Brancacci chapel (Santa Maria del Carmine) VII

The evolution in painting from Giotto to Masaccio

According to Vasari, Giotto is the father of painting. After Giotto, art went into a decline, but artists like Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Masaccio revived it. Alberti put it differently, but wrote the same thing in his book about art from 1436. Anno 1568, the year Vasari published his second edition of his Lives, he writes the following about the four aforementioned artists:

F.l.t.r. Masolino, Masaccio ‘Self-Portrait and Alberti

“With this we certainly have great obligations towards our predecessors, who with their efforts have shown us the true way to the highest level; and, as far as the proper style of painting is concerned, especially towards Masaccio, who, in his desire for fame, was of the opinion that – as painting is nothing other than imitating nature in all its parts, simply with the lines and colours that it produces itself – the one who does this as perfectly as possible may call himself excellent. And I maintain that through this insight, Masaccio profited so much from his ceaseless study that he may be counted among the pioneers who largely freed art from all forms of crudity, imperfection and heaviness, and made a beginning with the beautiful postures and gestures, the dignity and vivacity, and with a certain relief that is really accurate and natural: something that no painter before him had ever done.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’,

It should be evident to the reader that according to Vasari, the measure for good painting is ‘imitating nature in all its parts’. What did Giotto not achieve in imitating nature that Masaccio did achieve for the Brancacci chapel?

Masaccio 'Self-portrait' Arena chapel Padua

The landscapes painted by Giotto, like in the Arena chapel in Padua, are unrealistic. Trees, plants and rock formations are more akin to stage props, only there to give the viewer the illusion of the story taking place in nature, than to reality. In addition, the landscape elements, the sheep and goats are too small relative to the figures. Comparatively, Masaccio’s landscape in the Tribute Money is very convincing: the mountains with trees aren’t miniatures relative to the figures.

Giotto ‘Joachim among the Shepherds’ 1303 1305 Arena chapel, Padua

Giotto 'Joachim among the Shepherds' Arena chapel, Padua

In addition, Masaccio uses a linear perspective for the Tribute Money that is convincing. The same cannot be said for Giotto’s work, such as ‘the Annunciation to Zacharias’ in the Peruzzi chapel in the Santa Croce.  Giotto was unfamiliar with the atmospheric perspective. In the ‘Tribute Money’, this does occur, although Lippi does a much more refined job in his Disputation with Simon Magus and the Crucifixion of Peter in the landscape vista, but then again, he had already been introduced to the Flemish Primitives.

Giotto 'Joachim's Dream' detail Arena chapel, Padua

Giotto ‘Joachim’s Dream’ 1302 – 1305 Arena chapel, Padua

Masaccio used a perpendicular line scratched into the chalk as an aid for placing his figures correctly. The position of the feet clearly shows that the people he paints are actually standing on the ground. This is not the case with Giotto and his figures often stand on their toes rather than on their feet. Furthermore, many details of Giotto’s figures show that he was never able to completely free himself from what Vasari called ‘la maniera greca’: the Byzantine style. Especially in the hands, eyes, but also in people who look rather alike, remnants of the Byzantine style can still be discerned, as can clearly be seen in ‘Joachim’s Dream’ or ‘Massacre of the Innocents‘ (Padua, Scrovegni Chapel).

Giotto ‘Birth of Mary’ 1302 -1305 Arena chapel, Padua

Masaccio’s architecture is also very convincing relative to the painted figures. Again, this is different for Giotto. His architecture is more akin to an indication of a building. Here and there, it resembles a doll house that lacks a façade so that we, the viewer, can see what is going on inside. Moreover, Giotto’s relationship between the figures and the architecture is far from satisfactory, as can be seen in the Birth of Mary (Padua, Scrovegni Chapel). It should be noted here that Giotto later painted his figures in the same chapel in a much more convincing manner in ‘Teaching in the temple‘.

Giotto 'Birth of Mary' detail Arena chapel, Padua
Masaccio's Peter  detail Brancacci chapel
photos: Steven Zucker

Masaccio ‘s Peter      Masaccio and Michelangelo
Michelangelo’s Peters after Masaccio’s Peter

At the end of the story about Masaccio, Vasari lists the famous artists who visited the Brancacci Chapel to study his paintings. Artists like Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticcelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vince, Pietro Perugino, Andrea del Sarto, Rosso, Pontormo, Raphaël and ‘the divine Michelangelo Buonarotti. ‘’In short, all those who attempted to master the art of painting, have sought this in their journey to this chapel by deducing from Masaccio’s work the rules and requirements for creating proper figures.”  (Cited and translated from: Vasari, G., ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel I blz. 155). Male Figure after Masaccio, Arm Studies (recto) 1492-93 Red chalk, pen and brown ink, 317 x 197 mm Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich.

The divine Michelangelo made two design drawings as a young artist. One of the Sagra (Albertina, Vienna) at the cloister in the Santa Maria del Carmine and one of Peter in the Brancacci chapel.

As a young artist, Michelangelo made two more study drawings after Masaccio’s Sagra reconstruction: Michelangelo ‘Three standing man robed’ and Michelangelo ‘Kneeling man from behind’ (Albertina, Wien).

Copy of the Battle of Cascina by Michelangelo’s pupil Aristotele da Sangallo
L. Schiavonetti after Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina      National Galleries of Scotland

Copy Battle of Cascina by Aristotele da Sangallo

Continuation Florence day 5: Andrea del Castagno Sant’Apollonia