< Back

Masaccio

Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Monte Cassai. According to Vasari, he was nicknamed Masaccio (variously translated as ‘hulking’, ‘ugly’ or ‘sloppy’ Tom) because ‘he devoted all his mind and thoughts to art … and refused to give any time to worldly cares and possessions, even the way he dressed.’ He was born, the son of a notary, on 21 December 1401 (the Feast of Saint Thomas) in the village of San Giovanni Valdarno, thirty miles from Florence. He is recorded as a painter in Florence on 14 October 1418, when still only sixteen, and he matriculated in the painters’ guild (Arte dei Medici e Speziali) on 7 January 1422. His master is unknown: it was probably not Masolino, as was once assumed, and may have been Bicci di Lorenzo, who seems to have been the master of Masaccio’s younger brother Vittorio or Giovanni (called Lo Scheggia). An altarpiece from Cascia di Reggio, near Florence, attributed to Masaccio in 1961, is dated 23 April 1422.

Probably around 1423, he entered into partnership with the older painter Masolino, with whom he painted the Madonna with St Anne (Uffizi). His only documented work (painted without the collaboration of Masolino, who was in Hungary at the time) is a polyptych (now dismembered) painted in 1426 for the Carmelite church in Pisa. The exact date of his famous frescoes, painted with Masolino, in the Brancacci Chapel in the Carmine at Florence is unknown.

The circumstances of his early death are shrouded in mystery. He is last recorded alive in July 1427 (when he filed his tax return in Florence). He died suddenly in Rome, possibly in June 1428 and certainly by November 1429. It was rumoured that he was poisoned; perhaps he succumbed to the malaria then rife in the city. He was just twenty-seven (according to his younger brother, quoted in a manuscript of 1472) or twenty-six (according to Vasari). Despite his short life and few surviving works, he is regarded as one of the founders of Renaissance painting. He applied Brunelleschi’s invention of artificial perspective, and sought to model accurately the structure and volume of the human figure through light and shade.


Altenburg. Lindenau Museum.
Agony in the Garden and Communion of St Jerome. Wood, 62 x 44.
This unusual panel, divided into two horizontal fields and with a pointed top, may be a complete picture rather than part of an altarpiece. In the upper scene, an angel with a chalice apears to Christ on the Mount of Olives, while the Apostles sleep. In the lower scene, an angel appears to the penitent St Jerome, who beats his breast with a stone as he kneels before a crucifix on an altar. X-rays reveal that the landscape was originally continuous and that the horizontal gold band dividing the two scenes was added later. The panel has been sometimes ascribed to Masaccio but more commonly to an assistant or follower (such as Andrea di Giusto or Paolo Schiavo). The remarkable collection of some 180 early Tuscan paintings at Altenburg was formed by the German diplomat and astronomer Bernhard August von Lindenau, who visited Italy in the mid-nineteenth century.

