Although Early Renaissance painting did not appear until
the early 1420s, a decade later than Donatello's St. Mark and
some six years after Brunelleschi's first designs for S. Lorenzo, its
inception was the most extraordinary of all. This new style was launched
single-handedly by a young genius named Masaccio
who was only 21
years old at the time and
who died just six years later. The Early Renaissance was already well
established in sculpture and architecture by then, making
task easier than it would have been otherwise. His achievement remains
His first fully mature work is a fresco of
in Sta. Maria Novella (fig.
which shows the Holy Trinity accompanied by the
Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and two donors who kneel on either
side. The lowest section of the fresco, linked with a tomb below,
represents a skeleton lying on a sarcophagus, with the inscription (in
Italian): "What you are, I once was; what I am, you will become." Here,
as in the case of the Merode Altarpiece, we seem to plunge into a
new environment. But Masaccio's world is a realm of monumental grandeur
rather than the concrete, everyday reality of the Master of Flemalle.
It seems hard to believe that only two years before, in this city of
Florence, Gentile da Fabriano had completed The Adoration of the Magi
(see fig. 539), one of
the masterpieces of the International Gothic. What the Trinity
fresco brings to mind is not the style of the immediate past, but
Giotto's art, with its sense of large scale, its compositional severity
and sculptural volume. Masaccio's renewed allegiance to Giotto was only
a starting point, however. For Giotto, body and drapery form a single
unit, as if both had the same substance. In contrast, Masaccio's
figures, like Donatello's, are "clothed nudes," whose drapery falls like
The setting, equally up-to-date, reveals a complete command of
Brunelleschi's new architecture and of scientific perspective. For the
first time in history, we are given all the data needed to measure the
depth of this painted interior, to draw its plan, and to duplicate the
structure in three dimensions. It is, in short, the earliest example of
a rational picture space. For
Masaccio, like Brunelleschi, it
must have also been a symbol of the universe ruled by divine reason.
This barrel-vaulted chamber is not a niche, but a deep space in which
the figures could move freely if they so wished. As in Ghiberti's later
relief panel The Story of Jacob and Esau (see fig.
575), the picture space is independent of the figures. They inhabit it but do not create it.
Take away the architecture and you take away the figures' space. We
could go even further and say that scientific perspective depends not
just on architecture, but on this particular kind of architecture, so
different from Gothic.
First we note that all the lines perpendicular to the picture plane
converge upon a point below the foot of the Cross, on the platform that
supports the kneeling donors. To see the fresco properly, we must face
this point, which is at normal eye level, somewhat more than five feet
above the floor of the church. The figures within the vaulted chamber
are five feet tall, slightly less than lifesize, while the donors, who
are closer to us, are fully lifesize. The exterior framework is
therefore "lifesize," too, since it is directly behind the donors. The
distance between the pilasters corresponds to the span of the barrel
vault, and both are seven feet. The circumference of the arc over this
span measures eleven feet. That arc is subdivided by eight square
coffers and nine ridges, the coffers being one foot wide and the ridges
four inches. Applying these measurements to the length of the barrel
vault (it consists of seven coffers, the nearest one of which is
invisible behind the entrance arch) we find that the vaulted area is
nine feet deep.
We can now draw a complete floor plan (fig.
591). A puzzling feature may be the place of God
the Father. His arms support the Cross, close to the front plane, while
His feet rest on a ledge attached to a wall. How far back is this
surface? If it is the rear wall of the chamber, God would appear to be
exempt from the laws of perspective. But in a universe ruled by reason,
this cannot be so. Hence Masaccio must have intended to locate the ledge
directly behind the Cross. The strong shadow that St. John casts on the
wall beneath the ledge bears this out.
Masaccio. The Holy Trinity
with the Virgin, St. John,
and Two Donors.
1425. Fresco. Sta. Maria Novella, Florence
591. Ground plan of The
The largest group of
Masaccio's works to come down to us are frescoes
in the Brancacci Chapel in Sta. Maria del Carmine (figs.
593), devoted to the life of St. Peter.
