1. Masaccio

In fourteenth-century Italy painting dominated sculpture; in the fifteenth century sculpture dominated painting; in the sixteenth painting again took the lead. Perhaps the genius of Giotto in the trecento, of Donatello in the quattrocento, of Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian in the cinquecento played some part in this alteration; and yet genius is more a function than a cause of the spirit of an age. Perhaps in Giotto’s time the recovery and revelation of classic sculpture had not yet provided such stimulus and direction as they were to give to Ghiberti and Donatello. But that stimulus reached its height in the sixteenth century; why did it not lift the Sansovinos and Cellinis, as well as Michelangelo, above the painters of that time? —and why was Michelangelo, primarily a sculptor, forced more and more into painting?

Was it because Renaissance art had tasks and needs too wide and deep for sculpture? Art, liberated by intelligent and opulent patronage, wished to cover the whole field of representation and ornament. To do this with statuary would have taken time, toil, and money prohibitively; painting could more readily express the double gamut of Christian and pagan ideas in a hurried and exuberant age. What sculptor could have portrayed the life of St. Francis as rapidly as Giotto and with Giotto’s excellence? Moreover, Renaissance Italy included a majority of persons whose feelings and ideas were still medieval, and even the emancipated minority harbored echoes and memories of the old theology, of its hopes and fears and mystic visions, its devotion and tenderness and pervasive spiritual overtones; all these, as well as the beauties and ideals expressed in Greek and Roman sculpture, had to find vent and form in Italian art; and painting offered to do it at least more conveniently, if not also with greater fidelity and subtlety, than sculpture. Sculpture had studied the body so long and lovingly that it was not at home in representing the soul, though Gothic carvers had now and then made spiritual stone. Renaissance art had to portray both body and soul, face and feeling; it had to be sensitive to, take the impress of, all the range and moods of piety, affection, passion, suffering, skepticism, sensualism, pride, and power. Only laborious genius could accomplish this with marble, bronze, or clay; when Ghiberti and Donatello attempted it they had to carry into sculpture the methods, perspectives, and nuances of painting, and sacrificed to vivid expression the ideal form and placid repose required of Greek statuary in the Golden Age. Finally, the painter spoke a language more easily understood by the people, in colors that seized the eye, in scenes or narratives that told beloved tales; the Church found that painting moved the people more quickly, touched their hearts more intimately, than any carving of cold marble or casting of somber bronze. As the Renaissance progressed, and art broadened its scope and aim, sculpture receded into the background, painting advanced; and as sculpture had been the highest art expression of the Greeks, so now painting, widening its field, varying its forms, improving its skills, became the supreme and characteristic art, the very face and soul, of the Renaissance.

In this period it was still groping and immature. Paolo Uccello studied perspective until nothing else interested him. Fra Angelico was the perfection, in life and art, of the medieval ideal. Only Masaccio felt the new spirit that would soon triumph in Botticelli, Leonardo, and Raphael.

Certain minor talents had transmitted the techniques and traditions of the art. Giotto taught Gaddo Gaddi, who taught Taddeo Gaddi, who taught Agnolo Gaddi, who, as late as 1380, adorned Santa Croce with frescoes still in Giottesque style. Agnolo’s pupil, Cennino Cennini, gathered into a Libro dell’ arte (1437) the accumulated knowledge of his time in drawing, composition, mosaic, pigments, oils, varnishes, and other phases of the painter’s work. “Here,” says page one, “begins the Book of the Art, made and composed in the reverence of God and the Virgin Mary… and all the saints… and in the reverence of Giotto, of Taddeo, and of Agnolo”;45 art was becoming a religion. Agnolo’s greatest pupil was a Camaldulese monk, Lorenzo Monaco. In the magnificent altarpiece—The Coronation of the Virgin—that Lawrence the Monk painted (1413) for his monastery “of the Angels,” a fresh vigor of conception and execution appeared; the faces were individualized, the colors were brilliant and strong. But in that triptych there was no perspective; the figures in the rear rose taller than those in the foreground, like heads in an audience seen from the stage. Who would teach Italian painters the science of perspective?

