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Friday, May 1, 2015


The fully restored The
Expulsion, 1426, Masaccio
The Expulsion, before restoration (left),
and after (right).
One of the disturbingly bad habits I've fallen into over the past few years in preparing these blog entries is that of using the work of an important artist in illustrating various points so often that I fail to realize I've never actually devoted an entire item to that artist himself. One of those poor, unfortunate painting masters from the past is Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, better known simply as Masaccio. No less an expert on such things than the art historian, Giorgio Vasari, has praised Masaccio as the best painter of his generation (the early 1400s). So, lest the ghost of Vasari come calling on me some dark and stormy night, I guess I'd best make an effort to remedy my oversight.
The Tribute, 1425-28, Masaccio. The narrative in this fresco moves from the center
(Christ instructs Peter to find a coin in the fish's mouth) to the far left (Peter obeying),
then swings over to the far right as he pays the temple tax to the collector.
Peter thus appears three times in the scene, the tax collector twice.
Thought to be a self-portrait by Masaccio,
a face in the crowd from a fresco
in the Brancacci Chapel.
Vasari was right, of course, and if I might be so bold as to add to what the great artist/biographer wrote, I'd also point out he had a profound influence on many other artists who followed him during the ensuing years of the Italian quattrocento. He was among the first to use linear perspective in his paintings. He also veered away from the Gothic style and ornamentation of artists like Fabriano to a more naturalistic mode that not only employed perspective, but chiaroscuro, all in an instinctive effort to render greater realism in his work. Unfortunately, 1420, about the time he started his career, was a long, long time ago and that long time has not been kind to his fresco paintings. One has only to look at the miracles modern-day art restorers have manifested (top, right) to realize both the ravages of time and the incredible beauty Masaccio was capable of during the generation Vasari refers to. In fact, Vasari undoubtedly, knew Masaccio's The Expulsion (top, left) firsthand having viewed this masterpiece when it was still relatively new, a little over a century after it was completed.

San Giovenale Triptych, 1422, Masaccio
Virgin Mary with Pseudo-Arabic
Halo, 1426, Masaccio
Masaccio was born in 1401 not far from Florence, where he was to live and work his entire, extremely short, life. He died in 1428 at the age of twenty-six. Thus there is not a tremendous volume of Masaccio's frescoes to plow through, but those which survive, are quite important. Basically we can cover Masaccio by talking about less than a half-dozen paintings. Dates are of little consequence in that they were all painted inside a span of no more than about six years (1422-28). The earliest of these, the San Giovenale Triptych (above) is the most traditionally Gothic in style, heavily imbued with gold leaf, though not as stiffly formal as was the manner of Cimabue or Giotto. It's interesting to compare the triptych with the single panel painting Virgin Mary with Pseudo-Arabic Halo (left) in which Mary seems much more at ease, tending to her young Child rather than displaying him. In the triptych the angels and the figures in the side panels appear to be worshiping the Christ-child while in the painting at left, the scene seems somewhat like a party, one celebrating his first birthday, perhaps.

The Holy Trinity
with orthogonal lines
The Holy Trinity,
1427, Masaccio
And finally, one of the latter frescoes of Masaccio's brief career may be his most important from an artistic point of view, his Holy Trinity (above), located in Florence's Santa Maria Novella Dominican church. First, Masaccio was probably the earliest painter brave enough to depict God, here presenting his Son on the cross. Below the cross are the Virgin and St. John; and flanking them, two donors depicting worshipers. Both are quite natural in pose and realistic in style. But more interesting to art historians and the art instructors who teach this stuff is Masaccio's groundbreaking use of perspective, as seen in the deeply vaulted ceiling and his eyelevel vanishing point at the base of the arched opening (approximately five feet off the floor of the church). It's designed so that the arched area appears to be an elevated wing extension of the church itself. The area beneath the arch was heavily damaged in the disastrous 1966 flood of Florence and has been only partially restored. The diagram below offers a visual explanation of the perspective.

Masaccio's theoretical diagram (side view) indicating his planning for The Holy Trinity.
Adding further impact to the scene is the tromp l'oeil
coffin topped with a skeletal figure beneath the words:
(I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.)


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