Tribute Money, in the upper tier (fig.
is the most famous of these. It illustrates the
story in the Gospel of Matthew (17:24-27)
by the age-old method known as "continuous narration". In the
center, Christ instructs Peter to catch a fish, whose mouth will contain
the tribute money for the tax collector. On the far left, in the
distance, Peter takes the coin from the fish's mouth, and on the right,
he gives it to the tax collector. Since the lower edge of the fresco is almost
14 feet above the floor of
the chapel, Masaccio could not here coordinate his perspective with our
actual eye level. Instead, he expects us to imagine that we are looking
directly at the central vanishing point, which is located behind the
head of Christ. Oddly enough, this feat is so easy that we take note of
it only if we are in an analytical frame of mind. But then, pictorial
illusion of any sort is always an imaginary experience. No matter how
eager we are to believe in a picture, we never mistake it for reality
itself, just as we are hardly in danger of confusing a statue with a
wall of Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by
Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence
wall of Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by
Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence
Masaccio. The Tribute Money,
ñ 1427. Fresco.
Brancacci Chapel, Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence
If we could see The Tribute Money from the top of a suitable
ladder, the painted surface would be more visible, of course, but the
illusion of reality would not improve markedly. This illusion depends to
only a minor degree on Brunelleschian perspective. Masaccio's weapons
here are exactly those employed by the Master of Flemalle and the Van
Eycks. He controls the flow of light (which comes from the right, where
the window of the chapel is actually located), and he uses atmospheric
perspective in the subtly changing tones of the landscape. We now recall
Donatello's preview of such a setting, a decade earlier, in his small
relief of St. George (compare fig.
The figures in The Tribute Money, even more than those in the
Trinity fresco, display Masaccio's ability to merge the weight
and volume of Giotto's figures with the new functional view of body and
drapery. All stand in beautifully balanced contrapposto, and close
inspection reveals fine vertical lines scratched in the plaster by the
artist, establishing the gravitational axis of each figure from the head
to the heel of the engaged leg. In accord with this dignified approach,
the figures seem rather static. The narrative is conveyed to us by
intense glances and a few emphatic gestures, rather than by physical
movement. But in another fresco of the Brancacci Chapel, The
Expulsion from Paradise (fig. 595),
Masaccio proves decisively his ability to display the
human body in motion. The tall, narrow format leaves little room for a
spatial setting. The gate of Paradise is only indicated, and in the
background are a few shadowy, barren slopes. Yet the soft, atmospheric
modeling, and especially the forward-moving angel, boldly foreshortened,
suffice to convey a free, unlimited space. In conception this scene is
clearly akin to Jacopo della Quercia's Bolognese reliefs (see fig.
grief-stricken Adam and Eve, though less dependent on ancient models,
are equally striking exemplars of the beauty and power of the nude human
Masaccio divided the work on the Brancacci Chapel with a much older
artist, Masolino (documented 1423-died 1440),
who had been decisively influenced by Gentile da
Fabriano. Remarkably enough, the two cooperated well and even
collaborated on several frescoes (the head of Christ in The Tribute
Money is by Masolino, for instance), although the difference in
their styles was great. Masaccio's impact notwithstanding, Masolino
retained an allegiance to the International Style. Thus the figures in
the upper tier of the right wall (fig.
are simply larger versions of those in the
Limbourg brothers' January (see fig.
and Pietro Lorenzetti's Birth of the Virgin
(see fig. 525). The
setting, too, remains Gothic in character, despite the scientific
perspective (compare fig. 527).
Masolino constructs a self-consciously theatrical space
that remains separate from his figures, whereas Masaccio's are fully
integrated into their surroundings, both visually and dramatically.
Nowhere is the sharp contrast between their styles more striking than in
The Temptation by Masolino (visible in the upper right of fig.
