The name Masaccio is a humorous version of Tommaso, meaning "big", "fat", "clumsy" or "messy" Tom. The name was created to distinguish him from his principal collaborator, also called Tommaso, who came to be known as Masolino ("little/delicate Tom").
Despite his brief career, he had a profound influence on other artists. He was one of the first to use scientific perspective in his painting, employing techniques such as vanishing point in art for the first time. He also moved away from the Gothic style and elaborate ornamentation of artists like Gentile da Fabriano to a more natural mode that employed perspective for greater realism.
The family probably moved to Florence at the death of Tedesco, in August 1417. Little is known about this period until Tommaso joined one of the seven main crafts guilds in Florence, on January 7 1422, signing as "Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia". In the new city Tommaso received his nickname, meaning "Clumsy Thomas" for the little care he gave to worldly affairs and to personal appearance: otherwise he was considered a good-natured person.
In 1424 the "duo preciso e noto" ("well and known duo") of Masaccio and Masolino was commissioned by the powerful and rich Felice Brancacci to execute a cycle of frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The theme of the frescoes in the little chapel was to be the "Histories of St. Peter". The genius of Masaccio shows clearly in these frescoes. In the "Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus", he painted a pavement in perspective, framed by large buildings to obtain a depth of field and three-dimensional space in which the figures are placed proportionate to their surroundings. In this he was a pioneer in applying the newly discovered rules of perspective.
Masaccio's scenes show his reference to Giotto especially. The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, depicting a distressed Adam and Eve nude, had a huge influence on Michelangelo. Another major work is The Tribute Money in which Jesus and the Apostles are depicted as neo-classical archetypes. Seldom noted is that the shadows of the figures all fall away from the chapel window, as if the figures are lit by it; this an added stroke of verisimilitude and further tribute to Masaccio's innovative genius.
On September 1425 Masolino left the work and went to Hungary. It is not known if this was because of money quarrels with Felice or even if there was an artistic divergence with Masaccio. It has also been supposed that Masolino planned this trip from the very beginning, and needed a close collaborator who could continue the work after his departure.
Some of the scenes completed by the duo were lost in a fire in 1771; we know about them only through Vasari's biography. The surviving parts were extensively blackened by smoke, and the recent removal of marble slabs covering two areas of the paintings has revealed the original appearance of the work. Masaccio left the frescoes unfinished in 1426 in order to respond to other commissions, probably coming from the same patron. However, it has also been suggested that the declining finances of Felice Brancacci were insufficient to pay for any more work, so the painter therefore sought work elsewhere.
Masaccio returned in 1427 to work again in the Carmine, beginning the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus, but apparently left it, too, unfinished, though it has also been suggested that the painting was severely damaged later in the century because it contained portraits of the Brancacci family, at that time excoriated as enemies of the Medici. This painting was either restored or completed more than fifty years later by Filippino Lippi.
Through the help of Brunelleschi, in 1427 Masaccio won a prestigious commission to produce a Holy Trinity for the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. The fresco, considered by many his masterwork, marks the first use of systematic linear perspective, possibly devised by Masaccio with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself.
Masaccio produced two other works, a Nativity and an Annunciation, now lost, before leaving for Rome, where his companion Masolino was frescoing the Basilica di San Clemente. It has never been confirmed that Masaccio collaborated on that work, even though it is possible that he contributed to Masolino's polyptych of the altar of St. Mary Major with his panel portraying St. Jerome and St. John the Baptist, now in the National Gallery of London. Masaccio died at the end of 1428. According to a legend, he was poisoned by a jealous rival painter.
Only four frescoes undoubtedly from Masaccio's hand still exist today, although many other works have been at least partially attributed to him. Others are believed to have been destroyed.
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