Balance and depth in a little-known master

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Masaccio was one of the most important and influential artists who ever lived , even though he did not quite reach his 27th birthday. Within the span of his ten-year career, he painted some of the greatest works of the early Renaissance - and helped shape the course of future Renaissance painting.

Had he not lived, the art of Leonardo and Michelangelo - to say nothing of the art of lesser artists - would have been different from what it was. In fact, art historian James Beck has written in his recently published Italian Renaissance Painting: '' . . . Masaccio altered the history of European painting . . . he transformed notions of the figure that was conceived for three dimensions onto two dimensional surfaces and in doing so altered the language to suit his medium and his artistic constitution. He also incorporated the new perspective into his own art, making it an indispensable tool for painters for the next five hundred years. The justice of his compositions and the nobility and self-confidence of his dignified figures, whose poses and expressions have a measured restraint and appropriateness, established a standard for later artists.''

Dr. Beck goes on to detail Masaccio's influence in other areas, and then makes the final, rather poignant point that, 'Masaccio never had a middle or a late style; what we have is all early.''

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Another unhappy fact about Masaccio is that his name is probably unfamiliar to most readers unless they have taken art history in college, read books on the Renaissance, or visited the art centers of Italy. Furthermore, I have seen only one commercial reproduction of his work, and that a poor print of ''Expulsion.'' And when artists, critics and curators get together to discuss the world's greatest artists, his name seldom comes up.

As a matter of fact, I have, in the past several days, asked a dozen or so art professionals what they thought of Masaccio. Only two had heard of him, and one of these thought he was one of the early Italian Mannerists. They had all, of course, heard of Giotto, the cornerstone of Renaissance painting, and of Michelangelo, its crowning glory, but of Masaccio, nothing could they remember. Even the one who had him otherwise correctly identified and placed, thought he had also achieved fame as a sculptor.

The interesting thing about this latter bit of misinformation is that it is probably based on a sensitive reading of Masaccio's work. Anyone looking at it carefully must be aware of this artist's profound feeling for three-dimensional form, and for the way form occupies and articulates space. And such an observation could then easily lead to the conclusion that Masaccio either was or could have been a sculptor of note.

This ability to suggest volume and space upon a flat surface is not something that sprang into being overnight. To achieve it required time, cultural necessity, and above all, genius of the first order. One of the miracles of the Italian Renaissance was that it had such genius in abundance, from Giotto, who did his greatest work during the first decades of the 14th century, to Piero della Francesca, Pollaiuolo, Signorelli, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo during the following two centuries. (And that list by no means exhausts the supply of genius available to that remarkable period.)

Pretty much in the middle of that span of time stands the towering figure of Masaccio (whose real name, by the way, was Tommaso di ser Giovanni; ''Masaccio'' being a nickname meaning ''slovenly'' or ''fat''). And among his outstanding creations, the most famous - and possibly the greatest - is his fresco ''Tribute Money.''

It tells the story of Jesus' willingness to pay worldly tribute to ''Caesar, '' and does so in three distinct episodes so skillfully combined that at first glance they all appear as one joined action.

Remarkable as that is, however, it is not the most outstanding feature of this work. That honor must go to the extraordinary manner in which Masaccio managed to give volume and weight to the individual figures - and a sense of solid mass within a clearly defined space to the central group of figures.

No one had ever quite managed to do that as well before, and very few artists would manage anything quite so grand and so simply monumental in the future. This painting is one of the great masterpieces of Western art, not only because of its formal grandeur, its originality and influence, but also because of its deeply felt and clearly represented humanity. These are real people - albeit somewhat idealized in form - going about their business. It may be God's business, to be sure, but it is perceived and given form within a very human context, measure, and form.

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