An iconic painter of the 15th century, Masaccio was instrumental in painting in the development of perspective and a new and rigorous vision that, starting from the teachings of Giotto (c. 1265–1337), moved away from the decorative excesses of the International Gothic period and effectively ushered in the Renaissance.

Despite his early death at the age of only 26, his enormous talent was already recognised by his contemporaries and his legacy immortalised.

Early years and arrival in Florence

Originally from San Giovanni Valdarno, Tommaso – hence ‘Maso’ – di ser Giovanni di Simone was born on 21 December 1401. He was soon nicknamed Masaccio as he had no care for worldly things, little interest in his clothing or in collecting payment for his work.

He was only 17 years old when, in 1418, Masaccio arrived in Florence, and as early as 1422 his registration as a ‘master painter’ in the Arte dei Medici e Speziali is documented. In fact, this guild was the one in Florence that gathered not only doctors and apothecaries, but also artists, stationers and ceraioli (wax modellers). Other great protagonists of the history of 14th-century culture, such as Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Giotto and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1290–1348) were also members of the same guild.
We have no certain information about his training, but without a doubt the artistic, cultural and social vitality and economic prosperity of Florence at the time could not have failed to influence the young artist’s outlook and awareness.
In the city, he could admire new architectural works, such as the Duomo that Brunelleschi (1377–1446) was building at that very time, as well as the plastic strength of Donatello’s sculpture (1386–1466); he was the first to succeed in translating the same perspective and sculptural principles into painting.

An immediately recognised talent

It was in 1424 that Masaccio began his collaboration with the elder Masolino da Panicale (c. 1383–1440), which was to see them together in the creation of the magnificent Sant’Anna Metterza (1424), now in the Uffizi, and the celebrated frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine (1424–1428) that fully reveal the revolutionary scope of Masaccio’s painting.

Painted for the church of Sant’Ambrogio, the Sant’Anna Metterza is a symbol of the city’s devotion to the saint of the same name; in fact, on her feast day in 1343, the Florentines had driven out the tyrant Duke of Athens and regained their freedom.

The term Metterza is a thirteenth-thirteenth-century dialect term for ‘third me’, a direct link with the iconography of the altarpiece that sees the figure of Anna, mother of the Virgin and progenitor of Christ, in a dominant position, with her hand open in a gesture of protection, emphasising the generational sequence between the characters.

The two painters split up the subjects to be depicted: Masaccio worked on the Virgin and Child, as well as the angel in the top right-hand corner, while Saint Anne and the other figures were painted by Masolino.

Although the double authorship of the work would have to wait until 1940 and the expertise of Roberto Longhi to be officially recognised, the plastic strength and solid volumetry of Masaccio’s figures overwhelmingly shift the centre of the composition and the focus of attention.

The innovations in style and painting technique, inherited from Giotto’s intuitions, are evident in the composition, in the solidity of the figures that become concrete, real, modelled by a skilful use of light and shade. The gestures and expressions convey real feelings, the emotion of the subjects is finally palpable.

Also in Florence is the fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella. Through the magnificent architectural composition, resembling a classical triumphal arch, Masaccio creates a completely illusionistic environment across the church wall, giving us one of the earliest and most perfect examples of Renaissance perspective.

Sudden and early death

During the 1420s, Masaccio worked in Pisa and Rome and, in the latter city, he died suddenly at the age of 26, in the summer of 1428. The causes of his death are still unknown and there are various theories: from hereditary diseases to poisoning, to a fatal ambush by bandits.

What seems certain is that his death was immediately felt in the artistic circles of Renaissance Florence: it seems, in fact, that Brunelleschi expressed his regrets to his friends by declaring “we have suffered a great loss.” Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), in the prologue to his De Pictura (1435), after marvelling at the works of art in Florence, mentions him among the artists closest to ancient art, together with Brunelleschi, Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455). Lastly, Leonardo da Vinci himself admires his work in his Libro di pittura: after Giotto, “art declined, because everyone imitated the paintings made, until Tomaso Fiorentino, nicknamed Masaccio, showed with his perfect work how those who modelled their work on things other than nature, the teacher of all masters, toiled in vain.”

As Vasari testifies, Masaccio was buried in Florence in the Santa Maria del Carmine Church only in 1443, 25 years after his death and without a proper grave. Today, in fact, two epigrams can be found at the burial site that recall the painter’s fame and critical success, both then and now.

Cover photo: Detail with the self-portrait and portraits of Masolino da Panicale and Leon Battista Alberti, 1424-28, Fresco San Pietro in Cattedra, Chiesa del Carmine, Florence

Dove e quando

San Giovanni Valdarno (Arezzo), 1401 – Rome, 1428




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