Masaccio was born on December 21, 1401 (the feast of St. Tommaso) in Castel San Giovanni di Altura (today San Giovanni Valdarno), a town in the province of Arezzo, Tuscany about 40 miles from Florence. His father, Giovanni di Simone Cassai was a notary; his mother, Jacopa di Martinozzo, was the daughter of an innkeeper in Barberino di Mugello, a town a few miles north of Florence. Tommaso had a brother, Giovanni, nicknamed Lo Scheggia (the Splinter) who was also an artist known only for several unimportant paintings.
In the Renaissance, art was often a family enterprise passed down from father to son. It is interesting, therefore, that Tommaso and his brother became painters even though neither of their parents was an artist. Tommaso’s paternal grandfather was a maker of cassoni (furniture chests) which were often painted. (The family surname “Cassai” came from this grandfather’s occupation.) Perhaps the brothers’ interest in art came from watching their grandfather paint his cassoni.
Tommaso became known as Masaccio, which loosely translates to “clumsy, forgetful, or messy Tom.” The nickname stuck because he paid little heed to societal affairs or to his own personal grooming, choosing instead to concentrate on his artistic work. He might have also received the nickname to distinguish him from another Tommaso, his collaborator who was nicknamed Masolino (Little Tommaso).
One of the most interesting questions about Masaccio revolves around his artistic apprenticeship. Young boys, sometimes not yet in their teens, would be apprenticed to a master. They would spend several years in the master’s workshop learning all the necessary skills involved in making many kinds of art. Of course, Masaccio underwent such training, but we have no trace of where, when, or with whom he studied. This is a crucial, if unanswerable, problem for an understanding of the painter because in the Renaissance, art was learned through imitation—individuality in the master’s workshop was discouraged. The apprentice would copy the master’s style until it became his own. Knowing who taught Masaccio would reveal much about his artistic formation and his earliest work.
Some scholars have answered this puzzle in the following way. In 1406, Masaccio’s father, Giovanni, died when Masaccio was 5 years old. Following his death, the family lived in great poverty. Then in 1412, their financial situation improved when his mother, Jacopa, married an elderly and wealthy apothecary, Tedesco di maestro Feo, who already had several daughters. One of these, Caterina, married the only other documented painter from Castel San Giovanni, Mariotto di Cristofano in 1421. It might have been the husband of his half-sister who served as his master. However, the painting styles of the two artists are very different, so this is an unlikely answer that is based on slim circumstantial evidence. In fact, we have no idea for sure who Masaccio’s master was.
Also, another problem emerges in an attempt to study Masaccio’s life. From his birth date in 1401 until January 7, 1422, absolutely nothing is truly known about his life. On the latter date, he entered Arte dei Medici e Speziali (Art of Doctors and Apothecaries), the Florentine guild to which painters belonged. It was headed by the sculptor-architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello. It is safe to assume that by the date of his matriculation into the guild, he was already a full-fledged painter ready to supervise his own workshop. What Masaccio had been doing and where he had been between his birth and his 21st year remains, like so much about him, a tantalizing mystery for scholarly study.
Florence at the time was under the control of Cosimo de’ Medici, (Cosimo the Elder), and the Medici had become the first family of the city both artistically and politically. Under the family’s influence, the city itself was enjoying a period of calm and prosperity. Thus, the time was ripe for the flowering of art in all its various forms.
When he started working on his first major masterpiece, 85 years had passed since the death of Giotto de Bondone, the great Florentine master of the 14th century. Giotto and his contemporaries had started to change the way in which painters viewed the world during the period known as the Proto-Renaissance. Giotto’s works became a major source of inspiration for Masaccio, and he embraced Giotto’s rejection of the International Gothic/Medieval style of the time.
Claiming as their own the heritage of Roman antiquity and of Giotto, Brunelleschi and Donatello developed a new art of space and form. It utilized exact perspective (invented by Brunelleschi) and anatomical realism and applied these skills to narratives depicting critical moments in human relationships. Brunelleschi and Donatello found in the young Masaccio someone who could transfer these concerns to the medium of painting, using also realistic contrasts of light and shade (chiaroscuro) and the startling novelty of continuous luminous color areas that built forms and almost eliminated drawn edges. (All of these innovations were recorded in the handbook on painting written years later in 1435 by Leon Battista Alberti, which was dedicated to Brunelleschi and also alluded to Masaccio).
