MASACCIO DI S. GIOVANNI
Painter of Valdarno
(1401-1428)

IT is a frequent practice of Nature when she produces a person of great excellence in any profession to raise up another to rival him at the same time and in a neighbouring place, so that they may help one another by their emulation and talents. This circumstance, besides being of singular assistance to those 1immediately concerned, also inflames the spirits of those who come after, to endeavour by study and industry to attain to the same honour and glorious reputation which they hear praised every day in their predecessors. That this is true is shown by Florence having produced in the same age Filippo, Donato, Lorenzo, Paolo Uecello and Masaccio, each one pre-eminent in his kind, who not only rid themselves of the rude and rough style in vogue until then, but by their beautiful works incited and inflamed the minds of their successors to such an extent that these employment shave been brought to their present state of grandeur and perfection. For this we are indeed under great obligation to those pioneers who, by means of their labours pointed out the true way to rise to the highest level. For the good style of painting we are chiefly indebted to Masaccio. Desiring to acquire renown, he reflected that, as painting is nothing more than an imitation of all natural living things, with similar design and colouring, so he who should follow Nature most closely would come nearest to perfection. This idea of Masaccio led him, by dint of unceasing study, to acquire so much knowledge that he may be ranked among the first who freed themselves of the hardness, the imperfections and difficulties of the art, and who introduced movement, vigour and life into the attitudes, giving the figures a certain appropriate and natural relief that no painter had ever succeeded in obtaining before. As his judgment was excellent, he felt that all figures which do not stand with their feet flat and foreshortened, but are on the tips of their toes, are destitute of all excellence and style in essentials, and show an utter ignorance of foreshortening. Now, although Paolo Uecello had devoted himself to this question, and had achieved something towards smoothing the difficulty, Masaccio did his foreshortenings much better, varying the methods and taking various points of view, achieving more than any of his predecessors. His works possess harmony and sweetness, the flesh colour of the heads and of his nudes blending with the tints of the draperies, which he delighted to make in a few easy folds, with perfect nature and grace. This has proved most useful to artists and for it he deserves as much praise as if he had invented it. For the things made before his time may be termed paintings merely, and by comparison his creations are real living and natural.

Masaccio was a native of Castello S. Giorgio of Valdarno, and it is said that some figures made by him in his early childhood may be seen there. He was very absent-minded and happy-go- lucky, his whole attention and will being devoted exclusively to his art, and he paid little attention to himself and less to others. He never took any heed or gave a thought to the cares or affairs of the world, not even about his clothes, and never collected from his debtors except when he was in extreme need, so that he was called Masaccio, 1 instead of his real name Tommaso, not because he was vicious, for he was goodness personified, but on account of his extreme carelessness, in spite of which his kindness in helping and giving pleasures to others was beyond all praise, he began to practise at the time when Masolino da Panicale was engaged upon the Chapel of the Brancacci in the Carmine at Florence, and he followed as closely as possible in the footsteps of Filippo and Donato, although his art was different, and his constant endeavour was to make his figures life-like and real; as much like Nature as possible. Thus he drew his lineaments in the modern style, and painted so that his works may safely stand beside any modern drawing or colour piece. He diligently studied methods of work and perspective, in which he displayed wonderful ingenuity, as is shown in a scene of small Figures now in the house of Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, in which, besides the Christ delivering the man possessed, there are some very fine buildings so drawn ill perspective that the interior and exterior are represented at the same time, as he took for the point of view not the front, but the side, for its greater difficulty. More than any other master he introduced nudes and foreshortenings into his paintings, things little practised before his day. He was a very facile workman, and the arrangement of his draperies was extremely simple, as 2 have said. By his hand is a picture in tempera representing Our Lady in the lap of St. Anne, with the Child at her neck, which is now in S. Ambrogio at Florence in the chapel next to the door leading into the nuns parlour. On the screen of the church of s. Niccolo, beyond the Arno, is a picture by his hand painted in tempera, in which, besides an Annunciation, there is a house full of columns beautifully drawn in perspective. Besides the drawing of the lines, which is perfect, he shaded off his colours so that they are gradually lost to sight, a fact which proves him the master of perspective. In the Badia at Florence he painted on a pillar, opposite one of those which bear the arch of the high altar, St. Ivo of Britanny, represented in a niche with his feet foreshortened, as seen from below. This brought him no small praise, because it had not been so well done by others before. Beneath the saint, and above another comice, he represented the widows, children and poor assisted by him in their want. Below the screen of S. Maria Novella he painted a Trinity which is placed above the altar of St. Ignatius, between Our Lady and St. John the Evangelist, who are contemplating the crucified Christ. At the sides are two kneeling figures, who, as far as one guess, are portraits of the donors, but they are not much ill evidenced being covered bya gold ornamentation. But the most beautiful thing there besides the figures is a barrel fault represented in perspective, and divided into squares full of bosses, which gradually diminish so realistically that the building seems hollowed in the wall.

