Florence day 5 (continuation 20)

The Brancacci Chapel: Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi (Santa Maria del Carmine) 1/6

The church and chapel of Brancacci

Santa Maria del Carmine La Veduta della Catena
Santa Maria del Carmine La Veduta della Catena Florence

In 1268, the Carmelites settled in the district of San Frediano and built the church, Santa Maria del Carmine, as part of the Carmelite convent.160 The chapel was donated to the church by Piero di Piuvichese (Brancacci). He left a sum of two hundred florins to complete the chapel.161 Piero was the man who had contributed most to the family capital. Nevertheless, it would still take about forty years before any painting work was actually started. The chapel itself was very conveniently situated: clearly visible and close to the main altar. In addition, the popular sacra rappresentazione (theatre performances of sacred or biblical events) were staged in front of the chapel in the crossing.

Santa Maria del Carmine     Church and convent     Large size
Santa Maria del Carmine  facade lorence
Path to the chapel on the right side of the church via the cloister large size

Photo: Steven Zucker
Address and opening hours

The chapel and in particular the decorations are also part of the mystical play that was held at Ascension Day. There is a document showing that Masolino was paid in July 1425. For the Ascension, he painted angels and clouds, among other things.162 Bishop Abraham of Souzdal, a Byzantine prelate, writes admiringly about the performance of the Ascension which he attended in 1439. It was a true spectacle. There was a choir, dancing and music by ‘angels’ while actors performed the Ascension. All this against the backdrop of a magnificent setting lit by countless candles on many candlesticks. The highlight was the moment when Christ appeared, bathed in light. Christ ascended to the gothic vaults of the Santa Maria del Carmine. Brunelleschi had designed a clever machine for the Ascension (reconstruction with tramezzo) as he had done for the play of the Annunciation in the Santa Felicita.163  According to a popular legend, the day Christ ascended to Heaven, he thus handed over the keys to Peters.164 Thus, the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel about Peter is a beautiful backdrop for the performance of the Ascension.

Donatello ‘Christ giving the Keys to St Peter’ 
Ascension and Peter with the key Jacob van Maerlant Spieghel Historiael c. 1325-1335
Donatello 'Christ giving the Keys to St Peter' 

Unfortunately, the chapel is no longer in its original state. When Felice Brancacci, who commissioned the painting of the family chapel, was banished from Florence by the Medici in 1435, the chapel was dedicated to Mary. All traces of the family were removed from the chapel. Portraits of the Brancacci, such as the revival of the son of Theophilus, were erased.

Current chapel of Brancacci and a reconstruction drawing
Current chapel of Brancacci and a reconstruction drawing


Brancacci Chapel large size: Top     Bottom
Brancacci Chapel Santa Maria del Carmine

If it had been up to Marquis Francesco Ferroni, the frescoes would have disappeared. He wanted to buy the chapel in 1680. He was not very fond of the painting with ‘those ugly figures dressed in long wavy cloaks and wide garments.’165 However, the Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere intervened and forbade it. Vittoria also considered the alternative suggested by Marquis: to remove the frescoes from the wall and keep them somewhere else.

Parts of the original fresco cycle have disappeared, like the ones in the vaults, the three lunettes and parts of the wall near the altar. Between 1746 and 1748, the groined vault was removed as it suffered large leaks. In its four vault sections, Masolino had painted the evangelists. In 1734, Vincenzo Meucci painted the new ceiling with St. Simon Stock receiving Mary’s scapular. Carlo Sacconi painted architectural motifs in the lunettes. In addition, the chapel was given a new window and this also meant that parts of the frescoes disappeared. During the major restoration of 1983-1989 it turned out that the lunettes were completely empty. At the walls next to the windows, however, parts of two sinopias were found, namely the repentance of Peter and Peter as shepherd. In the lunettes near the side walls, above the tribute money, the vocation of Peter and Andrew was painted. The right wall showed the shipwreck of Peter.

Brancacci Chapel Santa Maria del Carmine Masaccio Florence

Right above the altar was the crucifixion of Peter. This crucifixion likely disappeared when the altarpiece, the Madonna del Popolo, was moved from the main altar in the church to the chapel of Brancacci.166 It was thought that this panel originated from the Holy Land before the advent of Islam. An extremely precious possession that had fallen into the hands of the Carmelites. The Madonna del Popolo had a knack for performing miracles

Altar  wall
Brancacci chapel altar wall Santa Maria del Carmine

Photo: dvdbramhall

Madonna della Popolo c. 1250    Large size
Madonna del Popolo c. 1250 Brancacci chapel Santa Maria del Carmine

Artist unknown ‘Madonna della Popolo’ c. 1250 

Santa Maria del Carmine and reconstruction interior before the fire of 1771
Santa Maria del Carmine and reconstruction interior before the fire of 1771Florence

On the night of January 28-29, 1771, a terrible fire broke out. While most of the church burned down, the chapel of Brancacci remained virtually undamaged. In 1780, the chapel passed into the hands of another family: Riccardi. Gabriello Riccardi had the chapel restored and opened it to the public. Between 1983 and 1989 there was a large-scale restoration. The altar was removed from the wall and important original fragments were discovered, including two medallions. The colours were still intact.167 Later additions such as the leaves of Adam and Eve were also removed.

