Dictionary of Art and Artists



History of

Architecture and Sculpture


















SCULPTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

ARCHITECTURE - Part 1, Part 2



2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8




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
(1401-1428), 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 Masaccio's task easier than it would have been otherwise. His achievement remains stupendous nevertheless.

His first fully mature work is a fresco of 1425 in Sta. Maria Novella (fig. 590) 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 real fabric.

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.

590. Masaccio. The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John,
and Two Donors.
Fresco. Sta. Maria Novella, Florence
591. Ground plan of The Holy Trinity

The largest group of Masaccio's works to come down to us are frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Sta. Maria del Carmine (figs. 592 and 593), devoted to the life of St. Peter. The Tribute Money, in the upper tier (fig. 594), 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 living thing.

592. Left wall of Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio.
Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence

593. Right wall of Brancacci Chapel, with frescoes by Masaccio and Filippo Lippi.
Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence

594. Masaccio. The Tribute Money, 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. 571).

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. 576). Masaccio's grief-stricken Adam and Eve, though less dependent on ancient models, are equally striking exemplars of the beauty and power of the nude human form.

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. 593) are simply larger versions of those in the Limbourg brothers' January (see fig. 538) 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 leftnot 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.

595. Masaccio. The Expulsion from Paradise, . 1427. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence

596. Masaccio. Madonna Enthroned. 1426.
Oil on panel,
56 x 29" (142 x 73.6 cm).
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 (fig. 597), 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 mid-1430s).

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 the century.

597. Fra Filippo Lippi. Madonna Enthroned. 1437.
Oil on panel, 45 x 25 W (114.7 x 64.8 cm). Galleria
Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

Fra Angelico

Fra Filippo's slightly older contemporary, Fra Angelico (c.
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 Masaccio's Trinity.

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.

598. Fra Angelico. Deposition. Probably early 1440s.
Oil on panel, 275 x 285 cm. Museo di S. Marco, Florence

Domenico Veneziano

1439 a gifted painter from Venice, Domenico Veneziano, 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.

599. Domenico Veneziano.
Madonna and Child with Saints, 1455.
Oil on panel,
82 x 84" (208.2 x 213.3
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. 572).

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.
1420-1492), 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 1452 to 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 life.

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 strongand 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 fig. 190).

How did 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 frescoes by Piero della Francesca. S. Francesco, Arezzo
601. Piero della Francesca. The Discovery and Proving of the True Cross. 1455. Fresco. S. Francesco, Arezzo

Paolo Uccello

In mid-fifteenth-century Florence there was only one painter who shared, and may have helped to inspire, Piero's devotion to perspective: Paolo Uccello
(1397-1475),whose 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 ways.

602. Paolo Uccello. Battle of San Romano, 1455.
Tempera and silver foil on wood panel, 1.8 x 3.2 m. The National Gallery, London.

Andrea del Castagno

The third dimension held no difficulties for Andrea del Castagno (c.
1423-1457), 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 apostlesonly a glance here, a gesture there that a brooding silence hovers over the scene.

603. Andrea del Castagno. The Last Supper, c. 1445-50. Fresco. S. Apollonia, Florence

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 1450 and 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.

Leather, surface curved, height 45 V2" (115.8 cm).
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Widener Collection


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