Brunellesco, Ghiberti, Donatello had made approaches to it. Paolo Uccello almost gave his life to the problem; night after night he pored over it, to the fury of his wife. “How charming a thing is this perspective!” he told her; “ah, if I could only get you to understand its delights!”46 Nothing seemed to Paolo more beautiful than the steady approximation and distant merging of parallel lines in the furrows of a pictured field. Aided by a Florentine mathematician, Antonio Manetti, he set himself to formulate the laws of perspective; he studied how to represent accurately the receding arches of a vault, the ungainly enlargement of objects as they advanced into the foreground, the peculiar distortion of columns arranged in a curve. At last he felt that he had reduced these mysteries to rules; through these rules one dimension could convey the illusion of three; painting could represent space and depth; this, to Paolo, seemed a revolution as great as any in the history of art. He illustrated his principles in his painting, and colored the cloisters of Santa Maria Novella with frescoes that startled his contemporaries but have yielded to the erosion of time. Still surviving is his vivid portrait of Sir John Hawkwood on a wall of the cathedral (1436); the proud condottiere, having turned his arms from attacking to defending Florence, now joined, in the duomo, the company of scholars and saints.

Meanwhile another line of, development had reached from the same origin to the same end. Antonio Veneziano was a follower of Giotto; Gherardo Stamina was a pupil of Veneziano; from Stamina stemmed Masolino da Panicale, who taught Masaccio. Masolino and Masaccio made their own studies of perspective; Masolino was one of the first Italians to paint nudes; Masaccio was the first to apply the new principles of perspective with a success that opened the eyes of his generation, and began a new era in pictorial art.

His real name was Tommaso Guidi di San Giovanni; Masaccio was a nickname meaning Big Thomas, as Masolino meant Little Thomas; Italy was fond of giving such identifying marks to her children. Taking to the brush at an early age, he so lost himself in devotion to painting that he neglected everything else—his clothes, his person, his income, his debts. He worked a while with Ghiberti, and may have learned in that bottega-academy the anatomical precision that was to be one mark of his drawing. He studied the frescoes that Masolino was painting in the Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine, and noted with special delight their experiments in perspective and foreshortening. On a pillar in the abbey church known as the Badia he represented St. Ivo of Brittany with feet foreshortened as seen from below; the spectators refused to believe that a saint could have such mighty feet. In Santa Maria Novella, as part of a fresco of the Trinity, he pictured a barrel vault in such perfect diminishing perspective that the eye seemed to see the painted ceiling as sunk into the church wall.

The epochal masterpiece that made him the teacher of three generations was his continuation of Masolino’s Brancacci Chapel frescoes on the life of St. Peter (1423). The incident of the tribute money was represented by the young artist with a new power of conception and veracity of line: Christ with stern nobility, Peter in angry majesty, the tax collector with the lithe frame of a Roman athlete, every Apostle individualized in feature, raiment, and pose. Buildings and background hills illustrated the young science of perspective; and Tommaso himself, self-portrayed by posing to a mirror, became a bearded apostle in the crowd. While he was working on this series the chapel was consecrated with processional ceremony; Masaccio watched the ritual with sharp retentive eye, then reproduced it in a fresco in the cloister; Brunellesco, Donatello, Masolino, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, and Antonio Brancacci, sponsor of the chapel, had taken part, and now found themselves in the picture.

