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masaccio

Artist: Tommaso Cassai Masaccio
Born: December 21, 1401
Died: 1428
Nationality: Italian
Movements: (Early) Renaissance / Quattrocento
Most Prominent Works:
○ Expulsion from Eden (1527);
○ Tribute Money (1427);
○ San Giovenale Triptych (1422):
○ Madonna and Child with St Anne (1425);
○ Adoration of the Magi (1428):
○ Pisa Altarpiece (1426);
○ The Holy Trinity (1428);
○ Crucifixion (1426);
○ Nativity (1428);
○ Baptism of the Neophytes (1424);
Mediums: Painting – Frescoes, Tempera;

brief summary

At the beginning of the 15th century, the so-called Quattrocento, Masaccio chose to reject the decorative aesthetic of the Gothic style and searched for a new language that portrayed a major shift in human thinking. Innovating in various fields, combining numerous influences, and using new techniques, Masaccio came to be known as the Father of the Renaissance. His works mark an important step in art, establishing a bridge between Giotto and Michelangelo. Its primordial studies in equilibrium, symmetry, geometry and rationality are lessons that reverberate across time.

significance

Considered as one of the fathers of the Italian Renaissance, he combined humanism and innovations in the use of scientific perspective into his works, pulling away from Gothic styles and opening the period of modern painting. During his short life, he received commissions from prestigious Florentine families and was a well-respected artist. He mainly painted passages from the Old and New Testaments, including many frescoes in churches and chapels. All of his paintings were commissioned and although the themes were chosen by the commissioners, their portrayal was not.

Leaving the Dark Ages behind, Florence stood out more than any other city, becoming the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Mainly due to looking back upon Classicism and also thanks to the Medici Family’s funding, Florence thrived as a centre for art, inventions, philosophy and society for centuries to come, setting the stage for the Renaissance. In addition, Florence was also known for its military prowess, as it was involved in the Lombardi Wars at the time, something that reflected in Crucifixion of St Peter (1426). Along with Florence’s humanism, the Renaissance changed the highly iconic depictions of bible figures and spatial abstraction, by bringing said characters down to earth into real time and real space. This sense of space also shows a new understanding of man and claimed importance of his own right, in an art that for centuries seemed to refer only to abstract and mystical celebrations of the divine. At the time, many artists joined guilds as a standard expectation. The Florence Guilds were secular corporations that controlled Florence’s arts and crafts, so the majority of the painters in the city were attached to the Doctors and Pharmacists Guild.

Crucifixion of St Peter (1426), from the Pisa Altarpiece.

By the early 15th century, there were many artists called Tommaso, and nicknames were a way of distinguishing them. The name Masaccio is a humorous version of Maso (short for Tommaso) meaning ‘Clumsy Tom’, ‘Rough Tom’ or ‘Ugly Tom’; only because of his looks, as many thought of him as a sweet and gentle person. Another example of this relies on the name of his fellow artist, with whom Masaccio collaborated often, Masolino meaning ‘Little Tom’ or ‘Delicate Tom’. Although not much is known about the life of Masaccio, Vasari’s writings shed some light about the artist personality:

  • “He was a very absent-minded and careless person, as one who, having fixed his whole mind and will on the matters of art, cared little about himself, and still less about others. And since he would never give any manner of thought to the cares and concerns of the world, or even to clothing himself, and was not wont to recover his money from his debtors, save only when he was in the greatest straits, his name was therefore changed from Tommaso to Masaccio, [Careless Tom, or Hulking Tom (not necessarily in disapproval)] not, indeed, because he was vicious, for he was goodness itself, but by reason of his so great carelessness; and with all this, nevertheless, he was so amiable in doing the service and pleasure of others, that nothing more could be desired.” Giorgio Vasari (1550)

