Masaccio (TOMMASO), Italian painter, b. about 1402, at San Giovanni di Valdarno, a stronghold situated between Arezzo and Florence; d., probably at Rome, in 1429. His correct name was Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Simone dei Guidi, which may be translated “Thomas, son of Sir John, grandson of Simon, of the Guidi clan.” His family had given many magistrates to the Republic of Florence in earlier days, but when Thomas was born prosperity had forsaken them: his father was a poor notary in a small country community. His familiar name of Masaccio is an augmented form of Maso (short for Tommaso) and means “Big Tom”, with a shade of depreciation. By this name, if we are to believe Vasari, his Florentine contemporaries indicated after their fashion the oddities of his character—”He was absent-minded, whimsical, as one who, having fastened his whole mind and will upon the things of art, paid little attention to himself and still less to other people.”
Masaccio’s master was Tommaso di Cristofano di Fino, known as Masolino da Panicale. Masolino meaning “Little Tom”). Masaccio was very precocious: we find him at the age of nineteen already enrolled among the Speziali (Grocers, or Spicers), one of the” arts”, or guilds. The Speziali included painters among its members. After a few essays which earned him some degree of reputation, he was commissioned to continue the decoration of the Brancacci chapel at Florence, which his master, Masolino, had begun. This was, according to some authorities, in 1424; according to others in 1426; so that he cannot have been more than twenty-four years old. The work did not make him rich. Absorbed in the things that pertain to art, he knew nothing about sublunary business matters. The state register of property for 1427 shows that Masaccio” possesses nothing of his own, owes one hundred and two lire to one painter, and six florins to another; that nearly all his clothing is in pawn at the Lion and the Cow loan-offices”. Suddenly he left Florence, and there is evidence of his presence at Rome in 1428 The cause of this precipitate departure is unknown; in any case, the unhappy man did not succeed in bettering his material condition, for he died of grief and want in 1429 or later.
Many of Masaccio’s works are lost. In the Spada chapel, in the Church of Santa Maria Novella at Florence, he painted a “Trinity” between the Virgin and St. John, with kneeling portraits of the two donors at the sides. This grandiose work is, unfortunately, much damaged. In the Academy of Florence is to be seen a “St. Anne with Madonna and Infant Jesus”. A. F. Rio discovered in the Naples Museum a small Masaccio which Vasari had heard Michelangelo praise very highly, but of which all trace had been lost. “Here we have Pope Liberius, represented under the lineaments of Martin V, outlining on the snow-covered ground the foundations of the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore, in the midst of an imposing cortege of cardinals and other personages, all painted from life” (Rio, “L’Art chretien”, IT, Paris, 1861, p. 13). This picture is known as “The Founding of St. Mary of the Snows at Rome“. Some portraits in the Uffizi—notably one of a frail, melancholy youth—which were for a long time attributed to Masaccio, have now, and correctly, been assigned to Filippino Lippi and other later masters. But Masaccio’s chief work is the pictorial decoration of the Brancacci chapel, in the south transept of the Church of Sta. Maria del Carmine. In this work, begun by Masolino and finished by Filippino Lippi, the intermediate portion is Masaccio’s—”Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise”, “Christ ordering St. Peter to pay the Tribute”, “St. Peter and St. John healing the Sick”, “St. Peter giving Alms”, “St. Peter Baptizing”, “St. Peter restoring a King’s Son to Life“. This last fresco was finished by Filippino. While Masaccio worked at the paintings in the Brancacci chapel, the church of which it was a part was consecrated: he “represents this ceremony in chiaroscuro over the door leading from the church to the cloister” (Vasari) and introduces a great many portraits of important persons in the group of citizens who follow the procession. Here, too, he has painted the convent porter, with his bunch of keys. This famous “Procession” perished when the church was reconstructed in 1612, but the old porter has survived, a marvelously executed portrait still to be seen in the Uffizi. It seems that the fashion of painting likenesses of contemporaries was set by Masaccio. He has not forgotten to give his own portrait a good place, in the fresco where St. Peter is paying the tribute.
Moderately esteemed in his own time, Masaccio was accorded enthusiastic admiration only after his death; but—as is only rarely the case—the enthusiasm has not cooled in the duration of five centuries: it has even degenerated into excessive adulation. Masaccio is preached as a “Messias without a Precursor”, an “autodidact”, a self-teacher, without an ancestor in the past. His insight into nature, his scientific perspective and foreshortening have been loudly acclaimed, and with reason. But Giotto and his faithful disciples, before Masaccio, had given Florentine painting the impulse towards an intelligent representation of nature which necessarily produced great results. His admirers justly vaunt the noble gravity of his figures, the suppleness and simplicity of his draperies, the harmony of his compositions, and his grasp of light and shadow; but the germs of these precious qualities had already existed in the frescoes of Masolino, his master and initiator, and Florentine artists before him had wrought with the double ambition of expressing the real and the ideal—the visible element and the invisible. Between these two opposite aims they were more or less distracted; the difficult thing—and the vital—is to so associate the two that in subordinating the accessory to the principal—the expressive form to the substance it expresses—the union may result in a puissant and well-ordered work of art. It is Masaccio’s glory to have succeeded in doing this almost superlatively well; this explains his lasting fame and his unfailing influence. All through the fifteenth century and after it, the Brancacci chapel was the chosen rendezvous of artists: as Ingres said, “It should be regarded and venerated as the paternal mansion of the great schools.”