In 1425, for reasons now unknown, Masaccio left his work unfinished, and went to Rome. We do not hear of him again, and we can only surmise that some accident or disease prematurely ended his life. But even though incomplete those Brancacci frescoes were recognized at once as an immense step forward in painting. In those bold nudes, graceful draperies, startling perspectives, realistic foreshortenings, and precise anatomical details, in this modeling in depth through subtle gradations of light and shade, all sensed a new departure, which Vasari called the “modern” style. Every ambitious painter within reach of Florence came to study the series: Fra Angelico, Fra Lippo Lippi, Andrea del Castagno, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo, Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto, Michelangelo, Raphael; no dead man had ever had such distinguished pupils, no artist since Giotto had wielded, unwittingly, such influence. “Masaccio,” said Leonardo, “showed by perfect works that those who are led by any guide except Nature, the supreme mistress, are consumed in sterile toil.”47

2. Fra Angelico

Amid these exciting novelties Fra Angelico went quietly his own medieval way. Born in a Tuscan village and named Guido di Pietro, he came to Florence young, and studied painting, probably with Lorenzo Monaco. His talent ripened quickly, and he had every prospect of making a comfortable place for himself in the world, but the love of peace and the hope of salvation led him to enter the Dominican order (1407). After a long novitiate in various cities, Fra Giovanni, as he had been renamed, settled down in the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole (1418). There, in happy obscurity, he illuminated manuscripts, and painted pictures for churches and religious confraternities. In 1436 the friars of San Domenico were transferred to the new convent of San Marco, built by Michelozzo at Cosimo’s order and expense. During the next nine years Giovanni painted half a hundred frescoes on the walls of the monastery church, chapter house, dormitory, refectory, hospice, cloisters, and cells. Meanwhile he practised religion with such modest devotion that his fellow friars called him the Angelic Brother—Fra Angelico. No one ever saw him angry, or succeeded in offending him. Thomas à Kempis would have found fully realized in him the Imitation of Christ, except for one smiling lapse: in aLast Judgment the angelic Dominican could not resist placing a few Franciscan friars in hell.48

Painting, with Fra Giovanni, was a religious exercise as well as an esthetic release and joy; he painted in much the same mood in which he prayed, and he never painted without praying first. Protected from the harsh competitions of life, he saw it all as a hymn of divine atonement and love. His subjects were invariably religious—the life of Mary and Christ, the blessed in heaven, the lives of the saints and the generals of his order. His aim was not so much to create beauty as to inspire piety. In the chapter house where the friars held their assemblies he painted the picture that the prior thought should most frequently be in their minds—the Crucifixion; a powerful representation, in which Angelico showed his study of the nude, and at the same time the all-embracing quality of his Christianity; here, at the foot of the cross, along with St. Dominic, were the founders of rival orders—Augustine, Benedict, Bernard, Francis, John Gualberto of the Vallombrosans, Albert of the Carmelites. In a lunette over the entrance to the hospice, where the friars were required to offer hospitality to any wayfarer, Angelico told the story of the pilgrim who proved to be Christ; every pilgrim was to be treated as if he might be so revealed. Within the hospice are now gathered some of the subjects painted by Angelico for divers churches and guilds: the Madonna of the Linaioli (linen workers), where the angel choristers have the pliant figures of women and the smiling faces of guileless children; a Descent from the Cross, equal in beauty and tenderness to any of the thousand representations of that scene in the art of the Renaissance; and a Last Judgment, a bit too symmetrical, and crowded with lurid and repellent fantasies, as if to forgive were human and to hate were divine. At the top of the staircase leading to the cells stands Angelico’s masterpiece, The Annunciation— an angel of infinite grace already in his obeisance revering the future Mother of God, and Mary bowing and crossing her hands in humble incredulity. In each of the half hundred cells the loving friar, aided by his friar pupils, found time to paint a fresco recalling some inspiring Gospel scene—the Transfiguration, the communion of the Apostles, Magdalen anointing the feet of Christ. In the double cell where Cosimo played monk, Angelico painted a Crucifixion, and anAdoration of the Kings gorgeous with such Eastern costumes as perhaps the artist had seen in the Council of Florence. In his own cell he pictured the Coronation of the Virgin. It was his favorite subject, which he painted time and again; the Uffizi Gallery has one form of it, the Academy at Florence another, the Louvre a third; best of all is that which Angelico painted for the dormitory of San Marco, wherein the figures of Christ and Mary are among the most exquisite in the history of art.

