> The Trinity of Masaccio
the new year has just begun, everybody hope it will bring peace,
health and prosperity. This was the same wish that Giovanni
di Mone Cassai, a notary by profession, and monna Jacopa di
Martinozzo had in January 1401, about 600 years ago, in a small
village just outside of Florence with the birth of their new
This legend could resemble an ordinary Christmas tale. No one
would have imagined that little Tommaso, nicknamed Masaccio,
would soon become the first painter of the Florentine Renaissance.
From the very birth of this extraordinary artist, it was clear
that he was living in an usual epoch, sometimes difficult to
decipher. Getting back to Masaccio we find him in Florence in
1417. He officially became a painter in 1422 when he enrolled
himself in the school of medicine and spices. Now what does
medicine and spices have to do with it?
Here is the first interesting point: in those times painting
(as well as sculpture) was considered a minor art, equal to
common crafts. The academies did not yet exist and so in order
for a painter to acquire professionalism, he was forced to enrol
in the Association of Medicine and Spices. The colors, extracted
mainly from cooking spices and from minerals and also used in
the medical field, were furnished to the painters by the very
traders of those products.
Together with Masaccio, architect Filippo Brunelleschi
and sculptor Donatello,
were the other two founding fathers of the artistic Renaissance.
The three artists were all friends. I would like to tell you
about a fresco on the left wall of Santa Maria Novella Church
in Florence which was done by Masaccio in 1427, when he was
26 years old. It is called "La Trinitą" or "The Trinity" and
it truly manifests Renaissance painting. Let's look at it together:
It is more than 6 meters high and 3 meters wide. The fresco
represents God the Father holding Christ on the Crucifix and
showing it to the people. Between the two, a dove flies silently
representing the Holy Spirit.
The Madonna and St. John are at the feet of Christ. This sacred
group is inserted in an architectural structure, a chapel, that
ideally separates them from us as well as from the two people
kneeling at the bottom of the scene. The married couple Cardoni,
the actual purchasers of the fresco, are also present in the
painting. He is dressed in red and she in blue. They are depicted
not only in prayer, but they also serve as a reminder to posterity
of the glory of their "generous" family. Underneath them, there
is an altar on which a skeleton lays and on which there is a
horizontal inscription which quite clearly states: "I already
was what you are. What I am, you have yet to be".
The fresco has in itself all the characteristics of new art:
a perfect perspective element; an architectural frame in which
every single element- capital, column, arch, vault- derives
from models of ancient Roman architecture. Finally, an unedited
realism in the representation of the bodies and the expressions
of the characters, no longer icon-like as in traditional medieval
style. In fact, notice that the male Cardoni on the left of
the fresco is painted with his ear bent due to his red hood.
There is no element present of the traditional gothic style
in any form. The figures are inserted in a space that appears
believable, and life-like to us because each element is so organized
and well thought out.
It seems that the air in the church, with its scents of candle
wax and incense, could almost penetrate and circulate freely.
We as spectators that walk in the church sniffing the air, are
called to take part in that space (you'll see, in fact, that
the Madonna is turned towards us pointing to her son). There
are no barriers that separate us from the painting. We are the
ideal continuation of the fresco so much that the space in the
chapel depicted in the fresco proposes itself as an illusive
continuation of the church.
With Masaccio's "Trinity", a work of art has become interactive
with its public. Of course, today now that we are familiar with
computer graphics and virtual reality, the revolutionary impact
of this painting can seem modest. But for the people of that
time period, it was an earth-shattering novelty. Masaccio unfortunately,
didn't live to be very old and all of his incredible works of
art were done before 1428, the year in which he died. And yet
the uproar that he left behind with his fresco of the "Trinity"
was still present even 100 years later. "But that which is beautiful
other than the figures, is the vault which is covered with paintings
which demonstrate such incredible perspective that the center
of the ceiling in which the paintings convene seems to be punctured"
Vasari). I imagine that visiting Florence is an absolute
must for those visiting Tuscany.
At the same time, I believe that Masaccio's "Trinity" in Santa
Maria Novella church (right in front of the train
station) is a fundamental stop for those who wish to appreciate
the art of our Renaissance - fascinating and yet complex.