Updated: Jun 18, 2022
“Big Tom:” A Mover and Shaker in Florence
The first half of the Quattrocento (literally the “four hundreds” or 1400s) was a period of transformation in Italian art. There were many artists working in different styles and formats at the same time period. Resist trying to think of art at this time as purely evolutionary, from Middle Ages to Renaissance. Paintings are a result of complex intersections of patronage, subject matter, artist’s personality, and intention of the art work. In other words, there was something for everyone. Artists that broke new ground, such as Masaccio, were in the minority in the early Quattrocento, while the mainstay Gothic art (pointed arches, lots of gold, ornamental, figures with pointy feet floating in space instead of standing firmly on the ground) continued in vogue for some time. Viewers would be advised to think of different styles happily co-existing in this time period.
There were a few artists that stretched the limits of tradition and broke boundaries. Their innovations were not immediately taken up by other artists but assimilated over a longer period of time. The Gothic style maintained a healthy longevity through the mid 1450s. One of the movers and shakers was an artist called Masaccio – Italian for “Big Tom.” Tomasso di Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai was born in 1401 in present day San Giovanni Valdarno, about a fifty-minute drive southeast of Florence.
Big Tom had a profound impact on Italian art and a very short ten-year career. He completed four altarpieces and other frescoes, the most famous being the Brancacci Chapel frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. What we know is that he was a painter in Florence when he was 17 years old and enrolled in the guild as an independent artist at the age of 21. He had a distinctive, individual style and reportedly had little regard for his personal appearance, clothing, material goods or where he lived. He probably would be called a “free spirit” today. He was devoted to his craft and his art was of utmost importance to him.
Masaccio did not have good money management or financial success. He lived near poverty, owed a lot of debts to other artists and for workshop rent, and was sued twice for debts. He died in Rome at age 26 or 27 – documented only by a scrawl on the margins of a tax return. His younger brother was also an artist, Giovanni di ser Giovanni, called Lo Scheggia (meaning splinter or wood chip). His brother was not a mover or shaker but was long-lived and worked as a painter and as a maker and decorator of wood chests. Masaccio and Lo Scheggia’s grandfather was a furniture maker and father was an apothecary; both useful family resources for artists.
Masaccio’s earliest known work is the Madonna and Child with Saints in the small church of San Giovenale at Cascia di Reggello, his hometown. The painting has been moved to a charming small museum, Museo Masaccio d’Arte Sacra, just behind the church. Previously located inside the church, which was rather dark and damp, it is now well displayed with a computer screen graphic to aid in interpretation. In addition, there is a duplicate Madonna throne made by a local craftsperson just like the one featured in the painting.
This is a charming small museum, perfect for those who are overwhelmed by large museums or who want a special find off the tourist track. The volunteers who staff the museum are knowledgeable about the artworks and very proud of their town and Masaccio. This painting was “discovered” in 1961 and it tells us about Masaccio’s early work and that at this young age he was already an independent painter, not working as an assistant to another master. Until this painting was found we really didn’t know much about Masaccio’s early work, only his mature work, which asserts itself with great importance in the history of Renaissance art.
The Reggello altarpiece was completed in 1422 just three months after he entered the painter’s guild. Evidence suggests the painting took three to six months to complete. The Madonna and Child are in the center panel with two angels kneeling with their backs turned towards the viewer. There are two panels on each side of the center panel. Altarpieces like this one have panels on each side which are closed/open to display the artwork. Three paneled paintings are called triptychs. The artwork would usually be open on special occasions such as Holy Days.
On the left panel is St. Bartholomew holding a book and a knife, symbol of how he was martyred by flaying, and St. Blaise with the staff and curry comb (a cult saint in Reggello) and on the right panel St. Anthony Abbott with the book and staff and St. Giovenale holding the red book. Why are these saints included? The local family who commissioned the altarpiece was devoted to St. Anthony Abbott. The parish priest was Francesco di Bartolomeo, hence St. Bartholomew, and St. Giovenale is the saint associated with the church where the painting originally resided.
