Thursday, October 26, 2006

Renaisance Painting

Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise Expulsion from Paradise (about 1427) is one of six frescoes painted by Masaccio for the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy. The fresco was influential for its realism, especially the simplicity and three-dimensionality of the figures, and for the dramatic depiction of the plight of Adam and Eve.Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence/Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

The term Renaissance, meaning “rebirth,” describes the cultural revolution of the 15th and 16th centuries; it originated in Italy with the revival of interest in classical culture and a strong belief in individualism See Renaissance Art and Architecture. The achievements of antiquity were revered, but at the same time a virtual rebirth of human potential occurred when new authority was accorded the individual's direct observations. For example, in the Brancacci Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, Masaccio—one of the great innovators of the period—executed a remarkable series of frescoes in about 1427 that reveal his keen observation of human behavior and at the same time demonstrate his knowledge of ancient art. In the The Expulsion from Paradise, Masaccio's Adam and Eve truly mourn; Eve's pose,... arms attempting to hide her body, is based on a pose characteristic of classical sculpture, the so-called Venus Pudica (modest Venus) type.

In only a few years, from his start as a painter in 1422 until his death in about 1428 at the age of 26, the Italian master Masaccio was known as a great innovator. Along with the sculptor Donatello and the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, he split away from the prevailing, formalized Gothic conventions of the time. His groundbreaking use of mathematical perspective, as well as his use of light, shadow, and foreshortening, helped to give his works a naturalness and an illusion of weight and volume that were completely new. The following account of Masaccio’s life and work was written by 16th-century Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari as part of his Lives of the Artists (1550; revised 1568).

Masaccio’s Trinity
The Trinity (1425?, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy), by 15th-century Italian painter Masaccio, illustrates the early Renaissance fascination with classical architecture, geometrical composition, and the projection of space by means of perspective.Encarta EncyclopediaScala/Art Resource, NY

From Lives of the Artists: Masaccio
By Giorgio Vasari

The appearance of a man of outstanding creative talent is very often accompanied by that of another great artist at the same time and in the same part of the world so that the two can inspire and emulate each other. Besides bringing considerable advantages to the two rivals themselves, this phenomenon of nature provides tremendous inspiration for later artists who strive as hard as they can to win the fine reputation and renown which they hear every day attributed to their predecessors. How true this is we can see from the fact that in the same period Florence produced Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello, and Masaccio, each of whom was an outstanding artist and through whose efforts the crude and clumsy style which had persevered up to that time was finally discarded. Moreover, their beautiful work so forcefully stimulated and inspired their successors that the techniques of art were brought to the greatness and perfection that we know today. So we are certainly deeply indebted to those innovators whose work showed us how to bring art to the summit of perfection. To Masaccio especially we are indebted for the good style of modern painting; for it was Masaccio who perceived that the best painters follow nature as closely as possible (since painting is simply the imitation of all the living things of nature, with their colours and design just as they are in life). Knowing this, and hungry for fame, Masaccio learnt so much from his endless studies that he can be numbered among the pioneers who almost entirely rid painting of its hardness, difficulties, and imperfections. He gave a beginning to beautiful attitudes, movements, liveliness, and vivacity, rendering relief in a way that was characteristic and natural and that no painter had ever before attempted.

Masaccio possessed extremely sound judgement, and so he realized that figures which were made to seem on tiptoe instead of being posed firmly with their feet in foreshortening on the level lacked all the basic elements of good style, and that those who painted like that had no understanding of foreshortening. Although Paolo Uccello had tackled this problem with a fair measure of success, Masaccio introduced many new techniques and made his foreshortenings, which he painted from every angle, far better than any done before. His paintings were remarkably soft and harmonious, and he matched the flesh-tints of his heads and nudes with the colours of his draperies, which he loved to depict with a few simple folds just as they appear in life. All this has been of great benefit to later artists, and indeed Masaccio can be given the credit for originating a new style of painting; certainly everything done before him can be described as artificial, whereas he produced work that is living, realistic, and natural.

