Painters Of Florence – Masolino

THE art of Giotto lasted a hundred years. His personality overshadows the whole of the fourteenth century, and the study of his followers’ works only serves to make us realise the surpassing glory of his genius. After him there was no great advance in Florentine art during several generations. ” Giotto still holds the field,” wrote Dante’s commentator, Benvenuto da Imola, in 1376, “for no greater artist than he has yet arisen, although his works contain many faults.” The testimony is striking, coming as it does from a contemporary of Orcagna. The defects in Giotto’s art were apparent, but of all the other artists who had followed in his steps during the last fifty years, there was not one who could compare with him. Here and there some slight signs of progress were perceptible. There had been a distinct improvement in details and accessories in landscape and architecture. Giottino had effected some advance in artistic composition, Orcagna in scientific rendering of form ; and towards the end of the century a marked tendency towards greater realism, and the more accurate representation of objects, appeared in the works of such men as Antonio Veneziano. But the next step forward was only to come with the opening years of the new century. As in the days of Giotto, Florence was still the centre of the new culture, the starting-point of all literary and artistic endeavour. After the troubles excited by the revolt of the Ciompi and the final conquest of Pisa, the Republic entered on a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. The wealth of her merchants increased rapidly, and the chiefs of rival factions, whether Medici or Albizzi, alike devoted their gold and authority to the encouragement of art and letters. The first thirty years of the fifteenth century witnessed a great development of civic life, which was followed by a corresponding advance in humanist literature and a wonderful blossoming of the fine arts. Then Brunellesco modelled the mighty cupola which is still without a rival in the world then Ghiberti carved the Baptistery gates, and Donatello worked the passionate dreams of his soul into the marble Saints which guard the walls of Or’ San Michele. And then, too, Masaccio painted the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel, to be the wonder of future ages and the model of successive generations of artists in the years to come.

The three essential points which distinguish Quattrocento painting from that of the Trecento are : the accurate study of the human form, the scientific knowledge of perspective, and the introduction of classical instead of Gothic architecture. These were followed by many other minor developments in modelling and chiaroscuro, in landscape and portrait painting. Once more the sister-art of sculpture led the way, and it was Brunellesco and Donatello who imposed their aims and ideals on the new generation of painters, as Niccoló and Giovanni Pisano had done a century before. In the opening years of the fifteenth century the two most flourishing classes of artists in Florence were the sculptors and the goldsmiths or workers in metal. From their shops the men who were to be the pioneers of the new movement went forth, and a race of heroic toilers arose, with no desire but the faithful following of nature and the eager search after truth. Masaccio was the representative of the new movement in painting, the man who took up the banner which had fallen from Giotto’s hand, and bore it one stage further in advance. But great as his genius was, and bold as were the innovations which this short-lived master introduced, it would be a mistake to regard his appearance as that of an isolated phenomenon. The way was prepared for him by a succession of lesser artists, who held an intermediate place in this period of transition, between the Giotteschi and the Quattrocento painters. Of these the most important was Gherardo, called Starnina, after his father, Jacopo, surnamed Starna ” the partridge ” a scholar of Antonio Veneziano, who was born in 1354, and admitted to the Painters’ Guild in 1387. During the interval, he had been exiled on suspicion of being implicated in the Ciompi riots, and spent nine years in Spain, where he was employed by the reigning monarch, John of Castille, and executed paintings which were still to be seen in the Escurial, early in this century. The young Florentine’s naturally wild and turbulent nature became tamed, and his rough manners polished by his residence at the court of Castille ; and when, in 1387, he returned to Florence, richly endowed by his royal patron, and highly skilled in his art, he found friends and work in abundance. Starnina acquired great renown by the frescoes which he painted in a chapel of the Carmine, in which he introduced many personages in Spanish costume, as well as a variety of life-like and humorous incidents He died in 1408, and was lamented by his contemporaries as an artist of ” profound invention and elegant execution.” But since none of his works are in existence now, it is only by studying the paintings of his followers that we are able to form any idea of his style.