Masaccio’s earliest extant work is a small triptych, the San Giovenale Triptych, dated April 23, 1422, or about three months after he matriculated into the Florentine guild. It was painted for the Church of San Giovenale in Cascia, near San Giovanni Valdarno. The triptych depicts the Virgin and Child enthroned with angels in the central panel, Saints Bartholomew and Blaise on the left panel, and Saints Juvenal (i.e. San Giovenale) and Anthony Abbot in the right panel. It displays an acute knowledge of Florentine painting, but its eclectic style is strongly influenced by Giotto. His concern with suggesting three-dimensionality through volumetric figures and foreshortened forms is apparent; his forms in the painting are startlingly direct and massive. The triptych is a powerfully impressive demonstration of the skill of the young but already highly accomplished artist. It stands as a revival of Giotto’s approach rather than a continuation of contemporary trends.
The triptych has a tight and spare composition; the un-idealized and vigorous portrayal of the plain Madonna and Child at its center does not resemble at all contemporary Florentine painting. The figures do, however, reveal a complete understanding of the revolutionary art of Donatello, the founder of the Florentine Renaissance sculptural style, whose early works Masaccio studied with care. Donatello’s realistic sculptures taught Masaccio how to render and articulate the human body and provide it with gestural and emotional expression.
According to Vasari, at the prompting of Brunelleschi and Donatello, in 1423 Masaccio traveled to Rome with the older and already-renowned artist Masolino da Panicale (1383/4–c. 1436). There, he researched classical sculptures, the features he started to integrate into his paintings. When Masaccio returned to Florence, he was freed of all Gothic and Byzantine influence.
Masaccio’s second major work, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, also called Sant’Anna Metterza (1424-25), was perhaps his first collaboration with Masolino. The circumstances of the two artists’ collaboration are unclear; since Masolino was considerably older, it seems likely that he brought Masaccio under his wing, but the division of work in the painting is so marked that it is hard to see the older artist as the controlling figure in this commission. Scholars today believe that Masolino is the artist who painted the figure of St. Anne and the angels that hold the cloth of honor behind her, while Masaccio painted the more important Virgin and Child on their throne. Masolino’s figures are delicate, graceful and somewhat flat, while Masaccio’s are solid and hefty. The difference in the two styles shows once again the important emergence of Renaissance art as opposed to the older International Gothic/Medieval style of the time.
The Sagra del Carmine (Festival of Carmine) was a fresco Masaccio painted in the cloister of the Carmelite church, S. Maria del Carmine, in Florence. It is Masaccio’s only major lost work and was also his first large project. The Sagra represents the consecration of the church and the celebration that accompanied it, which took place on April 19, 1422; the painting was executed by 1425. Such a monumental representation of a local current event was an innovation. Sagra is today known only through some drawings, including one by Michelangelo. Present in the work are influences from ancient Roman and Greek art that originated from Masaccio’s Roman trip. (It was destroyed when the church’s cloister was rebuilt at the end of the 16th century).
His next important work, The Pisa Altarpiece (Politico di Pisa), was a large, multi-paneled altarpiece produced by Masaccio in 1426 for the chapel of Saint Julian in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa. The chapel was owned by the notary Giuliano di Colino, who commissioned the work on February 19, 1426 for 80 florins. This important commission demonstrates Masaccio’s growing reputation outside Florence. Unfortunately, the Pisa altarpiece was dismantled in the 18th century, and many of its parts have been lost, but 13 sections of it have been rediscovered and identified in museums and private collections worldwide. The altarpiece’s images, which include the Madonna and Child originally at its center, amplify the direct, realistic character of the 1422 triptych. Ensconced in a massive throne inspired by classical architecture, the Madonna is viewed from below and seems to tower over the spectator. The contrast between the bright lighting on her right side and the deep shadow on her left imparts an unprecedented sense of volume and depth to the figure.
Originally placed beneath the Madonna, the rectangular panel depicting the Adoration of the Magi is notable for its realistic figures, which include portraits, most likely those of the donor and his family. Like the Madonna and Child, the panel of the Adoration of the Magi is notable for its deep, vibrant hues that are so different from the prevailing pastels and other light colors in contemporary Florentine paintings. Unlike his fellow artists, Masaccio used color not as a pleasing decorative pattern but to help impart the illusion of solidity to the painted figure.
