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Masolino

Tommaso di Cristofano (‘Masolino’ means ‘Little Tom’) was one of the major Florentine painters of the early fifteenth century. His name is often linked with Masaccio, with whom he collaborated for several years. He was from either Panicale in Val d’Elsa in Umbria (as Vasari states) or, more probably, a small village of the same name in the upper Valdarno (near Masaccio’s home town of San Giovanni Valdarno). According to a tax return (catasto), he was forty-three in 1427, implying that he was born in 1383 or 1384. According to some old sources (Gelli and the Anonimo Magliabechiano), he was a pupil of Agnolo Gaddi (who died in 1396). Vasari says that he was a pupil of Ghiberti and assisted him on the North Baptistery doors, and learnt painting in the workshop of Gherardo Starnina (1354-1409). He is first documented as a painter in Florence on 7 September 1422, and enrolled in the Physicians’ Guild there on 18 January 1423. But much of his career was spent elsewhere. He worked at Empoli in 1424, and in 1425-26 visited Hungary in the service of the Florentine condottiere Filippo Scolari (Pippo Spano). He later painted frescoes at Rome (from 1428?), Todi (1432) and the Lombard village of Castiglione Olona (1435). There is no certain record of him after 1435; there is disputed evidence that he died in 1440 or 1447.

Masolino collaborated with the short-lived Masaccio in Florence (from around 1424-25) and then briefly in Rome (around 1428). He appears to have been greatly influenced for a time by his younger partner, suppressing the decorative tendencies in his art, giving his figures a greater sense of three-dimensional volume and experimenting with the new technique of one-point perspective. After Masaccio’s death, he seems gradually to have reverted to a more Gothic style, but his frescoes at Rome and Castiglione continue to show an almost obsessional concern with architectural perspective.


Assisi. San Francesco. Treasury (Mason Perkins Collection).
Virgin and Child. Wood, 66 x 42.
This panel – which has been cut down at the bottom and originally showed the Virgin three-quarter or even full length – was possibly the centre of a triptych. Nothing is known of its history. The attribution was made by its owner, Mason Perkins, and is disputed. It is accepted, for example, by Federico Zeri in his 1988 catalogue of the Mason Perkins Collection and by Paul Joannides in his 1993 book on Masaccio and Masolino, but rejected by Berenson (1963 Lists) and by Pope-Hennessy (Apollo, April 1989 ). Much damaged and restored. The gold leaf has been scraped off the background and the Virgin's halo has disappeared.

Bremen. Kunsthalle.
Madonna and Child. Wood, 96 x 52.
The head of God the Father in the tondo at the top. The picture, dated 1423 on the bottom of the original frame, is the only dated panel painting by Masolino. It was presumably commissioned by a member of either the Carnesecchi or Boni familes, both of whose arms appear on the base of the frame. It is unrecorded before 1846, when it was given to the Kunsthalle by the painter Johann Bäse of Brunswick. Initially ascribed to Masaccio, it was attributed to Masolino by Berenson in the first edition of his Florentine Painters (1896). It is a conservative work in the International Gothic vein, and shows little trace of Masaccio’s influence. Remarkably well preserved.

