While it’s still hot, the other best place to get cool is hiding in museums or churches, and Florence has no lack of either. A favourite and lesser known church, very unassuming with an unfinished facade is the Santa Maria del Carmine church. It houses one of the most important frescoe cycles of the early Renaissance period in the Brancacci chapel. So called, as it was commissioned by Felice Brancacci, a wealthy Florentine wool and silk merchant and politician, to illustrate the life of St Peter in honour of his grandfather Peter who had made the family’s fortune. Also in recognition that the Great Western schism of the church had been resolved in 1417.
To get the best out of my visit. Andrea Verga, a young enthusiastic ‘cultural mediator’ employed by Muse was my delightful storyteller.
The frescoes make a fascinating story, and as appropriate in educating the population of today as they served to educate the population in the past. They illustrate the artistic developments of the three artists involved, and the political climate with portraits of friends and important statesmen featuring in episodes..
Miraculously the frescoes were spared by the great fire of 1771 that devastated the rest of the church, covering the frescoes with smoke. They were brush cleaned in 1904 but it was not until the late 1980’s that a thorough restoration returned the frescoes to their vivid colours.
Painted between 1424 and 1428 by Masolino da Panicale and his young pupil Masaccio. Masaccio being considered the first great artist of the early Renaissance and associating with other such greats as Brunelleschi and Donatello. However, the frescoes remained unfinished due to his premature death at only 26 years in 1428, and were completed some 50 years later between 1481 and 1483 by Filippino Lippi.
From the fairytale figures af Adam and Eve in ‘The Original Sin‘ by Masolino to the more innovative style of Massaccio who uses light and shade to give more realism to the scene, and more consistency and solidity to the figures as in ‘The Tribute Money’. Three scenes in one, where Christ shows St Peter how to get coins from a fish to pay the city entrance tax as the Roman tax collector (in the short orange tunic in the foreground) demands, and St Peter, always in a yellow robe, pays (on the right).
Healing the Sick by Masaccio on the lower left includes portraits of Donatello in black hat and Masolino in red hat.
‘St Peter preaches and converts the thousands‘ by Masolino (on the upper left) to ‘The Baptism of the Neophytes‘ by Masaccio (on the right). Note the transparent water and the figure shivering as he waits his turn to be baptized. Below left ‘Healing the sick‘ by Masaccio where St Peter on passing has healed a lame man and another two wait to be healed.
In the ‘Distribution of alms‘ my trusty guide Andrea, tells us that Masaccio came from a very poor family and was easily able to portray the poverty of the time in the mother holding the child wearing a dress too small. It also highlighted the lesson to be learnt as the rich had been encouraged to share their wealth but Ananias had kept some of his share apart and St Peter knowing that he lied calls him out. Ananias fell dead at his feet from shame.
In the ‘Healing of the Cripple‘ and the ‘Raising of Tabitha‘ by both Masolino and Masaccio ( top frescoe below) we were to note the scene of everyday Florentine life in the background – washing hanging out, a monkey sneaking along the facade, a child tugging at his mother’s skirt. The two elegant figures in the centre, one dressed in wool and ermine fur trim, typical of the 13th century (on the right), the other in damask silk customary in the 14th century with velvet turbans indicating the fruitfulness of Oriental trade.
‘The Crucifixion of St Peter‘ and ‘St Peter and Simon Magus before Nero‘ were painted by Filippino Lippi. St Peter crucified upside down as a sign of humility to Christ, as in death we return to our birth position. In the archway staring at us is a portrait of Sandro Botticelli, Filippino’s friend and teacher, and probably a self portrait of Filippino with the beret on the extreme right .behind the blue robe
We can see other famous portraits in ‘St Peter’s Enthronement‘ by Masaccio – in the right corner hardly visible is tiny Masolino beside a self portrait of Masaccio in red robe next to Brunelleschi with the black hat, and Leon Alberto Battista ( humanist and architect) in black robe.
The last curiosity I will share is the elaborate ‘photoshop’ that occurred in the scene ‘Raising of Theophilus Son from the Dead‘ Here Theophilus (in pink on elevated stage) is a portrait of Florence’s bitter enemy the Milan tyrant Visconti and in the crowd around the son the Brancacci family had been featured. However as the Brancacci family were exiled from Florence in 1436 for being anti Medici, Filippino Lippi had to redo the heads!
To think such a tiny chapel holds a wealth of information in these frescoes of which one could write about for pages; the political significance, the religious symbolism, the personal differences. Funnily enough Masolino and Masaccio are nicknames as they were both officially named Tommaso but nicknamed ‘little Tom’ for Masolino and ‘clumsy or messy Tom’ for Masaccio. I am forever enchanted by the ‘mess‘, particularly of a youngster only in his 20’s!