The word ‘fresco’ heralds from the Italian for ‘fresh’, which is exactly what characterises this technique of painting. It requires all painting to be done directly onto the damp surface, as in oil when painting wet-on-wet, and the colours and patterns fuse with the intonaco mixture of plaster and lime, to form a durable, long-lasting image. In the Trecento and Quattrocento, this style saw the beginning of its heyday, and due to its inherent need for a dry climate, was unique to the Southern regions, particularly Italy. One ringleader in the development of this style was Giotto di Bondone, with his Paduan Arena Chapel showcasing his profound intellect and skill, particularly in the method of fresco. With a clear focus on the depiction of form and perspective, Giotto proves his worth to patron Enrico Scrovegni and his society, and Dante reinforces this by pointing out in his Divine Comedy that Giotto has eclipsed his predecessor and teacher, Cimabue. Upon the building blocks of competition between artists, Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, commonly known as Masaccio, began to shine with his inventive use of the fresco technique, and it is to him, and more specifically the Florentine Brancacci Chapel, that we look to behold a great example of fresco painting in Early Renaissance Italy. The chapel, commissioned between 1432 and 1435 by the Brancacci family, near the end of Masaccio’s short life, contains the fresco cycle of the legend of St Peter. Because of his early death, and knowledge of patronage, we are aware that Masaccio was not alone in his work on the chapel, with Masolino and Filippino Lippi also greatly contributing to the works now found there. The frescoes that are primarily attributed to Masaccio are Tribute Money, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve, St Peter Healing with his Shadow, and the Distribution of Communal Goods and the Death of Ananias. They shed some light on the use of fresco in this period, instilling in the viewer moral and intellectual awareness, and show a clear influence of both the patron’s and the artist’s motive.
As one enters the chapel, located in the right transept of Santa Maria del Carmine, they are presented with a host of biblical stories enveloping the space inside the chapel and imbuing it with life and colour. As the viewer faces the high altar of the church, they look towards Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve, on a piece of wall jutting out parallel to the high altar, to slightly enclose the chapel. It depicts the two original sinners, Adam and Eve, being expelled from the Garden of Eden by an angel from above, robed in red. From the gate of Paradise, behind Adam’s back, thin rays emanate. They represent God’s divine light that the couple have turned their back on, which Masaccio emphasises in his composition. The couple are pictured walking away from ‘God’, with Adam’s large stride in centre foreground of the scene, feet far apart, emphasising his reluctance to be drawn away. The pyramidal thrust created by the space in between his legs draw us upwards across the plane of his classically sculptural figure to his face, hidden in shame by his hands. The small glimpse shows his deeply furrowed brow and mouth curled round at the edges in an incredulous grimace of desperation.
As our eyes move over to Eve’s face, we see her expression of utter despair at the deed she has just done, her mouth gaping and similarly curved, eyes unable to even open to see the world that she, representing mankind, has destructed. She is covering her breasts with her right hand, left arm covering her privates, with Masaccio taking inspiration from the Venus Pudica in conserving each part of her modesty. There are some a secco green leaves also placed there, though it is evident that these were added later, during the Counter Reformation. The Benedictine Order had developed a language of signs for periods of silence, and as art historian Michael Baxandall has suggested, some could be applied to artwork from the time, especially as, although it was the Carmelites that gave him his commissions, Masaccio had connections with the Benedictines, whose bottega (workshop studio) he was renting. In the Benedictine sign language, grief was presented by pressing the breast with the palm of the hand, and shame by covering the eyes with the fingers.
It seems highly likely that Masaccio shows awareness of these characteristics in his figures, creating an intensely emotional and vivid visual experience of Adam and Eve through doing so. The grey, stony background depicted, with no flowers or nature, is a ‘visual equivalent of the scene’s psychological core’, as Bruce Cole puts it, reaffirming the grieving, deject feeling created by the scene.
As if led by Adam and Eve, we turn to Tribute Money, a great six metre stretch of fresco and another one of Masaccio’s great masterpieces in the Brancacci chapel. It depicts the story from Matthew 17:24–27 where Christ and the Apostles are trying to enter the Roman city of Capernaum, to which they are faced with a tax collector, depicted here in a short, contemporary Tuscan tunic, asking for money. Masaccio depicts the scene as a continuous narrative moving horizontally, with three different episodes from the story visible, and repeated characters, particularly Saint Peter, depicted each time in typical blue dress with a golden robe, and short, grey beard. The block that forms the middle group of the scene is intense in its action, colour and composition, drawing the viewer’s eye there first. The tax collector occupies the literal centre of the piece, but his back is turned to the viewer, and it is Jesus that steals the limelight with orthogonals of the building to the right that converge on him, making him the vanishing point and scientifically, the first point upon which the viewer places their gaze.
Masaccio depicts Jesus front on, with his face painted more smoothly (perhaps done by smoothing the intonaco down more firmly with a trowel) and in lighter, more golden tones than the other figures, as though figuratively lit by a heavenly light. The majority of the other faces are focused on him, drawing attention to him and encouraging the viewer to be as the crowd is. The dress of the two figures on either side of the crowd has pink colourations, framing those in between them, and separating this scene from the scene with the fish and the scene of just St Peter and the gatekeeper, also aided by the Brunelleschi-reminiscent architecture, which provides a physical barrier. The figures in the foreground can be seen in clear detail, with the drapery precisely depicted and separate in form to the bodies upon which it falls, an idea which we know Masaccio was fixated on. The faces are similarly expressive, juxtaposing the mountainous sfumato background and so creating aerial perspective that lends an incredibly realistic sense of depth to the work. Jesus and St Peter both have arms outstretched to the left, leading to the next part of the gospel account.
