Masaccio was born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai on December 21, 1401 in Castel San Giovanni, some 28 miles from Florence. Masaccio’s father Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai was a notary and his mother Jacopa di Martinozzo was the daughter of an innkeeper from a nearby town.
Tommaso received the nickname Masaccio (which translated means “Big Tom,” or “Clumsy Tom”) because of his absentmindedness about worldly affairs and careless about his personal appearance. He moved to Florence in 1417 and little is known about his training, but he did join the painter’s guild in 1422. What little scholars know about Masaccio is gleaned from the few paintings that we have of his.
Masaccio was the foremost Italian painter of the Florentine Renaissance during the 15th century. Though many of his works are lost today, four of them can positively be attributed to him: a polyptych which is dispersed and some are lost, the Trinity with the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and Donors fresco in Santa Maria Novella, the Virgin with Saint Anne in the Uffizi Gallery, and his most notable work, the two frescos in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine. Masaccio’s most well know frescos are the Tribute Money and the
Masaccio worked on the chapel between 1424-1427/8 with Masolino da Panicale. There have been debates over whether Masolino was actually Masaccio’s teacher because they worked together for while and he was also 20 years older than Masaccio. Regardless of their relationship, they first worked with each other in 1425 to paint the polyptych of the Snow in Santa Maria Maggio. Later that same year, they started work on the Bracacci chapel.
The human figures in Tribute Money are harmoniously arranged so that the picture as a whole is balance out and his use of strong contrast between light and shadow creates an illusion of three-dimensional figures moving in space. When looking at the fresco, the viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn to Jesus because of the convergence point behind Jesus’ head. Masaccio was concerned with realistic depiction of human beings and we can see this in the individual faces. Rather than making the figures idealized, Masaccio used the peasant class of Florence as his models. In the fresco of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, the painting not only shows the realism but the “profound sense of human emotions: the shame and dismay of the first human being as they are driven from the Garden of Paradise (Cunningham, L., & Reich, J., 1982).”
Masaccio had teachers and friends who influenced his painting styles. One such friend was Donatello who shared a respect for the human figures and this clearly influenced Masaccio in his Trinity fresco painting. Another important figure in Masaccio’s life was Brunelleschi. “From him, Masaccio learned to incorporate figures into new spatial framework. He was the first to use the techniques of artificial perspective developed by his teacher (Cunningham, L & Reich, J., 1982). “Masaccio’s weighty, dignified treatment of the human figure and his clear and orderly depiction of space, atmosphere, and light renewed the idiom of the early 14th-century Florentine painter
His fresco that he painted for the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella of the Trinity with the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and Donors summarizes a few characteristics of Renaissance during that time. Their interest in lifelike portraits can be seen in the depictions of two members of the Lenzi family, Lorenzo and his wife who commissioned the work. Unlike the medieval paintings where the donors are anonymous, the two Lenzi figures kneeling at the bottom of the fresco have a prominent presence in the fresco (Benton, J., & Yanni, R., 2005). Down near Jesus’ feet is Mary who is looking out toward the viewers while John the Baptist is looking at Mary. Below is an open tomb with a skeleton and these haunting words, "IO FUI GIA QUEL CHE VOI SIETE E QUEL CH'IO SONO VOI ANCO SARETE" (I once was what you are now; what I am you shall be). This can be seen as a reference to Adam, whose sin brought the downfall of humankind and a reminder to the audience that their time on earth will come to an end. It is only through their faith in the Trinity that they can be saved.
Masaccio’s use of linear lines give the impression that the chapel is receding into the walls and right below the cross is the vanishing point, five feet from the ground, which is approximately at eye level for viewers. The painting has an intense geometrical clarity based on the pyramid, with God as the apex of the triangle formed with the lines of donors and saints of the end of the base line (Cunningham, L., & Reich, J., 1982).
One reason I was so taken by Masaccio’s fresco was his eye for details. The intricate lines in the ceiling made the fresco realistic and I felt like I was a part of the painting, looking up at the Trinity. Masaccio drew away from other artist of that time by giving God the Father a human form. There is so much detail that God the Father even has toenails! This was unusual at the time because many artists did not depict God in a human form but as hand. The depiction of God as a hand made him seem impersonal and abstract from our lives, whereas Masaccio’s depiction made him seem like he was a human and interested in what is happening with the humans. The viewers get a glimpse of the Humanism that is soon to appear in the Renaissance.
His use of vibrant colors and light add to the splendor of the fresco and it takes your breath away when you look up at it. “He used light to give dimension to the contour and achieved a classic sense of proportion. At the same time he created a diversity of character within a unified group and emphasized the range of emotional expression in heroic individuals (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2010)”.
Masaccio died at the young age of 28 in Rome (most likely from the plague but some scholars believe he was poisoned due to his unexpected death) but his frescoes had a great impact on Florentine painting and were for generations the training school and inspiration of painters. It was not until 75 years after his death that his monumental figures and use of light was more fully appreciated by artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael to name some of the master painters of that time. Michelangelo often crossed the Arno River to study the frescos in the Brancacci chapel.
Masaccio’s paintings touch me in a way that no other painter has. His work has inspired many great artists but there is also something about his work that a simple common person could enjoy and appreciate. His choice of colors and the realistic way he portrays his human figures is the reason I love his work.
Benton, Janetta Rebold, and Robert DiYanni. Arts and Culture: an Introduction to the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.
Cunningham, Lawrence, and John J. Reich. Culture and Values: a Survey of the Western Humanities. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College, 1998. Print.
Lane, Jim. "Masaccio's The Trinity." HumanitiesWeb - Welcome. 2 Jan. 1999. Web. 23 Nov. 2010. <http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?
"Masaccio." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2010): 1. Primary Search. EBSCO. Web. 24 Nov. 2010.
Murray, Peter, and Linda Murray. The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture. Oxford: New York, 1996. Print.
Speck, James H. "Masaccio's Early Career as a Sculptor." Http://www.jstor.org. College Art Association, June 1971. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.