Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Masaccio's frescoes in Cappella Brancacci, in the Oltrano

Brancacci Chapel
On my last morning in Florence I went back to the Oltrano to breakfast with a friend in the Piazza Santa Spirito. When one of my erudite British friends suggested I couldn’t leave Florence without visiting the Cappella Brancacci in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmina, literally around the corner from breakfast, I had no reason not to pop in en route to the train station. I have to say, the deal was clenched when I read that Brancacci, the wealthy patron after whom the chapel takes its name, was vehemently and vocally anti-Medici. Anyone who stood up to the wealthiest family in Renaissance Florence, had to be a man of measured decisions, and therefore, have the judgment to choose a quality decorator for his chapel.

The jewel of the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmina is indeed Masaccio’s fresco cycle on the life, imprisonment and death of St Peter, the saint of the church. Yet again, I was astounded at the vibrancy and immediacy of the Renaissance in action. At first glance, as always, what makes the cycle amazing, what makes the cycle that of a master, are the colours, the fall of the light as it is created through colour, the fabrics of the robes, and because it is the Renaissance, the incredible presence of the figures. Surrounded by frescoes in other chapels, frescoes in which dark robed figures whose expressions are not always fully defined, can be static and unreflective, Masaccio’s figures are so alive and so recognizeable, that we feel their heightened emotions, we follow their conversations, we are pulled into the drama of their stories. This was my immediate impression.

Detail from Peter Baptising the Neophytes 
There are at least two further characteristics that make Masaccio’s cycle for this chapel magical, both of which take time to reveal themselves. First, the facial expressions and hand gestures of the figures in the story. The detailed faces and gestures are so vivid, so lifelike, and simultaneously, so varied, that each figure is given his own individual personality via these traits. This is a cycle that has incredible energy and movement, and yet, unlike those painted over one hundred years later (I am thinking of Michelangelo), most of Masaccio’s figures are actually static. What makes them move is the strength of their facial expressions and the force of their hand gestures. Thus when someone points, we voluntarily follow the gesture as if the hand creates a sightline. And when the turn and direction of the figures’ different gazes leads us around the walls, we never stop, but rather, enjoy being caught up in the dynamism of otherwise static figures. Through the power of these three aspects, we begin to hear the conversations, the arguments between characters, we hear the silence as the crowd listens to St Peter preaching, we hear Jesus giving Peter his instructions to find the coin in the fish’s mouth in The Tribute Money. This is as vivid as 15th century fresco painting gets.

This putti is on the altar with the fresco behind her
Like the Fra Angelico frescoes, the most astounding aspect of Masaccio’s work is the perfect visual unity – but in the Brancacci Chapel the unity only comes together at the point of observation. The viewer, standing in the dead centre of the chapel, represents the point at which all the lines of both layers of multiple narratives within each frame converge. Thus the settings in the upper registers slope down, and the figures are perspectively rendered, as though sliding down the hill to us. Similarly, moving around the chapel, the figures all cast shadows appropriate to their position in relationship to the altar. The shadows appear as if the light is placed behind the altar, shining through the chapel and illuminating the whole of St Peter’s life. The skewing of the perspective to create such illusory unity, despite the fact that the paint was applied to a wall at such proximity, is what makes such fescoes mindboggling.
Onlookers in Raising the Son of Theophilus
Spending time in churches, convents, chapels and cloisters in Florence, over the past few days, I saw the Renaissance artistic endeavour in a whole new light. If ever I held doubts that paintings need to be seen in the spaces for which they were executed, those doubts are now officially dispelled. Because the light coming in the windows — which was also often the roof of smaller spaces — completely changes the paintings. I am thinking of Andrea del Sartos cycles in the SS Annunziata,  for which the artist painted in anticipation of the fall of sunlight through the roof at a certain time of the day. The density and hue of the colours anticipate the transformations that occur as the day moves on.
Peter in Prison
Also, as I visited church after church, it was driven home to me that painting was the material and created the spaces where power and influence were expressed in the quattrocento and cinquecento Florence. These painters, in the case of the Cappella Brancacci, Masaccio, Lippi and Masolini who finished off some of the frescoes after Masaccio died, are like the house painters of the time. They were hired to fulfill the commission and make the donor or patron, here Brancacci look good. They aren’t painters like artists are today – individuals painting to express themselves and their world vision. Rather, they were pawns in the world of banking, of money and social standing. This is obvious to anyone who has ever read a book on the Renaissance, but the function and role of art as a status symbol, and the artist providing a service really comes alive on these church walls. These walls are the battleground of generations of politically and financially powerful men. And these men needed the walls that we look at today, in order to show the world how powerful they actually were.
The Temptation of Adam and Eve,
this was painted by Masolini, who became Masaccio's follower while painting the Chapel
What makes the likes of Masaccio, and later, the obvious Michelangelo, Raphael, Lippi and so on, masters, is that not only did they fill the commissions, but their genius was expressed. In their interpretation of the same stories they changed the iconography, the story, at times, even the characters. These transformations had to be extremely subtle so as not to distract from the importance of the patron at a time when radical creativity was not always appreciated. And then, only if they were successful, their genius was sealed as everyone who came in their wake, followed their invention, until the next genius appeared on the streets of Florence. 

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