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A Tale as Red as Blood – Masaccio’s Artistry

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the history of masaccio

In the early 15th century, as the Italian Renaissance was sweeping through Florence, one of its rising stars was the painter Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, who earned the enduring nickname Masaccio, which means Messy Thomas. He was a big fellow, who cared little about his personal appearance, but was a brilliant artist, using perspective and shadows in his paintings to create a three dimensional image. This was cutting edge during the early decades of the 1400s and was based on the science of perspective that was created by Filippo Brunelleschi.

Masaccio was born near Arezzo in Tuscany in 1401 and came to Florence in his late teens. His talent was immediately recognized and he was accepted into the painter’s guild at age 19, soon to be befriended by two of Florence’s great innovators, Donatello and Brunelleschi.

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Masaccio’s creation of the bright, vivid red paint as seen on Mary Magdalene’s cloak, above, is the suspected reason for his murder in 1428.

masaccio's early work

In 1425, Masaccio caused a major stir in Florence with his fresco “The Expulsion From the Garden of Eden.” It was the first painting since classical times that had bodies painted in naked form. Additionally, the figures appeared visibly emotional, suffering both grief and shame as a sword-bearing angel ushers them out of paradise. Giotto, who painted a century before, is credited with beginning the return to natural realism in figures, but his were still of the flat, Gothic style. Masaccio had created an entirely new style, where his use of shadows helped to create dimension on the flat surface.

Another major advance was his use of perspective, as was seen in his painting of the Holy Trinity for the Church of Santa Maria Novella. This fresco was originally aligned with an entrance to the church and was designed by Masaccio to give the feeling of depth. The coffered ceiling forming a vault over what appears as a hallway behind the main scene was exactly the goal of Florence’s search for perspective, the visual creation of depth. The figures below the crucifixion are Mary and St. John on the upper tier and the two patrons who paid for the painting, a husband and wife on the bottom tier.

The Holy Trinity fresco, completed in 1428 by Masaccio is in Florence's Church of Santa Maria Novella.

masaccio's techniques

In 1425, Masaccio caused a major stir in Florence with his fresco “The Expulsion From the Garden of Eden.” It was the first painting since classical times that had bodies painted in naked form. Additionally, the figures appeared visibly emotional, suffering both grief and shame as a sword-bearing angel ushers them out of paradise. Giotto, who painted a century before, is credited with beginning the return to natural realism in figures, but his were still of the flat, Gothic style. Masaccio had created an entirely new style, where his use of shadows helped to create dimension on the flat surface.

Another major advance was his use of perspective, as was seen in his painting of the Holy Trinity for the Church of Santa Maria Novella. This fresco was originally aligned with an entrance to the church and was designed by Masaccio to give the feeling of depth. The coffered ceiling forming a vault over what appears as a hallway behind the main scene was exactly the goal of Florence’s search for perspective, the visual creation of depth. The figures below the crucifixion are Mary and St. John on the upper tier and the two patrons who paid for the painting, a husband and wife on the bottom tier.

A self-portrait of Masaccio from the Brancacci Chapel in Florence.

red paint in his works

Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, written about 140 years after Masaccio’s death, indicated that he was poisoned with arsenic, the odorless, tasteless poison that was popular as a means of dispatching one’s adversaries. Whatever the actual cause, it is indisputable that Masaccio died in Rome near his 27th birthday, ending his short, but memorable career. Filippo Brunelleschi, who engineered the great dome of Santa Maria dei Fiori, the Duomo of Florence, mourned the loss of the talented young painter stating “We have suffered a great loss.”

Artistic rivalries remained very strong during the Renaissance; even Michelangelo’s flattened nose was the result of an argument that he had with an artist named Pietro Torrigiano. It actually stemmed from a disagreement about who should complete an unfinished Masaccio work. Torrigiano reportedly said that punching Michelangelo in the nose was one of the most satisfying experiences of his life. Commonplace as they were, rarely did such rivalries lead to murder, but rarely did an artist create a pigment as revolutionary as Masaccio’s red paint.

Crucifixion from the Pisa Altarpiece is a tempura on wood by Masaccio, painted in 1426. It now has a place of honor in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples.
“The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,”1425 fresco by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.

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