The figures in the Reggello altarpiece are painted with less authority and less convincingly than the Brancacci Chapel frescoes or the Trinity. However, we see the seeds of his later work in this altarpiece. The composition is carefully rendered: the kneeling angels draw us into the picture with their backs turned to the viewer. A balanced pyramid with the Madonna, throne, and angels give not only symmetry but a grounded stability to the panel. The Madonna’s throne is represented with depth and the angels assist with creating different dimensional levels of foreground, Madonna and throne.
Just five years later, Masaccio completed the Trinity fresco in the Dominican church Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Santa Maria Novella, close by the bustling train station, has assumed nearly Holy Grail status in Renaissance art. An impressive illumination of the fresco takes place at the height of summer solstice in June. On the longest day of the year the sun shines through the church windows opposite the fresco, fully spotlighting the Trinity.
Masaccio has painted an illusionistic three-dimensional chapel on the wall of the church. Masaccio’s paintings are the earliest surviving visual images using formal perspective in the Renaissance. He was a bit out on a limb using this technique with little to go by. The painted architecture frames God the Father, the Holy Spirit (a dove between the Father’s beard and Christ’s halo), Jesus on the cross, Mary and John the Evangelist standing next to the cross. Two donors, linen manufacturer Domenico Lenzi and his wife, kneel on the ledge and reside in the viewer’s space while bridging the area between the earthly world and the divine.
This depiction of a central tenet of the Christian faith isn’t just painted in any chapel, but in a new Renaissance chapel. The columns and barrel vault reflect Brunelleschi’s architectural principles (he was the builder of the dome of the Florence cathedral). Everything, including the nails on the cross, are painted in 3-D and with great precision. Masaccio has taken great care to precisely align the perspective angles realistically. The perspective is a unifying compositional method. He uses two pyramids to compose the picture, ascending from the painted tomb below and descending from God the Father. The two pyramids meet at Christ’s body. Balance, stability, and emotional calmness are important pictorial elements. There is no wailing or grief, but solemnness.
“What I Am You will also Be”
The lower part of the fresco is equally important. He has painted a tomb and skeleton with the inscription translated from the Latin: “I was once what you are, and what I am, you will also be.”
At the time the fresco was completed, visitors to the church would enter directly across from the Trinity after passing through a cemetery. The painted architecture contrasts starkly with the older decorations in the church and the realistic effect of the painted chapel must have appeared very different and modern in 1427. Having passed through the graveyard and seeing the painted tomb with the inscription is a stark reminder of our brief time on earth.
The lower section of the fresco with the tomb was blocked by an altar in the later 1560s and rediscovered in the 1860s. The fresco took Masaccio about two to three months to complete.
What’s so Great About Masaccio
In context of his paintings, Masaccio was ahead of his time. He did not follow the traditional way of representing figures. In the early 1400s Florence was much more Middle Ages than Renaissance. Life was less than stable with wars on neighboring cities such as Naples, Luca, and Milan. Brunelleschi’s Dome was not yet completed, the population was struggling after bouts of the plague, and the city was at the intersection of artistic traditions and the beginning of new ways of representation.
Masaccio’s impact on Renaissance art can be summarized by four influences.
> A simplified narrative portrayal. Not a cast of many but reduced to essential people with relevant background elements. The narrative is serious and solemn, not extravagant and filled with decorative details. The focus is on the story and subject.
> Space is constructed with single point perspective. The space that the figures occupy is realistic and the architecture aids in constructing a believable space as well as a compositional element.
> Lighting is consistent and aids in telling the narrative. In the Brancacci Chapel frescoes he uses light and shadow in the narrative to effectively tell the story, for example, in St. Peter Healing with His Shadow.
> The figures have a realistic physicality and psychological impact. They convincingly occupy their space in the narrative. Masaccio gives his figures equality of scale. The patrons in the Trinity are not diminished in size compared to God the Father.
Ahl, Diane Cole, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Masaccio. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Goffen, Rona, ed. Masaccio’s Trinity. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. Fourth edition. Laurence King, 2011.
Wallace, William E. “Masaccio’s Trinity.” Source Notes in the History of Art 25 (Winter 2006): 1-4.