Brancacci chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
- (c. 1425)Commissioned by Felice Brancacci from Masaccio and Masolino, the scenes in this chapel depict the story of St. Peter. Most of the frescoes on the wall have been attributed to Masaccio, while the scenes on the vault and lunettes, destroyed in the mid-18th century, are usually given to Masolino. Felice married the daughter of Palla Strozzi and, upon the return of their enemy Cosimo de' Medici to Florence in 1434, he was exiled along with his wife's family. The Carmelite monks who resided at Santa Maria del Carmine then took the chapel away from Felice and erased the family portraits that were featured in the frescoes. In the 1480s, Filippino Lippi completed the chapel's décor, repairing some of the scenes. In 1771 a fire swept through the church, causing damage to the chapel. Since then, the frescoes have been well restored, the latest campaign in 1980-1990.Of the scenes by Masaccio, the one to stand out is the Tribute Money. Based on the Gospels of St. Matthew, the work uses a continuous narrative technique to relate the arrival of Christ and the apostles at Capernaum where Peter is asked by a collector to pay his taxes. The scene has propagandist content in that at the time a tax was levied on Florentine citizens based on exemptions and deductions, called the catasto, intended to finance the war against Milan. The fresco contends that taxes are a fact of life and that even important biblical figures were required to pay it. More than the propagandist content, it is the technical innovations Masaccio introduced in this painting that are of great importance to the development of art. He used one-point linear and atmospheric perspective to render a three-dimensional space. The figures stand in contrapposto, they cast shadows on the landscape, and their draperies are pulled by gravity. The light, now from a single source, corresponds to the natural light that enters the chapel.Among Masolino's extant scenes are the Healing of the Lame Man and the Raising of Tabitha. In one field, the scene depicts two miracles effected by St. Peter. Placed opposite Masaccio's Tribute Money, Masolino's fresco also employs the one-point linear perspective technique, with the vanishing point in the center. Again, the light in the fresco corresponds to the natural light that enters the chapel, the figures cast shadows, and the scenery is a recognizable Florentine street and buildings. Though Masolino followed the techniques introduced by Masaccio in painting, his figures lack the visual impact of his partner's. The contrast of styles in both masters is best illustrated by comparing the Temptation by Masolino to the Expulsion by Masaccio, scenes that face each other across the entrance to the chapel. Both represent the earliest examples in Renaissance painting of the fully nude form, yet Masaccio's figures show greater understanding of human anatomy. While Masolino's Adam and Eve stand in an almost completely frontal pose, Masaccio's effectively move within the pictorial space. It is not clear exactly where Masolino's figures stand, but Masaccio's are unmistakably anchored to the ground and cast shadows. Masaccio's angel who expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is foreshortened to seem as if emerging from the skies. The figures are clearly distressed, denoted by the fact that Adam covers his face, a traditional gesture of grief, and Eve grimaces as she tries to cover her nudity with her arms. Her pose is that of a Venus Pudica from antiquity, a Venus type who covers herself after being surprised at her bath.Santa Maria del Carmine is the monastery where Fra Filippo Lippi grew up, which means that he had plenty of opportunities to study the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel and he may have in fact witnessed both Masaccio and Masolino painting their respective scenes. Of these two masters, the one to have a fuller impact on Fra Filippo's art was Masaccio, from whom he would adopt the massive figures, pyramidal compositions, and use of the latest perspective techniques.
Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. Lilian H. Zirpolo. 2008.
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