Bold and realistic, the narrative power of Masaccio's entire body of work is explored in this elegant volume. In just seven years before his death at the age of twenty-six, Masaccio (1401-1428) developed a fully naturalistic and dramatic style that inaugurated Renaissance painting. His best-known work is the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence (painted with Masolino), one of the world's artistic landmarks. Recently restored, these frescoes - with all of Masaccio's other works - are shown in stunning ...
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Bold and realistic, the narrative power of Masaccio's entire body of work is explored in this elegant volume. In just seven years before his death at the age of twenty-six, Masaccio (1401-1428) developed a fully naturalistic and dramatic style that inaugurated Renaissance painting. His best-known work is the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence (painted with Masolino), one of the world's artistic landmarks. Recently restored, these frescoes - with all of Masaccio's other works - are shown in stunning detail in this volume. An opening essay places the painter in his historical and art-historical context, emphasizing Masaccio's innovations. The second part of the book presents two dozen important paintings in full-spread or full-page reproductions with enlarged details and annotated brief essays for each. The last section is an illustrated catalogue raisonne of all of Masaccio's works, from the frescoes on public view in the Brancacci Chapel to other panels in Europe and the United States. John T. Spike's lucid, authoritative text traces Masaccio's artistic development with particular attention to the artist's connection to Donatello and Brunelleschi. He proposes a new reading of the iconography of the influential Brancacci Chapel, and discusses the extent of Filippino Lippi's over-painting in the chapel, based on information gleaned from recent ultraviolet and infrared photography that appears in this volume. Comprehensive and engaging, this profusely illustrated exploration of Masaccio's genius opens new lines of inquiry that will be explored for decades to come.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Magnificent, large, full-page color reproductions distinguish this important monograph on Florentine painter Masaccio (1401-1428), whose naturalistic style during the last seven years of his short life revolutionized Renaissance artists' use of perspective and light. Art historian Spike, who lives in Florence and serves as a guest curator in Europe and the U.S., boldly hypothesizes that the iconography of Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of Florence-with their descending tiers of heaven, sky, sea and land-was based on the creation story in Genesis. In his engaging essay on Masaccio's life and work, Spike locates sources for the artist's naturalism in Donatello's sculpture and in the classical proportions of Brunelleschi's architecture. Rejecting the prevailing assumption that Filippino Lippi's additions to Masaccio's fresco of Saint Peter, executed in the 1450s, left Masaccio's basic composition intact, Spike argues that Lippi radically reworked the original. (May)
Library Journal
Few painters have had the impact of Masaccio (1401-28), who helped lay the naturalistic foundations of modern art during a career that seems to have lasted only six years. In his useful synthesis, Spike, an independent scholar and curator living in Florence, successfully summarizes our current understanding of the artist's career. An intelligent introductory essay sorts out his oeuvre's chronology; elucidates aspects of Masaccio's enigmatic relationship with his inferior partner, Masolino; and clarifies his connection with the great innovators Giotto, Brunelleschi, and Donatello. Commentaries accompanying the complete corpus of color illustrations allow further insights into the work's formal qualities and iconography, and a summary catalogue raisonn includes a compilation of early documentary sources, condition reports, and further scholarly discussion. Although not as exhaustive as P. Joannides's Masaccio and Masolino: A Complete Catalogue (Abrams, 1993), this volume should fulfill the requirements of most collections.Robert Cahn, Fashion Inst. of Technology, New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789200907
  • Publisher: Abbeville Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/28/1996
  • Pages: 245
  • Product dimensions: 11.49 (w) x 13.43 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Nearly six hundred years separate us from a young painter whose meteoric career was abruptly cut off in June, 1428. Two contemporary notices of his death have come down to us. The first of these is a bureaucratic document: an anonymous clerk in the Florentine ufficio del catasto, the tax office, duly crossed out the name of Tommaso di ser Giovanni and inscribed next to it, "said to have died in Rome." The second is an old tradition regarding Filippo Brunelleschi, architect of the dome of Florence Cathedral. When told of Masaccio's death, Brunelleschi was deeply disturbed and commented, "We have suffered a great loss."

There is a striking difference between these laconic testimonies. Documents and legal papers, such as the Florentine catasto, are valuable for the useful and reassuringly solid facts that they contain. Historians have been searching in archives for records of Masaccio's life since the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, no amount of information regarding Masaccio as taxpayer (or as borrower, lender, or signatory on a contract) will ever help us to understand the fascination of his art both for his contemporaries and across the centuries.

