” AFTER the days of Giotto, painting declined again, because every one imitated the pictures that were already in existence, and thus it went on until Tommaso of Florence, surnamed Masaccio, showed by his perfect works how they who take any teacher but Nature the mistress of all masters labour in vain.” In these words Leonardo expressed his sense of Masaccio’s greatness, and showed how correctly he estimated this master’s position in Florentine art. For this youth, who died at twenty-six, and never succeeded in attaining ease or fortune in his lifetime, brought to art a genius as rare as Giotto’s, a gift as divine as that of Raphael. During the few short years that he lived, harassed with debts and crippled by poverty, he altered the whole course of Florentine painting, and left a heritage of immortal works to be the school of great masters in future generations.
The little certain information that we have regarding Masaccio’s history is due to the famous law first proposed by Rinaldo degli Albizzi and Niccolo di Uzzano, and sanctioned by the Signory in 1427, by which every Florentine citizen was required to make a declaration of his property and income, and to pay a tax of half per cent. on his capital. Large deductions were allowed for debts and charges on property, and shops, dwelling-houses and furniture were exempt. The Catasto, or register drawn up in 1427, remained in force during three years, and was then revised. By this means much valuable information concerning painters of the fifteenth century has been preserved, and in Masaccio’s case we learn the date of his birth and death, as well as the few other details about his circumstances that have come down to us.
Tommaso, the son of Ser Giovanni, a humble notary of the parish of Castel S. Giovanni in Val d’Arno, was born in that village, on the Feast of St. Thomas, December 21, 1401, and named after the Apostle. He took delight in drawing from his child-hood, and in Vasari’s days some of Masaccio early artistic efforts were still to be seen in his native village. Art absorbed him wholly, even in those early years. ” He was,” writes Vasari, “so entirely rapt in his art, and devoted his thoughts and soul so absolutely to this one object, that he cared little for himself, and still less for others. And since he would never pay any attention to his temporal affairs, and hardly took the trouble to clothe himself, and never tried to recover his debts until he was reduced to the last extremity, he received the nickname of Masaccio, not on account of his bad disposition, for he was good-nature itself, and was always ready to render others a service, but because of this excessive negligence.” Vasari’s statement is borne out by Masaccio’s income-tax return of 1427, in which he describes himself and his younger brother Giovanni, also a painter by profession, as living in Florence with their widowed mother, in a house for which they pay a rent of ten florins. Tommaso is twenty-five, Giovanni twenty, and their mother forty-five years of age. Their whole fortune is returned as six soldi, while their liabilities are described as numerous and heavy. Tommaso pays two florins a year for a shop which he rents with another artist from the Badia of Florence, and owes 102 lire to the painter Niccolò di Lapo, six florins to the gold-beater, Piero, and six florins to his assistant Andrea di Giusto. Besides which four florins are due to the brokers at the sign of the ” Lion and the Cow,” for goods pawned at different times. The painter’s mother ought to receive a dowry of 100 florins a year, as well as the produce of a vineyard belonging to a house at Castel San Giovanni, from the heirs of her second husband ; but neither the amount of the rent, nor the sum of the vineyard can be declared, since her sons are ignorant of both, and their mother does not receive the rent, or inhabit the house. Such was the conditions of Masaccio’s financial affairs at a time when he was the foremost painter of his age, and had probably just finished the frescoes of the Carmine. Yet he had rapidly risen to fame, and his talent had been soon recognised. In 1421, he matriculated in the Painters’ Guild, two years before his master Masolino, and, in 1424, he joined the Company of St. Luke. By this time he was already employed as Masolino’s assistant in the Brancacci Chapel, and when in the following year that master went to Hungary, was left to finish the work alone. The close friendship which bound him to Brunellesco and Donatello was productive of great and enduring results, and his one aim was to apply their principles to painting. ” From the first,” says Vasari, “he realised that painting is nothing else but the simple imitation