Castiglione Olona. Collegiata.
Choir. Life of the Virgin. Frescoes.
The church was built by Cardinal Branda Castiglione, who consecrated it himself in 1425. Masolino’s frescoes (detached and restored), in the six triangular compartments of the ribbed vault, must date from after January 1432, when the interior is described as white. They illustrate the Assumption, Nativity, Annunciation, Coronation, Marriage and Epiphany. (The Death of the Virgin, painted on the choir arch, is lost.) The frescoes are Masolino’s only signed work: his name is inscribed on a scroll in the lower left-hand corner of the Nativity. The frescoes on the walls of the choir, representing the Lives of St Lawrence and St Stephen, have been ascribed to Lorenzo Vecchietta and Paolo Schiavo, who are thought to have worked as Masolino’s assistants at Castiglione Olona. At the end of eighteenth century the frescoes were covered with whitewash, which was removed in 1843. They were detached in 1972.
Baptistery. Life of the Baptist. Frescoes.
The small Romanesque building may once have been the Castiglione family chapel. It became a baptistery in 1431 and the date 1435 is inscribed over the entrance. Masolino’s frescoes were never whitewashed or harshly restored, but have suffered gravely from exposure and damp. The heads are usually the best preserved parts. (They were executed in true fresco, whereas much of the rest of the painting was done a secco.)
The Annunciation, either side of the entrance, is now almost invisible.
The cycle of the Life of the Baptist begins on the west wall of the main chamber with the Annunciation to Zacharius and the Visitation, and continues on the north wall with the Birth and Naming of the Baptist. All these frescoes are largely ruined, with little but the underdrawing remaining.
The next scenes are in the little barrel-vaulted Cappelletta. Those on the north wall, the Baptist in the Wilderness (above) and the Preaching of the Baptist, are now scarely legible. Those on the east wall are better preserved. The Baptist Greeting Christ is on the left and the Baptist Rebuking Herod on the right. The large lunette above shows the Baptism of Christ (with three lovely angels holding Christ’s robes on one bank of the Jordan and a group of four men, in a variety of complex poses, dressing or undressing on the other bank). The fresco on the south wall of the Cappelletta shows the Baptist in Prison (with the upper storey of Herod’s palace represented in the vaulting above).
The Beheading of the Baptist is shown on the south-east side of the arch. The final fresco occupies the whole south wall of the main chamber. It shows three episodes: the Feast of Herod on the left (containing, it has been claimed, portraits of Cardinal Branda, Pippo Spano and the Emperor Sigismund as guests at the feast); the Presentation of the Baptist’s Head to Herodias on the right (set under a vast receding arcade); and the Burial of the Baptist in the distant mountains. On the vault, the Four Evangelists.

Castiglione Olona. Casa dei Castiglioni. Hall.
Landscape. Fresco, 200 x 560.
The vast landscape resembles that in the background of the Baptism of Christ in the baptistery of the church. The arms of Cardinal Branda appear in the centre of the border. The landscape has been thought to include a view of the Hungarian city of Veszprem, where the cardinal served as bishop from 1412 to 1424; but Joannides (1993) doubts this, describing the fresco as ‘clearly a fantasy panorama’. The execution has sometimes been ascribed, at least in part, to Vecchietta, who was probably Masolino’s principal assistant at Castiglione Olona

Empoli. Museo della Collegiata.
Pietà. Fresco, 280 x 118.
Christ stands in a square sarcophagus; the Virgin on the left supports one of his hands; the Magdalen on the right bends over the other. The composition may have been inspired by Lorenzo Monaco’s visionary Man of Sorrows of 1404 (now in the Accademia, Florence), but the monumental form of the figures is Masaccesque. The fresco was damaged when it was detached from the wall of the baptistery of the Collegiata in 1946. It is not documented, but is thought to date from 1424 when Masolino painted the frescoes in Santo Stefano. It was noted in 1853-54 by Cicerone (Burckhardt), who ascribed it to Masaccio. It was attributed to Masolino by Crowe and Cavalcaselle.

Empoli. Santo Stefano (or Sant’Agostino).
Heads. Fresco fragment, 190 x 76.
A fragment of the frescoes which Masolino painted for the chapel of Sant’Elena. The frescoes were in four courses: the upper three represented the Legend of the True Cross, while the bottom course contained portraits of the donors viewed through arcades. Masolino was paid 74 florins for the frescoes on 2 November 1424. In August 1792 the friars decided to ‘strip down and replaster the walls … as it cannot be considered either harmful or unpopular to demolish the coarse and worthless paintings now there’. The surviving fragment is thought to have come from a fresco representing St Ivo and His Pupils. It was discovered in 1943 under whitewash on the right wall of the church. It was nearly destroyed just a year later, in 1944, when the campanile of the church was blown up by the Germans and the apse was damaged by the fall of the tower. The fresco fragment was detached from the wall in 1957, along with the sinopie of destroyed frescoes (also displayed in the church).
Madonna and Two Angels. Frescoed lunette, 100 x 140.
Frescoed in a lunette above the sacristy door. It was transferred in about 1660 to an altar, and until the late nineteenth century it was almost hidden by a baroque screen. Berenson (1896 Lists) seems to have been the first to recognise it as a work of Masolino. It is usually assumed to have been painted in 1424, like Masolino’s other work in the church. The arms above the door suggest that it was commissioned by the Medici.

Florence. Uffizi.
St Anne Altarpiece’ (‘Sant’Anna Metterza’). Wood, 175 x 103.
This much discussed and analysed painting is from the church of Sant’Ambrogio, where it is first mentioned in the second (1568) edition of Vasari’s Lives. Vasari ascribes it simply to Masaccio, but it is now regarded as a work of collaboration between Masaccio and Masolino. Masolino appears to have executed the figure of the aged St Anne, which is more linear and less solidly modelled than either the Virgin or the Child. The two delicate, pale angels swinging censers at the sides of the throne and the angel on the left holding up the curtain are also usually attributed to Masolino, who, as senior partner, may have received the commission and been responsible for the overall design. The picture is usually dated around 1424-25. It is much abraded in parts (including the figure of St Anne and the foreshortened angel at the top). Transferred to the Accademia around 1813 and thence to the Uffizi in 1919.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 111 x 62.
The graceful composition recalls Lorenzo Monaco. Heavily restored, and the right-hand third of the panel is probably not original. It was sold at Christie’s in 1930 as ‘School of Fra Angelico’ and attributed to Masolino by Scharf in 1932 when it was in the Contini Bonacossi collection. It was plundered by Herman Goering in 1942 and retrieved by the Italian State in 1954. The attribution has occasionally been doubted. Critics that do accept it, do not agree on whether it is an early work (1410-20) or a late work (after 1430).

Florence. Museo Diocesano.
Saint Julian. Wood, 135 x 54.
This is believed to have been one of the side panels of a triptych of the Virgin and Child between St Catherine and St Julian described by Vasari in the Carnesecchi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Florence. The centre panel is believed to have been a picture, formerly in Santa Maria Novoli, which was stolen in 1923 and never recovered. The St Catherine is also lost. A panel representing the Story of St Julian (attributed to Masaccio) in the Horne Museum, Florence, and another of the same subject (attributed to Masolino) in the Ingres Museum, Montauban, are sometimes thought to have belonged to the predella. The Carnesecchi Chapel is described as finished in January 1427. It also included, above the altarpiece, a fresco by Uccello of the Annunciation.

Florence. Santa Maria del Carmine. Brancacci Chapel.
Life of St Peter. Frescoes.
The extent of Masolino’s contribution to the frescoes was once disputed (some older critics, such as Crowe and Cavalcaselle and Bode, even denied that he worked in the chapel at all). Modern criticism, however, accepts Vasari’s ascription to Masolino of the combined scene of St Peter Raising Tabitha and Healing a Lame Man (right wall) and the scene of St Peter Preaching (end wall). Adam and Eve, on the right pilaster of the entrance, is not mentioned by Vasari but is also now attributed to Masolino. Along with Masaccio’s famous Tribute Money, the double scene of St Peter’s miracles is one of the earliest paintings to apply accurately the new technique of one-point perspecive. (As many as two-dozen horizontal lines on the foreground buildings at the sides of the piazza project to a central vanishing point, marked by a hole in the plaster where a nail had been driven in and a string attached.) The two dandyish youths, strolling through the centre of the piazza in turbans and colourful short robes, play no obvious part in the action but might represent the two messengers sent from Joppa to fetch St Peter and St John with all possible haste. In the scene of St Peter Preaching, the monks on the right are presumably portraits of members of the Carmelite Order, while the laymen on the left are likely to be portraits of the patron’s family. Masolino also painted Four Evangelists in the triangles of the vault and four scenes in the lunettes (Calling of Peter, Peter Grieving after denying Christ, Feed my Sheep and Navicella), which were all destroyed in 1746-48 when a new vault was built and decorated in a rococo style by Vincenzo Meucci and Carlo Sacconi. Originally, there was also much more floriated ornament around the windows.
According to Vasari, the frescoes were begun by Masolino and then continued by Masaccio, but some modern critics have argued that the cycle was a joint undertaking. Masolino probably started the work between November 1424 (when he completed his frescoes at Empoli) and September 1425 (when he departed for Hungary to work for the condottiere Pippo Spano). Masaccio was probably then called in, but he did not complete the frescoes. He left the lowest course unfinished when, in 1427 or 1428, he departed for Rome, never to return. Some fifty years later, a third artist, Filippino Lippi, finished the work.
The cleaning and restoration of the frescoes in 1983-90 revealed the bright colours – blues, greens and pinks – used by both Masolino and Masaccio. While Masolino’s frescoes are conspicuously ‘softer’ in style than Masaccio’s, the decoration of the chapel appears remarkably homogeneous, suggesting that the two artists collaborated closely.

London. National Gallery.
A Papal Saint and St Matthias. Wood (transferred to synthetic panel), 126 x 59.
One side of the wing of a double-faced triptych. The other side of the wing, representing John the Baptist and St Jerome, is also in the National Gallery, but is usually attributed to Masaccio. The triptych was painted for the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome. The papal saint has been identified either as Gregory the Great, who had strong links with the church, or Liberius, who was the fourth-century pope who founded it. St Matthias (who is holding the blood-stained axe with which he was martyred) was buried there. The centre panels of the triptych are at Naples, while the other side panels are at Philadelphia. The two National Gallery panels were formerly in the Adair collection at Flixton Hall, and were acquired in 1950. They were identified as belonging to the Santa Maria Maggiore Triptych by Kenneth Clark in 1951. The panel was originally much more decorative. There was silver leaf on the Pope's robe and Matthias's axe.
The two National Gallery panels differ in technique. While the John the Baptist and St Jerome is painted in traditional egg tempera, the Papal Saint and St Matthias is one of the earliest Italian paintings known to use tempera grassa – a mixture of tempera and oil. Masolino could have discovered tempera grassa during his travels in Hungary and north of the Alps.   

Montauban. Musée Ingres.
Story of St Julian. Wood, 22 x 39.
There are two scenes: Julian is deceived by the Devil (right) and Julian kills his parents, believing them to be his wife and a lover. The panel was presumably acquired by Ingres in Italy in the early nineteenth century. It is clearly from a predella, and is sometimes thought to have come from the altarpiece painted by Masolino for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence. However, a badly damaged panel of the same subject (attributed in Masaccio) in the Horne Museum at Florence has also been connected with this altarpiece, and it seems improbable that both could have belonged to the same predella.

Munich. Alte Pinakothek.
Madonna and Child. Wood, 96 x 57.
Pairs of tiny angels at the sides kneel on clouds; God the Father, above in the midst of cherubim, releases the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. The picture was acquired some time before 1826 by King Ludwig I of Bavaria. It was unattributed before 1896, when Berenson gave it to Masolino in the first edition of his Florentine Painters. It is usually dated around 1423-5.

Naples. Capodimonte.
Assumption; Miracle of the Snow. Wood, 144 x 76.
The two pictures originally formed the front and back of the central panel of a double-sided triptych. The triptych was painted for the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome; it may originally have been intended for the high altar, although Vasari saw it in ‘a little chapel near the sacristy’. In the Miracle of the Snow, which appears to have been based on an earlier mosaic by Filippo Rusuti on the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore, Pope Liberius traces the ground plan of the church in the snow. According to Vasari, Liberius has the features of the patron, Pope Martin V. The pyramid of Gaius Cestius and the mound of Testaccio are visible in the distance. Above a bank of cloud, Christ and the Virgin are represented in a circular glory. The Miracle was probably the back of the altarpiece, facing the choir, while the Assumption was on the front, facing the nave. The two sides of one wing of the altarpiece are in London and the two sides of the other wing are in Philadelphia. Vasari considered the altarpiece to be by Masaccio, but (with the exception of one of the London panels) it is now attributed to Masolino. It is usually dated between 1428 (the year of Masaccio’s death) and 1431 (the year of Martin V’s own death). But some scholars have argued that it is earlier, and its commission may have been associated with the Jubilee declared by Martin V for 1423. By 1653, the altarpiece had been sawn apart and the six panels transferred to the Palazzo Farnese at Rome, where they were ascribed to Fra Angelico. The two centre panels were sent to Naples in 1760. They were identified as the centre panels of the Santa Maria Maggiore Triptych by Crowe and Cavalcaselle in 1883.

Philadelphia. Museum of Art (J. G. Johnson Collection).
SS. John the Evangelist (?) and Martin; SS. Peter and Paul. Wood, 104 x 54.
These two panels formed one wing of the double-faced triptych painted by Masolino and, to a smaller extent, Masaccio for Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome. St Martin has the arms of the Colonna family on his cope, and it is probable that he is a portrait of the Colonna Pope Martin V. The other saint on this panel (usually identified as John the Evangelist) resembles the Emperor Sigismund, whose portrait was also included in the altarpiece according to Vasari. By 1815, all four side panels of the altarpiece were in the vast collection of pictures accumulated in Rome by Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon’s step-uncle. The two at Philadelphia were acquired by Johnson in 1916, and identified as parts of the Santa Maria Maggiore Triptych by Lionello Venturi in 1931. They are usually ascribed to Masolino (though it has been suggested that Masaccio could have been responsible for the designs and also for the execution of the hands and feet of St Peter and St Paul). The two panels forming the other wing are in the National Gallery, London.

Rome. Vatican Pinacoteca.
Burial of the Virgin. Wood, 19 x 49.
According to the Golden Legend, all twelve Apostles were miraculously summoned for the Virgin's death. Christ holds the soul of the Virgin, represented as a baby in swaddling clothes. Nothing is known of the provenance of the panel, which is recorded in the museum since 1896. Another panel, representing the Marriage of the Virgin and very similar in size and style, almost certainly came from the same predella. It was once in the Paris collection of Artaud de Montor and was destroyed during the Second World War when the ship taking it to America was torpedoed. The predella must have had a third panel – probably a Birth of the Virgin. The predella may have belonged to the Santa Maria Maggiore Triptych or, as suggested by Joannides (Sources, 1985), an Annunciation in Washington. Clark (Burlington Magazine, 1951) suggested that it may have been painted by the assistant of Masolino ‘who executed the less animated angels’ in the panel of the Assumption at Naples. Perri Lee Roberts (1993) ascribed it to the minor Florentine artist Francesco d’Antonio, who is known to have worked with Masolino and Masaccio.
Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John. Wood, 53 x 32.
Nothing is known of the history of this panel, which has been in the Vatican collections since 1849. It is sometimes thought to have been the central pinnacle of an altarpiece and, like the Burial of the Virgin, it has been linked by some scholars with the Santa Maria Maggiore Triptych. Alternatively, it could have been half of a small diptych. Perri Lee Roberts ascribed its execution to an assistant. The gold background dates only from a 1970 restoration.

Rome. San Clemente. Cappella Castiglione.
Frescoes.
The wide, groin-vaulted chapel is situated to the left of the main entrance of the upper church. The Annunciation is shown over the arch of the chapel (the viewer looking from below at a coffered ceiling through a loggia of Ionic columns) and Saint Christopher is represented on the left entrance pier. On the left wall of the chapel are five scenes from the Legend of St Catherine of Alexandria: St Catherine refuses to Worship the Idol; Dispute with the Pagan Doctors (the doctors’ subsequent martrydom being seen through a window to the right); Conversion and Execution of the Empress Faustina; Miracle of the Wheel; and Beheading of St Catherine. On the right wall are four scenes from the Life of St Ambrose: Miracle of the Bees; Consecration as Bishop of Milan; Collapse of the Rich Man’s House (now difficult to make out); and Death of St Ambrose. A large Crucifixion occupies the entire back wall. The mounted Longinus prays on the left, the Magdalen clasps the base of Christ’s cross, and the mounted soldier on the right breaks the legs of the bad thief with a mace. (The gap on the left-hand side of the composition was caused by the insertion of a tabernacle. The large commemorative tablet on the right was placed there in 1832.) The Four Evangelists and Four Doctors of the Church are represented in pairs in the four segments of the vault.
The frescoes were attributed by Vasari to Masaccio. Since the late nineteenth century, they have been assigned to Masolino (though some critics have seen Masaccio’s participation in the Crucifixion and Beheading of St Catherine). The frescoes were painted for Cardinal Branda Castiglione, who also commissioned the frescoes at Castiglione Olona. He was titular cardinal of San Clemente until 1431, and the frescoes are usually dated about 1428-30. His portrait has been seen in the clean-shaven man wearing a red skull cap on the far left of the Dispute with the Pagan Doctors. Traces of his coat-of-arms (a lion rampant holding a castle with its paw) are visible at the entrance of the chapel. The frescoes have been damaged by damp and are badly abraded, with many lost patches. They were restored in 1952-55 (when the frescoes and sinopie of the Crucifixion and Beheading of St Catherine were detached from the wall and heavy repaint was removed) and again in 1987-91.

Todi. San Fortunato (fourth chapel on right).
Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Fresco, 100 x 100.
The fresco was found behind the altar in about 1758, removed from the wall and much repainted. It is fragmentary: the Virgin was probably originally full-length, and the Child seems to be gesturing towards a missing kneeling saint or donor. It was attributed to Masolino by Mason Perkins in 1907. Documents discovered later show that Masolino received payments for work in San Fortunato in October 1432 and June 1433. Restored in 1982-87.

Washington. National Gallery.
Goldman Annunciation’. Wood, 148 x 115.
The flaxen haired Angel Gabriel wears a sumptuous gown embroidered with large golden leaves. The Virgin greets him with downcast eyes, one hand resting on her breast and the other holding a prayerbook inscribed with verses from Isaiah (VII:14-15). The colourful interior is drawn in one-point perspective (with a low viewpoint and a vanishing point close to the centre of the half-open door in the background), but the figures are not placed very convincingly in the interior space. There is no certain record of this large panel painting before 1886, when it was in the collection of the Earl of Wemyss at Gosford House, Longniddry, Scotland. Sold to Henry Goldman of New York for £24,000 during the First World War, and donated to the National Gallery in 1937 with the Mellon collection. It has sometimes been identified with an Annunciation noted by Vasari (in his Life of Masaccio) on the tramezzo (choir screen) of the church of San Niccolò sopr’Arno in Florence. (This picture was commissioned by Michele Guardini, a butcher who left money in his will of 1417 to found a chapel dedicated to the Annunciation, and was probably finished by 8 March 1427, when it is mentioned in a second will. After the tremezzo was demolished, the picture was moved in 1576 to the sacristy, where it remained until the late eighteenth century. It is not recorded when or how it left the church, but it might have been purchased, at the same time as Gentile da Fabriano’s Quartesi Madonna, by the English amateur artist, critic and collector William Young Ottley.)
Kress Annunciation’. Two panels, each 76 x 57.
The book open on the Virgin’s knees is again legibly inscribed with the verses from Isaiah. The two panels of the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Annunciate appear to have been fragments of a single large panel rather than parts of a polyptych. The reconstruction proposed by Paul Joannides (Sources, 1985) includes a predella, one panel of which is the Vatican Burial of the Virgin. The Annunciation was in the collection of Count Gustav Adolf von Ingenheim, who bought paintings on two trips to Italy in 1816-24. It remained, largely unknown, with his descendants at Munich until 1930, when it was sold to Duveen and subsequently published in an article by Wilhelm Valentiner (October 1931 Pantheon). Bought by Samuel H. Kress in 1936.