593), which forms an
enchanting companion to the unprecedented anguish in Masaccio's
Expulsion from Paradise. Regardless of their contrapposto, the
figures of Adam and Eve are no more classical than Adam in our figure
577. Indeed, they may well
derive from a similar source, for Masolino was utterly incapable of
treating the nude in convincing organic terms. The comparison is
telling: Masaccio's contribution, like Donatel-lo's, was to recapture
the substance of antiquity without relying on external forms. Masaccio
left for Rome before he could finish the Brancacci Chapel, and
Masolino's work, too, was interrupted for several years. It was finally
completed toward the end of the century by Filippino Lippi
(1457/8-1504), who was
responsible for the lower tier to either side.
While he had a mural painter's temperament,
Masaccio was skilled in
panel painting. His large polyptych, made in 1426
for the Carmelite church in Pisa, has since been
dispersed among various collections. Its center panel (fig.
596) is a more fully developed
restatement of his earliest known work. The Madonna 'Enthroned is
of the monumental Florentine type introduced by Cimabue and reshaped by
Giotto (see figs. 515 and
523). The usual
components, including the gold ground, are still present: a large,
high-backed throne dominates the composition and on either side are
adoring angels (here only two). Despite these traditional elements, the
painting is revolutionary in several respects. The kneeling angels in
Giotto's Madonna have become lute players, seated on the lowest
step of the throne, and the Christ Child is no longer blessing us but
eating a bunch of grapes, a symbolic act that alludes to the Passion.
(The grapes refer to wine, which represents the Saviour's blood in the
sacrament of the Eucharist.) Above all, the figures have powerful
proportions which make them infinitely more concrete and impressive than
any that had preceded them, even Giotto's, although they are hardly
beautiful by the elegant standards of the International Style.
It is no surprise, in light of the Trinity fresco, that
Masaccio replaces Giotto's ornate but frail Gothic throne with a solid and austere stone seat in the style of Brunelleschi, or that he uses
perspective expertly. (Note especially the two lutes.) We are perhaps
less prepared by the murals to find such delicacy and precision in
painting the light on the surfaces. Within the picture, sunlight enters
from the left—not the
brilliant glare of noontime but the softer glow of the setting sun.
(Some of the shadows on the throne permit us to determine its exact
angle.) There are consequently no harsh contrasts between light and
shade. Subtle half-shadows intervene, producing a rich scale of
transitional hues. The light retains its full descriptive function,
while acting as an independent force that imposes a common tonality, as
well as a common mood, on all the forms it touches. Clearly, Masaccio's
awareness of natural light as a pictorial factor matches that of his
Flemish contemporaries, but he lacked their technical means to explore
it so fully.
The Expulsion from Paradise, ñ.
1427. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Sta. Maria del
Masaccio. Madonna Enthroned.
56 x 29" (142
The National Gallery, London.
Fra Filippo Lippi
Masaccio's early death left a gap that was not
filled for some time. Among his younger contemporaries only
Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406-1469) seems
to have had close contact with him. Fra Filippo's earliest dated work,
the Madonna Enthroned of 1437
evokes Masaccio's earlier Madonna in several
important ways: the lighting, the heavy throne, the massive
three-dimensional figures, the drapery folds over the Virgin's legs.
Nevertheless, the picture lacks Masaccio's monumentality and severity.
In fact, it seems decidedly cluttered by comparison, for Lippi reduces
the divine to the mundane. The background is a domestic interior (note
the Virgin's bed on the right), and the vividly patterned marble throne
displays a prayer book and a scroll inscribed with the date. Such a
quantity of realistic detail, as well as the rather undisciplined
perspective, indicates an artistic temperament very different from
Masaccio's. It also suggests that Fra Filippo must have seen Flemish
paintings (perhaps during his visit to northeastern Italy in the
Finally, we note the painter's interest in movement, which is evident
in the figures and, even more strikingly, in parts of the drapery. The
curly, fluid edge of the Virgin's headdress and the curved folds of her
mantle streaming to the left, which accentuate her own turn to the
right, show an interest in graceful decorative effects that will later
become an end in itself. Such effects are found earlier in the relief
sculpture of Donatello and Ghiberti: compare the dancing Salome in
The Feast of Herod (fig. 573)
and the maidens in the lower left-hand corner of The
Story of Jacob and Esau (fig. 575).