of natural objects in drawing and colour, and by unwearied study he overcame the difficulties and imperfections of art. He was the first to give his figures beautiful attitudes, natural movement, vivacity of expression, and a relief similar to reality. Instead of representing figures standing on tiptoe, as his predecessors had done, he placed their feet firmly on the ground and foreshortened them properly, and he understood perspective so well that he could apply it to every variety of view. He was careful to make the colour of his draperies agree with the tones of his flesh, and gave them the same few and simple folds that we see in nature. And it may be truly said that the things that were done before his time can be called paintings, but that his works are life, truth and nature”
But with this new realism Masaccio combined a dramatic sense, a feeling for beauty and a grandeur of conception worthy of Giotto himself. It is the presence of these lofty qualities, together with his wonderful advance in scientific knowledge, in perspective and chiaroscuro, that make the decoration of the Brancacci Chapel an epoch in art. The first fresco of the series was the Fall of Man, which adorns the pilaster at the entrance of the chapel, and, as might be expected, is the most in Masolino’s style. Indeed the face of Eve and the action of the hands are so exactly in that master’s manner, that we are inclined to think the original design was by his hand, as may well be the case. But even here there is more roundness, and solid relief than in any of the Castiglione frescoes, and the execution seems to be that of his pupil. The same type of head appears again in the small subject of Peter Preaching, but the broad and single folds of the drapery and the admirable distribution of light and shade are more in Masaccio’s style. The scholar, it is clear, gains confidence at every step, and in the third fresco he rises to new heights and reveals himself as a strong and independent master. This large subject, which includes the Healing of the Cripple at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, and the Raising of Tabitha, has a dignity and beauty of composition to which Masolino never attained. The two Florentine youths, it is true, closely resemble Salome’s supporters in the Baptistery paintings, of which they were probably the prototypes, but these pictures are more natural and animated, and the atmospheric perspective of the Piazza and distant houses is superior to anything in the Castiglione frescoes. We recognise Masaccio’s hand in the deep-set eyes and ample brows of St. Peter and St. John, and in the fine effect of chiaroscuro, which help to render the waking of Tabitha to life so impressive. It is, we repeat, impossible to suppose that Masolino painted this noble composition after the Castiglione frescoes, which, with all their naive charm and sincerity, are distinctly Giottesque and archaic in character.
There is, however, a marked change in Masaccio’s next frescoes, which were probably painted at a later period. During the interval the young artist may have been engaged on some of the many works which he executed in churches of Florence and Pisa. The great St. Paul which he painted on the wall near the belfry of the Carmine, perished long ago, and so too has the wonderful chiaroscuro picture of the consecration of the church, in which he introduced portraits of his friends Donatello and Brunellesco, his master Masolino, Giovanni de’ Medici, and many other Florentines. One of the few still in existence is the Madonna and St. Anne, in the Accademia, an altar-piece of early date, which has still much in common with Masolino, but which is too finely modelled for any doubt to have been entertained as to its authorship. Another work, which deserves the high praise bestowed upon it by Vasari, is the fresco of the Trinity on the entrance wall of Santa Maria Novella. This magnificent work was long hidden by a picture of Vasari’s own painting, which has now been removed, and can only be properly seen when the great central doors of the church are thrown open. A majestic God the Father bearing the Cross on which Christ hangs, with the dove hovering about his head, while the Virgin, an elderly matron of noble aspect, and a youthful St. John gaze in deep, calm sorrow on their dying Lord. The form of the Crucified Christ is drawn with all Donatello’s skill and science, while the Corinthian pillars and stately proportions of the classical architecture which frames in the whole, heightens the solemn effect of the vision, and two admirable portraits of the kneeling donors, a middle-aged man and woman of the higher class, are introduced in the foreground.
