by Ariana Cammllarie
For nearly 300 years visitors to Santa Maria Novella walked through the splendid nave of the basilica while Masaccio’s masterpiece was still hidden just beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered. The fresco’s wish to be found was finally granted during a restoration the basilica underwent in the 19th century.
As restorers took down Giorgio Vasari’s oil painting Madonna of the Rosary, they were shocked to discover the treasure hidden behind: Masaccio’s Trinità. Immediately recognizing the fresco’s importance, restorer Gaetano Bianchi carefully detached the painting from the wall and relocated it to the counter-façade where it could shine as the star it was.
However, he didn’t realize that the fresco was missing a vital element. The lower portion of the fresco remained concealed behind the stone altar placed by Vasari. For another 100 years, the Trinità would remain incomplete, separated from its bottom half whose existence was forgotten by the world.
During yet another restoration in the 1950s, an art historian discovered paint residue on the nave wall – he realized it marked the place where Masaccio’s work was located originally. Wanting to simply place the work back in its initial 15th century position upon the nave wall, restorers took down the stone altar, stumbling upon the missing piece of Masaccio’s fresco: the ominous skeleton of Adam.
Straight away restorers detached the Trinità from its temporal home on the counter-façade to rejoin it with Death, giving the painting an entirely new meaning. Above the bones of Adam Masaccio painted the inscription: IO FUI GIA’ QUEL CHE VOI SIETE E QUEL CH’IO SONO VOI ANCO SARETE, which translates to “What you are, I once was. What I am, you will become”, a medieval phrase that noted on the fragility of life. By having the Holy Trinity located above, the fresco alludes that through faith, one can overcome an earthly death in exchange for eternal life. This interpretation has only become possible by having the two parts of the painting together again.
It took nearly 400 years for the masterpiece to no longer be M.I.A. and for the visitors of Santa Maria Novella to enjoy the fresco as Masaccio intended it to be. It is an incredible painting to experience in person, so be sure to drop in and say hey to one of the greatest contemporary discoveries from the Renaissance!
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.