The Brancacci Chapel Frescoes
Shortly after completing the Pisa Altarpiece around 1427, Masaccio began working on what was to be his masterpiece and what was to inspire future generations of artists: the Brancacci Chapel Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. He was commissioned to finish painting the chapel’s scenes of the stories of St. Peter after Masolino had abandoned the project, leaving only the vaults and several frescoes in the upper registers of the chapel finished. Masaccio and Masolino were engaged in some loose working relationship. As we have seen previously, they had already collaborated on Madonna and Child with St. Anne, in which the style of Masaccio, who was the younger of the two, had a profound influence on that of Masolino. It has been suggested, but never proven, that both artists were jointly commissioned to paint the Brancacci Chapel. The question of which painter executed which frescoes in the chapel posed one of the most discussed artistic problems of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is now generally thought that Masaccio was responsible for the following sections: the Expulsion of Adam and Eve (or Expulsion from Paradise), Baptism of the Neophytes, The Tribute Money, St. Peter Enthroned, St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow, St. Peter Distributing Alms, and part of the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus.
The radical differences between the two painters are seen clearly in the pendant frescoes of the Temptation of Adam and Eve by Masolino and Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve, which preface the St. Peter stories. Masolino’s figures are dainty, wiry, and elegant, while Masaccio’s are highly dramatic, full of volume, and expansive. The shapes of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve are constructed not with lines but with strongly differentiated areas of light and dark that give them a pronounced three-dimensional form. Masolino’s figures appear fantastic, while Masaccio’s seem to exist within the world of the onlooker illuminated by natural light. The expressive movements and gestures that Masaccio gives to Adam and Eve powerfully convey their anguish at being expelled from the Garden of Eden and add a psychological dimension to the impressive physical realism that he has imparted to these figures.
The boldness of the conception and execution—the paint is applied in sweeping, form-creating bold slashes—of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve marks all of Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. The most famous of these is The Tribute Money, which rivals Michelangelo’s David as an icon of Renaissance art. The Tribute Money, which depicts the debate between Christ and his disciples (Matthew 17:24–27) about the rightness of paying tribute to earthly authorities, is populated by figures remarkable for their weight and gravity. Recalling both Donatello’s sculptures and antique Roman reliefs that Masaccio saw in Florence and in Rome, the figures of Christ and the others in the painting attain a monumentality and seriousness hitherto unknown in the art. Massive and solemn, they are the very embodiments of human dignity and virtue that Renaissance philosophers and humanists so valued.
The figures in The Tribute Money and in Masaccio’s other frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are placed in settings of remarkable realism. For the first time in Florentine painting, religious drama unfolds not in some imaginary place in the distant past but in the countryside of Tuscany or the city streets of Florence. St. Peter and the other characters depicted in the paintings are treading the palace-lined streets of an early 15th-century Italian city. By setting his figures in scenes of such specificity, Masaccio sanctified and elevated the observer’s world. His depiction of the heroic individual in a fixed and certain place in time and space perfectly reflected humanistic thought in contemporary Florence.
Scholars have often noted that the shadows of the figures depicted in The Tribute Money all fall away from the chapel window on the wall to the right of the fresco. It is as if the figures are lit by the window’s light, thus adding authenticity to the scene. This is another tribute to Masaccio’s innovative genius. The mountain background of the fresco is convincingly rendered using atmospheric perspective; an illusion of depth is created by successively lightening the tones of the more distant mountains, thereby simulating the changes effected by the atmosphere on the colors of distant objects.
In The Tribute Money, with its solid, anatomically convincing figures set in a clear, controlled space lit by a consistent fall of light, Masaccio decisively broke with the medieval conception of a painting as a world governed by different and arbitrary physical laws. Instead, he embraced the concept of a painting as a window behind which a continuation of the real world is to be found, with the same laws of space, light, form, and perspective seen in reality. This concept was to remain the basic Western painting style for the next 450 years, until the mid-19th Century.
Masaccio left some of the frescoes unfinished in 1426 to respond to other commissions, probably coming from the same patron. However, it has also been suggested that the declining finances of Felice Brancacci were insufficient to pay for any further work, so Masaccio sought work elsewhere. Masaccio returned in 1427 to work again in the Brancacci Chapel, beginning the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus, but he left it unfinished as well. However, it has also been suggested that several of the frescoes were severely damaged later in the 15th Century because they had contained portraits of the Brancacci family, at that time, were censured in Florence as enemies of the Medici. In whatever case, they were either finished or restored in the 1480s by Filippino Lippi. (The Tribute Money, however, is considered entirely Masaccio’s work).
The Trinity, Masaccio’s Last Painting in Florence
Around 1427, Masaccio won a prestigious commission to produce a Holy Trinity for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. No contemporary documents record the patron of the fresco, but recently, references to ownership of a tomb at the foot of the fresco have been found in the records of the Berti family of the Santa Maria Novella Quarter of Florence. This working-class family expressed a long-standing devotion to the Trinity and may well have commissioned Masaccio’s painting. The male patron is pictured to the left of the Virgin Mary in the painting, while the patron’s wife is to the right of St. John the Evangelist.