The fame of these devout creations brought Giovanni hundreds of proffered commissions. To all such seekers he replied that they must first obtain the consent of his prior; that secured, he would not fail them. When Nicholas V asked him to come to Rome he left his Florentine cell and went to decorate the chapel of the Pope with scenes from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence; they are still among the most pleasant sights in the Vatican. Nicholas so admired the painter that he offered to make him archbishop of Florence; Angelico excused himself, and recommended his beloved prior; Nicholas accepted the suggestion, and Fra Antonino remained a saint even under the pallium.

No painter except El Greco ever made a style so uniquely his own as Fra Angelico; even a novice can identify his hand. A simplicity of line and form going back to Giotto; a narrow but ethereal assemblage of colorsgold, vermilion, scarlet, blue, and green—reflecting a bright spirit and happy faith; figures perhaps too simply imaged, and almost without anatomy; faces beautiful and gentle, but too pale to be alive, too monotonously alike in monks, angels, and saints, conceived rather as flowers in paradise; and all redeemed by an ideal spirit of tender devotion, a purity of mood and thought recalling the finest moments of the Middle Ages, and never to be captured again by the Renaissance. This was the final cry of the medieval spirit in art.

Fra Giovanni worked for a year in Rome, for a time in Orvieto; served for three years as prior of the Dominican convent in Fiesole; was called back to Rome, and died there at the age of sixty-eight. Probably it was Lorenzo Valla’s classic pen that wrote his epitaph:

Non mihi sit laudi quod eram velut alter Apelles,
sed quod lucra tuis omnia, Christe, dabam;

altera nam terris opera extant, altera coelo.
urbs me loannem Flos tulit Etruriae:—

“Let it not be to my praise that I was as another Apelles, but that I gave all my gains, O Christ, to your faithful; for some works are for the earth, some for heaven. I, Giovanni, was a child of the Tuscan City of Florence.”

3. Fra Filippo Lippi

From the gentle Angelico, crossed with the lusty Masaccio, came the art of a man who preferred life to eternity. Filippo, son of the butcher Tommaso Lippi, was born in Florence in a poor street behind the convent of the Carmelites. Orphaned at two, he was reluctantly reared by an aunt, who rid herself of him when he was eight by entering him into the Carmelite order. Instead of studying the books assigned to him he covered their margins with caricatures. The prior, noting their excellence, set him to drawing the frescoes that Masaccio had just painted in the Carmelite church. Soon the lad was painting frescoes of his own in that same church; they have disappeared, but Vasari thought them as good as Masaccio’s. At the age of twenty-six (1432) Filippo left the monastery; he continued to call himself Fra, brother, friar, but he lived in the “world” and supported himself by his art. Vasari tells a story that tradition has accepted, though we cannot test its truth.

Filippo is said to have been so amorous that when he saw a woman who pleased him he would have given all his possessions to have her; and if he could not succeed in this he quieted the flame of his love by painting her portrait. This appetite so took possession of him that while the humor lasted he paid little or no attention to his work. Thus, on one occasion when Cosimo was employing him, he shut him up in the house so that he might not go out and waste time. Filippo remained so for two days; but, overcome by his amorous and bestial desires, he cut up his sheet with a pair of scissors, and letting himself out of the window, devoted many days to his pleasures. When Cosimo could not find him he caused a search to be made for him, until at length Filippo returned to his labors. From that time forward Cosimo gave him liberty to go and come as he chose, repenting that he had shut him up… for, he said, geniuses are celestial forms and not pack asses…. Ever afterward he sought to hold Filippo by the bonds of affection, and was thus served by him with greater readiness.49