Masaccio was born in the village of San Giovanni in the Valdarno, where, it is said, one can still see some figures that he made in early childhood. He was very absent-minded and erratic, and he devoted all his mind and thoughts to art and paid little attention to himself and still less to others. He refused to give any time to worldly cares and possessions, even to the way he dressed, let alone anything else; and he never bothered to recover anything owing to him unless his need was desperate. So instead of calling him by his proper name, which was Tommaso, everyone called him Masaccio [Silly Billy, or sloppy Tom]. Not that he was in any way vicious. On the contrary, he was goodness itself; and although he was extraordinarily neglectful, he was as kind as could be when it came to giving help or pleasure to others.

Masaccio began painting at the time when Masolino da Panicale was working in the Brancacci Chapel in the Carmelite Church at Florence. Although he was a painter, as far as possible he followed in the steps of Filippo and Donatello; and he always tried to express in his figures the liveliness and beautiful animation of nature itself. His outlines and his painting were so modern and original that his works can be favourably compared with modern work for their design and colouring. He was extremely painstaking in his paintings and in the studies he made of the problems of perspective, in which he achieved very competent and impressive results, as can be seen in one of the histories he did, which is today in the house of Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio. In this picture, as well as a representation of Christ liberating a man possessed by demons, there are some very fine buildings drawn in perspective; and one can see simultaneously both the interior and the outside, because he chose the point of view not of the front but over the angles, as being the more difficult. Masaccio also made more use than other artists of nude and foreshortened figures, which indeed had rarely been seen before. He worked with great facility and, as I said, his draperies were very simple.

There is a panel picture in tempera by Masaccio showing Our Lady on the lap of St Anne with her son in her arms; this picture is today in Sant'Ambrogio at Florence, in the chapel by the door leading to the nuns' parlour. And on the screen of the church of San Niccolò sopr' Arno there is another of his panel pictures, in which as well as showing the Annunciation, with the angel and Our Lady, he painted a building with many columns very finely depicted in perspective. Apart from his perfect rendering of the lines, he demonstrated his understanding of perspective by shading his colours in such a way that the building seems gradually to disappear from view. In the abbey at Florence, in the niche of a pillar opposite those supporting the arch of the high altar, he did a fresco painting of St Ives of Brittany, who is seen from below with his feet foreshortened. This had never been done so well before and it won him no little praise. Underneath St Ives, above another cornice, he painted the widows, orphans, and beggars being helped by the saint in their need.

Below the choir in Santa Maria Novella he painted a fresco showing the Trinity, which is over the altar of St Ignatius and which has Our Lady on one side and St John the Evangelist on the other, contemplating the crucified Christ. At the sides are two kneeling figures, which as far as one can tell are portraits of those who commissioned the work, although they can scarcely be made out as they have been covered over with gold ornamentation. But the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is the barrel-vaulted ceiling drawn in perspective and divided into square compartments containing rosettes foreshortened and made to recede so skilfully that the surface looks as if it is indented. In Santa Maria Maggiore, in a chapel near the side door which leads towards San Giovanni, Masaccio also painted a panel picture showing Our Lady, St Catherine, and St Julian, and on the predella he painted several little figures illustrating scenes from the life of St Catherine, and St Julian killing his father and mother; in the middle he depicted the Nativity of Jesus Christ with characteristic simplicity and liveliness.

In the Carmelite Church at Pisa, inside a chapel in the transept, there is a panel painting by Masaccio showing the Virgin and Child, with some little angels at her feet who are playing instruments and one of whom is sounding a lute and inclining his ear very attentively to listen to the music he is making. Surrounding Our Lady are St Peter, St John the Baptist, St Julian, and St Nicholas, all very vivacious and animated….