One of these was Antonio Vite, of Pistoia, whom Starnina sent to Pisa in 1403, in his stead, and who afterwards executed some curious frescoes in the Chapel of the Assumption at Prato. Vite was an artist of little power and importance, but in these paintings of the life of the Virgin and of St. Stephen we see a marked change of style. The composition, it is true, follows the old Giottesque lines ; but the heads are shorter and flatter, the features more strongly marked, the lights are brighter and the shadows deeper. There is more realism in the draperies and costumes, the caps are wound round the head like turbans, as in Masolino and Masaccio’s works, the faces are more individual, and there is a new sense of life and movement in the figures who crowd around the dying martyr. Besides Antonio Vite, Starnina numbered among his pupils two artists who attained high distinction in the coming century, and held an important place in the annals of Florentine art. These were Fra Angelico and Masolino, the master pf Masaccio.

The similarity of names between these two men the elder, Tommaso, who was known as Masolino, ” Little Tom,” and the younger, who acquired the nick-name of Masaccio, “Big Tom,” or, as Browning renders it, ” hulking Tom,” has been productive of endless confusion. At one time the very personality of Masolino was in danger of being merged in that of his more distinguished scholar. But recent research has done much to clear away these difficulties, and to distinguish between the work of the two artists, if the chronology of their lives still remains wrapt in obscurity, and if critics cannot yet agree as to the exact share which each master had in the famous frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel. Masolino, or, to call him by his full name, Tommaso di Cristoforo di Fino, was the son of a house-painter of Panicale, a hamlet in the commune of Colle di Val d’Elsa, where he was born in 1383. Vasari’s statements that he learnt painting of Starnina, and worked as a gold-smith in Ghiberti’s shop, are both probably correct. It is true that Masolino was only five years younger than Ghiberti, but since he did not matriculate as a painter until January 1423, he may have been employed before this as that master’s assistant. Throughout his career, his amiable character and impressionable nature led him to make friends easily, and to assimilate new ideas wherever he met with them. Of his early works we have no record, and the first painting we have from his hand is a Madonna, at Bremen, which bears the date of 1423, together with the inscription : O quanta misericordia di Dio !—” O how great is the mercy of God ! ” Here the drapery recalls Lorenzo Monaco’s style, while the slender form and expressive face are characteristic of Stamina’s followers. Another Madonna at Munich belongs evidently to a somewhat later date, and resembles Gentile da Fabriano’s work, both in the attitude of the Virgin, who, with one knee on the ground, adores the child whom she supports with her arm, and in the lavish use of gold embroidery on her robe. Both of these have the full rounded foreheads and placid gaze that distinguish all Masolino’s figures.

About the year 1423, Masolino, who was then living in the parish of S. Felicità in Florence, was entrusted with the task of decorating a chapel in the Carmine, which had been lately built by Felice Brancacci. This eminent citizen was sent, in 1422, on an embassy to the Sultan of Babylon, to obtain certain privileges for Florentine merchants, and in a will which he made before his departure he speaks of his new foundation, but does not mention the frescoes, which were, apparently, not yet begun. During the next two years Masolino and his young assistant, Masaccio, decorated the roof and upper part of the chapel walls with frescoes of the four Evangelists and the Call, Denial, and Ship of St. Peter. These subjects, which adorned the ceiling and lunettes on the upper part of the walls, have been destroyed, while the twelve frescoes on the lower walls and pilasters remain. Three of these frescoes, the Fall of Adam and Eve, the Preaching of Peter, and the double subject of the Raising of Tabitha and Healing of the Cripple at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, have been ascribed by many of the best critics to Masolino, and certainly bear strong marks of his style. But they are so much superior to the later work executed by Masolino, that it is difficult to suppose they are by his hand ; while their position on the upper part of the walls above Masaccio’s indisputable works, makes it almost impossible that they should have been added after the death of that painter. These reasons go far to justify Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s contention, that Masaccio was the author of all the frescoes now remaining in the Brancacci Chapel, and that the differences we discern in the earlier and later works are only the result of the same artist’s gradual development and emancipation from his master’s style such as we see, for instance, in the case of Raphael. Certainly the Crucifixion in the Mond collection, or the St. Sebastian at Bergamo, come as near to Perugino’s manner as these three frescoes do to that of Masolino. When Albertini and Vasari state that half of the Chapel was painted by Masolino, and half by Masaccio, they probably allude to the destroyed frescoes of the roof and lunettes, which were undoubtedly Masolino’s work ; while in the case of the three doubtful subjects, the scholar may well have made use of cartoons prepared by the master before he was called away.

