Feast your eyes on some revolutionary frescoes by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel. One of the artistic highlights of Oltrarno that can be found in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.
The unassuming facade of this church can’t prepare its visitors for the rich baroque interior. The church was redecorated after a fire in 1771, but fortunately the splendid 15th century frescoes in the old sacristy and the Brancacci Chapel were spared. The frescoes here have been pored over by everyone from Michelangelo to today’s art students who come to study this pioneering work in search of inspiration.
The fresco cycle is dedicated to the Life of Saint Peter, and illustrates a life given to fight sin. Begun by Masolino and his pupil Masaccio around 1424, and completed by Filippino Lippi 50 years after Masaccio’s death, it contains the greatest of Masaccio’s works. One of the greatest fresco viewing in Florence.
Theme: The fight against sin – Scenes from Saint Peter’s life, Saint Peter is an example of life given to fight sin. Adam and Eve, temptation and banishment from Eden.
What makes these frescoes important, is the way Masaccio was breaking with the prevailing notions of art and plunging into new forms of expression, laying the foundations for Early Renaissance art. He used spatial perspective, realistic depictions of landscapes, architecture and human bodies. Chiaroscuro was the new technique, and a more realistic depiction of anatomy and psychology of figures. It’s all more dramatic than the stylised decoration from earlier painting, and it shocked people at the time.
For a glimpse of this contrast, have a look at Masaccio’s Adam and Eve. They are dramatically depicted in their awareness of sin. Eve, driven away form Eden, is trying to cover her nudity. Meanwhile the couple depicted by Masolino on the opposite wall are calm and composed, their idealised bodies are illuminated against a dark background.
The same goes for Masolino’s two male figures in the centre of the left upper wall fresco, with their rigid pose and inexpressive faces, more decorative than alive. By comparison, all Masaccio’s men show emotion and feelings, their bodies more realistically depicted.
In fact the portrayal of cripples and beggars in the lower left fresco “Peter heals the sick“, was considered revolutionary at the time, particularly in its use of shadow. As Vasari wrote, “Masaccio was the one to invent shadow in paintings”. It gave the religious scenes a realistic approach, indicating the time of the day. But Masaccio also gives the shadow a precise purpose here, using it to illustrate the idea that Peter’s shadow had healing powers.
“Tribute money” on the upper right wall is one of the first paintings to use linear perspective. In this instance the figure of Jesus acts as the vanishing point, a technique that shocked the contemporaries of Massaccio. In term of the theme, the painting shows the story of Peter and the tax collector, and seems to be an attempt to legitimise the “Catasto”, the first income tax in Florence. (“Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s”)
Filippino Lippi finished Masaccio’s work, faithfully continuing his techniques in the “Crucifixion of Saint Peter”. Here Peter is shown upside down because he refused to be hanged in the same position as Christ.
If you’re spending the day exploring this side of the river, have a look at all the best bars and restaurants in the San Frediano neighbourhood,
The Brancacci Chapel is the most popular fresco is Florence, and booking is essential, but free. It’s accessed via a different entrance to the rest of the church, and you’ll be given 20 minutes to see it.
Free reservation but mandatory +39 055-276 8224 – +39 055-276 8558 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Opening times: Monday and Saturday 10:00 – 17:00, Sunday 13:00 – 17:00. The last entry is 45 minutes before closing time.