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On St Thomas’s Feast Day, 21st December, 1401 a child was born to Ser Giovanni and Monna Jacopa. The young parents, Ser Giovanni only 20 and Monna barely 19 at the time of the child’s birth, lovingly named their son Tommaso. But it is Tommaso’s nickname ‘Sloppy Tom’ or Masaccio, owing to his supposedly slovenly and negligent nature, that stuck with him forever.

Early Years

Masaccio’s early years were spent in Castel San Giovanni or later day San Giovanni Valdarno, a prosperous town north of Florence, Italy. From his father, then a notary, he inherited his quick intelligence. His grandfather, Simone d’Andreuccio who had a thriving furniture making business, gifted him his love of artistic expressions.

Decease of Masaccio’s Father

Masaccio lost his father very early in his life. Ser Giovanni’s sad demise on 1406 left Monna Jacopa with nothing to support her young children or herself. The grieving widow found solace in the emotional and financial support of Tedesco del Feo, a wealthy pharmacist of San Giovanni Valdarno. Unfortunately though, eleven years into her second marriage Monna Jacopa lost her benefactor once again as Tedesco del Feo succumbed to death.

Masaccio’s Relocation to Florence

Around 1417, sometime after the death of his stepfather, Masaccio shifted to Florence accompanied by his mother and brother. The thriving city of Florence, both economically and artistically, interested Masaccio enormously.

Masaccio’s Apprenticeship as an Artist

Masaccio’s early lessons in painting came through the studies of work by Masolino da Panicale, an artist from his own locality and a lifelong friend and collaborator. Giotto’s monumental and massive frescos as observed in Santa Croce fascinated the young artist. It is also possible that he briefly apprenticed under the guidance of Bicci di Lorenzo in Florence.

A Creative Communion

During his years spent in Florence, Masaccio formed friendships with contemporary artists Brunelleschi and Donatello. The architectural magnificence of Duomo Cupola of the former and the sculptural brilliance of the latter trained Masaccio on the structural nuances of inanimate as well as living elements around him. In his mind he already started thinking deeply about resolving the problem of representing figures in real space, a problem that would receive defining solution through his work during his lifetime.

Masaccio’s Early Contribution in the World of Art

The earliest known work of Masaccio is considered to be a triptych painted for S. Giovenale in Cascia, dated 23rd April, 1422. Another work of his around this time – regrettably destroyed in about 1600 – piqued the interests of Florentines quite a bit. It depicted a procession of Florentines, in cloaks and hoods, on the occasion of consecration of the church of Sta. Maria del Carmine in April, 1422. Young though, the master storyteller in Masaccio, not only included the merchants and the members of Government in the painting but also included his friends Masolino, Donatello and Brunelleschi, all conspicuous in their presence. Masaccio’s reputation started spreading far and wide.

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On the Fertile Land of Creative Ideation

Around 1425 Masaccio received commission for decorating the Carmine church with scenes from the life of St Peter. This work was originally commissioned to Masolino (c. 1383 – c. 1447). But shortly after he begun working on this project he left for Hungary leaving Masaccio, his collaborator, working at it. Briefly, he returned from Hungary in the summer of 1427 to resume work with Masaccio on the frescos of the Chapel. But soon he left for Rome again leaving Masaccio to work alone for the completion of the project. The harmonising narrative amidst the stylistic juxtaposition of the works of Masolino and Masaccio became a hallmark and a great subject for studies by generations of artists after them that included Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, Michelangelo and Raphael. Michelangelo especially, was a great admirer of Masaccio’s work.

Masaccio’s another close associate Brunelleschi meanwhile was working on an ingenuous mechanical system for capturing the sense of perspective accurately. The two men, close as they were to each other, discussed this new mechanism at great length. The result was evident in Masaccio’s next commission, the Trinity fresco, painted during 1427 for Sta. Maria Novella. The illusionistic display in the background created a stunning effect and received great adulation among the contemporaries.

The Masterpieces

Though many of Masaccio’s masterpieces suffered from the ravages of time his figures still retain the intimacy and the familiarity, as if picked directly from chapters of everyday life.

Madonna and Child (1426)

The centre panel of the Pisa Altarpiece is a telling instance of Masaccio’s style and revolutionary realism. A statuesque Madonna seated in her massive throne holding Christ in her laps uses all the techniques of foreshortening aided by a single source of light creating an alluring perspective for the audience.

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The Expulsion from Paradise (c. 1425 – 1428)

Vividly capturing the humiliation and pain in the facial expression and the body language of Adam and Eve expelled from paradise Masaccio created one of his most haunting images.

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The Tribute Money (c. 1425 – 1428)

Through his exquisite sense of creating narratives Masaccio elevated a lesser known subject to its sublimity. He divided the scene into three parts with the centre portion devoted to Christ confronted by a tax–collector. On Christ’s direction St Peter goes to the lake on the left side of the painting to catch a fish from the lake that would have a silver coin in its mouth; Peter does this successfully and the tax–collector is duly paid off at the far right of the picture. A subject of great relevance at that time with the city of Florence facing an introduction of new tax system, finds divine blessings through Masaccio’s work.

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The Distribution of the Common Goods (c. 1425 – 1428)

The image depicts St Peter distributing alms to the poor. Both charming and compelling was the presence of a young pheasant woman holding her chubby child in her arms standing close by.

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The Holy Trinity

The fresco, not completely revealed until 1925, had the direct influence of Brunelleschi in its architectural representation. The Lenzi family of corn merchants are believed to have paid for this work that later was considered to be an exceedingly important piece in early Renaissance art.

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Masaccio’s Influence

Masaccio’s career was tragically cut short before its prime when death extinguished the light of the life of this young master. He dedicated his entire life enriching the world of art. When he passed away at 26 he was one of the busiest artists of Florence. His friend Brunelleschi was crestfallen at his death and considered it to be, ‘una gran perdita’ (‘a great loss’). Perhaps, it is apt quoting Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century painter, art historian and author of ‘The Lives of the Artists’ here, ‘Masaccio can be given credit for originating a new style of paining; certainly everything done before him can be described as artificial, whereas he produced work that is living, realistic and natural.’

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