Masaccio 1401-1428? BACK

An excerpt from Masaccio by Richard Fremantle

Masaccio's lasting effect on the history of Italian painting was enormous. He seems to have been the first person to have used scientific linear perspective in painting in such a logical way that it could be learned by anyone, and was. Immediately after his death, painters in particular, Filippo Lippi, who had been a young novice in the religious community at the Carmine Church in Florence-began regularly to develop their pictures using linear perspective. This use of perspective to develop an illusion of space on a flat surface secularized space by making the space of the natural world both within the picture and without, more interesting than the heavenly space that had been dominant in painting until Masaccio's time. This natural space is then investigated in pictures in all its aspects until the invention of the photograph some four hundred years later, at which point painters became more interested in other formal elements of painting than the picturing, in one way or another, of things in the natural world.

Masaccio's use of color was also enormously innovative: the band of color made by the Apostles' cloaks across the front of the Tribute Money is not only the foremost dominant abstract element in the whole composition, giving a lightness, a vivacity, and a majesty to the picture, but the manner in which Masaccio uses the lighter and darker colors without contours to enhance the statuesque, and the illusion of space is new to painting. He shows that apparently empty space is a positive element in painting-even a concrete one.

Masaccio turned the Christ of the fourteenth century, a suffering symbolic Christ, into an ordinary human being. He does this both in the Trinity, where an anatomically correct Christ is placed triumphant on the cross, and in the Brancacci Chapel, where Christ is one of us-except that he and we have come together as one, the central point of the natural world. Christ's head is the vanishing point of Masaccio's perspective system in the Tribute Money. This is where our own world of nature, and the imaginary world that Masaccio invents, flow each other, the world of imagination and the world of reality overlapping, becoming each other-all one common space without barriers. Christ and we, so to speak, are both the center of reality. This is, of course, in keeping with the whole movement of humanism that was so strongly developing in Florence in precisely the years of Masaccio's working life.

Masaccio painted man the spectator-that is, the man outside the picture-into the picture. Because he made space and the picture in it a projection of our thoughts and especially of our memory, the picture became extremely political: Masaccio paints the past in a way that he wishes it to be seen, but so realistically that it's as though things really happened as he depicts them, with us part of whatever happened. This obviously encompasses a secularization and personalization of religion.

Masaccio seems to have copied classical architecture and classical sculpture: the heads of the apostles in the Tribute Money, clad in their classical togas, may well have been copied from Roman busts. This brought painting to much the same point that sculpture and architecture had reached by the 1420s, where the imitation of the classical was already an established element in the renewal of architectural and sculptural forms.


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Image List

Madonna and Child Enthroned
with Two Angels

Madonna and Child Enthroned with
Saint Anne and Five Angels

Saint Peter Baptizing

Tribute of Money

Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus
and Saint Peter in Cattedra

Saint Paul

Saint Andrew

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