by Ariana Cammllarie
The year is 1413. Filippo Brunelleschi has just rediscovered the science behind linear perspective and changed the world of architecture. Although many people are influenced by his discovery, one progressive painter takes this technique to an entirely different level out of sheer curiosity. What results from this is completely unexpected. So who was this mischievous genius?
Enter Masaccio, a spritely young man born in 1401 who had a knack for painting and is considered today as an art history mystery because very little is known about his personal life. He died in Rome at the early age of 27 from the Black Death after completing only a handful of commissions. He completely revolutionized Western art and kick-started the Renaissance with his Holy Trinity (Trinità) fresco in Santa Maria Novella, quite an accomplishment for someone who lived only a quarter of a century!
Painted around 1426, this large fresco makes its home on the left wall of the nave. This is my favorite artwork in Florence, but the subject matter is not what makes it special, it’s the way the fresco is structured. Masaccio worked side by side with Brunelleschi to map out a perfectly proportional scene with realistic architecture and figures, something never achieved before. When people saw it unveiled, they were shocked by how convincing the pseudo-chapel was, calling the optical illusion un buco nella parete or “a hole in the wall”.
In 1567 Santa Maria Novella went through a massive restoration headed by Giorgio Vasari, during which the medieval decorations were covered with plaster as part of the Counter-Reformation movement by the Roman Catholic Church. Being a great artist himself, Vasari was unwilling to ruin Masaccio’s work but he was obliged to follow the Pope’s orders. Instead of destroying it, he crafted a plan to secretly protect the fresco by hiding the lower part behind a stone altar and covering the upper part with a painting of his own. However, as years passed, anyone who knew about Vasari’s scheme died and the fresco was forgotten.
Was Masaccio’s revolutionary work doomed to confinement in its hiding place forever? Or would someone dig just deep enough to finally unearth the priceless treasure?
Ariana Cammllarie is a double major in Art History and Advertising at the University of Georgia. During her studies at LdM she participates in both the Internship Programme and the Professional Opportunity Programme, where she interns at Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and writes for the LdM Art and Restoration blog, respectively. After graduation she hopes to go into the emerging field of advertising for museums and art institutions.