Berlin. Gemäldegalerie.
Predella panels from the Pisa Altarpiece. Wood, each 21 x 61.
The three panels represent: the Adoration of the Kings (originally the centre panel of the predella); the Crucifixion of St Peter and Beheading of John the Baptist (originally on the left); and St Julian Killing His Parents and St Nicholas Dowering the Three Maidens (originally on the right). The predella belonged to Masaccio's Pisa Altarpiece: a polyptych painted in 1426 for a chapel constructed by the notary Ser Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi in the church of the Carmine. The donor and his son are portrayed in contemporary dress in the Adoration of the Kings. The centre panel from the altarpiece is in the National Gallery, London, and there are other panels in Naples, Pisa and the Getty Museum at Los Angeles. Two of the predella panels – those representing the Adoration of the Kings and the Crucifixion of St Peter and Beheading of John the Baptist – were acquired by Wilhelm von Bode for the Berlin museum in 1880 from the heirs of the famous Florentine statesman and historian Gino Capponi. Formerly ascribed to Masolino, they were recognised as parts of Masaccio's Pisa Altarpiece in 1888 (by Bode himself in an article in the Gazette des Beaux Arts). The third predella panel, representing St Julian Killing his Parents and St Nicholas Dowering the Three Maidens, was discovered on the Florentine art market in 1908 and acquired by the Berlin museum the same year. This panel is considered to be of inferior execution to the other two, and has been ascribed to Andrea di Giusto, who was paid as Masaccio's garzone (assistant) for work on the Pisa Altarpiece.  
Four Saints. Wood, each 38 x 13.
The cardinal at a lectern is identified as St Jerome and the bishop reading is identified as St Augustine. The two other saints wear Carmelite habits; one (bearded) might be St Albert Avogadro and the other (clean-shaven) might be Angelus of Jerusalem. These four small vertical panels are thought to have decorated the pilasters of the Pisa Altarpiece. There were probably six such panels originally (the missing two probably representing the other two Church Doctors, St Gregory and St Ambrose). The four panels are first recorded only in 1893-94, when they were loaned by the English collector and dealer Charles Butler to the Exhibition of Early Italian Art held at the New Gallery, London. Bought by the Berlin museum in 1905 from an anonymous London source (possibly the art historian and dealer Robert Langton Douglas).
Birth Plate. Wood, 56 in dia.
A birth plate (desco da parto) was sent with fruits and cakes and other presents to Florentine mothers on the birth of a child. The scene is of a group of woman visiting a mother in her bedchamber. On the left, two trumpeters, with the lilies of Florence on their banners, are followed by two pages bearing gifts. On the back is painted a naked child with a marten or small dog. The attribution is disputed. It is accepted, for example, by Berenson, Salmi, Longhi, Luciano Berti and Joannides, but rejected by other critics, who have given the picture to Domenico di Bartolo, Domenico Veneziano or an anonymous Florentine and have dated it after 1440. The reverse side is sometimes ascribed to Scheggia, Masaccio’s younger brother. The frame, though old, is not original, and it is possible that the composition was originally octagonal. The picture comes from Masaccio’s birthplace of San Giovanni Valdarno, and belonged to the Ciampi family there by 1843. Acquired by the Berlin museum in 1883.

Boston. Gardner Museum.
Portrait of a Young Man. Wood, 41 x 30.
This striking profile portrait was discovered in the shop of the Florentine dealer Costantino by Bernard Berenson, who wrote to Isabella Stewart Gardner in November 1898 urging her to buy it as a rare authentic portrait by Masaccio. Berenson maintained the attribution throughout his long career (though with a question mark in the last, 1963, edition of his Florentine Painters). The attribution still has some supporters, but doubt has also often been expressed (eg by Joannides and by Spike in their recent monographs on Masaccio). Alternative attributions to the young Piero della Francesca and to Uccello have attracted little support. The face has lost much of its modelling, the blue background has darkened, and the panel appears to have been trimmed on the right.

Cascia (near Reggio). San Pietro.
Triptych. Wood, 107 x 154.
The centre panel, dated 23 April 1422, shows the enthroned Virgin and Child, who holds a bunch of grapes in his left hand and stuffs two fingers of his right hand into his mouth. The same eucharistic motif is found in the Pisa Madonna (National Gallery, London). The four saints on the side panels are identified by inscriptions as Bartholomew, Blaise, Juvenal and Anthony Abbot. The small triptych comes from the tiny church of San Giovenale nearby, where it is first recorded in 1441. It was probably commissioned by Vanni Castellani, an important landowner in the area, who died in March 1422. It was discovered only in the late 1950s. It was attributed to Masaccio by Luciano Berti in 1961, and is now widely (though not universally) accepted as his earliest surviving work. It was restored in 1984 and installed in San Pietro in 1988.