By contrast, the remark attributed to Brunelleschi pierces directly to the heart of what interests us most—the artist's works. The explicit recognition of Masaccio's genius by the founding father of Renaissance architecture is of no small account. Unfortunately, literary testimonies always come accompanied by questions of reliability. The Brunelleschi anecdote was first written down in an anonymous chronicle, the Libro di Antonio Billi, at least seventy years after Masaccio's death. We can only presume that thecitation is based on fact; we cannot prove it. And we are cautioned by the example of Vasari's biography of Masaccio in the two editions of his Vite, 1550 and 1568. Meticulous though Vasari was, his biography is riddled with errors.

As a source, Vasari is best when he directly addresses the works of art. No one has yet denied his reading of Masaccio's intentions as an artist: ".he always sought to follow as far as possible the lessons left by Brunelleschi and Donatello, although he practiced a different kind of art. And he continually strove to make his figures come alive with a beautiful immediacy, observed from nature."

Nor should we doubt that Brunelleschi lamented at the news of Masaccio's death. Since Vasari, all observers have agreed that Brunelleschi's inspiration and technical guidance can be discerned in Masaccio's paintings, particularly in his monumental fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella.

In the introductory chapter on Masaccio's life and works, I have combined two usually separate subjects because I believe that we cannot ignore what Masaccio's paintings tell us about his life and about himself. This approach is universally applied, of course, but not always acknowledged. When we examine the works of art (which Roberto Longhi liked to call the "primary documents"),if we take the risk of putting the wrong words in the artist's mouth. But all forms of evidence have limitations and deficiencies.

I have been comforted in this approach by a statement that Kenneth Clark published in 1951. Clark had rediscovered the two panels of the Colonna Altarpiece which are today in the National Gallery in London. The Saint Matthew and Saint Gregory the Great seemed to him, rightly, a work by Masolino, an attribution that conformed with the other extant panels of the dismantled altarpiece. For the Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist, however, Clark reserved the name of Masaccio. "The only evidence is to be found in the pictures themselves, and those who do not believe in evidence of this kind must shrug their shoulders and resign themselves to the inexplicable. Even stylistic evidence leads us into some difficulties and contradictions, which can be resolved only by a pure hypothesis."

On the basis of stylistic analysis alone, Clark had singled out the Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist as an anomalous portion of a Masolino commission. Ten years later, however, in the second edition of his catalog of the early Italian paintings in the National Gallery, Martin Davies concluded that the circumstantial evidence was strongly tilted in favor of Masolino's authorship. But probability must always yield to perspicacity. Clark's attribution to Masaccio has now been fully confirmed by Roberto Longhi, Millard Meiss, Luciano Berti, Umberto Baldini, and Paul Joannides. In retrospect, it is difficult to see the scholarly purpose that was served by displaying an early Masaccio for twenty years with the label, "Ascribed to Masolino." Certainly Clark's hypothesis, "Ascribed to Masaccio," set the question into sharper focus.

Masaccio studies have flourished in recent years as a result of the restorations carried out in the Brancacci Chapel from 1983 to 1988. The important discoveries and the conclusions reached by the specialists who were responsible for the restoration have been carefully documented by Umberto Baldini and Ornella Casazza in articles and books, including La Cappella Brancacci, published in 1990. Even if I differ with several of their findings, I am no less indebted to their contributions. Technical readings, like documents, are always open to various and even contradictory interpretations.

Two catalogues raisonnes have also appeared that offer the reader an extraordinary quantity of research, despite their obvious disparities in scope and length. The 1989 paperback, Masaccio: Catalogo Completo, by Luciano Berti and Rossella Foggi, provides ready reference both to Berti's previous monographs on Masaccio and to the attributional histories of the paintings. In 1993, Paul Joannides published his monumental Masaccio and Masolino: A Complete Catalogue, a herculean and successful effort. Joannides's catalog contains thorough and scrupulous commentary on virtually everything of interest that has ever been said or demonstrated about these two artists' lives and works. With reasoned and well-written judgments, both Berti and Joannides have been able, in my opinion, to pronounce final words on many long-standing debates.

These recent publications have amply fulfilled the art historian's mandate to comb and condense the previous literature "for the benefit of future scholars." Rather than go over ground that other, readily available, books have already tilled, I have chosen to write the present book as though I were a "future scholar." I have therefore endeavored at every juncture to open new avenues of inquiry, drawing upon the research that is now available and applying the only technique at my command: stylistic analysis. The reader who needs the complete bibliographies and critical histories of the paintings, including lost or rejected works, has been provided with cross-references to the relevant pages in Berti/Foggi, Joannides, and, for the Brancacci Chapel, Baldini/Casazza. Thanks to these and other scholars, the pertinent facts and commentaries about Masaccio have been clearly defined; my purpose in this book has been to find hypotheses to bridge the precipitous gaps between them.

