The Renaissance was a period of great cultural change that began in Italy during the late middle ages, and eventually spread throughout the rest of Europe. It marked considerable achievements in various fields such as architecture, dance, arts, literature, music, philosophy, science, technology, and warfare.
Many of the sculptures, paintings, and other works of art that can be seen in museums today emerged from the Renaissance period. They reflect the artistic styles and cultural changes that were prominent during the era. One Italian artist, who is considered by historians to be the first great painter of the early Renaissance, became known for his skill at recreating lifelike figures and movements. He was known simply as Masaccio.
While very little is known about the Italian painter, who was born Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Simone Guidi Cassai, many of his works have withstood the tests of time. Today, they survive as a testament to the early Renaissance painter’s artistic greatness.
Born in the town of Castel San Giovanni di Altura, Masaccio was the son of Giovanni di Simone Cassai, who was an Italian notary, and Jacopa di Martinozzo, who was the daughter of an innkeeper in Barberino di Mugello, which is a small town a few miles north of Florence.
Historians estimate that Masaccio was born on the 21st of December in 1401. His last name comes from the trade that his grandfather Simone and his great uncle Lorenzo practiced, which was carpentry. They were cabinet makers, casse in Italian, hence his last name Cassai.
In 1406, when Masaccio was only five years old, his father died. That same year, his brother Giovanni, who was named after his deceased father, was born. Giovanni would later become a painter himself, earning the nickname Lo Sheggia, which meant “the splinter”.
A few years later Masaccio’s mother married Tedesco di maestro Feo, an elderly aristocrat, and soon after, the family relocated to Florence. However, history is unclear as to whether the family moved to Florence after the marriage or after the death of the Tedesco, when Masaccio was about twenty years old.
There is very little account of Masaccio’s artistic education. At the time, Renaissance painters had to work as an apprentice to an established master at the age of 12, and Masaccio would have had to live in Florence in order to receive his training. However, the earliest evidence of his training was documented in 1422 when he joined the painters guild, the Arte de’ Medici e Speziali, as an independent master.
When Masaccio joined the painter’s guild, the name that he signed with was “Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia”.
When Masaccio was training at the guild, he was called “Maso”, which translates to “clumsy”, because he always seemed preoccupied and utterly disinterested in worldly affairs. He was also described as a kind and generous individual.
In 1424, Masaccio began collaborating with renowned painter Tommaso di Cristofano di Fino, who was more commonly remembered as Masolino da Panicale. Curiously, Masolino was also called “Maso”. It was first thought that Masolino took Masaccio on as an apprentice. However, because Masaccio was admitted into the guild before he started working with Masolino, that theory has been disproved.
Only a few of the Italian Renaissance artist’s early works made it through the centuries. The earliest works attributed to Masaccio are the San Giovenale Triptych, which he painted in 1422, and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which he and Masolino worked together on in 1424.
The San Giovenale Triptych, which is widely regarded as Masaccio’s first original work, is an altarpiece that was commissioned by the Castellani family in Florence for the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It was later moved to the Chapel in San Giovenale, where it was discovered in 1961. It is said that the altarpiece was hidden in the loft of an adjacent house before World War II in order to prevent the occupying German army from taking it with them.
The altarpiece consisted of three panels. The left panel depicts Saint Bartholomew and Saint Blaise. The right panel shows Saint Anthony and Saint Juvenal. Between the two panels is the image of the Madonna, enthroned with two angels at her feet and the child Jesus eating some vine. The painting is dated at the bottom in modern humanist letters, making it the first painting in Europe to not be inscribed with Gothic characters.
Masaccio and Masolino worked together in painting the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which was also known as the Madonna and Child with St. Anne, or the Sant’Anna Metterza, in 1424. The painting was originally commissioned for the Sant’Ambrogio Church in Florence. Historians believe that it was placed in the chapel door, which led to the nuns’ parlour.
The painting depicts the Madonna and the child Jesus sitting in front of Saint Anne, surrounded by angels. Art historians credit Masaccio for the powerful volume and solid possession of space, while it is thought that some of the angels’ delicate form and coloring are from the Gothic brush of Masolino, although the angel at the top right hand curve shows the hand of Masaccio.
While in Florence, Masaccio studied the works of Italian painter and architect, Giotto di Bondone. He also became friends with Donatello and Brunelleschi, who suggested that he travel to Rome. In 1423, Masaccio travelled to Rome with Masolino, where he learned how to incorporate traces of influences from ancient Roman and Greek art in his works.
Throughout his brief career, Masaccio and his creations had a profound influence on other artists. Two of his most celebrated works are the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, the Pisa Altarpiece, and The Trinity, which was commissioned for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella.
In 1924, Masaccio and Masolino were commissioned by Felice Brancacci to paint a series of frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Work on the frescoes began a year later, although for reasons unknown, the two Italian artists left the chapel unfinished. The frescoes were eventually completed by Filippino Lippi in the 1480’s.
One of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel that Masaccio did complete is called The Tribute Money. The painting describes a scene from the Gospel of Matthew, wherein Jesus asks Peter to look for a coin in the mouth of a fish in order to pay the temple tax. Through the years, The Tribute Money suffered great damage until it was restored more than 500 years later.
Another completed piece from the Brancacci Chapel frescoes was The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It depicts a distressed Adam and Eve, who were being chased out of the garden by an angel. During the 17th century, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III de’ Medici ordered that leaves be added to the painting to conceal the genitals of the figures. When the painting was cleaned and fully restored in 1980, the leaves were eventually removed.
In 1426, Masaccio and his brother Giovanni were commissioned by Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi da San Giusto to paint the Pisa Altarpiece, which was a major altarpiece in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa. The central panel depicts the Madonna and Child surrounded by four angels.
Only eleven of the twenty original panels have been rediscovered after the series was dismantled in the 18th century. It is believed that Masaccio travelled and forth between Pisa and Florence as he simultaneously worked on the Pisa Altarpiece and the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel.
In 1427, Masaccio was commissioned to produce a Holy Trinity for the Dominican church of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It is unclear as to who commissioned the work, but art historians theorize that the work was paid for by Berti family of the Santa Maria Novella Quarter. The family had previously shown devotion to the Holy Trinity.
The Trinity is considered by many to be Masaccio’s finest creation. It is also the earliest surviving painting to use systematic linear perspective that was developed by Brunelleschi in the 14th century.
It is believed that Masaccio produced two other works before leaving for Rome. One depicted the Nativity and the other, the Annunciation. To date, only four frescoes that have been confirmed to be Masaccio’s work still exist. Many of his creations have been either lost or destroyed.
Controversy surrounds the circumstances of the Italian Renaissance painter’s death. While it is known that he died towards the end of 1428, the cause of his death have yet to be determined. Some experts believe that the noted artist, who was sometimes referred to as the father of the Renaissance, died of poverty when he was in Rome. Others believe that he was poisoned by a jealous rival. The truth behind Masaccio’s death is still unknown.
Despite his relatively short career, Masaccio left behind a legacy that influenced other artists. Upon hearing news of his death, Brunelleschi reportedly said, “We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.” Famed Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci described Masaccio as someone who showed by his perfect works how those who take for their standard anyone but nature, mistress of masters, were laboring in vain.