Some fragments of the altar-piece which Masaccio painted for the Church of the Carmine at Pisa, in 1427, are still in existence. A St. Andrew, with deep-set eyes and high forehead, like the Apostles in the Brancacci Chapel, is in a private collection at Vienna, while the Berlin Museum has acquired the predella of the Adoration of the Magi and Martyrdom of St. Peter and St. John the Baptist, a set of little pictures of great interest as examples of the painter’s more fanciful and imaginative treatment. In the same lighter and more humorous vein is another small panel at Berlin, one of the painted birth-plates, or desco da parto, which it was the fashion to send with fruits and cakes and other presents to Florentine mothers on the birth of a child. The happy mother is seen lying in bed, attended by a sour-looking old nurse, while two servants are seen arriving in the courtyard with a birth-plate and gifts in their hands, and two young heralds, blowing trumpets and bearing the lilies of Florence on their banner, announce the arrival of some visitor of importance. It is a delightful little bit of genre painting, in which Masaccio displays his skill in chiaroscuro and perspective, in one of those cleverly sketched interiors of which Vasari speaks, and at the same time excites our admiration by the “vivacity ” of his heads and “beautiful alacrity of gesture and expression.” And it acquires additional interest from the fact that it is probably the very desco da parto which is mentioned in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s inventory as being the work of Masaccio.
But we must turn to the six frescoes, which Masaccio executed during the last years of his life, in the Brancacci Chapel, and which are universally recognised to be his work. On the left pilaster at the entrance he painted the Expulsion from Paradise as a companion picture to the Fall of Adam and Eve, on the opposite wall. The extraordinary progress made by the artist during the interval which had elapsed since he finished the first subject, is apparent to all. Then he was the young and inexperienced student, carrying out his master’s ideas, and only timidly venturing on innovations and improvements of his own. Now he had mastered the problems of anatomy and perspective, and was able to give complete expression to his dreams. It is a strangely moving scene, this picture of our first parents driven out of Eden, and dragging their weary limbs along under the burden of their despair, while the stern Angel hovers above with bared sword, and points to the wide and desolate world before them. The nude forms are drawn with easy mastery, and the contrast between the passionate wail of the woman and silent despair of the man is nobly conceived and finely rendered. No wonder Raphael was fascinated by the sight, and when he came to illustrate the same story in the Vatican Loggia, could find no better or more satisfying conception than this which Masaccio had imagined eighty years before.
The smaller frescoes on the altar and wall represent St. Peter and St. John distributing alms and healing the sick, and St. Peter baptizing. Here the consciousness of a divine mission is suggested in the majestic bearing of the Apostle, who moves among the lame and halt, healing them by the passing of his shadow, without even reaching out his hand. Unlike the later Giotteschi, Masaccio never introduces a single superfluous figure in his compositions but, as in Giotto’s works, each actor plays an important part in the development of the action. The poor mother and child begging for alms, in the one subject, the lame beggar in the other, the famous shivering youth standing on the brink of Jordan, and the still finer figure of the boy who kneels to receive baptism, are admirable examples of successful realism. The difficult perspective of the steep street in the background of St. Peter giving alms, is not quite correctly rendered, but is interesting as a proof of the artist’s eagerness to grapple with new problems, even when they were beyond his grasp. On the other hand, the hilly landscape on the banks of Jordan is charmingly painted, and shows his accuracy of observation and genuine delight in natural beauty. These qualities are still further developed in the large fresco of the Tribute Money, on the left-hand wall, which Vasari justly pronounced to be Masaccio’s master-piece. Here we see the great painter in the fulness of his powers. Three separate scenes are introduced, but are happily combined by the skilful management of the architecture and the beautiful landscape which forms the setting of the picture. The chief incident, St. Peter’s dispute with the tax-gatherer and appeal to Christ, occupies the centre, while the minor incidents of Peter taking the coin from the mouth of the fish, and delivering it to the collector, are kept in the background, and not allowed to interfere with the main subject. Nothing can exceed the dramatic force with which the story is told. The eager insistence with which the tax-collector urges his claim, the indignation of Peter and the surprise of the Apostles at the command of Christ, are all vividly painted. Equally striking is the action of Peter as, his face flushed with the exertion, he takes the coin from the mouth of the fish, and the air of mingled dignity and contempt with which he hands the money to the extortionate official. The superb modelling of the heads, the admirable foreshortening of the figures, and the skilful distribution of light and shade all excite our admiration. But the finest thing in the picture is the calm and majestic form of Christ, and the quiet authority of his manner, as with outstretched arms he turns to Peter and utters his word of command. Few figures in Italian art have ever rivalled this conception, and when in his cartoons Raphael had a similar scene to represent, he went back to Masaccio once more for his inspiration.