Masolino’s presence in Florence in 1425, is proved by a small payment made to him by a Guild connected with the Carmine Church ; but in the same year he went to Hungary, at the request of Filippo Scolari, a Florentine soldier who had defeated the Turks and risen to high distinction in the service of Sigismund, king of Hungary. This bold Ghibelline leader, now Obergespan or Hospodar of Temeswar in Hungary, popularly known in his old home as Pippo Spano, invited Masolino to decorate a church which he had built at Stuhlweissenburg. Leaving Masaccio to finish the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel, the Florentine master travelled to Hungary, where he entered the Hospodar’s service, and remained there some time after his patron’s death in the following year. This is proved by the following income-tax return of 1427, made by Masolino’s father, Cristoforo di Fino, who was then living in the quarter of Santa Croce of Florence :—” Tommaso my son is in Hungary, and is said to have received a certain quantity of money from the heirs of Messer Filippo Scolari, but how much I do not know, and therefore cannot state. There are 36o florins of common property here.”

On his return to Italy, Masolino stopped in Lombardy, at the invitation of Cardinal Branda di Castiglione, an illustrious Milanese prelate, who nad been sent to Hungary as papal legate, and may have seen the artist when he passed through Florence on his way from Rome in 1425. Here Cardinal Branda employed him to paint the choir of the noble Collegiate Church which he had lately built in his native town of Castiglione on the banks of the river Olona, near Varese. ‘Che Church was consecrated in 1425, by Branda himself, and the decoration of the interior was completed in 1428, as we learn from an inscription on a bas-relief over the portal. These frescoes, which were only discovered sixty years ago, when the whitewash was removed from the walls, represent the history of the Virgin, and scenes from the life of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen, to whom the church was dedicated. The best preserved subjects are those on the vaulted ceiling, among others a fine composition of the Nativity, with a noble and dignified figure of Cardinal Branda among the worshippers at the manger, and a cartellino bearing the words, Masolinus de Florentia pinxit, in the left hand corner.

The profile of the youthful Madonna and the slender angel-forms recall the types of Masolino’s fellow-pupil, Fra Angelico, but the faces have none of the Dominican master’s intensity of expression. We see Masolino here at the age of forty-five, still as a distinctly Giottesque designer, timidly attempting to adopt new practices, introducing classic as well as Gothic architecture in his buildings, deeper folds in his draperies, and stronger modelling in his figures. But in the frescoes which Masolino painted seven years later in the Baptistery at Castiglione, we find a striking advance, and there can be little doubt that he returned to Florence during the interval, and became acquainted with the latest developments of the new school. There he found such artists as Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno engaged in working out the latest problems of scientific perspective, and rendering form and movement with the vigorous realism which we admire in Hawk-wood of his equestrian portrait. He found his old comrade Ghiberti at work on his second Baptistery gate, and Donatello engaged on the marble singing-gallery with the famous frieze of children, for the Duomo. And in that same Brancacci Chapel, where he had painted his own frescoes a few years before, he now saw the wonderful works of his old scholar, the marvellous youth Masaccio, who, after painting these masterpieces, had left his work unfinished, and had gone to die, unknown and unhonoured, in Rome.