St Peter appears hunched over in the background, meticulously taking the coin from the fish’s mouth. Foreshortening, or ‘scorci’ is an aspect of painting that Masaccio masters here, with St Peter’s arms truly appearing to reach out in front of him into the water below, and through St Peter’s representation three times, Masaccio can also highlight his mastery of colour perspective, with the blue of St Peter’s robe lighter in the further snapshot than in those closer to the foreground. On the right, the story is concluded with Peter paying the tax collector the ‘tribute’, and signalling their advancement into Capernaum. The figure is depicted in a short skirt and without a halo, contrasting the other figures’ dress, his contemporary Florentine costume bringing the scene into modern appreciation and understanding.
Fresco can be seen to solve many problems that might otherwise have been faced in painting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the first place, decorating a whole chapel, as was the commission (given to Masolino, who then shared it with Masaccio), was not an easy feat. Materials for painting were expensive and Masaccio was in debt — he paid as much as he had (2 florins) on apartment rent, which as it turned out was at least 5 florins less than any other artist of the time. These concerns were alleviated not only by the wealthy patron Brancacci, who provided the money for the commission, but also by the use of fresco, which made the need for a canvas redundant, as it was painted straight onto the plastered wall of the chapel. Large commissions, like this one, were also time consuming, but the use of fresco meant that Masaccio, Masolino and Filipino Lippi were encouraged to work fast and employ a workshop of assistants, decreasing the amount of time taken. The nature of fresco making meant that someone would be up early applying the wet intonaco to the already arriccioed wall, which then would have to set for two or three hours, before the work for the day started, meaning only small areas were carried out at a time. The definition of these small areas, called giornate, changed the century before from pontate, which were strictly regimented rectangles. The new giornate were fluid shapes, usually encompassing one area of a body or background, as is visible in the changing background colour surrounding Adam’s outline in The Expulsion, but still required finishing by the end of one day.
There were further limitations in other mediums on how much space could be covered, because of framing, and architectural elements that were imposing but that the building was structurally dependent on. Masaccio chose fresco to allow greater freedom in his decoration of the chapel and therefore could have a constant flow of the sequence of stories along the walls. Alberti states he ‘blame[s]…those who leave nothing vacant’ when discussing crowded compositions, and Masaccio has overcome this by utilising the space provided by fresco, in the large, stretching background and gaps of mundanely coloured pigment between narratives. Further to this, Vasari states that Masaccio ‘devoted all his mind and thoughts’ to art, and so would have been keen to challenge himself in the difficult areas of fresco, like colour limitations. We can see the result of this in the a secco green leaves on the trees sprouting up in the background of Tribute Money, that couldn’t have been added buon secco, because malachite was affected by a strong alkaline reaction to the lime in the plaster, so were applied atop dry white fresco.
Other than just the artist’s motives for carrying out this work in fresco, Carmelite Felice Brancacci has his own incentive. Being dull and absorptive, fresco allows for a real light to be brought into the chapel, as no reflection will occur, so through the lancet window that was originally on the wall perpendicular to the two paintings discussed, daylight could shine through, giving the chapel a heavenly glow. In an interesting additional display of the use of fresco, within Tribute Money, light is shining from the right hand side, which is the side the window is on in the actual chapel. This magnificent blend of real, spiritual and painted light can still be seen today because of fresco’s permanent nature, remaining on the same wall it was first drawn onto. Other than just religious devotion, Brancacci undoubtedly wanted to give off the impression of wealth and intellect.
Masaccio includes clear allusions to Classical antiquity, in the contrapposto pose of the tax collector in Tribute Money and Adam’s body in the Expulsion, showing both artist and patron had intellect and respect for the milestone Greek culture. This medium can also make figures appear muscular and tonal, and Masaccio uses large brushstrokes, that are characteristic of the swift nature of fresco, to create broad, weighty forms. It is this sense of gravitas that instills in the figures depicted a sense of stoicism, which could have been Masaccio’s response to famous politician and Tuscan Chancellor Leonardo Bruni’s attitudes: ‘aliud history, aliud laudatio’ (history does not coincide with praise). As brilliantly put by Stefano Borsi, Masaccio immediately eliminated ‘the apologetic tones…of traditional hagiography’ and only depicted contemporary, humanistic form in the Brancacci chapel frescoes. The absorptive nature mentioned earlier indicates fresco has no sheen to it, as oil does, so facilitates viewing from every angle, therefore allowing all to see and experience the magnificence of the chapel, and similarly be exposed to the magnificence of the patron.
To conclude, the depiction of all the works that form the cycle of this chapel can be seen as influenced by the medium of fresco. Masaccio used fresco to prove his place as an artist, to increase his reputation in a punishing bourgeois society, and to challenge himself in what he could achieve. Brancacci used his commission of a fresco cycle as a devotion to God, and a way of presenting his wealth and knowledge. Other than that, the meaning is influenced by the effect it has on the viewer, because by making the scene relatable to many, from the Carmelites to Benedictines, to those enraged by the new ‘Castrato’ tax, Masaccio is encouraging worship. Fresco allows artwork to be integrated into its surroundings in a way that no artwork was before this period, and the play of Masaccio and Masolino’s works off one another (Masolino’s Temptation across from Masaccio’s Expulsion) indicates the way that Masaccio’s prowess in this medium was phenomenal. Altogether, fresco plays a big role in making the meaning of the Brancacci Chapel clear and transformed traditional wall painting into a more adventurous, radical style of working.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.