Masaccio was born as Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Cassai, in Castel San Giovanni di Altura, now San Giovanni Valdarno in Arezzo, Tuscany. His parents were Giovanni di Simone Cassai (a notary) and Jacopa di Martinozzo (daughter of an innkeeper of Barberino di Mugello). Masaccio lost his father at the very young age of five, earlier in the same year his brother Giovani (1406-1486) was born (named after his father, later known as Lo Scheggia). Not much is known about Masaccio’s life, especially about his artistic education, even though it’s most likely he began his artistic perusal at the age of 12, and later moved to Florence in 1417 to receive further training. However, his presence in Florence is only reported after he entered the Arte de’ Medici e Speziali guild of painters on January 7, 1422, joining as an independent master (“Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia”). There, Masaccio became friends with Brunelleschi and Donatello, collaborating with the latter in Pisa, under the patronage of the Brancacci family. It is also likely he worked with Brunelleschi on the design for the vaulting in The Holy Trinity (1427). In 1424, he enrolled at the Compagnia di San Luca where he first met Masolino and worked together on some works: Madonna and Child with St Anne (1425) and the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel. In 1428 he moved to Rome to make a triptych with Masolino for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, although he did not make it as he died that same year with suspicions that he was poisoned.

art

Since the beginning of his career, Masaccio already demonstrated concerns with tri-dimensionality, employing volume and introducing foreshortening, for example in Desco da Parto (c. 1420) and San Giovenale Triptych (1422). In 1424 he began collaborating with Masolino da Panicale, an older and well-known artist, painting the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1424). Masaccio reached his full potential when he painted The Holy Trinity (1427), at the young age of 20. In this fresco, executed for the church of Santa Maria Novella, the artist compiled all of the new pictorial tools and discoveries, showing a great understanding of the perspective system, and the ability to suggest the mass and volume of objects. This would be the work that would officially mark the beginning of the Renaissance. Furthermore, in Saints Jerome and John the Baptist (1426-1428), one of his last known works, he already shows great technical ability in the fluidity of the draperies of his figures as well.

Desco da Parto (c. 1420).

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1424).

Saints Jerome and John the Baptist (1426-1428).

The main goals of Masaccio were to define and orchestrate the figures in space, analyse groups – the interaction between people -, situations and emotions. His simplistic views of narrative cleaned the composition, focused on emotional and spiritual values, and made his works eternal spiritual creations.

The Holy Trinity (c. 1427).

He broke away from multiple aspects of medieval art from the late Gothic period by bringing back nature and logic with his paintings, combining philosophy, theatre, mathematics and the arts. He was the best painter of his generation thanks to his ability to recreate realistic figures and movement, as well as a convincing sense of three-dimensionality. The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1427), shows his dedication to the study of the human body, depicting Adam and Eve with more muscular detail, not well explored during his time. He was also the first to apply linear perspective in his paintings, transposing into his works the mathematically proportioned spaces of Brunelleschi’s studies. By doing so, he was able to bring painting ‘up to speed’ with the developments of sculpture and architecture achieved by Donatello and Brunelleschi at the time. The Tribute Money (c. 1425) is a fine example of his innovative use of perspective and the notion of depth of field. Masaccio is also known to have included self-portraits in his group scenes, including the one just mentioned and the Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St Peter Enthroned (1426-1427).

The Tribute Money (c. 1425).

Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St Peter Enthroned (1426-1427).

Detail of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c. 1427).

Masaccio was born as Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Cassai, in Castel San Giovanni di Altura, now San Giovanni Valdarno in Arezzo, Tuscany. His parents were Giovanni di Simone Cassai (a notary) and Jacopa di Martinozzo (daughter of an innkeeper of Barberino di Mugello). Masaccio lost his father at the very young age of five, earlier in the same year his brother Giovani (1406-1486) was born (named after his father, later known as Lo Scheggia). Not much is known about Masaccio’s life, especially about his artistic education, even though it’s most likely he began his artistic perusal at the age of 12, and later moved to Florence in 1417 to receive further training. However, his presence in Florence is only reported after he entered the Arte de’ Medici e Speziali guild of painters on January 7, 1422, joining as an independent master (“Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia”). There, Masaccio became friends with Brunelleschi and Donatello, collaborating with the latter in Pisa, under the patronage of the Brancacci family. It is also likely he worked with Brunelleschi on the design for the vaulting in The Holy Trinity (1427). In 1424, he enrolled at the Compagnia di San Luca where he first met Masolino and worked together on some works: Madonna and Child with St Anne (1425) and the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel. In 1428 he moved to Rome to make a triptych with Masolino for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, although he did not make it as he died that same year with suspicions that he was poisoned.