Florence. Uffizi.
Madonna and Child with St Anne. Wood, 175 x 103.
This panel (possibly the centre of a triptych with wings and a predella) is from the church of Sant’Ambrogio, where it was noted by Vasari (1568) in a chapel by the door leading to the nuns’ parlour. Its original location is unknown. It was taken to the Accademia in 1782 and transferred to the Uffizi in 1919. It is in poor condition: an eighteenth-century attempt at cleaning caused large paint losses, which were covered up by repaint. Restoration to remove the repaint revealed that the picture is by at least two different hands. Following Longhi (1940), the figure of St Anne and the angels at the sides (except possibly the one holding up the curtain on the right) are attributed to Masolino, while the more robust and sculpturally rounded figures of the Virgin and Child are attributed to Masaccio. Usually dated between 1423 and 1425.
Madonna and Child. Wood, 25 x 18.
A small, portable panel, probably intended for private devotion. On the back are the arms of Antonio Casini (about 1378-1439), who was created cardinal of San Marcello on 24 May 1426. The picture came to light only in 1947, when it was confiscated by the Italian State after its recovery from the Nazis and assigned to the Palazzo Vecchio, where it was exhibited with the Loeser collection. It was attributed to Masaccio in 1950 by Roberto Longhi (who called it the Madonna del Solletico – ‘Madonna of the Tickle’). The attribution met much opposition at first, but became widely accepted from the 1960s and is now almost universal. (A rare dissenting voice is Fremantle, who excluded the picture from his 1998 Catalogo Completo.) The panel’s condition is extremely good – so good, in fact, that the picture has even been taken for a modern copy. It was stolen from the Palazzo Vecchio in 1971 but recovered in 1974. Transferred to the Uffizi in 1988.

Florence. Museo Horne.
Story of St Julian. Wood, 24 x 43.
St Julian killed his parents after the Devil had deceived him into believing they were his wife and a lover. It is not known where the English art historian Herbert Horne acquired this very damaged panel. Gamba (1920) attributed it to Masaccio, and identified it as part of the predella of a triptych painted for the Carnesecchi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Florence. A panel of St Julian, attributed to Masolino and now in the Museo Diocesano at Florence, is believed to have been one of the side panels.

Florence. Santa Maria Novella.
The Trinity. Fresco, 667 x 317.
The Crucifixion is set in an illusionistic Renaissance chapel with a coffered barrel vault. The perspective is carefully planned, and the incised lines of the vanishing points are still visible. The Virgin and St John stand on either side of the cross, which is supported by God the Father standing behind. The kneeling donors – once thought to be a husband and wife of the Lenzi family (whose tomb, dated 1426, was once visible in the floor in front of the fresco) or of the Cardoni family (the altar having been erected by Fra Lorenzo Cardoni who was prior of the convent between 1422 and 1425) – may be Berto di Bartolomeo and his wife Sandra (whose descendants are documented as having rights to the altar). When the interior of the church was remodelled by Vasari in 1570, he covered the fresco with a large stone altar containing one of his own paintings (the Madonna of the Rosary). The fresco was uncovered in 1860, cut out of the wall and moved to the entrance wall of the church. The bottom part (representing a skeleton in a tomb with the Latin inscription ‘I was what you are, and what I am you also shall be’) was recovered from whitewash only in 1952, when the badly darkened fresco was returned to its original position. It is now generally regarded as one of Masaccio’s most mature works (1427-28).

Florence. Santa Maria del Carmine. Brancacci Chapel.
Life of St Peter. Frescoes.
The frescoes are not documented, but according to Albertini (1510) and Vasari they were the joint work of Masaccio and Masolino. Vasari attributes to Masaccio the scenes on the end wall of St Peter Baptising (247 x 172), St Peter Distributing Alms (232 x 157) and St Peter Healing with His Shadow (232 x 162), and the Tribute Money (247 x 597) in the upper register of the left wall. The famous small scene of the Expulsion from Paradise (214 x 90) on the left entrance pier is also unanimously given to Masaccio by modern critics. Michelangelo drew on the composition for his own Expulsion on the Sistine ceiling. The double fresco of the Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St Peter enthroned as Bishop of Antioch (232 x 597) in the lower register of the left wall was begun by Masaccio, but completed (or repaired) by Filippino Lippi (who painted the kneeling boy and the standing figures in the centre and on the extreme left).
The large fresco of the Tribute Money has always been acknowledged as Masaccio’s masterpiece. Three episodes from the Gospel story (Matthew 17: 24-27) are shown. In the centre Peter, confronted by the tax-gatherer, appeals to Christ, who tells him that he will find the money in the mouth of a fish. (Roberto Longhi’s suggestion that Masolino painted the face of Christ has been repeated as fact in guidebooks.) On the left Peter extracts the coins from the fish’s mouth and on the right he counts them out to the tax-gatherer. Vasari identified the head of the bearded Apostle in near profile on the far right as a self-portrait of Masaccio, but a stronger candidate for a self-portrait is probably the large man glancing towards the viewer on the far right of the St Peter Enthroned.
The frescoes must have been commissioned (or at least overseen) by Felice di Michele Brancacci, a wealthy silk merchant and diplomat, who had patronal rights to the chapel. The work was probably started in 1424-25 and was left unfinished when Masaccio left Florence for Rome in 1428. Felice Brancacci was exiled in 1435 (shortly after Cosimo the Elder came to power) on suspicion of plotting against the Medici, and there was a gap of some fifty years before his heirs commissioned Filippino Lippi to complete the decoration of the chapel. Previously much darkened (partly as a result of a fire in 1771 which wrecked most of the church), restoration in 1984-89 has revealed the original clear, bright colours. Fig leaves added in the seventeenth century were removed.
Masaccio also painted a fresco of St Paul in the north transept of the church. It was probably destroyed (along with its companion St Peter by Masolino) in 1675, when the church was remodelled. In the cloister, Masaccio painted a fresco of the ceremony of the consecration of the church, with (according to Vasari) portraits of Donatello, Brunelleschi, the statesman Niccolò da Uzzano and the banker Giovanni de’ Medici (father of Cosimo). This fresco was destroyed in the late sixteenth century.

