Masolino da Panicale
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Son of Cristoforo Fini; b. in the suburb of Panicale di Valdese, near Florence, 1383; d. c. 1440. It is said that he was a pupil of Starnina, several of whose frescoes in charming taste heralding the Renaissance are in the Cathedral of Prato. Established at Florence Masolino was received in 1423 a member of the corporation of druggists or grocers ( speziali ) which then included painters of the Brancacci chapel in the Church of Carmelite. Here he was again at work in 1426. In 1427 he was in Hungary in the service of the famous Florentine adventurer, Filipo Scolari (Pippo Spano as he is surnamed). Between 1428 and 1435 he executed near Varese, at Castiglione d'Olona, paintings discovered forty years since in the baptistery and collegiate church. He died four or five years later aged, not 37 as vasari states, but 57 years. Masolino's glory is to have collaborated in the carmine and to be also the master and forerunner of Masaccio. He played an important part in the development of the Renaissance but it is far from being as considerable or as "providential" as ancient historians have claimed.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century the Renaissance was at hand; in all countries simultaneously and nearly everywhere it had the same characteristics. For example the work of the Limbourgs belongs to 1416, and some miniatures of their calendar might almost be mistaken for certain pictures of Gentile da Fabriano , whose "Adoration of the Kings" belongs to 1423. Similar figures are found in Masolino's work in the Brancacci Chapel, such as the pretty group of Florentine gentlemen in the "Preaching of St. Peter". The delicate taste of the architecture, the pleasing sense of the landscape are still general traits of the art of this period. When Masolino came to Florence he was more than forty years old. All agree at present in attributing to him the frescoes in the Church of San Clemente at Rome, which Vasari regards as the work of Masaccio's youth. They may be placed about 1415. They represent scenes from the life of St. Ambrose and the life of St. Catherine. The latter have been often restored. What is remarkable about these frescoes is not that they differ from many Giottesque works (nearly all the traditional ideas and customs have been followed), neither is it that the painter shows great skill, but he has a wholly new sense of grace and beauty, an innate gift of elegance and that inexpressible quality which we call "charm." It seems as though a breath of youth passed over the art of painting and thawed the ancient formulas. There is nothing more ravishing than the figures of the women, especially the young girls. The little Catherine, converting the wife of the Emperor Maxentius, is a virginal vision of childish beauty whose sweetness has only been surpassed by Angelico. It is especially in the large "calvary" and behind the altar that this atmosphere of ingenuousness is felt. The immense landscape of undulating hills, on which is unfolded the feebly composed scene, redeems all the defects of composition such as absence of the pathetic and lack of unity in the grouping. One is conscious only of a peace, an enchantment of nature which resembles the state of grace.
Some of these merits are found in the frescoes in the Carmine. As indicated by its reputation this celebrated work must be its author's most considerable composition. He painted only three of these compositions: on one of the pillars in the entrance the "Temptation of Adam and Eve ", and in the chapel itself the "Preaching and the Miracles of St. Peter", which is the best of all, and comprises two distinct episodes: the "Cure of the Paralytic" and the "Resurrection of Tabitha". Deserving of admiration are the figures of the Apostles and the accuracy of observation in the attitude of the cripple and the risen woman. But what constitutes the value of these works, and is also found in the frescoes of San Clemente, is a sober and spiritual grace and a delightful sense, at once, familiar and refined, of life. It is this quality, also, that imparts value to the frescoes at Castiglione d'Olona, the last and most animated of his works. His "Life of St. John the Baptist " abounds in lively traits. The beautiful costumes and portraits, the graceful attire of the women, his Herodiases and Salomes, are charming. At need the painter gives proof of technical knowledge ; he develops fair perspectives composed of delicate architecture in the antique manner. But all this for him is but the frame, full of fancy and taste, wherein transpire charming scenes of Florentine life. Thus in the "Baptism of Christ" the group of neophytes robing, the man seated putting on his shoes, and the one who, bare-limbed awaiting his turn, shivers in his cloak, form a genre picture which is full of spirit and charm.
Masaccio treated the same subject at the Carmine with his customary grandeur, Masolino sees in it only a familiar study, similar to the "Baths" or "Studies" of the German prints, but in which only a Florentine could put such a lively sense of beauty. Opposite, the trio of angels bearing the garments of Christ recall the most exquisite figures of the "Life of St. Catherine". But above all there is that general air of spring and adolescence, that unique feeling of youth which is the charm of that age, and which we find in Gentile and Pesellino, but which lasted only a moment and was seen no more. Vasari realized this: "He was the first to impart more sweetness to his figures of women, to give nature graceful demeanour to his young men. . . . He treated skilfully the play of light and shade. . .His pictures are blended with such grace that they have all the suppleness imaginable. . . It is very difficult to say whether Masaccio readily owes anything to Masolino. The genius of this sublime young man transcends ordinary rules; he brought about a revolution in the school and hastened by fifty years the development of the Renaissance. But without the interference of this sudden and tremendous force the Renaissance would have arrived of itself, less great perhaps, less learned, but more gently. Masolino shows us what the blossoming would have been had it not been for Masaccio's coup d'état ."
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