The Brancacci chapel represents a turning point in art history, and thus is reflective of a change in society. It was studied and admired by all the great artists who lived in or passed through Florence almost immediately after it was frescoed in the second decade of the 1400s, and there are many deliberate nods to many of the figures depicted by the great, and very young, Masaccio on the chapel walls which appear in other works of art.

Andrea del Sarto, Baptism of the Multitude, 1917, Chiostro dello Scalzo, fresco.


Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophytes, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.

In 1424 Felice Brancacci commissioned an established artist nicknamed Masolino to fresco his family side chapel in the Carmelite church, Santa Maria del Carmine, with scenes from the life of St Peter.

Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine church

The chapel narrates the fall of Adam and Eve and redemption through St Peter, the first pope and one of the twelve apostles of Christ. This choice of subject matter was personal as it had been the name sake of his ancestor, Piero di Piuvicchese, who in 1367 founded the chapel and had left money in his will for the decoration. Felice Brancacci was a wealthy silk merchant and was very much a member of the powerful and wealthy mercantile society of one of the greatest Italian city-states, the Florentine republic.

The chosen artist, Masolino, had trained in the International Gothic style, the leading artistic style of the day and, upon receiving the prestigious and time consuming commission, called upon another artist for the job so as to divide the work load between them. Work share was not an uncommon practice and one explanation for Masolino’s decision to collaborate with another could be that he already had other commissions lined up and he was concerned about his work load. This much younger artist, with whom Masolino decided to collaborate, was nicknamed Masaccio. Both Masaccio and Masolino were named Tommaso and their nicknames were derived from its abbreviation, Maso. Their similarities stopped here however as their styles differed considerably. The scenes of the chapel were divided up more or less equally between the two artisans and, for the most part, they each worked wholly on individual parts rather than interchangeably working on the project as by the same hand. They would work on the chapel until 1427 and then would both leave it unfinished and go to Rome. Masaccio died shortly after in the eternal city at the age of 27.

There is very little primary source documentation regarding the chapel, the nature of the collaborative relationship and how they decided to divide the work is unknown. Art historians have deduced the hand of each artisan through stylistic analysis. The chapel is a stunning example for a comparative study of the two great artists during the first half of the quattrocento; Masolino is the exponent of the established leading style, International Gothic, as mentioned above, and Masaccio, the first to paint in the new style, which would supersede the former, the renaissance style. If we compare the scenes of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise by Masaccio and the Temptation of Eve by Masolino, located at the top of the piers at the entrance to the chapel before the narrative scenes of St Peter on the inner chapel walls, we can sum up the characteristics of each style.

Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.
Masaccio, Expulsion from the garden of Eden, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco

Masolino expressed all the detached elegance that the international gothic style is known for, as well as the flowing graceful line of the bodies and the wonderful attention to detail of nature, seen here with the tree leaves. The international gothic style was a European style and visually expressed the refined elegance and elite nature of the courts and the lifestyle that the aristocracy led. The sense of detached aloofness of Adam and Eve reflects the elitist nature of court etiquette, the inclusion of the natural element reflected the life of the country villa and hunting, the preciousness in the execution and the grace in the figures embodies the overall sense of superiority and sense of self importance of the ruling classes. Lastly, there is no background, the scene exists in an isolated world.

Opposite is something quite different. Masaccio’s Adam has lost all his composure and he is so ashamed that he has lost the power of speech and he hides his head in his hands. Eve howls like an animal at the consequence of their actions, leaving all good etiquette of bon ton behaviour behind in Eden. Their bodies are drawn with a keen eye for the realistic rendering of the human anatomy in the physical description of their silhouette and in the realistic portrayal of their step. 

There is a detached sense of refinement and isolation of scene in Masolino – the figures seem to exist in an isolated world, heightened by the black background. This is juxtaposed with the Masaccio fresco opposite, where Adam and Eve are part of the physical world, making shadows on the ground created by their real forms. Indeed, this is one of the first examples of shadow depiction in the history of art. They exist in the real, everyday world, the here and now.

Masaccio is referred to as being the first renaissance painter. Details of his personal life and training are virtually unknown. However, it is assumed that he knew Filippo Brunelleschi (the first renaissance architect and inventor of mathematical perspective) and they could even have collaborated on the Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella, as he was the first painter to use special perspective and realistically render the three dimensional world on the flat surface.

Masaccio painted what Donatello had already begun to do in sculpture, depicting the here and now of the real world, the maimed in the streets and the contemporary street scenes, just as Donatello was able to superbly portray the psychological presence of his subjects and thus creating a sense of immediacy and realism.

Masaccio, St Peter healing the sick with his shadow, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.
Donatello, bust of Niccolo da Uzzano, 1430s, polychrome clay, Bargello National sculpture museum Florence.

Masaccio documented the world around him. Today, we take photos of what we think is important and for the first time since antiquity, art was favouring the depiction of what was around – the good, the bad and the ugly – because man was the central focus now. Figures would no longer be depicted in an abstract isolated world as Masolino had done with his Adam and Eve, they would be placed in an existing tangible environment. Life on earth had suddenly become important again, and man’s achievements in this life alone were now being celebrated as feats in their own right, rather than in relation to God. The individual was something that was being discussed and valued once again. All of this being now important, it of course needed to be visually recorded, and this new thought process and way of placing oneself in the world is echoed in art. Art imitates life. 

For Masaccio, the human action is the central focus, as can be seen in the Tribute Money (see top) with Christ’s action and gesture, the realistic attention to life, not just nature, as can be seen with the water dripping from the hair in the baptism of the neophytes (see above), or the sensational rendering of the baby’s anatomy in the Distribution of alms and death of Ananias. 

Masaccio, The Distribution of Alms and the Death of Ananias, 1425-27, Brancacci chapel, fresco.