The second series of Masolino’s works at Castiglione show us how ready he was to receive new impressions, and how attentively he had studied these things in his old home. The Baptistery frescoes abound in reminiscences of the new Quattrocento art, which was fast superseding the old Giottesque tradition. Both the Evangelists and Angels on the ceiling, and the Gabriel and Virgin of the ruined Annunciation on the entrance wall, still recall Angelico by their slender forms and masses of fair curls ; while the small folds and flowing scroll-work of the draperies are curiously like Ghiberti’s reliefs. But in the scenes from the Baptist’s life there is far more of the new realism. The Baptist standing before Herod is a fine and imposing figure, and the action of the soldier who strikes off his head in prison is singularly well rendered, although the structure of the forms is still vague and uncertain, and the limbs and details of the hands and feet are often badly drawn. The shivering boy wrapping his yellow cloak around him, in the Baptism of Christ, and the man with his back turned towards us in the act of pulling off his shirt, are plainly adapted from Masaccio’s famous fresco in the Carmine, and are both excellently drawn ; the figure of Christ, again, standing in the stream of Jordan, is not without a certain grandeur ; but the arms of the Baptist are too short, and his whole form is awkward and ill-proportioned. Perhaps the most effective subject of the whole series is that of Salome before Herod. Here the story is told with a naïve sincerity, mingled with a new sense of actuality, which are very characteristic of Masolino. Herod and his guests are seated at table, under a classical loggia, decorated with a frieze of cherubs bearing garlands, such as Jacopo della Quercia had carved on Ilaria del Carretto’s tomb at Lucca, twenty years before, and Salome, a gentle and modest maiden, with arms folded across her breast, advances to proffer her request to the king. The two fashionably dressed courtiers behind her closely resemble the figures in the Raising of Tabitha, in the Brancacci Chapel, and in the fine profile of the middle-aged man, with the short beard and moustache, we recognise the portrait of Masolino himself, as painted by Masaccio in his fresco of the Healing of the Cripple, and reproduced by Vasari in his life of the artist. The aged priest with the keen face and white hair, seated next to Herod at dinner, clad in purple and white ermine, is evidently Cardinal Branda, who was at that time over eighty years of age ; while in the Hungarian magnate at his side, with the huge bear-skin and long dark beard, we have a portrait of Masolino’s former patron, the great Hospodar, Pippo Spano. Under the open colonnade on the right we see another group. Herodias, robed in gorgeous flowered brocades, and wearing a small gold crown on the top of a towering turban, receives the Baptist’s head, which Salome presents on her knees. The girl’s long hair is wreathed with roses, and both mother and daughter have the same air of quiet content on their faces ; but the two maidens in plum-coloured robes, standing behind Herodias, start back and hold up their hands in horror at the dreadful sight. In the distance beyond the loggia roof and the long arcades of the court, the Saint’s disciples are seen bearing their master’s remains to his burial, in a mountain landscape that strongly resembles the backgrounds of Ghiberti’s reliefs.