A few words about the organization of this book will perhaps be useful. The introductory essay, "The Life and Works of Masaccio," combines biography with a proposed chronology of Masaccio's works. Although the paintings cannot tell us whether Masaccio was generous or stingy, they are the source of first resort for insight into the purposes and challenges that he set for himself as an artist. Before thus examining the paintings, however, we need to be clear about three basic issues: authorship, date, and subject matter. Though elementary, these factors have remarkably diverse functions; for example, the attribution and date of a painting can often be documented beyond a shadow of a doubt, whereas no debate over the meaning of an image can ever be closed. Investigations into subject matter can only proceed deeper and deeper into the hidden recesses of the human heart and mind. For this reason, we prefer to study the works of geniuses.

Except for a few exceptions, controversial attributions have not marked Masaccio studies since 1940, when Roberto Longhi published his article "Fatti di Masolino e di Masaccio," which brilliantly defined the stylistic distinctions between the two artists. In my essay most of the problems of attribution are related to additions by Filippino Lippi, hitherto unrecognized, to Saint Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus. As no consensus has yet been reached for Masaccio's chronology, I have chosen to dedicate my essay to this theme in the hope of achieving a breakthrough.

Masaccio's paintings cannot easily be dated for the obvious reason that only a handful of chronological landmarks are available. With the exceptions of the San Giovenale Triptych, dated April 1422, and the dispersed Pisa Polyptych, documented to 1426, the execution of most of these paintings cannot be assigned to specific years, but only to intervals with noticeably flexible boundaries. For example, the only fixed point of reference for the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel is the date of Masolino's departure from the project in September 1425.

For any other painter of the time, the problem would be of mostly academic interest, since all of the paintings illustrated in this book were executed between January 1422 and May 1428, a span of only seven and one-half years. In Masaccio's case, however, the stylistic development between the earliest and the latest works, between the San Giovenale Triptych and the Trinity, is unprecedented and astonishing. Compared to Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci was a stick-in-the-mud. Only Raphael came close to encompassing so much change in so brief a time. Had Masaccio not taken such lengthy strides from work to work, it would be most impractical to suggest a chronological sequence for their execution.

The chronology of a painter's works is, of course, inseparable from the sources that affected his artistic formation and the subsequent development of his art. When we can establish the sequence in which a painter has put his ideas into practice, we have learned a great deal. It follows, on the other hand, that when scholars disagree over the dating of a work, their respective views of the artist are as much at odds as in the case of a disputed attribution. One example will serve to illustrate this elementary point. Earlier in this century, there was a tendency to date the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella earlier than the Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel. Although a shift of only two or three years was in question, the early dating implied that Masaccio had already mastered in the first half of his career the most complex perspectival scheme of any of his works, and had then elected to ignore most of its applications in the Brancacci Chapel. Nothing else about Masaccio's paintings supports this portrait of an artist who had progressed from complexity to simplicity and discarded his hard-earned lessons along the way. For this reason, among others, most scholars today exclude an earlier dating for the Trinity.

Following the introductory essay, color plates with commentary and a summary catalog comprise the concluding sections of this book. All comparative photographs are collected at the end for convenient reference. The general reader who may find the essay somewhat specialized will see his perseverance rewarded in the commentaries to the color plates. These brief essays on the individual paintings and frescoes have been written to provide information about subject matter, pictorial composition, and other questions that first come to mind when looking at these images. Some overlapping is inevitable, and perhaps even desirable; for example, both stylistic and historical perspectives inform my new reading of a Creation iconography in the Brancacci Chapel. The history of the work itself-whether it has always been recognized as Masaccio's or not-is also pertinent to this kind of visual inquiry.

The summary catalog, which is organized chronologically, is provided for ready reference to the physical data and basic bibliography for each work. In addition, this space is used as a forum for reviewing condition and other problems that fall outside of the primarily chronological discussion in the introductory essay, and the emphasis on theme and composition in the plate commentaries. Considerable attention has been paid to the important question of the extent of Filippino Lippi's repaintings in the Brancacci Chapel and to my hypothetical reconstruction of Masaccio's original design of Saint Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned as First Bishop of Antioch.

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Table of Contents

Author's Preface and Acknowledgments

Life and Works



Technical AnalysisCatalog

Comparative Illustrations



Author Biography: John T. Spike, who received a doctorate in art history from Harvard University, has published seven books and numerous articles on Italian painting of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. He lives in Florence and serves as a consultant and guest curator for museums in Italy, Germany, Austria, and the United States.

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