Brancacci Chapel, cradle of Renaissance painting in Florence, reopens

The Renaissance in painting was born in a Florentine chapel, the Brancacci, and culminated in a Roman one, the Sistine.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
15 May 2024 Wednesday 10:25
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Brancacci Chapel, cradle of Renaissance painting in Florence, reopens

The Renaissance in painting was born in a Florentine chapel, the Brancacci, and culminated in a Roman one, the Sistine. In the frescoes of the first, located in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Masaccio divided the history of the genre in two: Gothic idealization was left behind and Renaissance humanization appeared. Almost a century later, Michelangelo took these precepts to the extreme on the ceiling of the Vatican room, precepts that he had learned as a teenager when he went to the Florentine temple to copy Masaccio's frescoes. A perfect circular script.

In Quattrocento Florence, anyone who boasted a high status had to have a fabulous work of art open to the public. The banner of the Brancacci, a family of silk merchants, was their chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. The Carmelite church, built in the 13th century, like many other public buildings in the capital of Tuscany, was a showcase where clans competed for patronage.

Once through the door, the chapels of the wool weavers' guild, that of the Nerli family, the Soderini... The Brancacci were located at the far right of the transept.

The construction of the chapel was started by Pietro de Piuvichese Brancacci in the mid-13th century. After his death and that of his children, surely – there is no certain evidence – the reins of the project passed to his nephew Felice. This represented the prototype of the wealthy Florentine of the Quattrocento: merchant friend of the Medici, consul of the sea, ambassador in Cairo, combatant in the war against Milan, refined winner of the fantasy jousts that were celebrated in the Piazza Santa Croce. ..

Around 1424, with the architectural part of the chapel completed, Felice commissioned its decoration to Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, better known as Masolino (c. 1383-1447). The main theme of the frescoes was the life of Saint Peter, which killed two birds with one stone: the memory of the chapel's promoter (Pietro) was honored and the Brancacci's ties with the Vatican were exalted (two members of the family were cardinals of the curia).

Masolino asked for help from his young friend Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai, nicknamed Masaccio (1401-28). Strange artistic couple, as his nicknames inform us, both derived from Maso, a contraction of Tommaso: “masolino” implies elegance, while “masaccio” denotes brutality or carelessness.

Masolino was one of the greatest exponents of cosmopolitan Gothic, with his stylized and graceful figures. Masaccio, for his part, sought naturalism, through spatial conception (perhaps learned from the architect Brunelleschi) and the psychological intensity of his narratives (influenced by the sculptor Donatello). Before tackling the frescoes in the Brancacci chapel, Masaccio had already made history with his fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, considered by many experts to be the first work in history to use perspective with mathematical criteria.

Masolino and Massacio's task was enormous: the chapel scenes can measure eight feet high and almost six feet wide. In addition to mastering the fresco technique, that project required years of dedication. And neither of them was willing to remain in the Brancacci service for long.

Masolino left in 1425. Masaccio interrupted his work in the chapel for a season to work in Pisa and left permanently for Rome in 1427. He left behind some frescoes that would revolutionize the history of painting. An honor that he could not enjoy, because he died a few months after leaving Florence, at the age of 27. His achievements were not appreciated by some of his contemporaries. Upon learning of his death, Brunelleschi declared: “We have not lost much.”

With the departure of the artists, the Brancacci chapel was left with several portions of blank wall. A first blow. And the second was just around the corner. In May 1431, Felice was the happiest man in Florence. He was marrying Lena, the daughter of Palla Strozzi, the richest banker in the city. This represented a great boost to the aspirations of the Brancacci, whose fortune had never been more than modest. That marriage, however, was going to spell misfortune for Felice, who became trapped in the political brawls of the city.

Two years later, the Strozzis were part of the group that forced Cosimo de Medici into exile. He, however, returned after a year and the tables turned. His former friendship with Cosimo was of little use to Felice: he was now married to a Strozzi and had to leave Florence in 1435. The Brancacci separated from his chapel forever. None of the subsequent interventions would be decided by them, although for legal purposes they did not renounce ownership until the end of the 18th century.

The Soderini, another benefactor family of Santa Maria del Carmine, or the Carmelite monks themselves took the reins of the project and hired Filippino Lippi. Between 1481 and 1485, this concluded the cycle of frescoes on the life of Saint Peter. However, the original project – scholars today believe – was distorted. The most blatant example: how can a visual tour of the biography of Saint Peter be conceived without including the scene in which he receives the keys from Christ, the passage par excellence in which the apostle's authority over the Church is affirmed?

Apparently, the scene was supposed to appear in the chapel, in the form of a relief sculpted by Donatello, preserved today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. However, the exquisite piece was never placed in Santa Maria del Carmine. It ended up in the personal collection of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo's successor.

The subsequent history of the Brancacci chapel was a continuous tumble. Without a patron who was sentimentally linked to the original project, embellishments and repaintings took place to the liking of the benefactor on duty. Plans were even drawn up – fortunately aborted by the Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere in the mid-17th century – to convert the Gothic chapel into a sumptuous Baroque room.

In 1771, the church of Santa Maria del Carmine suffered a fire. Although the flames did not reach the chapel, the frescoes were seriously affected by the smoke. Between 1984 and 1985 the Ministry of Communal Goods sponsored a thorough restoration. In 2021, the appearance of damage to some of the paintings has necessitated a diagnostic study and a restoration process that has lasted two years.

This text is based on an article published in number 468 of the magazine Historia y Vida. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at redaccionhyv@historiayvida.com.