The fresco is considered by many to be one of Masaccio’s masterworks; it is the first extant example of the use of systematic linear perspective (one-point perspective), possibly devised by Masaccio with the assistance of Brunelleschi. One-point perspective fixes the spectator’s viewpoint and determines his relationship to the painted space; all the sightlines recede to a central vanishing point in the painting. In The Trinity, the deep-coffered vault is depicted using a nearly perfect one-point system of linear perspective. The architectural setting of The Trinity is derived from contemporary Florentine buildings designed by Brunelleschi, which were influenced by classical Roman structures. (Masaccio and Brunelleschi shared a common artistic vision that was rational, human-scaled, human-centered, and inspired by the ancient world).
Masaccio started the work by producing a rough drawing of the composition and perspective lines on the wall. The drawing was covered with fresh plaster to make the fresco. To ensure the precise transfer of the perspective lines from the sketch to the plaster, Masaccio inserted a nail at the vanishing point under the base of the cross and attached strings to it, which he pressed in (or carved into) the wet plaster. These marks of the preparatory works are still visible in the painting.
The sacred figures and the donors are represented above an image of a skeleton lying on a sarcophagus at the base of the painting. An inscription seemingly carved into the wall above the skeleton reads: Io fui gia quel che voi siete equel ch’io sono voi anco sarete. (I once was what now you are and what I am, you shall yet be). This skeleton is at once a reference to Adam, whose sin brought death to humans and a reminder to the viewers of the painting that their time on earth is transitory. It is only through faith in the Trinity, the fresco suggests, that one overcomes this death in a supernatural way.
Masaccio positioned God the Father as overseeing the entire scene just under the top of the barrel arch. Jesus, the Son, is depicted as hanging on the cross. The Holy Spirit is seen as a dove, hovering between Jesus and God the Father. The combination of trinity, death, and decay brings to mind the Golgotha chapel which is located in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
In 1428, for some unknown reason, Masaccio traveled to Rome, where in the latter half of that year, he died at the age of only 26. The actual reason and details of his death are still completely uncertain. According to one legend, he was poisoned by a competing painter, which is not at all unlikely considering the strong rivalry that existed in the art industry at the time. However, today, many suspect that he might have died of the plague. In any event, as expressed by Brunelleschi, Masaccio’s death was “a very enormous loss.” Vasari tells us that his body was returned to Florence in 1443 and buried in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine (Vasari, Vol. 1, p. 269).
Masaccio’s career was short, lasting only about six years. He was not held in high esteem during his lifetime. He left neither a workshop nor any pupils to carry on his style, but his paintings, though few and done for patrons and locations of only minor rank, made an immediate impact on Florence following his death, influencing future generations of important artists. According to Vasari, all “most celebrated” Florentine “sculptors and painters” studied his frescoes extensively to “learn the precepts and rules for painting well.” (Vasari, Vol. 1, p. 268). His weighty, dignified treatment of the human figure and his clear and orderly depiction of space, atmosphere, and light renewed the idiom of the early 14th-century Florentine painter Giotto, whose monumental art had been followed but not equaled by the succeeding generations of painters. Masaccio carried Giotto’s more realistic style to its logical conclusion by utilizing contemporary advances in anatomy, chiaroscuro, and perspective.
Masaccio transformed the direction of Italian painting, moving it away from the idealizations of Gothic art, and, for the first time, presenting it as part of a more profound, natural, and humanist world. The major Florentine painters of the mid-15th century—Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Andrea del Castagno, and Piero della Francesca—were all inspired by the rationality, realism, and humanity of Masaccio’s art. But his greatest impact came about 75 years after his death, when his monumental figures and sculptural use of light were newly and more fully appreciated by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, the chief painters of the High Renaissance of the 16th Century. (Some of Michelangelo’s earliest drawings, in fact, are studies of figures in The Tribute Money). Thus, through his works and those of other painters whom he inspired, Masaccio’s art influenced the entire subsequent course of Western painting.
Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Masaccio engraved artist portrait by Nicolas de Larmessin and Esme de Boulonais-1682, Wikipedia Online
Cole, Bruce. “Masaccio”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Oct. 1, 2023
Finnan, Vincent. “Masaccio: The Work of a Renaissance Master.” ItalianRenaissanceArt.com
Meyer, Isabella. “Masaccio – First Italian Master of the Quattrocento.” Art in Context website. August 1, 2023
Vasari, Giorgio, translated by A.B. Hinds. The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (4 vols.). London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.(Everyman Library),1963