In 1439 “Fra Lippo” described himself, in a letter to Piero de’ Medici, as the poorest friar in Florence, living with, and supporting with difficulty, six nieces anxious to be married.50 His work was in demand, but apparently not as well paid as the nieces wished. His morals could not have been notoriously bad, for we find him engaged to paint pictures for various nunneries. At the convent of Santa Margherita in Prato (unless Vasari and tradition err) he fell in love with Lucrezia Buti, a nun or a ward of the nuns; he persuaded the prioress to let Lucrezia pose for him as the Virgin; soon they eloped. Despite her father’s reproaches and appeals she remained with the artist as his mistress and model, sat for many Virgins, and gave him a son, the Filippino Lippi of later fame. The wardens of the cathedral at Prato did not hold these adventures against Filippo; in 1456 they engaged him to paint the choir with frescoes illustrating the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen. These paintings, now much damaged by time, were acclaimed as masterpieces: perfect in composition, rich in color, alive with drama—coming to a climax on one side of the choir with the dance of Salome, on the other with the stoning of Stephen. Filippo found the task too wearisome for his mobility; twice he ran away from it. In 1461 Cosimo persuaded Pius II to release the artist from his monastic vows; Filippo seems to have thought himself also freed from fidelity to Lucrezia, who could no longer pose as a virgin. The Prato wardens exhausted all schemes for luring him back to his frescoes; at last, ten years after their inception, he was induced to finish them by Carlo de’ Medici, Cosimo’s illegitimate son, now an apostolic notary. In the scene of Stephen’s burial Filippo exercised all his powers—in the deceptive perspective of the architectural background, in the sharply individualized figures surrounding the corpse, and in the stout proportions and calm rotund face of Cosimo’s bastard reading the services for the dead.

Despite his sexual irregularities, and perhaps because of his amiable sensitivity to the loveliness of woman, Filippo’s finest pictures were of the Virgin.* They missed the ethereal spirituality of Angelico’s Madonnas, but they conveyed a deep sense of soft physical beauty and infinite tenderness. In Fra Lippo the Holy Family became an Italian family, surrounded with homely incidents, and the Virgin took on a sensuous loveliness heralding the pagan Renaissance. To these feminine charms Filippo in his Madonnas added an airy grace that passed down to his apprentice Botticelli.

In 1466 the city of Spoleto invited him to tell the story of the Virgin again in the apse of its cathedral. He labored conscientiously, passion having cooled; but his powers failed with his passion, and he could not repeat the excellence of his Prato murals. Amid this effort he died (1469), poisoned, Vasari thought, by the relatives of a girl whom he had seduced. The story is improbable, for Filippo was buried in the Spoleto cathedral; and there, a few years later, his son, on commission from Lorenzo de’ Medici, built for his father a splendid marble tomb.

Everyone who creates beauty deserves remembrance, but we must pass in shameful haste by Domenico Veneziano and his supposed murderer Andrea del Castagno. Domenico was called from Perugia (1439) to paint murals in Santa Maria Nuova; he had as aide a promising youth from Borgo San Sepolcro—Piero della Francesca; and in these works—now lost—he made one of the earliest Florentine experiments with paints mixed in oil. He has left us one masterpiece—the Portrait of a Woman (Berlin) with upswept hair, wistful eyes, obtrusive nose, and bulging bosom. According to Vasari, Domenico taught the new technique to Andrea del Castagno, who was also painting murals in Santa Maria Nuova. Rivalry may have marred their friendship, for Andrea was a dour and passionate man; Vasari tells how he murdered Domenico; but other records relate that Domenico outlived Andrea by four years. Andrea reached fame by his picture of the scourging of Christ, in the cloister of Santa Croce, where his tricks of perspective astonished even his fellow artists. Hidden away in the old monastery of Sant’ Apollonia in Florence are his imaginary portraits of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Farinata degli Uberti, a vivid representation of the swashbuckler Pippo Spana, and a Last Supper(1450) that seems poorly drawn and lifeless, but may have suggested an idea or two to Leonardo none the less.

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