It is not surprising that these two artists should have
so strongly affected Florentine painting in the decade after Masaccio's
death. Age, experience, and prestige gave them authority unmatched by
any painter then active in the city. Their influence, and that of the
Flemish masters, in modifying Fra Filippo's early Masacciesque outlook
was particularly significant, because he lived until
1469 and played a decisive role
in setting the course of Florentine painting during the second half of
Fra Filippo Lippi. Madonna
Oil on panel, 45
x 25 W
64.8 cm). Galleria
Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
Fra Filippo's slightly older contemporary,
1400-1455), was also a
friar ("fra" means "brother"), but, unlike Fra Filippo, he took his vows
seriously and rose to a responsible position within his order. We sense
this immediately in the large Deposition (fig.
598), which was painted in all
likelihood for the same chapel as Gentile da Fab-riano's Adoration of
the Magi (see fig. 539).
Fra Angelico took over the commission from Gentile's
Florentine contemporary, Lorenzo Monaco, who was responsible for the
Gothic shape of the frame and the triangular pinnacles but who died
before he could complete the altar. It has been dated about
1435 by some scholars, to the
early 1440s by others. Either date is plausible, for this artist, like
Ghiberti, developed slowly, and his conservative style underwent no
decisive changes upon reaching maturity. We are clearly in a different
world from Fra Filippo's. This Deposition is an object of
devotion. Fra Angelico preserves the very aspects of Masaccio that Fra
Filippo had rejected: his dignity, directness, and spatial order. Thus
Fra Angelico's dead Christ is the true heir of the monumental figure in
Fra Angelico's art is something of a paradox. The deeply reverential
attitude presents an admixture of traditional Gothic piety (compare fig.
531) and Renaissance
grandeur bestilled by contemplative calm. Its nearest relative, we
realize, is Rogi-er van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross (fig.
549), not simply in
subject and date but mood, though it is less agitated. The principal
difference is the elaborate setting which spreads behind the figures
like a tapestry. The landscape, with the town in the distance, harks
back to the Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti
(see figs. 527 and
528). Our artist also shows a
clear awareness of the achievements of Northerners such as the Limbourg
brothers (compare fig. 537),
for he evokes a brilliant sunlit day with striking
success. Yet the scene does not strike us as Gothic in the least. It has
the same quality of natural light that produces softly modeled,
sculptural forms in Masaccio's Madonna Enthroned (fig.
596). This light suffuses the
entire landscape with a sense of wonderment before God's creation that
is wholly Renaissance in spirit. We shall meet it again in the work of
Giovanni Bellini (see fig. 631).
At the same time, the bright, enamellike hues, although remnants of the International Style, look forward to the
colorism of Domenico Veneziano.
Fra Angelico. Deposition.
Probably early 1440s.
Oil on panel, 275 x 285
cm. Museo di S. Marco, Florence
a gifted painter from Venice,
settled in Florence. We can only guess at his age (he was probably born
about 1410 and he died in
1461), training, and
previous work. He must, however, have been in sympathy with the spirit
of Early Renaissance art, for he quickly became a thoroughgoing
Florentine-by-choice and a master of great importance in his new home.
His Madonna and Child with Saints, shown in figure
599, is one of the earliest
examples of a new kind of altar panel that was to prove popular from the
mid-fifteenth century on, the so-called sacra conversazione
("sacred conversation"). The type includes an enthroned Madonna framed
by architecture and flanked by saints, who may converse with her, with
the beholder, or among themselves.
Domenico Veneziano. Madonna
and Child with Saints, ñ 1455.
Oil on panel, 82
x 84" (208.2
cm). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Looking at Domenico's panel, we can understand the wide appeal of the
sacra conversazione. The architecture and the space it defines are
supremely clear and tangible, yet elevated above the everyday world. The
figures, while echoing the formal solemnity of their setting, are linked
with each other and with us by a thoroughly human awareness. We are
admitted to their presence, but they do not invite us to join them. Like
spectators in a theater, we are not allowed "on stage."
In Flemish painting, by way of contrast, the
picture space seems a direct extension of the viewer's everyday
environment (compare fig. 541).
