Tommaso Masaccio

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The Holy Trinity (1425-1428) - Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
The Holy Trinity (1425-1428) - Fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Masaccio (born Tommaso Cassai or in some Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone) (December 21, 1401, San Giovanni Valdarno, Italy – autumn 1428, Rome), was an important painter of frescoes during the early Italian Renaissance, whose works are the first monument of Humanism. Masaccio meaning sloppy was a nickname given by Giorgio Vasari on account of the artist's dedication to his painting being so great he gave little attention to his personal hygiene.

Despite his brief career, he had a profound influence on other artists. He was one of the first to use scientific perspective in his painting. He also moved away from the Gothic style of the time to a more naturalistic mode where he paid more attention to perspective and realism than to elaborate ornamentation.



Masaccio was born by Giovanni di Mone Cassai and Jacopa di Martinozzo in Castel San Giovanni di Altura, now San Giovanni Valdarno in the Tuscan province of Arezzo. His father was a notary and his mother the daughter of an innkeeper of Barberino di Mugello, a town a few miles south of Florence. His family name, Cassai, comes from the trade of his grandfather Simone and granduncle Lorenzo, who were carpenters - cabinet makers ("casse", hence "cassai"). His father died in 1406, when Tommaso was only five; in that year another brother was born, called Giovanni after the dead father. He also was to become a painter, with the nickname of "Scheggia". The mother remarried with an elderly apothecary, Tedesco, who guaranteed Masaccio and his family a comfortable childhood.

The family probably moved to Florence at the death of Tedesco, in August 1417. Little is known about this period until Tommaso joined one of the seven main craft's guilds in Florence, on January 7, 1422, signing as "Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia". In the new city Tommaso received his nickname, meaning "Clumsy Thomas" for the little care he gave to wordly affairs and to personal appearance: otherwise he was cosnidered a good-natured person.

The first works attributed to Masaccio are the Cascia Altarpiece, picturing the Madonna enthroned with angels and saints, and a Virgin and Child with St. Anne at the Uffizi: they date from that year and are already works of very high quality. The second work was a collaboration with an older and already renowned artist, Masolino da Panicale, and for many years it was assumed Masaccio was simply an apprentice to Masolino. However it has been pointed out that Masaccio gained entry to the Painters' Guild before Masolino, suggesting it more likely their collaboration was for convenience or simply moved by mutual esteem. It is also clear that Masaccio's talent was already patent, as well as he was probably already superior to Masolino himself. The conclusion is that it is still not known where Massaccio received his training in art.

In Florence Masaccio could study the works of Giotto and become friend with Alberti, Brunelleschi and Donatello. According to Vasari, at their prompting in 1423 Masaccio travelled to Rome with Masolino: from that point is freed of all Gothic and Byzantine influence as represented by the central panel of his altarpiece for the Carmelite Church in Pisa, the central panel of which (The Madonna and the Child) is now in the National Gallery, London. As well as a sculptural and human Madonna the work features a convincing perspectival depiction of her throne. The traces of influences from ancient Roman and Greek works that are present in some Masaccio's works presumably originated from this trip: they should also have been present in a lost Sagra, today known through some drawings (including one by Michelangelo), a fresco commissioned for the che consacration ceremony of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence (April 19, 1422). It was destroyed when the church's cloister was rebuilt at the end of the 16th century.

The Tribute Money, fresco in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
The Tribute Money, fresco in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

In 1424 the "duo preciso e noto" ("well and known duo") of Masaccio and Masolino was commissioned by the powerful and rich Felice Brancacci to execute a cycle of frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Theme of the frescoes of the little chapel was to be the "Histories of St. Peter". On September 1425 Masolino left the work and went to Hungary, we don't know if for money quarrels with Felice or if for artistical divergence with Masaccio. It has been also supposed that Masolino was planning this trip since the very beginning, and needed the presence of a close collaborator who could keep up the work after his leaving. Some of the scenes completed by the duo went lost in a burning in 1771, and we know about them through the biography of Masaccio written by Giorgio Vasari. The remaining parts were extensively blackened by smoke and only a recent removing of two marble parts covering two areas of the paintings has showed the original appearance of the work. Also Masaccio left unfinished the work in 1426 in order to respond to other commissions, probably coming from the same sponsor: it has been otherwise suggested that the declining finances of Felice Brancacci could not pay any more the work of the painter, who therefore sought for other. Masaccio returned in 1427 to work again in the Carmine, beginning the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus, but left it also unfinished: the original program was completed more than fifty years later by Filippino Lippi. Masaccio's scenes show his reference to Giotto especially. The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, depicting a distressed Adam and Eve, nude, without fig leaves had a huge influence on Michelangelo. Another major work is the Tribute Money in which Jesus and the Apostles are depicted as neo-classical archetypes.

The Tribute Money, fresco in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
The Tribute Money, fresco in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

On February 19, 1426 Masaccio was commissioned by Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi, for the sum of 80 florins, a major altarpiece for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa. The work was dismantled and dispersed in the 18th century], and only eleven of the c. twenty original panels have been rediscovered in various places in the world. Masaccio probably worked at it entirely in Pisa, voyaging back and thro to Florence where he was still working to the Histories of St. Peter. In these years Donatello was also working in Pisa at a monument for Cardinal Rinaldo Brancacci, to be sent to Naples. It has been suggested that Masaccio first attemts with plasticity and perspective were based on Donatello's sculpture, before he could study Brunelleschi's more scientifical approach to perspective.

Through the help of Brunelleschi, in 1427 Masaccio won a prestigious commission to produce a Holy Trinity for the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. The fresco, considered by many his masterwork, marks the first use of systematic linear perspective, possible devised by Masaccio with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself.

Masaccio produced two other works, a Nativity and an Annunciation, now lost, before leaving for Rome where his companion Masolino was frescoing the Basilica di San Clemente. It has been never confirmed that Masaccio collaborated to that work, even though it could be possible he contributed to Masolino's polyptych of the altar of St. Mary Major with his panel portraying St. Jerome and St. John the Baptist, now in the National Gallery of London. Masaccio died at the end of 1428. According to a legend, he was poisoned by a rival painter who had guessed Masaccio's art was unbeatable for him.

Only four undoubtedly frescoes from Masaccio's hand still exist today, although many other works have been credited either in whole or in part to his name.


Masaccio profoundly influenced all the panting art of Renaissance. According to Vasari, all Florentine painters studied extensively his frescoes in order to "learn the precepts and rules for painting well". In the years that followed his death it was discovered how he had revolutionized the way painting was intended, moving it away from the idealizations of the Gothic and, for the first time, presenting it as part of a more profound, natural world. Masaccio's works have been always pointed out for the introduction of Humanism in art.

Main works

See also Barcacci Chapel and Pisa Polyptych

External links

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