influences/legacy

His paintings were influenced by realism and the developments in sculpture and architecture at the time. He worked mainly with Donatello, from whom he took his knowledge of classical art and Brunelleschi, acquiring the knowledge of mathematical proportion, as shown in his first work, the San Giovenale Triptych (1422). He was also influenced by Giotto, but, unsatisfied with the limited range of Giotto’s figures, he developed his three-dimension, sense of movement and facial expressions.

Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ), N. 20 from the Life of Christ series (1304-1306) by Giotto.

Considered to be an artist ahead of his time, Masaccio was considered a genius and a visionary, who was highly misunderstood for his time. In painting, his works were the first to compete with the works of Giotto, in a period close to a century, and he is believed to be the precursor of modern painting. However, during that particular time, his stern style was less influential than one can imagine, as almost all of his successors, namely Uccello and Fra Filippo Lippi, reacted against his ideals and developed a style that was quite different from his. Nonetheless, his characteristically sculptural representation of the human form still influenced some of the later masters of the Renaissance, such as Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The mid-century generation – Domenico Veneziano, Andrea del Castagno, among others – was influenced too by Masaccio at some point in their careers. It introduced a course into the Renaissance, and later influenced Mannerism and the Baroque. Today, Masaccio is seen as the father of Renaissance.

Last Supper and Stories of Christ’s Passion (1447), by Andrea del Castagno.

The Last Supper (1498), by Leonardo da Vinci.

Giorgio Vasari wrote extensively about the artists of the Renaissance in his book, ‘Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’ (1550), including Masaccio. He described the artist work in the following manner: “This truth, I say, being recognized by Masaccio, brought it about that by means of continuous study he learnt so much that he can be numbered among the first who cleared away, the hardness, the imperfections, and the difficulties of the art that he gave a beginning to beautiful attitudes, movements, liveliness, and vivacity, and to a certain relief truly characteristic and natural; which no painter up to his time had ever done.

  1. It’s unknown whether he had any other contact with artists and if had any education at all.

  2. Cassai, his family name, originates in the craft of both his paternal grandfather and granduncle, Simone and Lorenzo, who were professional carpenters or cabinet makers (casse, hence cassai).

  3. His brother Giovanni became a painter as well, known as Lo Scheggia, which means “the splinter.”

quotes

“I was once that which you are, and what I am you will also be.”

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significant works

Artist: Masaccio
Title: The Tribute Money
Date: c. 1425
Medium: Fresco
Size: 255 x 598 cm
Location: Basilica of Our Lady of Carmel, Brazil

Artist: Masaccio
Title: San Giovenale Triptych
Date: c. 1422
Medium: Tempera and gold on panel
Size: 110 x 65 cm
Location: Masaccio Museum, Reggelo, Italy

Artist: Masaccio
Title: Desco da Parto
Date: c. 1420
Medium:
Size:
Location:

Artist: Masaccio
Title: Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
Date: c. 1424
Medium: Tempera on panel
Size: 175 x 109 cm
Location: Ufizzi, Florence, Italy

Artist: Masaccio
Title: The Holy Trinity
Date: c. 1427
Medium: Fresco
Size: 667 x 317 cm
Location: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Artist: Masaccio and Masolino
Title: Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St Peter Enthroned
Date: 1426-1427
Medium: Fresco
Size: 230 x 598 cm
Location: Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy

Artist: Masaccio
Title: Detail of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Date: c. 1427
Medium: Fresco
Size: 208 x 88 cm
Location: Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy