Artistic Collaborators of Different Eras
MASACCIO AND MASOLINO: A COMPLETE CATALOG By Paul Joannides Phaidon Press and Abrams 488pp., $195.Skip to next paragraph
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THERE was about an 18 years difference between their dates of birth. Yet they belonged to different eras in the history of painting. Their names are conjoined, because they collaborated on a set of frescoes. These were designed and painted for the Brancacci Chapel of Sta Maria del Carmine in Florence, Italy. The high reputation of Masaccio, the younger of these two artists (1401-28), largely rests on the Brancacci frescoes - or on those parts of them he painted. His career was short, and only a few other
of his works survive. But they are powerful and exceptional enough for him to be considered one of the more profound originators in art.
The older artist, Masolino, who was also the longer lived (1383- or 1384-1440) has the misfortune of being in his collaborator's shadow from posterity's point of view. However generous historians may feel toward Masolino, they can't help making him a point of comparison, even a measure by which to explain just what it was that made Masaccio such a great artist.
E. H. Gombrich, in his "The Story of Art" wrote of Masaccio: "He must have been an extraordinary genius, for we know that he died when hardly twenty-eight years of age, and that by that time he had already brought about a complete revolution in painting."
Gombrich then goes on to describe one of Masaccio's paintings (in Sta Maria Novella in Florence) as he believed the Florentines would have reacted to it when seeing it for the first time: "Instead of delicate grace, they saw massive, heavy figures; instead of easy-flowing curves, solid angular forms; and, instead of dainty details such as flowers and precious stones, there was nothing but austere majestic architecture. But if Masaccio's art was less pleasing to the eye than the paintings they had been ac customed to, it was all the more sincere and moving."
In this assessment, Masolino doesn't even get a mention. He gets similarly short shrift in H. W. Janson's massive tome, "History of Art."
Encyclopedias of art tend to follow this same pattern, focusing almost exclusively on Masaccio. He is seen, along with Brunelleschi in architecture and Donatello in sculpture, as one of three connected but individual artists of the early 15th century who broke from the Gothic styles of the medieval period and decisively laid the foundations of the Italian Renaissance.
Masaccio, as a painter, was in fact crucially affected by the work of the other two men. Brunelleschi's invention of the system of perspective, making possible in a painting the rational deployment of figures in a logically definable space, and the classical naturalism and intense expression of psychological states in Donatello's sculpture, were grasped by Masaccio and put to his own use.
Kenneth Clark, in his book "Civilisation," summed up the 15th-century Florentine ideal as "the dignity of man." He observed: "The grandest of all testimonies to the dignity of man is by ... Masaccio, in the series of frescoes he painted in the church of the Carmine. What characters they are: morally and intellectually men of weight, the least frivolous of men...." Again, Masolino isn't even mentioned.
There have been monographs devoted to the lesser artist, however. One or two books, either never published in English or long out of print, have discussed both painters. And a fair amount of research, discussion, even scholarly controversy, has been aired on the tricky, completely undocumented questions of which parts of the Brancacci frescoes are the work of which artist.