Most visitors to the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, overcome by the sheer scale and beauty of the church, often miss one of the most important treasured works of early Renaissance art in Florence. In this photo, if you look to the left of the pulpit and the column supporting it, you will see a fresco of what appears to be a crucifixion. Read on. Masaccio’s influence on the art world is still being felt today.
Of Masaccio, much has been written. His Trinity, in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, is considered by many to be a masterpiece, second only to his frescoes in a chapel across the city.
There are, as with the finest paintings of human hands, stories about this particular work that I find fascinating.
Masaccio was born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, to parents who lived in a small town called, at the time, Castel San Giovanni di Altura. The town was located in the area of Arezzo, about forty-five miles southeast of Florence. His apprenticeship is cloaked in mystery. Art historians are not, in any way, certain of when Masaccio arrived in Florence to begin his art education. It was in 1422 that, for the first time (apparently) Masaccio joined the guild of artists to which he would belong all of this life.
In Vasari’s tome, Vita (Lives of the Artists), he writes that Brunelleschi and Donatello befriended both Masaccio and another Renaissance painter, Masolino. The influence of two such respected leaders of the art community in Florence, Brunelleschi as architect and Donatello as sculptor, would have been much to their young protege’s favor.
In 1424, Masaccio and his partner were given a commission to fresco a chapel at the church of Santa Maria della Carmine for the Branacci family, one of the wealthiest families of the city. The influence of Giotto’s style on Masaccio is apparent in the frescoes at the Carmine. As Giotto used human face and body posture to communicate emotion, so followed Masaccio.
Reasons are unclear as to why the fresco cycle at Santa Maria della Carmine was left incomplete. It was perhaps the Branacci family’s resources. This was, after all, nearly 600 years ago and records are incomplete at best.
In 1426, Masaccio accepted the commission of Giuliano di San Giusto to paint an altarpiece for the Church of Santa Maria della Carmine in Pisa. When that work was completed, the artist returned to Florence and began work on the Trinity.
Now, things get interesting. Who commissioned the work? This was one of the most powerful churches in Florence, a Dominican stronghold. The art, even of the day, contained in the church was of incredible value. The two figures who kneel on each side of the cross have provided some clues. There are records at Santa Maria Novella of two families who were interested in commissioning a work in the basilica; the Lenzi and the Berti. Residential records of Florence from the 15th Century favor the Berti family.
In January of this year (2012), art historians discovered that the Berti family lived in the neighborhood near the church. The Lenzi family’s location has yet to be confirmed.
Whomever these two people are, there is no doubt that they were important to the piece, if not the patrons who commissioned the work. The woman kneels to the left of Saint John the Baptist (who is patron saint of Florence today) and the man kneels to the right of Mary-two places of importance on such a work.
The early years of Masaccio’s studies came to the fore in this fresco. Brunelleschi, a master architect who would build the largest spanned dome in the Renaissance world over the city’s cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore, Florence’s cathedral, was a brilliant student of perspective. Masaccio brought his studies of Brunelleschi’s work to the Trinity.
This was the first time that a scientific approach to providing a sense of depth, using perspective, was ever used in Renaissance art. The diagram included with this article shows the ‘focal point’, that place in the fresco where the eye is naturally drawn. The curve of the arched ceiling above Christ and God show a huge space behind them. The sense of three dimension becomes real as you stand in front of the work.
During the latter half of the 16th Century, Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned Vasari (he of Vita fame) to oversee a restoration and redesign of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Vasari had been very impressed with Masaccio’s work, the Trinity in particular. In order to protect it, Vasari built an altar in front of the original 1427 work. It was only during another art restoration in the 1860’s that Vasari’s ‘cover’ was discovered, and Masaccio’s work was again revealed.
At the base of the Trinity is the fresco of a tomb.
Above the skeleton, in broken Renaissance Italian are the words IO FU[I] G[I]A QUEL CHE VOI S[I]ETE E QUEL CH[‘] I[O] SONO VO[I] A[N]C[OR] SARETE.” The letters in parenthesis have been added to complete the phrase.
What do these words convey? “I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.” Words of warning, perhaps, to those who worshiped during the Renaissance that life was short, time fleeting. The words are, as well, full of mysterious foreboding for the life of Masaccio.
Less than one year after the Trinity was completed, at the young age of only 28, Masaccio was dead.
The artists of the early Renaissance were deeply influenced by Masaccio’s work. The world of three-dimensions, created of an architect’s curiosity, opened yet one more door on the creative minds of artists to come.
When you are in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, approach and study this masterpiece and consider what the art patronage of the city of Florence might be had Masaccio lived a longer and even more productive life.
IF YOU GO:
Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
Tel: 055 219257
Web Site: Santa Maria Novella