A few days ago I went to see Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. I have been painting a lot more than I thought I would since coming to Italy and usually if I get into a run I tend not to venture too far from the studio in case I fall out of the work groove. I'm only writing this now because I'm a bit lost today and don't know what to do with myself so I guess it’s a good time to jot down my impressions of seeing the frescoes. A lot of the information on this masterpiece can be googled but I can offer a bit of medieval gossip my friend imparted.
Masaccio was commissioned to work on the chapel some time in the early 1400s. He was only in his early 20’s. He never completed the projects because he headed off travelling, probably to work on another job and then died in Rome soon after at the young age of 28. No one seems to know why.
Enter Filipo Lippi, a monk who was inspired to become a painter when he watched Masaccio work. Filipo had an affair with a nun. Their son, little Filipo, aka Filipino Lippi went on to become an accomplished painter himself and he was the guy who finished the frescoes some 60 or 80 years after Messacio had started them.
The location of the frescoes adds to their magic. The chapel is adjustant a courtyard with cloisters and beautiful old trees. The crickets there were so loud and powerful it was like a penetrating sound installation, right in the middle of this medieval city.
Only a few people are allowed into the chapel at a time. Once inside, you get 30 minutes to look at the work. The first thing that struck me was how confined the artist's working area would have been making it hard to properly stand back from the walls while painting. You’d have had to guess whether you were doing a good job. I brushed over the whole chapel with a soft gaze, then went back to the starting point and focused on various areas in earnest. I didn't take the audio yoke so my impressions were completely my own.
There is a wealth of things you could say about the storyline, the characters, the dodgyness of some of them, the intrigue binding them and the brilliance with which Masaccio captured their nature but I got drawn away from the people and into the different backgrounds. There were some interesting barren looking trees in the panel on the left. Other backdrops had geometric shapes created by the shadows on buildings.
What infiltrated me most profoundly were the colours. Amazingly bright pinks and hot greens mixed with really chilled browns and very tastefully inserted greys. My favourite was the fabric of some of the robes, painted with mulberry and faded crimsons that had this beautifully limed tone to them. My friend told me the frescoes were restored not too long ago so the colours must be close to their original glory.
The fact that this was all done in the 1400's proves to me how narrow minded I can be about art history. I always thought that bright colours came with the Impressionists but here they were humming on the walls 400 years before their hey day. This is also true of the work of Sassetta and Paula Uccello. Their colours have this element of celebration. Quite different really to the frowning dark tones with which I tend to stamp early religious paintings.
The perspective from which you see Masaccio’s frescoes is kind of curious because they start about one-and-a-half metres from the ground and, as I said, you don’t really have much space to step back from them. The more I tried to focus on the work as a whole, the more all the drama of the storylines and the characters receded into the background and all I could see was feet. The feet suddenly revealed themselves as abstract characters with a storyline of their own. Maybe it was the heat, the sublimely disorienting nature of the crickets or just a lucky break that permitted me to side-step my conditioned gaze and stumble into this wealth of abstract value.
Taking photos of all the feet made me hone in on them even more. I found one real beauty on the left column. You could see where Masaccio had scored the outline of some toes into the plaster only to shorten the foot he decided to paint in the end. Those lines are so unwanted and awkward in their neglect but so special at the same time because they evoke the hand that created all this beauty.
I could go on and on about these frescoes; they really influenced me. Some might say for all the wrong reasons but I couldn't wait to get back to the studio and paint my imaginary impressions of the fancy footwork. That night I painted this very stylised and solid foot shape onto a canvas I had already been working on for a year. The shape jumped from one canvas to the next and ended up entering 5 works. I've since rubbed out three of them but these motifs have a habit of reappearing again and again.