Masolino medallion altar wall   Masolino medallion altar wall
Brancacci chapel Masolino medallion altar wall   Brancacci chapel Masolino medallion altar wall

The painters of the Brancacci Chapel

Owing to the thorough research and restoration, we now have a better understanding of who of the three painters, Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi, painted what. Web Gallery of Art lists each name: Masaccio, Masolino and Lippi and who painted what & where in the chapel.

 f.l.t.r: Masolino, Masaccio, and Alberti
Resurrection of the son of Theophilus 
    Filippino Lippi
Disputation with Simon Magus  Crucifixion of Peter
f.l.t.r: Masolino, Masaccio, and Alberti Resurrection of the son of Theophilus      Filippino Lippi Self-portrait Disputation with Simon Magus  Crucifixion of Pete

Masolino and Masaccio are from Castel San Giovanni: today’s San Giovanni Val d’Arno. Both have a rather different style. In those days, painters, despite their typically different styles, often worked together.168 For example, the panel, ” The Madonna and Child with St. Anne”, which now hangs in the Uffizi is also painted by Masolino and Masaccio. Vasari wrongly attributed this altarpiece, which hung in the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Florence, exclusively to Masaccio.169

Masolino and Masaccio
‘Mary with Child and Anna’ 1424 Uffizi
Masolino and Masaccio 'Mary with Child and Anna' 1424 Uffizi

When Felice Brancacci returns from Egypt to Florence, he speeds up the decoration of his family chapel. The chapel was probably painted around 1424. In the years 1423 and 1425, Felice Brancacci sold three houses including the ancestral home. The family had to move into rented accommodation. Seven years later it also came to light that Felice had embezzled money from municipal funds in the same period. The family was certainly not poor, on the contrary, but money still seemed to be in short supply during this period. This is also when the painting started. Apparently Felice had to raise a lot of money to ensure the painting work in his family and burial chapel would get done.170

Art historians differed about when exactly Masaccio and Masolino did their painting.However, according to art historian Diane Cole Ahl, recent insights and research during the restoration have yielded some results. Masaccio and Masolino likely worked together at the same time. Certainly on the frescoes directly below the three lunettes, which is now the top band, before the summer of 1425.171 A total of ninety-two giornata (parts of the day) have been used in these frescoes (the Fall, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha, the Baptism of Neophytes, the expulsion from Paradise, the Penance and St. Peter Preaching). This means that Masaccio and Masolino both painted sixty-four days.

Masolino ‘St. Peter Preaching’   Masaccio ‘Baptism of the Neophytes’
Brancacci chapel Masolino 'St. Peter Preaching'   Brancacci chapel Masaccio 'Baptism of the Neophytes'

In addition, Masolino and Masaccio changed places while painting on the scaffolding. In the St. Peter Preaching, Masaccio started in the upper part with the mountains. After all, it was customary to paint from top to bottom so that there were no splashes on the painted parts. The rest of the sermon was painted by Masolino. In the fresco on the other side of the window, the baptism of the Neophytes, Masolino started with the mountains while Masaccio did the rest. It is worth mentioning that these mountains are typical of the style of Masolino. Later in the 1430s, Masolino painted a similar landscape in the Palazzo Brande in Castiglione Olonard.172

Masolino Landscape detail Palazzo Brande
Masolino Landscape detail Palazzo Brande

The entire painting appears well considered and Masolino and Masaccio must have planned it together. This is evident, among other things, from the use of colour, the shadows, but also in the perspective in the two opposing frescoes: ‘the tribute money’ and the ‘Healing of the Cripple’ and ‘Raising of Tabitha’. In these two stories, the vanishing point of the perspective is at the same level. As far as we know, Masaccio was in Florence between 1424 and 1425. In the following years he was busy with his altarpiece for Pisa. In 1428 Masaccio left for Rome where he died at the age of twenty-nine. Masolino left for Hungary at the end of 1425 and returned in the summer of 1427. It is unknown whether Masolino worked in the chapel before or after his stay in Hungary.

Masaccio tribute money and perspective drawing with vanishing point large size
Masaccio tribute money Brancacci chapel


Masolino ‘Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabita’ perspective drawing with vanishing point large size
Masolino 'Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabita' Brancacci chapel

The third artist who also worked in the chapel is Filippino Lippi. Between 1481 and 1485, Lippi completed the fresco cycle and painted new faces where Brancacci’s family portraits had been removed.

Filippino Lippi (four heads) and Masaccio (only the second man from the right)
Portraits from the Raising of the Son of Theophilus
Filippino Lippi (four heads) and Masaccio (only the second man from the right) Portraits from the Raising of the Son of Theophilus Brancacci chapel

Click here for the continuation of day 5