Masaccio was the first great painter of the Italian Renaissance, whose innovations in the use of scientific perspective inaugurated the modern era in painting. His work had a profound influence on some of the masters in art history such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raffaello.
Masaccio, originally named Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone Guidi Cassai, was born in San Giovanni, Altura, on December 21, 1401. At five years old, life changed dramatically for young Tommaso. His father died and his family barely scraped by financially until his mother married a well-to-do spice merchant named Tedesco who offered them a more comfortable life.
He spent most of his childhood in Altura, until his stepfather died in 1417, leaving his mother a widow again. Uprooting the family, she moved Tommaso and his brother Giovanni to Florence. Tommaso was down to earth, absent-minded and apathetic; he was aloof about his personal appearance and careless with his possessions. His attitude earned him the name Masaccio, a term that described his carefree attitude towards life.
While not much is known about Masaccio’s early training in art, it is certain that he was inspired by the Florentine sculptors Donatello and Nanni di Banco, and influenced by the paintings of Giotto and Brunelleschi.
His family took residence in the parish of San Niccolò Oltrarno, where the young artist met Masolino da Panicale. His first collaborated work with Masolino, ‘Madonna and Child and St. Anne’ (1424), introduced new rules of perspective and naturalism. In an effort to make his art more realistic and true to life, he placed great emphasis on perspective. His first important work, ‘Trinity’ (1426), which showed maximum use of the rules of perspective, was original in that it used full perspective for the first time in Western art.
Masaccio continued to work with Masolino between 1425 and 1427 on a series of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. It became his most recognized work. His use of light and shadow in capturing light falling on three-dimensional objects helped to define the draped human body in a whole new way. ‘The Tribute Money’ and ‘The Expulsion from Paradise’ are considered the masterpieces from that series. The artists of Florence saved the paintings from destruction in the 17th century when they learned that they were to be reconstructed in a Baroque style.
In 1428, Masaccio returned to Rome on a commission and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27. His artistic career, though brief, was highly innovatory. This skilled artist will always be remembered for his mastery of Early Italian Renaissance art.