Charles Saatchi's Great Masterpieces: the painter who inspired da Vinci and Michelangelo

Crucifixion of St Peter (1426) by Masaccio (detail)
Crucifixion of St Peter (1426) by Masaccio (detail) Credit: Alamy

Masaccio was born in 1401 and died in 1428, but six years of extraordinary inspiration made him the single greatest influence on Italy’s Renaissance. It is difficult to comprehend that a few years in a short life would have such a bewildering effect on the history of art but, to many observers, his radical thinking helped usher in the major foundations of Western painting. 

Tommaso di Giovanni Simone Guidi became known by his nickname Masaccio, roughly translatable as Clumsy Tom. Supposedly, this was because he was absent-minded and unconcerned about his shabby appearance, but he was also easy going, good-natured and likeable. 

One of the perplexing riddles that has confounded scholars trying to dissect Masaccio’s work is fathoming exactly how he learned to paint. There is no evidence of his serving an apprenticeship in a notable artist’s studio, in the customary way for hopeful young pupils, where he would have been tutored in basic skills, learning to copy the techniques of an accomplished painter. 

Of course, this has proved frustrating for analysts looking to unearth the answer to Masaccio’s brilliance, or even identify examples of his earliest work. It is generally accepted that, at 21, he entered the Florentine Guild of Painters, though how he secured this position remains a mystery. His first known work was painted in 1426, dated three months after he became a member, a small triptych painted for a church in the town of Cascia, Perugia. 

This little painting has been pored over by Renaissance specialists, who have tried to discern how the sophisticated expertise demonstrated by the young Masaccio had been achieved. It did not resemble Florentine painting at all. The direct and spare portrayal of the Madonna and child offered a clue that Masaccio had looked at Donatello’s sculptures. Their intense realism may have sparked his interest in wanting to render the human body with heightened gestural and emotional expression.

Crucifixion of St Peter (1426) Credit: Alamy

The same year, another commission took Masaccio to Pisa, his reputation clearly spreading beyond Florence. Here he was to create an altarpiece for the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Sadly, the work was dismantled in the 18th century and several parts were lost, but 13 sections have been rediscovered and identified since. The most electrifying of these is a panel depicting St Peter being nailed upside-down to the cross, his legs spread apart. Peter is impassive as he undergoes this torture. 

In the panel, titled The Crucifixion of St Peter, Masaccio’s remarkable grasp of foreshortening and perspective is at its full power, ensuring that everything in the painting is aligned to draw the viewer’s attention immediately to the central figure of Peter. Masaccio carefully avoided showing the executioner’s faces and their human attributes, better able to isolate their callous violence.

The work was a crucial breakthrough in handling a complex composition, with each element arranged according to an overarching, unifying principle.  Precise calculation in all aspects of the picture’s construction was clearly essential for Masaccio. Further, his use of light heightened the substance of every element, from the body of the saint, to the stones of the pavement.

In The Tribute Money, a fresco in the same church, Masaccio’s mastery of a complicated biblical scene enhanced his position as the most admired painter of his era. The painting revolutionised the way artists would progress, captivated by Masaccio’s use of scientific, linear one-point perspective. The tax collector is demanding his payment from Christ and a large group of disciples. The head of Christ is the vanishing point of the painting, drawing eyes directly to him. The atmospheric aerial perspective was unique to Masaccio, creating the appearance of depth. In many ways, Masaccio was inventing 3D. 

His use of a light source emanating from outside the picture casts the figures in shadow. This created the “chiaroscuro” effect that da Vinci was to perfect, as he sculpted bodies with his paint strokes into three dimensional shapes. The facial depictions in this complex group were considered particularly well drawn because of the richness and variety of their expressions. 

Masaccio's Casini Madonna

Masaccio was similarly venerated for the sublime Casini Madonna. The painting, now housed in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, was better known as The Tickling Madonna (instead of being formally titled with the name of cardinal Antonio Casini, who commissioned it). The virgin is pictured holding her child in swaddling clothes as she both blesses and tickles him, leaving the infant giggling as he grasps her wrist. Both their halos are rendered flatly rather than in perspective, creating the illusion that they can simply slip into one another. Despite the traditional background, the Madonna and child are seen in a surprising new way, turned three‑quarters and off-centre, to suggest the idea of motion. 

Her posture was considered daring and unique at the time. No previous work had ever positioned her in this way, creating a revealingly natural effect in a delightful jewel of a painting. 

The outstanding Florentine painters of the mid-15th century – Filippo Lippi and Piero della Francesca – were transfixed by the rationality and pure realism of Masaccio’s art, and its humanity.  His greatest contribution, however, was made clear 75 years later, when Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, the three titans of the High Renaissance, were at the peak of their powers. All three studied Masaccio carefully, recognising his monumental figures and sculptural use of light as quite breathtaking; some of Michelangelo’s earliest works are studies of figures from The Tribute Money.

The majestic works of the Italian Renaissance at its zenith were firmly rooted in the paintings of Masaccio. It is no overstatement to claim that in the passage of a few years, he altered the course of all art that was to come. 

© Charles Saatchi 2018