Masaccio was the first great painter of the Renaissance, but Vasari nicknamed him "Sloppy Tom"


Masaccio, Florence's "Sloppy" Genius

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Masaccio, the first great painter of the Renaissance, was born just outside Florence in 1401. Throughout his tragically short life, he was known as Tommaso Cassai. It was only a century later that the Florentine artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari nicknamed him "Sloppy Tom," claiming that Masaccio was so devoted to his craft that he paid no attention to hygiene or appearance. Incidentally, it was also Vasari who coined the nickname Masolino ("Little Tom") for Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, Masaccio's master and closest collaborator. Along with his biography, Vasari also left us an etching of Masaccio which today can be found at the National Gallery in London.

Madonna with
Saint Anne
Masaccio profoundly influenced the art of painting in the Renaissance. He transformed the direction of Italian painting, moving away from the elaborate ornamentations of Gothic still present in his earliest known work, Madonna with Saint Anne (now at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence). The remarkably individual nature of Masaccio's style owed little to other painters, except possibly the great 14th-century master Giotto. He was more strongly influenced by his Florentine contemporaries, the architect Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello. His knowledge of classical art derived from Donatello, while from Brunelleschi he acquired a knowledge of mathematical proportion that was crucial to his revival of scientific perspective. Together with Brunelleschi and Donatello, he was a founder of the Renaissance.
In 1424, Masaccio and Masolino were commissioned by the immensely wealthy Florentine silk merchant Felice Brancacci to execute a cycle of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The subject was to be the life of St. Peter, patron saint of the family. The exquisite jewel box that emerged is sometimes called the "Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance," and its frescoes are undoubtably among the most famous and influential of the period.
Brancacci Chapel

Brancacci Chapel
Though Masaccio was barely 21 years old, his genius shows clearly in his frescoes, which are considered central to the development of the Florentine Renaissance style of painting. Here you can see how he revived the science of perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional space; pioneered the technique of vanishing point; exploited a single light source to model and give dimension to the human body; masterfully exploited one-point perspective; and inaugurated a new naturalistic approach to painting.
In these frescoes, rather than bathing his scenes in flat uniform light, he painted them as if they were illuminated from a single source of light (the actual chapel window), thus creating a play of light and shadow that gave them a natural, realistic quality unknown in the art of his day. The two undisputed masterpieces of the chapel are The Explusion from Paradise (clearly showing Giotto's influence), and Tribute Money, in which Jesus and the Apostles are depicted as neo-classical archetypes.
The Explusion from Paradise

Trinity
Both Masolino and Masaccio left the chapel before their work was completed. Masolino went off to Hungary, while Masaccio migrated across the Arno and created his other masterpiece, Trinity. It is said that this was the first example of full perspective in the history of Western art.
Masaccio returned to the Carmine in 1427, beginning the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus. But this too was apparently left unfinished, perhaps because Brancacci ran out of funds, having feuded with the Medicis, who eventually expelled him from Florence. It was not until the 1480s, when the Brancaccis were allowed to return from exile, that the chapel was finished -- but by Filippino Lippi, not Masaccio. Sloppy Tom had died decades earlier, mysteriously, in Rome, some say poisoned by a jealous painter. He was only 26 years old. Had he lived a good long life, his fame might have eclipsed that of his greatest admirer, Michelangelo. Instead, only four extant frescoes can unquestionably be attributed to the first great Florentine Renaissance painter.
Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus

As for the Brancacci Chapel, one of the most exquisite examples of Florentine Renaissance painting, it has had a checkered history. Because lamps were required to light the dark space, the frescoes were soon coated in dust and dirt from the smoke. One restoration was conducted at the end of the 16th century, and then, around 1670, sculptures were added, and fresco secco additions were made to the frescoes, including fig leaves to hide the various cases of nudity. Over the years, those fig leaves came to seem more obscene than the bodies they obscured, and so a late 20th-century restoration was commissioned to remove the overpainting and dust and dirt. After a lengthy closure, the chapel is once again open and should be high on the list of any Florence visitor's must-sees.


Click on the pictures below to see them enlarged.

Brancacci Chapel, Church of Carmine, Florence

The Expulsion
from Earthly
Paradise

Resurrection
of the Son
of Theophilus

The Tribute
Money

The Tribute
Money

Medallion
         

Baptism
of the
Neophytes

The
Distribution
of Alms and
the Death
of Ananais

St. Peter
Healing the
Sick With
His Shadow

St. Peter
Liberated
from Prison

St. Peter Visited
in Prison by
St. Paul
(now known to be
by Filippino Lippi)



Uffizi Galleries, Florence


Madonna with Saint Anne



Church of Pieve di Cascia, Reggello (near Pisa)


San Giovenale



Museo Nazionale, Pisa


St. Paul



Museo di Capodimonte, Naples


Crucifixion



National Gallery, London


St. Jerome and
St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist



Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin


St. Julius Slaying His Parents / St. Nicholas Saving
Three Sisters from Prostitution (originally part of the Pisa Altar)



National Gallery, Washington, DC


Portrait of a Young Man



J.P. Getty Museum, Los Angeles


St. Andrew




Here is a list of places where you can see works by Masaccio:

ITALY
Cascia di Regello, Pieve di San Pietro
Florence, Uffizi Galleries
Florence, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Brancacci Chapel
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella
Florence, Palazzo Vecchio
Florence, Museo Horne
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte
Pisa, Museo Nazionale di San Matteo

GERMANY
Berlin, Staatliche Museen
Altenburg, Lindenau-Museum

GREAT BRITAIN
London, National Gallery
London, Courtald Institute of Art

FRANCE
Montauban, Musée Ingres

USA
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Los Angeles, J.P. Getty Museum


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