(1401-probably 1428)

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      • Masaccio was born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone and nicknamed 'Masaccio' (Hulking Tom). He was the first and arguably the greatest of the succession of great masters in 15th-century Florence; certainly the greatest in that he achieved so much in a lifetime of twenty-seven years. He is first recorded as a painter in 1422, when he entered the Guild in Florence, which disproves the tradition that he was Masolino's pupil, since Masolino did not register with the Guild (and therefore could not take pupils) until 1423. An altarpiece of 1422 may prove important in this connection, but the attribution to Masaccio is still under discussion. (It comes from S. Giovenale, near Florence, and is now in the Uffizi.) The first major work by Masaccio for which documentary evidence exists is the Pisa Polyptych, painted for the Carmelite Church in Pisa in 1426, but now dismembered and largely lost. According to a recent conjectural reconstruction it may have been the first sacra conversazione of a unified type. The central panel, of the Madonna and Child, is now in the NG, London, and shows that, at the age of twenty-five, Masaccio had already developed his austere and heroic style in opposition to the International Gothic then being so successfully practised in Florence by Gentile da Fabriano. This new style, in its realism, sobriety of gesture, narrative power, and the economy with which it creates its effects of space, light and solidity of form, is akin to Giotto's, and is comparable among contemporaries only with the humanist and intellectual art then being developed by the much older Donatello in sculpture and Brunelleschi in architecture. For this reason Masaccio has always been regarded as one of the founders of modern painting.

        Between the end of 1425 and his death, probably at the end of 1428, Masaccio certainly painted a fresco of the Trinity in S.M. Novella, Florence, and his major surviving work, the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmelite Church in Florence (S.M. del Carmine). The Chapel was decorated with scenes from the Acts of the Apostles, and may have been begun by Masolino in 1425, but a large part of the frescoes, including the earlier ones, perished in the 18th century. Those that survive are by three hands a 15th-century source says that the Chapel was 'painted by three masters, all good but he (Masaccio) was marvellous' - and the puzzle is to sort out the shares. The parts by Filippino Lippo are half a century later and fairly easily distinguishable; approximate agreement has now been reached over the remainder, it being generally accepted that the Expulsion on the entrance arch, the Tribute Money, parts of the Raising of the Praetor's Son and all of St Peter Enthroned, St Peter's Shadow Healing the Sick, St Peter Giving Alms, are by Masaccio, while the Baptism of the Neophytes is probably by him, but is sometimes contested. The remainder of the original commission is by Masolino. Again, Masaccio's style is fully realistic and uncompromisingly grand, which probably explains why these frescoes long served as an art school without enjoying general popularity. Indeed, much of later 15th-century painting flatly contradicts the principles enunciated in the Brancacci Chapel. Parts of the frescoes may still have been incomplete when Masaccio went to Rome and died there.

        The remaining parts of the Pisa Polyptych are in Malibu Cal. (Getty), Naples, Pisa and Berlin. Other works by or attributed to him are in Berlin, Boston (Gardner Mus.), Florence (Uffizi, Home Mus.), London (NG) and Washington (NG).

      • Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)

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