Masaccio had already introduced his master Masolino’s portrait in the fresco of the Apostle Healing the Sick, and now he painted his own likeness in the young apostle standing next to the portico on the right of the tax-gatherer, ” a form so life-like,” says Vasari, ” that it seems to live and breathe.”
The last subject of the series is the Raising of the King’s Son, a miracle recorded in the Golden Legend. The scene is laid in the court of the king’s palace at Antioch, and St. Paul is in the act of bidding the dead child arise, in the presence of his father Theophilus, who is seated on his throne. Masaccio left this fresco unfinished, and the group of spectators on the left was chiefly painted by Filippino sixty years later ; but we recognise Masaccio’s hand in the central portion of the subject, and the figure of St. Peter receiving the homage of the king and his courtiers, as related in the Golden Legend. The design of the whole composition is evidently due to him, and the skill with which he has kept the two subjects apart by throwing a strong light on the enthroned Apostle and keeping the scene of the miracle in shadow, is very characteristic.
In spite of his distinguished friends and growing fame, the painter of the Brancacci Chapel, we are told by Vasari, was ill at ease in Florence, a fact which is hardly surprising if we remember the state of his affairs towards the end of 1427. Whether his creditors became more pressing, or whether he was fired by a sudden wish to see the wonders of the Eternal City, from which his friend Brunellesco had lately returned, he broke off his work abruptly, and left Florence early in the following year. After that we hear no more of him, and all we have is the brief entry under his name, in the register of 1429. ” Dicesi morto a Rome” He is said to have died in Rome.” The statement is confirmed by the income-tax return of his old creditor Niccolò di Lapo, from which we learn that in 1430, the heirs of Tommaso di San Giovanni still owed him sixty-eight florins, but that since the painter died in Rome and left nothing to his brother, the debt is not likely to be recovered. Both Vasari and Landini, who wrote in 1481, say that Masaccio died at the age of twenty-six, and a contemporary, Antonio Manetti, notes down a remark made by the painter’s brother, who told him that Masaccio was born on the Feast of St. Thomas 1401, and died when he was about twenty-seven. He had been little known and little honoured in his life, but after his death all men remembered him. Brunellesco wept bitterly for his friend, and lamented the grievous loss which art had suffered in his premature end. ” And the most celebrated painters and sculptors,” writes Vasari, ” became excellent and famous by studying the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel ; and not only Florentines, but foreigners from other lands and cities came there to learn the principles of their art.” So that it may truly be said of Masaccio, that he stands half-way between Giotto and Raphael, and was the heir of one, and the teacher of the other great master.
Florence.Accademia: 73. Madonna and Child with St. Anne.
” Carmine: Brancacci Chapel: FrescoesFall of Adam and Eve, Expulsion from Paradise, St. Peter Preaching, Raising of Tabitha, St. Peter and St. John Healing the Sick with their Shadows, Distributing Alms, St. Peter Baptising, Raising of the King’s Son (in part).
” S. Maria Novella : Fresco Trinity,
Madonna, St. John, and Donors.
Berlin.Gallery : 58A. Adoration of Magi ; 58B. Martyrdom of St. Peter and St. John ; 58c. A Birth-Plate.
London. : Mr. Butler: Saints.
Vienna.Count Lanckoronski : St. Andrew.
Boston, U.S.A.Mrs. J. L. Gardner: Portrait of Young Man.