The basic elements of our panel were already present in Masaccio's
Holy Trinity fresco. Domenico must have studied it carefully, for
his St. John looks at us while pointing toward the Madonna, repeating
the glance and gesture of Masaccio's Virgin. Domenico's perspective
setting is worthy of the earlier master, although the slender
proportions and colored inlays of his architecture are less severely Brunelleschian. His figures, too,
are balanced and dignified like Masaccio's, but without the same weight
and bulk. The slim, sinewy bodies of the male saints, with their highly
individualized, expressive faces, show Donatello's influence (fig.
In his use of color, however,
Domenico Veneziano owes nothing to Masaccio.
Unlike the great Florentine master, he treats color as an integral part
of his work, and the sacra conversazione is as remarkable for its color
scheme as for its composition. The blond tonality, its harmony of pink,
light green, and white set off by strategically placed spots of red,
blue, and yellow, reconciles the decorative brightness of Gothic panel
painting with the demands of perspective space and natural light.
Ordinarily, a sacra conversazione is an indoor scene, but this one takes
place in a kind of loggia (a covered open-air arcade) flooded with
sunlight streaming in from the right, as we can tell from the cast
shadow behind the Madonna. The surfaces of the architecture reflect the
light so strongly that even the shadowed areas glow with color.
Masaccio had achieved a similar quality of light in his Madonna of
1426, which Domenico surely knew. In this sacra conversazione, the
discovery has been applied to a far more complex set of forms and
integrated with Domenico's exquisite color sense. The influence of its
distinctive tonality can be felt throughout Florentine painting of the
second half of the century.
Piero della Francesca
When Domenico Veneziano settled in Florence,
he had a young assistant from southeastern Tuscany named
Piero della Francesca (c.
who became his most important disciple and one of the truly great
artists of the Early Renaissance. Surprisingly, however, Piero left
Florence after a few years, never to return. The Florentines seem to
have regarded his work as somewhat provincial and old-fashioned, and
from their point of view they were right. Piero's style, even more
strongly than Domenico's, reflected the aims of Masaccio. He retained
this allegiance to the founder of Italian Renaissance painting
throughout his long career, whereas Florentine taste developed in a
different direction after 1450.
Piero's most impressive achievement is the fresco cycle in the choir
of S. Francesco in Arezzo, which he painted from about
1459 (fig. 600).
Its many scenes represent the legend of the True Cross
(that is, the story of the Cross used for Christ's crucifixion). The
section in figure 601
shows the empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great,
discovering the True Cross and the two crosses of the thieves who died
beside Christ (all three had been hidden by enemies of the Faith). On
the left, they are being lifted out of the ground, and on the right, the
True Cross is identified by its power to bring a dead youth back to
Piero's link with Domenico Veneziano is readily apparent from his
colors. The tonality of this fresco, although less luminous than in Domenico's sacra conversazione, is similarly blond,
evoking early morning sunlight in much the same way. Since the light
enters the scene at a low angle, in a direction almost parallel to the
picture plane, it serves both to define the three-dimensional character
of every shape and to lend drama to the narrative. But Piero's figures
have a harsh grandeur that recalls Masaccio, or even Giotto, more than
Domenico. These men and women seem to belong to a lost heroic race,
beautiful and strong—and
silent. Their inner life is conveyed by glances and gestures, not by
facial expressions. They have a gravity, both physical and emotional,
that makes them seem kin to Greek sculpture of the Severe style (see
Piero della Francesca arrive at these memorable images? Using his own
testimony, we may say that they were born of his passion for
perspective. More than any other artist of his day, Piero believed in
scientific perspective as the basis of painting. In a rigorous
mathematical treatise, the first of its kind, he demonstrated how it
applied to stereometric bodies and architectural shapes, and to the
human form. This mathematical outlook permeates all his work. When he
drew a head, an arm, or a piece of drapery, he saw them as variations or
compounds of spheres, cylinders, cones, cubes, and pyramids, thus
endowing the visible world with some of the impersonal clarity and
permanence of stereometric bodies. The medieval artist, in contrast, had
used the opposite procedure, building natural forms on geometric
scaffoldings (see fig. 511).