In S. Maria Maggiore he painted in a chapel, beside the lateral door leading to S. Giovanni, the altar- picture with Our Lady, St. Catherine, and St. Julian; and in the predella he made some scenes in small figures of the life of St. Catherine, and St. Julian slaying his father and mother. 3 In the middle he made the Nativity of Christ with a simplicity and vivacity all his own. In a picture in one of the chapels in the screen of the Carmine at Pisa he did Our Lady and the Child, with some small angels playing music at her feet; one playing the lute and listening with his ear down to the harmony he has produced. The Madonna is placed between St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, St. Julian and St. Nicholas, all figures of great vigour and life. In the predella beneath are scenes from the lives of those saints in small figures, the middle being occupied by the three Magi offering their gifts to Christ. In this part there are some very fine horses drawn from life-one could not wish for better- and the men of the suite are dressed in the various costumes in use at the time. Above, to complete the picture, there are saints arranged in panels about a crucifix. It is thought that the figure of a saint dressed as a bishop, painted in fresco by the door in that church which leads to the convent, is by Masaccio's hand, but I think it is clear that it is the work of his pupil, Fra Filippo. On his return from Pisa, Masaccio painted a life-size representation of a nude man and woman, now in the Palla Ruccellai house. Not feeling at ease in Florence, and being urged by his love and devotion to art, he determined to go to Rome in order to study and surpass his rivals. When there he acquired the greatest fame and did a chapel in the church of S. Clemente for the Cardinal of S. Clemente, representing in fresco the Passion of Christ, with the thieves on the cross, and the life of St. Catherine the martyr. 4 He likewise did many pictures in tempera which have all been dispersed or lost during the troubles of Rome. There is one in the church of S. Maria Maggiore, in a small chapel near the sacristy, containing four saints so well executed that they appear as if in relief. In the middle is St. Mary of the Snows and the portrait from life of Pope Martin, who is tracing the foundations of the church with a spade, and near him is the Emperor Sigismund II. 5 One day Michelagnolo was examining this work with me and praised it greatly, adding that those men were living in the time of Masaccio. While the latter was in Rome; Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano were at work on the walls of the church of S. Janni for Pope Martin, and they had allotted a part of it to Masaccio, when he received the news that Cosimo de' Medici, by whom he had been much assisted and favoured, had been recalled from exile. 6 Accordingly he returned to Florence, where the Brancacci Chapel in the Carmine was entrusted to him, Masolino da Panicale, who had begun it, having died. Before he put his hand to this work he did, as a specimen of his skill, the St. Paul that is near the bell-ropes, to show what progress he had made in art.

Decidedly he exhibited extraordinary ability in this painting, the saint's head (a portrait of Bartolo di Angiolino Angiolini) expressing such vigour that it seems only to lack the power of speech. Anyone who was not acquainted with St. Paul would recognise in this figure the Roman citizen joined to that invincible and divine spirit all intention the cares of the Faith. In this same picture he showed his knowledge of foreshortening a view seen from below in a truly marvellous manner, and in the Apostle's feet, how he has overcome a difficulty and shaken off the old rude manner, which, as I have said, made all the figures stand on the tips of their toes. This method lasted until his day without anyone correcting it, and he alone and first of all brought in the good style of to-day. While he was engaged upon this work, the consecration of the Carmine church took place; 7 and as a memorial of this Masaccio painted the scene as it occurred, in verdeterra and chiaroscuro, in the cloister over 1the door leading to the convent. There he drew the portraits of a great number of citizens in mantle and hood, who are taking part in the procession, including Filippo di ser Brunellesco in sahots, Donatello, Masolino da Panicale, who had been his master, Antonio Brancacci, who employed him to do the chapel, Niccolo da Uzzano, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, and Bartolommeo Valori, which are also in the house of Simon Corsi, a Florentine nobleman, by the same hand. He also drew there Lorenzo Ridolfi, then ambassador of the Florentine republic at Venice, 8 and not only did he draw all these notabilities from life, but also the door of the convent, and the porter with the keys in his hand. The work possesses many perfections, for Masaecio's knowledge enabled him to put five or six people in a row upon the piazza, judiciously diminishing them in proportion as they recede, according to the point of view, a truly marvellous feat, especially as he has used his discretion in making his figures not all of one size, but of various stature, as in life, distinguishing the small arid the stout from the tall and the slender, all foreshortened in their ranks with such excellence that they would not look otherwise in real life. After this he returned to the work in the Brancacci Chapel, continuing the series of St. Peter begun by Masolino, and finished the part comprising the story of the keys, the healing of the infirm, raising the dead, healing the sick with his shadow on the way to the Temple with St. John. 9 But the most notable of all is where Peter, in order to pay tribute, takes the money by Christ's direction from the fish's belly. Here Masaccio has painted his own portrait, with the aid of a mirror, in the guise of an Apostle, standing at the end, and so well done that it is like life; remarkable also are the ardour of St. Peter in his request and the attention of the Apostles in their various attitudes about Christ, awaiting His decision with gestures full of life and naturalness.

