As an English speaking traveller who has journeyed the length and breadth of Italy over the past four decades—from Viareggio to Brindisi, from Trieste to Catanzaro, and many stops in between—there is one sight that has always had a particularly powerful, literally stunning effect on me whenever I catch sight of it in Florence: the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine.
From the first time I saw these paintings when I was 10 years old, until my most recent visit this month, the softly painted walls of Masaccio have always moved me in a way that I can only describe as epiphanic. Who would not feel moved by these faces and the scenes that surround them? The sobbing, screaming, yet strangely stifled sadness in the hands of Adam and the face of Eve; the remarkably life-like expressions on the faces of the Florentine townspeople of the 1420s; and the folds of falling fabric awash in lavish reds and golds. It is not merely that Tommaso Guidi Cassai (Masaccio was a nickname bestowed by Vasari because of the painter’s sloppy, careless ways with material objects and his personal hygiene) brought a new realism to the details of Italian Renaissance human figures. The faces of the actual people who often served as models for these figures, and the addition of the vibrant imagination of this master of light and perspective, produce scenes designed to move us out of our ordinary lives and into a life somehow richer and more valuable.
The chapel is occasionally missed by tourists because it is just far enough off the Renaissance-Disneyland route that tends to remain on David’s side of the river, the side that is not Oltrarno. Or perhaps some tour operators feel that a painter whose name is not a household word in England, Canada, or the U.S., simply does not vie with Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. How wrong-headed a view.
The next time you are in Florence, or if you are in Florence today, cross over the river heading south on the Ponte alla Carraia and down Via de’ Serragli. Turn right down Via S. Monaca until you see the Church of S. Maria del Carmine on your left in the corner of the piazza that bears the same name. Enter the church and move slowly down the right aisle. Then turn sharply to the right just before you reach the altar. Do not take your camera, but do take your memory, sharpened as vividly as the flood of Florentine images will allow.
Even for a person like me, who does not share the belief system or the religious zeal of most of those who have looked at these walls for half a millennium, the experience of these frescoes moves the brain beyond the physical. The mind is hard-pressed to account for precisely what it has seen in all of the imagined richness of artifice that covers these walls. The painted rooftops are geometric yet warm, the hands and faces here are only pigment, but they are nevertheless the hands and feet of real people. In fact, Masaccio’s faces alone might tell the whole story, but they cannot do if cut from the context provided by every painterly element: luminous eyes and beards, fine fabric folds, pristine architectural details.
The history of this work, like so much in Italian Renaissance history, is a sad one. The work probably began around 1424, when Masolino received the initial commission. He called on the youthful Masaccio to assist, and the younger artist ended up working for roughly two years on his own. When Masolino returned around 1427, Masaccio left for Rome, the frescoes still unfinished. Yet these three walls mark the first examples in painting of linear perspective used in a systematic way. Masaccio’s accurate perspective, his ability to capture the subtlety of natural light on faces and buildings, his emotional intensity combined with emotional reserve; these images are not only a turning point in Western art but also in the work of a painter whose influence it is impossible to overstate. The frescoes exerted a direct and powerful influence on Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael among untold others. Masaccio’s life, however, like the painted walls of the Brancacci Chapel, was cut short: unfinished. He died around the age of 27 in Rome under circumstances that remain a mystery to this day.
So skip climbing to the top of Brunelleschi’s mighty dome or Giotto’s stunning bell tower if you are scared of heights, or skip the house of Dante (which may not have been Dante’s house at all), or even—if you must—skip the Bargello, but do not come to Florence and leave it again without a long and loving gaze at three painted walls that will literally change your life. I promise.