We may regard Piero as the earliest ancestor of the
abstract artists of our own time, for they, too, work with systematic
simplifications of natural forms. It is not surprising that Piero's fame
is greater today than ever before.
600. View into main chapel, with
Piero della Francesca. S. Francesco, Arezzo
Piero della Francesca. The
Discovery and Proving of the True Cross. ñ
1455. Fresco. S. Francesco, Arezzo
In mid-fifteenth-century Florence there was only one painter
who shared, and may have helped to inspire, Piero's devotion to
Battle of San Romano (fig. 602)
perhaps influenced the battle scenes in Piero's
frescoes at Arezzo (fig. 600).
Uccello's design shows an extreme preoccupation with
stereometric shapes. The ground is covered with a gridlike design of
discarded weapons and pieces of armor, forming a display of perspective
studies neatly arranged to include one fallen soldier. The landscape,
too, has been subjected to a process of stereometric abstraction, matching the foreground. Despite these strenuous
efforts, however, the panel has none of the crystalline order and
clarity of Piero della Francesca's work. In the hands of Uccello,
perspective produces strangely disquieting, fantastic effects. What
unites his picture is not its spatial construction but its surface
pattern, decoratively reinforced by spots of brilliant color and the
lavish use of gold.
Paolo Uccello had been trained in the Gothic International Style of
painting. It was only in the 1430s that he was converted to the Early
Renaissance outlook by the new science of perspective. This he
superimposed on his earlier style like a straitjacket. The result is a
fascinating and highly unstable mixture. As we study this panel we
realize that surface and space are more at war than the mounted
soldiers, who get entangled with each other in all sorts of implausible
Battle of San Romano, ñ 1455.
Tempera and silver foil on wood panel, 1.8
x 3.2 m. The National Gallery, London.
The third dimension held no difficulties for
the most gifted Florentine painter of Piero della Francesca's own
generation. Less subtle but more forceful than Domenico Veneziano,
Castagno recaptures something of Masaccio's monumentality in his Last
Supper (fig. 603), one
of the frescoes he painted in the refectory of the convent of S.
Apollonia. The event is set in a richly paneled alcove designed as an
extension of the real space of the refectory. As in medieval
representations of the subject, ludas sits in isolation opposite Christ
on the near side of the table. The rigid symmetry of the architecture,
emphasized by the colorful inlays, enforces a similar order among the
figures and threatens to imprison them. There is so little communication
among the apostles—only a
glance here, a gesture there—
that a brooding silence hovers over the scene.
Castagno. The Last Supper, c.
1445-50. Fresco. S.
Castagno, too, must have felt
confined by a scheme imposed on him by the rigid demands of both
tradition and perspective, for he used a daringly original device to
break the symmetry and focus the drama of the scene. Five of the six
panels on the wall behind the table are filled with subdued varieties of
colored marble, but above the heads of St. Peter, Judas, and Christ, the
marble panel has a veining so garish and explosive that a bolt of
lightning seems to descend on Judas' head. When Giotto revived the
ancient technique of illusionistic marble
textures (see fig. 523),
he hardly anticipated that it could hold such expressive significance.
Some five years after The Last Supper, between
1457 (the year of his death), Castagno produced
the remarkable David in figure 604.
It is painted on a leather shield that was to be used
for display, not protection. Its owner probably wanted to convey an
analogy between himself and the biblical hero, since David is here
defiant as well as victorious.
This figure differs fundamentally from
the apostles of The Last Supper. Solid volume and statuesque
immobility have given way to graceful movement, conveyed by both the
pose and the windblown hair and drapery. The modeling of the earlier
figures has been minimized and the forms are now defined mainly by their
outlines, so that the David seems to be in relief rather than in
the round. This dynamic linear style has important virtues, but it is
far removed from Masaccio's. During the 1450s, the artistic climate of
Florence changed greatly. Castagno's David is early evidence of
the outlook that was to dominate the second half of the century.
604. ANDREA DHL CASTAGNO.
Leather, surface curved, height 45
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Widener Collection