born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone, was, with Brunelleschi and Donatello, one of the triumvirate who, upon foundations laid a century earlier by Giotto and the Pisani, established the renaissance of the arts. They, in their turn, formed the school in which Raphael and Michelangelo studied. In either case it would be folly to ignore the intervening decades, yet these century-long pauses and returns, endemic in the history of Italian art, lie at the very heart of its achievement. Just as Giotto and the Pisani took their art as far as it could possibly be taken within the technical and conceptual framework of their day, so did Masaccio in his short life. It was only after enough time had elapsed for a new framework to evolve that age-old artistic problems could be seen from a fundamentally fresh viewpoint, and that further, radical developments became possible. Masaccio's current fame is founded on three works, all painted in the last 4 years of his life. They are the Pisa Polyptych, now dispersed between London, Pisa, Naples and Berlin, the frescoes of the Lives of SS. Peter and Paul in the Brancacci Chapel in S. Maria del Carmine, Florence, and the fresco of the Trinity in S. Maria Novella.
In all periods of growing or renewed interest in the accurate delineation of the structure and volume of the human figure, from 5c. BC Greece to 13c. France or Italy, it is usual to find the sculptors in the lead, since their medium is naturally 3-dimensional, whereas the painter has to struggle to create even a semblance of 3-dimensionality on what is inescapably a 2-dimensional surface. It is therefore no surprise that Masaccio's massively monumental figures with their powerful, often brooding personalities and soft, heavy draperies depend at every turn on Donatello's immediately preceding sculptures, from the St John the Evangelist and the St Mark to the Jeremiah, and to the Habbakuk which was begun, but not completed, in Masaccio's lifetime. Similarly, the magnificent architecture of the Trinity gives gravity and grandeur to the graceful forms of Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti. Undoubtedly it was also Brunelleschi's invention of Artifical Perspective that provided Masaccio with the new conceptual framework and the technical means for the creation of a revolutionary and typically Renaissance art. The new perspective introduced a scientifically accurate way of creating an illusion of 3-dimensionality which was precisely dependent on the assumed position of the onlooker in real space. It also provided a means of organizing the composition and of directing the spectator's attention within the unified pictorial space. The vanishing point of the buildings in Masaccio's Tribute Money, for example, lies in the head of Christ and therefore gives the central figure additional, all-important emphasis.
Because such things are easily described and because the element of illusion provided writers, from Pliny onwards, with a standard cliché with which to praise whatever was considered good in art, it is upon this aspect of Masaccio's work that critics from Vasari onwards tend to dwell. There had, however, already been an element of spatial illusion in the art of Giotto and of his contemporaries and immediate followers. What there was not was light. Buildings were, it is true, often lit from the direction of a particular window in a church or chapel, but the creation of seeming 3-dimensionality in the figures was so taxing that in them the light and shade was invariably distributed ad hoc, according to the immediate problems raised by each particular form. What strikes the eye immediately when one enters the Brancacci Chapel is the unifying golden light that floods through the frescoes, over figures and architecture alike, as if from a single source that could at any moment be eclipsed; the harmony with the evening light that streams through the window above the altar is complete, and it is this that separates the Madonna in the Pisa Polyptych from the neighbouring Trecento paintings in the National Gallery in London and that gives reality to Masaccio's new understanding of anatomical structure, long before the onlooker is close enough to become aware of perspectival niceties. Light, as much as the new perspective unity and the emphasis on structure and proportion, separates Renaissance art from that of the preceding centuries and enables St Peter in the Shadow Healing to work his miracle without the need for so much as a sidelong glance.
In the final analysis, however, it is not the mechanics of light or perspective that clinch Masaccio's place in history. He owes that to his grasp of human personality, rivalled only in the work of Donatello, and to his ability to portray the reaction of the individual to the impact of great spiritual events with a gravity and a grandeur that is unforgettable. John White
L. Berti Masaccio (1967)
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