London. National Gallery.
Virgin and Child. Wood, 136 x 73.
The panel has been cut down by around 25 cm. at the bottom, removing the feet of the seated angels. Disfigured by paint losses and old discoloured repaint. The flesh parts are particularly badly abraded, revealing the green under-modelling of the Virgin’s face. The grapes the Child is holding allude to the wine of the Eucharist. Recognised by Bernard Berenson in 1908, when it was in the possession of the Rev. Arthur Frederick  Sutton of Brant Broughton (Lincolnshire), as the centre panel of the polyptych painted by Masaccio for the church of Santa Maria del Carmine at Pisa. The polyptych is described in some detail by Vasari. The centre panel was flanked by panels of Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Julian and Nicholas. These four panels are all lost, but smaller panels from the predella, pilasters, upper tier and top of the altarpiece are preserved at Berlin, Pisa, Los Angeles (Getty Museum) and Naples. The polyptych, Masaccio’s only documented work, was commissioned by the Pisan notary Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi da San Giusto for his newly constructed chapel, dedicated to St Julian. The price was 80 florins. Payments started on 19 February 1426 and finished on 26 December 1426. Masaccio was assisted by his brother Lo Scheggia and by Andrea di Giusto. The altarpiece was probably removed from its original location when the church was reconstructed in 1568-74. The Virgin and Child was one of many Italian 'primitives' imported from Florence in the mid-nineteenth century by the dealer Samuel Woodburn. It was included in Woodburn's estate sale at Christie's in 1860 with an attribution to Gentile da Fabriano – a misattribution it still retained when it was discovered by Berenson some fifty years later. It was bought by the National Gallery in 1916 for £9,000. In 2001, the scattered surviving panels of the altarpiece were reunited with the Virgin and Child in an exhibition held at the National Gallery to commemorate the six hundredth anniversary of Masaccio's birth.
Saints John the Baptist and Jerome. Wood, 125 x 59.
This picture and one of a Papal Saint and St Matthias, also in the National Gallery, formed a single panel, painted on both sides. This panel was one wing of a double-sided altarpiece painted for Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. (St Jerome’s were among the church’s principal relics, and the Baptist (whose cross is supported by a column) was patron saint of the Colonna family, which had a long association with the church.) The pictures that formed the centre panel of the altarpiece (representing the Miracle of the Snow and the Assumption) are at Naples, and those forming the other wing are at Philadelphia. It is not known when the altarpiece left the church, but by 1644 it was already dismembered and in the Farnese collection at Rome. Vasari considered it to be by Masaccio, but modern critics have preferred an attribution to Masolino, apart from this one panel, which is regarded as being largely or wholly by Masaccio. On one theory, the altarpiece was started by the two artists in collaboration, and finished by Masolino after Masaccio’s death.