After the year 1435 which is the date inscribed on the Baptistery frescoes we have no further record of Masolino, and it is only on the strength of internal evidence that another series of frescoes in the basilica of S. Clemente, in Rome, can be ascribed to him. These paintings, which Vasari attributes to Masaccio, are now generally recognised to be by the elder master, and are supposed by many critics to have been early works executed between 1417 and 1420, when Branda di Castiglione was titular Cardinal of S. Clemente. But the great advance in the style of these frescoes renders it inconceivable that they should belong to an earlier date than those at Castiglione, and Dr. Wickhoff is no doubt right in assigning them to the last years of Masolino’s life, when another Lombard prelate, Enrico di Allosio was Cardinal of S. Clemente. On the right wall of the chapel are four scenes from the life of St. Ambrose, that favourite Milanese saint. In the first, the Saint is seen lying as a babe in his cradle, where he is attacked by a swarm of bees, which his nurse-maid vainly endeavours to drive away, but which, to the amazement of his parents, do him no injury. In the second, his election as Bishop of Milan is decided by the sudden appearance of the Christ-Child, who singles him out as chosen of God for the office. The third represents an incident in one of St. Ambrose’s journeys, when the house of a rich nobleman who had refused to receive him was suddenly submerged ; and in the fourth we have a picture of the Saint’s death-bed. This last scene is laid in a small red-walled chamber, with writing-table, desk and books, and a Murano glass standing on the cupboard-shelf, and is interesting as one of the earliest examples of an interior in Quattrocento art. On the opposite wall are five scenes from the life of St. Katherine of Alexandria. The triumph of the Virgin-saint over the pagan philosophers of Maxentius, the conversion of the Empress, and the death of the youthful martyr, are all illustrated. In these scenes we recognise Masolino’s peculiar type of face and hands, as well as his usual treatment of draperies. The perspective of the buildings is more correct, the individual heads are full of character, and there is much charm in the figure of the youthful Saint, standing up to expound the Christian faith before the Emperor and his wise men. But the greatest triumph of Masolino’s art is the large Crucifixion on the wall over the altar. It is impossible to look at this imposing scene without thinking that the original conception must have been due to Masaccio, and that Masolino must have had some cartoon by the dead artist’s hand to be his guide. The wide landscape with its low range of hills and sea-shore, the three crosses rising against the sky, the animated crowd of horsemen and soldiers in the foreground, and the pathetic group of the holy women, all help to make up a singularly noble and striking picture. Yet Masolino’s peculiar types and mannerisms are to be seen here, especially in the faces of the women and in the action of the kneeling Magdalen. And as Dr. Wickhoff points out, the armed riders and horses, and the effect of light on the distant sea recall the style of another artist, the great Veronese master, Pisanello, whose recent paintings in the Lateran must have been familiar to Masolino, and whose rare imaginative powers made a profound impression on many of his contemporaries.

Another work which Masolino probably executed during this visit to Rome, although at an earlier date than the S. Clemente frescoes, is the altar-piece, now at Naples, in which the foundation of a church, the Madonna of the Snows, by Pope Martin V. is represented, and the Madonna appears above, en-circled by an almond-shaped glory of angels. Enrico di Allosio only became Cardinal of S. Clemente in 1446, so that if Masolino painted the frescoes in the basilica by his order, he was already sixty-three. His death seems to have taken place soon afterwards, and it is not unlikely that he is the artist named Tommaso di Cristofano who was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore on the 18th of October, 1447. According to Vasari his chief works were painted about 1440, a statement which in itself is fairly correct, although it cannot be said to agree with the same writer’s assertion that he died at thirty-seven. But incorrect as is Vasari’s chronology, his remarks on Masolino’s style are remarkably just, and he gives this master full credit for his share in the new movement. ” Masolino,” he writes, ” was a man of rare intelligence, and his paintings are executed with great love and diligence. I have often examined his works, and find his style to be essentially different from that of those who came before him. He gave majesty to his figures, and introduced finely designed folds in his draperies. He began to understand light and shade, and to give his forms relief; and succeeded in some very difficult foreshortenings. He also gave greater sweetness of expression to his women-heads, and gayer costumes to his young men, and his perspective is tolerably correct. But above all he excelled in fresco-painting. This he did so well, and with such delicately blending colours, that his flesh tones have the utmost softness imaginable, and if he could have drawn more perfectly, he would deserve to be numbered among the best artists.”


Castiglione d’Olona.—Church: Frescoes—Life of the Virgin, and Lives of St. Stephen and St. Laurence, 1428.

Battistery : Life of the Baptist, 1435.

Naples.—Museo: 25. Madonna and Christ in Glory; 34. Foundation of the Church of La Madonna della Neve by Pope Martin V.

Rome. S. Clemente: Frescoes—Lives of S. Katharine of Alexandria and St. Ambrose ; Crucifixion.

Bremen.—Kunsthalle : 164. Madonna, 1423.

Munich.—Pinacothek: 1019. Madonna and Angels.