St. Peter in special, in his efforts to get the money from the fish's body, has his face quite red from bending; more admirable still is the payment of the tribute, including the representation of counting the money, and the satisfaction of who is receiving it, who looks at the money in his hand with the greatest delight. He also painted there the raising of the king's son by S. S. Peter and Paul. But the work remained unfinished owing to Masaccio's death, and was afterwards completed by Filippino. In the scene where St. Peter is baptising, a nude figure is much admired as it stands among the others and shivers with the cold, executed in the finest relief, and in a charming style, so that it has always been held in great esteem and admiration by all artists, both ancient and modern. For this reason the chape1 has always been frequented by an infinite number of designers and masters up to the present time, and it still contains some heads of such naturalness and beauty that it may be affirmed that no master approached so closely to the moderns as Masaccio. For this cause, is labours deserve unstinted praise, especially as he paved the way for the good style of our own day. That this is true is shown by the fact that all the celebrated painters and sculptors from that time until now have become excellent and distinguished by studying in that chapel, as, for example, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, Fra Filippo, Filippino, who completed it, Betllesso Baldovinetti, Andrea dal Castagno, Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico del Grillandaio, Sandro di Botticello, Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Fra Bartolommeo of S. Marco, Mariotto Albertinelli, the divine Michelagnolo Buonarrotti, Raphael of Urbino also, who there first laid the foundation of his beautiful style, il Granaccio, Lorenzo di Credi, Ridolfo del Grillandaio, Andrea del Sarto, il Rosso, il Franciabigio, Baccio Bandinelli, Alonso Spagnuolo, Jacopo da Pontormo, Pierino del Vaga and Toto del Nunziata, in short, all who have endeavoured to learn the art have always gone for instruction to this chapel to grasp the precepts and rules of Masaccio for the proper representation of figures. If I have failed to mention many foreigners and Florentines in this list of those who went to study in the chapel, it is because it follows that where the heads of the arts have gone the members will also go. He has Masaccio's reputation has always stood, it is nevertheless the firm conviction of many that he would have produced even better work if death, which carried him off at the age of twenty-six, had not cut short his time. Whether through envy or because good things do not usually last long, he died in the flower of his age, and so suddenly that doubts were not wanting that poison was the cause rather than mere chance.

It is said that when Filippo died Brunellesco heard of his death he said, "We have experienced a great loss in Masaccio," and he was plunged in deep grief, as the master had taken great pains to show him many points in perspective and architecture. Masaccio was buried in the church of the Carmine in the year 1443, and although no memorial was placed above him at the time, as he had been held in high esteem during his life, yet he was honoured after his death with the following epitaphs:

That of Annibal Caro:

Pinsi e Ia mia pittura al ver fu pari L'atteggiai, l'avvivai, le diedi il moto Le diedi affetto. Insegni il Bonarotto A tutti gli altri e da me solo impair.

That of Fabio Segno:

Invida cur Lachesis primo sub flore juventae Pollice discindis stamina funereo? Hoc uno occiso innumeros occidis Apclles: Picturae omnis obit, hoc obeunte, lepos. Hoc sole cxtincto cxtinguuntur sydera cuiicta. Heu! decus omiie perit hoc perunte simul.

  • 1 Maso is an abbreviation for Tommaso, i.e. Thomas. Thus Masolino means little Thomas, and Masaccio big, building, clumsy Thomas.
  • 2 Now in the Academia, Florence.
  • 3 This action, somewhat equivocal in a saint, was committed by St. Julian Hospitaller, owing to a misapprehension. He spent the remainder of his life in expiation.
  • 4 Done in 1417. Now considered to be the work of Masolino.
  • 5 Martin V., 1417-31 and Sigismund, 1410-37; there was only one Emperor of this name.
  • 6 In 1434.
  • 7 On 19 April, 1422.
  • 8 He went twice on embassies, in 1402 and 1425.
  • 9 About 1425.






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