Later on, feeling rather discontented at Florence and prompted by his love and enthusiasm for painting, he determined to go to Rome in order to perfect his work and—as he succeeded in doing—make himself superior to all other painters. In Rome he became very famous, and he decorated a chapel for Cardinal San Clemente, in the church of San Clemente, painting in fresco the Passion of Our Lord, showing the crucified thieves and scenes of the martyrdom of St Catherine. He also painted a number of panel pictures in tempera, which were all either lost or destroyed during the troubles at Rome. He did another painting in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, in a little chapel near the sacristy: it shows four saints, so skilfully painted that they look as though they are in relief, with Our Lady of the Snow in the middle, and a portrait from life of Pope Martin, who is marking the foundations of the church with a hoe and near to whom stands the Emperor Sigismund II. One day after Michelangelo and I had been studying this work he praised it very highly and remarked that those men had been contemporaries of Masaccio.

Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano shared with Masaccio some of the work they were doing on the walls of the church of San Giovanni for Pope Martin; but then he heard that Cosimo de' Medici (whose support and favour he enjoyed) had been recalled from exile, and so he returned to Florence where he was commissioned to decorate the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine, because of the death of Masolino da Panicale. Before he began this work, to show the progress he had made as a painter Masaccio painted the St Paul which is near the bell-ropes. And he certainly excelled himself in this picture, where one can see in the head of the saint (which is a portrait from life of Bartolo di Angiolino Angiolini) so awe-inspiring an expression that the figure needs only speech to be alive. Anyone knowing nothing of St Paul has only to look at this painting to understand his greatness as a citizen of Rome and his saintly force of will, utterly dedicated to the propagation of the faith. In the same painting Masaccio showed his knowledge of the technique of foreshortening figures from below in a way that was truly marvellous, as may be seen today from his successful rendering of the feet of the Apostle, in contrast to the crude style of earlier times which, as I said a little while earlier, depicted every figure as if it were standing on tiptoe. This style persisted uncorrected until Masaccio's time, and before anyone else he alone brought painting to the excellence we know today.

While he was engaged on this work it happened that the church of the Carmine was consecrated, and to commemorate this event Masaccio painted a picture of the entire ceremony as it had taken place, in chiaroscuro and terra verde, inside the cloister over the door which leads to the convent. He showed countless citizens following the procession and in their cloaks and hoods, among them being Filippo Brunelleschi, wearing wooden shoes, Donatello, Masolino da Panicale, who had been his own master, Antonio Brancacci, who commissioned Masaccio's work for the chapel, Niccolò da Uzzano, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, and Bartolommeo Valori, all of whom are also portrayed by the same hand in a painting in the house of a Florentine gentleman, Simon Corsi. Masaccio also painted there a portrait of Lorenzo Ridolfi, who at that time was ambassador of the Florentine Republic in Venice. And he not only portrayed these noblemen from life but also painted the door of the convent just as it was, with the porter holding the keys in his hand.

There are many excellent qualities in this work, for Masaccio succeeded in showing these people, five or six in line together on the level of the piazza, receding from view with such proportion and judgement that his skill is indeed astonishing. Even more remarkable, one can see his perspicacity in painting these men as they really were, not as being all the same size but with a certain subtlety which distinguishes the short and fat from the tall and thin; and they are also posed with their feet firmly on one level, and so well foreshortened in line that they look the same as they would in real life.

After this, Masaccio started work again on the Brancacci Chapel, continuing the scenes from the life of St Peter which Masolino had begun and finishing some of them, namely, St Peter enthroned, the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, and the restoring of the cripples as St Peter's shadow falls on them while he walks to the Temple with St John. The most notable among them, however, is the painting in which St Peter, in order to pay the tribute, at Christ's command is taking the money from the belly of the fish; for as well as being able to see in one of the Apostles, the last in the group, a self-portrait which Masaccio executed so skilfully with the help of a mirror that it seems to breathe, we are shown the bold way in which St Peter is questioning Our Lord and the attentiveness of the Apostles as they stand in various attitudes around Christ, waiting for his decision with such animated gestures that they look truly alive. St Peter is especially remarkable, as he flushes with the effort he is making in bending to take the money out from the belly of the fish; and even more when he pays the tribute, where we can see his emotion as he counts the money and the greed of the man who is receiving it and is looking at it in his hand with great satisfaction.

