Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Art of Fresco part one: Masaccio, the Brancacci Chapel

ancient technique, new approach

Masaccio probably had several hours (at most a day's work, in any case), to paint this head of Saint Peter in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Note the fine crack running around his neck, the top of his tunic and the edge of his yellow mantle: this crack is the edge of the giornata, the area of wet plaster that apprentices would have prepared for the master painter to cover in one day. Is it not extraordinary that, presumably without major alterations, this beautiful, expressive face was painted rapidly, and under pressure?

A similar crack runs around this woman's right arm as she clasps her baby, and it continues on past her sleeve and across the pale background: evidently the master painter felt he could paint a larger surface during this day's work. And yet look what humanity and tenderness he has left for us to gaze on.

Adam and Eve's shame and anguish on being cast from the earthly paradise are rendered here with breathtaking immediacy. Yet although the execution itself was necessarily rapid,  (it appears, to my albeit untrained eye, that the two figures were painted on separate days; as the line running up Adam's left hand and forearm clearly shows), it was preceded by careful planning and preparation.

The Tribute Money, with its linear and 'atmospheric' perspective, its naturalness of gesture and expression
The entire cycle of paintings of the Brancacci Chapel would have first been discussed with the patron, then drawn on cartoni, 'cartoons' or large pieces of paper. The wall's surface would be prepared, first with a thick layer of rough plaster, called arriccio, then with a finer layer of fine plaster or intonaco. 

Although at times the artist would draw the design directly on the wall, in the renaissance it was mostly transferred to the wall by means of an ingenious yet painstaking technique, described fully in the next post.

sinopia or underdrawing of the Repentance of Peter from a lunette in the Brancacci Chapel. (In this drawing some dots from the 'stencil' are also visible, cf. later post)
Then presumably the master artist would take over, although in many cases and for large commissions, apprentices and journeymen would participate in the more straightforward aspects of the execution while the master might concentrate on demanding tasks such as the faces and hands. This is when genius and inspiration enhance craftsmanship, skill and technique.

Masaccio's presumed self portrait from the Brancacci Chapel, flanked by Masolino and Gianbattista Alberti - or Donatello

Masaccio, who was to die at only 26, ushered in what we call the renaissance of Western art. Giotto's influence is apparent, but Masaccio made huge innovations: the communication of emotion through  naturalness of expression and gesture; chiaroscuro, or the rendering of light and shade; the use of directional light (shadows  throughout the Brancacci cycle seem to be cast thanks to light from the chapel window); the use of linear and atmospheric perspective; a certain solidity in his execution, perhaps influenced by sculpture: these elements combine to give an impression of three dimensions, of naturalness, realism and humanity.  
this statuesque head of St John testifies to the influence classical sculpture had on the young artist, after his visit to Rome
Masaccio was not the only painter to work in the Brancacci Chapel, but it is his contribution which is most admired: he was the young mover and shaker who changed our art for all time. We marvel all the more at his achievement when we appreciate what little time he had to execute his painting. And I mean this in two senses: because of his tragically short life, and because the fresco technique was such an unforgiving taskmaster.

Where the artist's innovation and skill culminated: the Holy Trinity at Santa Maria Novella, Masaccio's masterpiece with its linear perspective, possibly designed together with Brunelleschi

In part two I will describe fresco in greater detail. Because today in Florence it is possible to experiment with fresco dal vivo, live. There can be no better way to appreciate greatness than to attempt, however feebly, to imitate it! 

Cappella Brancacci
Santa Maria del Carmine,
Piazza del Carmine

visiting times, or you can take one of Alexandra's tours:

on the way to the chapel, a harmonious cloister


  1. A fascinating account, and its revelation of the time/speed factor. It increased, in particular, my wonder at Michelangelo's Sistine marvel.

  2. Leitha -
    Wonderful detailed photos and descriptions! To me, the Brancacci Chapel is perhaps the greatest artistic treasure of Florence. To compare the work there of the colleagues and friends Little Thomas (Masolino) and Scruffy Thomas (Masaccio) is to walk from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. The Expulsion of Adam and Eve heralds Shakespeare's "brave new world" - for better and for worse. Looking forward to your next installment.

    - Dan Baedeker, Oakland Ca (longtime friend of your neighbor Alice Righetti)


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