source. The result is that his figures have a credibility and depth as well as human character. In perspective terms the classically inspired buildings relate to the size of the figures. This fresco is the most famous episode in the cycle.
Although Bernard Berenson described Masaccio as Giotto reborn this can be regarded as somewhat enthusiastic. To regard him simply thus is to risk overlooking the novel in Masaccio’s achievements. Masaccio has been described as the father of Renaissance painting with his influence on contemporaries far more extensive and enduring than that of Giotto. Masaccio took the best of Giotto’s art and took it further by imbuing his own with a humanism that Giotto for his time could not achieve. The main influences on Masaccio came from Donatello, Brunelleschi, and the impetus of Florentine enlightenment and humanism. However, the innovations of Masaccio in painting were those of originality – his debt to Giotto being in those elements whereby Giotto searched for ways to express more exalted human emotions.
Virgin Mary (1426). National Gallery, London.
Masaccio did not have long to live and this adds to his achievement – his Brancacci frescoes serving as a source of inspiration for succeeding generations of painters. Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo all acknowledge their indebtedness to him. Masaccio, born Tomasso Cassai, nicknamed ‘sloppy Tom’. ‘clumsy Tom’ or ‘hulking Tom’ by Vasari, and thus the first great painter of the Renaissance who developed a highly original style, a new naturalistic approach that earned him during his few creative years the honest admiration of his contemporaries. The simplicity and unity of Masaccio’s painting can be regarded as the starting point of Italian Renaissance painting which, in combination with Donatello and Brunelleschi, was a component of the starting point of the Italian Renaissance as a whole.
November 5th, 1996.
Holmes, G. (1969). The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400-1450.