Los Angeles. Getty Museum.
Saint Andrew. Wood, 52 x 33.
The bulky figure holds a cross (but not the usual ‘X’ associated with the saint) and a book. From the altarpiece painted in 1426 for the Carmine at Pisa. The panel belonged to the upper tier of half-length saints, of which only one other, the Saint Paul at Pisa, has survived. Formerly in the Viennese collection of Count Lanckoronski, who had acquired it in the 1890s as a gift from Adolph Bayersdorfer, curator of the Munich gallery. Bought by the Getty Museum in 1979 for $2 million from the Count's daughter, Countess Karolina Lanckoronska. The removal of thick brown overpaint and discoloured varnish in a 1980 restoration revealed the light green of the apostle's cloak. The panel has been cropped at both top and bottom; a replacement piece was added to the top in 1987.

Naples. Capodimonte.
Crucifixion. Wood, 82 x 64.
The Virgin and St John at the sides; the Magdalen prostrate at the foot of the cross, her arms outstretched. Originally the centre pinnacle of the Pisa Altarpiece; it was situated above the centre panel of the Virgin and Child now in the National Gallery, London. It was intended to be seen from below and the body of Christ is foreshortened. The bush at the top of the cross originally contained a pelican feeding its young with its own blood. Very little is known of the subsequent history of the panel, which was acquired by the Capodimonte in 1901 from a certain Gaetano De Simone of Naples. It was identified as a component of the Pisa Altarpiece a few years later (by Wilhelm Suida in L'Arte (1906)).   

Philadelphia. Museum of Art (J. G. Johnson Collection).
Christ Healing the Possessed Boy. Canvas (originally mounted on panel), 106 x 115.
The open domed building (somewhat resembling Florence Cathedral) is meant to represent the Temple in Jerusalem. On the left, Judas is paid the twenty pieces of silver. Worn, restored and cut down very substantially on both sides. This intriguing picture is almost certainly that seen by Vasari in the house of the painter Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (‘as well as a representation of a man possessed by demons, there are some very fine buildings drawn in perspective; and one can see simultaneously both the interior and the outside …’). It is also recorded as a work of Masaccio in a Medici inventory of 1562-64. However, the execution has rarely been accepted as Masaccio’s by modern critics, being usually ascribed either to Andrea di Giusto (who is recorded as Masaccio’s assistant in 1426) or to Francesco d’Antonio (who is documented as an associate of Masolino). It is often believed that Masaccio (or Masolino) was responsible for the composition, with its highly ambitious (if not entirely accurate) application of linear perspective.

Pisa. Museo Civico.
Saint Paul. Wood, 62 x 34.
The sculptural figure, holding a sword and book, may have been influenced, in its pose and draperies, by Donatello’s Prophets on the Campanile of Florence Cathedral. One of two surviving panels of half-length saints from the upper tier of the polyptych painted in 1426 for the Carmine at Pisa; the other is in the Getty Museum at Los Angeles. There were originally four such panels. By around 1640, the Saint Paul had left the Carmine and passed into the hands of the local collector Paolo Trinci, who had been appointed overseer of the church. It is the only part of the altarpiece to remain in Pisa.    

Washington. National Gallery.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 106 x 54.
This extremely damaged painting was largely unknown before 1929, when it was bought by Duveen from Count Carl Lonyay of Budapest and published by Berenson as a work of Masaccio in an article in Dedalo. Bought by Andrew Mellon in 1936, after it had been transferred to a new panel and heavily overpainted. Restoration in 1997 removed some of the repaint. Critical opinion has been divided over the picture, and even its authenticity has occasionally been doubted. It has sometimes (eg. by Boskovits in the 2003 catalogue of the fifteenth-century Italian pictures at Washington) been accepted as a ruined work of Masaccio. It has sometimes been assigned to an assistant or follower, such as Andrea di Giusto or Paolo Schiavo. It has also been ascribed to the young Filippo Lippi. Other critics have judged the picture unattributable because of its condition.
Portrait of a Young Man. Wood, 42 x 33.
This profile portrait of a young man in a turban is much abraded, the face retouched and the brown tunic repainted. It was attributed to Masaccio when first recorded in 1811 in the possession of Artaud de Montor, a French diplomat who assembled a large picture collection when working in the embassy in Rome. Sold in Paris in 1851, it disappeared from view until 1936, when it was acquired by Duveen, who sold it on to Mellon. The attribution has been accepted by some critics (including Boskovits in the 2003 gallery catalogue), but a large number of others have preferred to call it anonymous. The portrait was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 2011-12 (The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini) as by a 'Florentine artist (Paolo Uccello?)'.