He also painted there the raising of the praetor's son by St Peter and St Paul; but he died before this work was finished, and it was subsequently completed by Filippino [Lippi, the son of Fra Filippo]. In the scene showing St Peter baptizing there is a figure of a naked man, who is trembling and shivering with cold as he stands with the others who are being baptized. This is very highly regarded, being executed in very fine relief and in a very charming style; it has always been praised and admired by artists.

Because of Masaccio's work, the Brancacci Chapel has been visited from that time to this by an endless stream of students and masters. There are still some heads to be seen there which are so beautiful and lifelike that one can say outright that no other painter of that time approached the modern style of painting as closely as did Masaccio. His work deserves unstinted praise, especially because of the way he formed in his painting the beautiful style of our own day. How true this is is shown by the fact that all the most renowned sculptors and painters who have lived from that time to this have become wonderfully proficient and famous by studying and working in that chapel: namely, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, Fra Filippo [Lippi], Filippino (who finished the chapel), Alesso Baldovinetti, Andrea del Castagno, Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Fra Bartolommeo di San Marco, Mariotto Albertinelli, and the inspired Michelangelo Buonarroti. In addition, Raphael of Urbino found in the chapel the first inspiration for his lovely style. Masaccio has also influenced Granaccio, Lorenzo di Credi, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Sarto, Rosso, Franciabigio, Baccio Bandinelli, Alonso the Spaniard, Jacopo Pontormo, Pierino del Vaga, and Toto del Nunziata. In short, all those who have endeavoured to learn the art of painting have always gone for that purpose to the Brancacci Chapel to grasp the precepts and rules demonstrated by Masaccio for the correct representation of figures. And if I have failed to mention many other foreigners and Florentines who have gone there to study, let me just say that where great artists flock so do the lesser.

Although Masaccio's works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

It is said that when he heard the news Filippo Brunelleschi, who had been at great pains to teach Masaccio many of the finer points of perspective and architecture, was plunged into grief and cried: `We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.'

Masaccio was buried in the Carmelite Church itself, in the year 1443. During his lifetime he had made only a modest name for himself, and so no memorial was raised. But there were some to honour him when he died with the following epitaphs:

by annibal caro
I painted, and my picture was like life;
I gave my figures movement, passion, soul:
They breathed. Thus, all others
Buonarroti taught; he learnt from me.

by fabio segni
Invida cur, Lachesis, primo sub flore juventae
Pollice discindis stamina funereo?
Hoc uno occiso, innumeros occidis Apelles:
Picturae omnis obit, hoc obeunte, lepos.
Hoc Sole extincto, extinguuntur sydera cuncta.
Heu! decus omne perit, hoc pereunte, simul.*

*O jealous Fate, why doth thy finger fell
Asunder pluck the threads of youth's first bloom?
Countless Apelles this one slaying slays;
In this one death there dies all painting's charm.
With this sun's quenching, all the stars are quench'd;
Beside this fall, alas! all beauty falls.

Source: Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Translated by Bull, George. Penguin Books.

In only a few years, from his start as a painter in 1422 until his death in about 1428 at the age of 26, the Italian master Masaccio was known as a great innovator. Along with the sculptor Donatello and the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, he split away from the prevailing, formalized Gothic conventions of the time. His groundbreaking use of mathematical perspective, as well as his use of light, shadow, and foreshortening, helped to give his works a naturalness and an illusion of weight and volume that were completely new. The following account of Masaccio’s life and work was written by 16th-century Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari as part of his Lives of the Artists (1550; revised 1568).

An enormous body of Italian Renaissance painting can be seen in the churches and secular buildings of Italy and in museum collections throughout the world.

A Renaissance for Michelangelo
Although Michelangelo was reluctant to undertake the commission, his paintings on the ceiling and upper walls of the Sistine Chapel remain masterpieces that have captured the attention of art lovers ever since their completion in 1512. Modern-day restorers began work in the 1980s and faced a number of challenges in trying to bring the paintings back to their original state.

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