FLORENCE, Italy—The Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria Carmine in Florence is where you’ll find one of the most important fresco cycles of the early Italian Renaissance. It’s important not because of the subject matter, but because of the innovative techniques that Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, known as Masaccio, employed to paint the life of St. Peter.
Interestingly, Masaccio’s new method of painting is side-by-side with the work of Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, known as Masolino, who painted in the style of the day.
It was in 1423 that Felice Brancacci, a wealthy merchant, commissioned Masolino and Masaccio to paint the fresco cycle in the chapel that was originally dedicated to St. Peter. However, the frescoes were left unfinished in 1427 when Masolino had to leave for Hungary and Masaccio left for Rome. Filippino Lippi completed the unfinished and missing scenes between 1481 and 1483.
Here, we focus on two of the frescoes by Masaccio: “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” and “The Tribute Money.”
Masaccio may not be as well-known as Michelangelo, but his impact on the art of painting has been far-reaching.
“All those who have endeavored to learn the art of painting have always gone for that purpose to the Brancacci Chapel to grasp the precepts and rules demonstrated by Masaccio for the correct representation of figures,” wrote Giorgio Vasari in “The Lives of Artists.”
And indeed, the great masters Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo himself did study Masaccio’s frescoes. It’s interesting to note that Masaccio’s painting style was appreciated more after his death than in his short lifetime; he died at just 26 years old.
Vasari wrote that Masaccio was so devoted to his art that he cared little for his appearance or for worldly affairs, which may have led to his nickname Masaccio, meaning “sloppy Tom” or “bad Tom.” It certainly wasn’t a reflection of his character, as Vasari describes him as “goodness itself.”
Masaccio was both a maverick and a traditionalist. While Masaccio’s contemporaries were painting in the international gothic style characterized by its elegant posture and gestures, Masaccio was pioneering the use of perspective and chiaroscuro (light and shade) to develop a more realistic style of painting. He took his inspiration from the past: from Giotto and further back to the classical art of antiquity.
Masaccio was one of the first to refine painting, Vasari said, by removing “its harshness, imperfections, and difficulties,” to create natural figures full of “expressions, gestures, boldness, and vitality.”
Indeed, Masaccio puts the human firmly in the painting. He painted in solid forms that seem to set his figures in motion, and in turn, the figures’ emotive gestures can move any viewer’s heart. Through Masaccio’s “The Tribute Money,” we can see how he led the way in the early Italian Renaissance.
‘The Tribute Money’
Standing in front of the fresco “The Tribute Money,” you certainly get a sense of the story unfolding. Here, Masaccio depicts a scene from Matthew 17: 24-27 when Christ, surrounded by his disciples, is confronted by a tax collector who demands tribute money. Christ gestures to Peter to cast a line into the sea, and Christ says that the first fish Peter catches will have the money in its mouth.
In this continuous narrative painting, several scenes play out within the picture frame. Three parts of the story are laid out before you: In the center, the tax demand is made; to the left of the painting, Peter retrieves the money from the mouth of the fish; and to the right, Peter pays the tax collector.
Masaccio uses clever innovations inspired by classical antiquity to pull you into the painting: First, our attention is drawn to Christ in the center. Masaccio uses single-point perspective, a mathematical technique that his friend, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, revived from classical times.
In this case, Christ’s head is the single focal point. All the disciples, dressed in the clothing of ancient Greece, gather around Christ in a semi-circle, a classical composition that Brunelleschi had revived in his architectural designs. The overall composition of the main group is harmonious, even though each character’s face expresses a different emotion.
Look at the tax collector. He stands to the right of Christ in the painting, with his clothes differing from the others in the scene. Most of his weight is on his left foot with his right knee slightly bent, a classical stance from antiquity called contrapposto, and a stance used by Masaccio’s friend Donatella in his sculptures. The tax collector appears tentative on his feet, almost taken aback as he demands the tax. His back foot almost steps out of the frame, almost into our space, a device to pull us into the painting.
Then, we see Christ and Peter who both gesture to the left of the painting to move us to the second scene, where Peter collects the money from the mouth of the fish.
As you gaze over to the sea on the left, notice how the dark-brown foreground contrasts with the almost hazy gray-blue mountains in the background, to give a sense of distance and an awareness of space, a technique called “atmospheric perspective,” or as Leonardo da Vinci called it, “aerial perspective.”
Then rather cleverly, Masaccio uses the natural light in the Brancacci Chapel that enters from the window on the fresco’s right, as the light source in the painting. This light defines the pictorial space, solidifies the forms and structures, and allows shadows to naturally fall, as seen in life, and in classic Roman art. This technique hadn’t been used for 1,000 years.
You could say that Masaccio uses the chapel window light to put you in the space of the painting; or, it could be that the people in the painting are in the chapel with you. That’s the magic of Masaccio’s masterpiece; it’s painted in a way that makes you wonder.
Masaccio humanizes the painting, and even divine symbols are solidified. Notice the foreshortened halos. Masaccio takes this ethereal symbol, and places it firmly in our reality. He makes the halos solid, as if they are on our earthly plane. He’s saying these are real, perhaps to inform us that there’s no separation between us and the divine. Vasari notes that Masaccio perfected foreshortening from every viewpoint possible in his paintings.
And, lastly, John with his golden locks of hair, to the left of Christ, has classical Roman facial features, and as you follow along to the far right of the painting, there stands a man whose pose almost mirrors John’s, and who according to Vasari, is Masaccio himself.
‘The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’
Let’s leave the relative harmony of “The Tribute Money” for a moment and glance at Masaccio’s first fresco of the cycle, to the left, as you enter the Brancacci Chapel: the emotive “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” It certainly packs a punch.
Here, we can see the full shame of Eve’s actions, shown in her raw emotion and grief-stricken stride. She’s been exposed and covers her naked shame in a very particular classical pose: that of the aptly named “Venus pudica,” or modest Venus. There are no delicate details on Eve’s face; here is a woman in agony and momentarily aghast with the horror of what has just happened. Adam holds his head in shame, in what appears more a mental pain than Eve’s physical pain.
The painting is in stark contrast to the international Gothic style of the time, and can be seen directly opposite in two of Masolino’s paintings, in the same fresco cycle: “The Temptation of Adam and Eve,” and “The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha.” In these paintings, beautiful, elegant figures were almost rooted to the ground in a two-dimensional fashion.
A Tribute to Masaccio
To us, Masaccio’s painting techniques may now seem normal, but in his time, they were revolutionary.
Vasari confirms that Masaccio was a pioneer: “Works created before Masaccio can be described merely as painting, while his creations compared to those executed by others are lifelike, true, and natural.”
Masaccio joins his friends Brunelleschi and Donatello as one of the fathers of the early Italian Renaissance; Masaccio’s techniques advanced painting in the same way that Brunelleschi advanced architecture and Donatello advanced sculpture.
And although Masaccio died young, and no memorial was made, several epitaphs were written. One by writer and poet Annibale Caro sums up Masaccio’s legacy:
I painted, and my painting was equal to truth;
I gave my figures poses, animation, motion,
And emotion. [Michelangelo] Buonarroti taught all the others
And learned from me alone.