The Brancacci Chapel, in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Carmine is one of the most famous and first works of the Renaissance, it was decorated between 1424 and 1428 by the Masaccio and Masolino da Panicale, fifty years later, Filippino Lippi will complete the work.
The Brancacci family owned the chapel in one of the transepts of Santa Maria del Carmine since the 14th century, when it was founded by Pietro di Piuvichese Brancacci (1367). Antonio Brancacci commissioned some architectural works on the chapel in 1387, but it was his grand-child Felice, a rich silk-merchant and one of the protagonists of Florentine politics, who commissioned a series of frescoes representing stories from the life of Saint Peter, the family’s patron saint, to Masaccio and Masolino, who already worked in the church in a now-lost fresco. Work started around 1424, Masolino left for a journey to Hungary in 1425 and Masaccio supervised the work until he moved to Rome in 1427, where he died the following year. The chapel was left incomplete, Filippino Lippi completed the work approximately 50 years later. Unfortunately the ceiling frescoes and its lunettes were destroyed during the 18th century.
This is supposedly one of the first works in which Masaccio and Masolino break from the Gothic tradition and adhere to the new use of perspective and conception of space of what will be the Renaissance.
The cycle begins with the Temptation of Adam and Eve by Masolino, this scene is located in the inner part of the higher rectangle on the arch delimiting the chapel, this scene and the Expulsion symbolically open and close the events narrated in the frescoes, an opposite moment in the Scriptures, it is when man is reconciled with God, through Peter by Christ.
The scene is set in a magical space, very common in the late International Gothic style and the early Renaissance, and just like in Paolo Uccello’s scene for the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella, the head of the serpent is actually that of a woman with blond hair. The bodies are incredibly plastic, Eve is preparing to eat the apple, but before that, hesitantly, they look at each other in the eyes.
The opposite scene is instead by Masaccio: the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Unlike Masolino’s work this one departs from its Gothic heritage and dives into drama, pathos and the rediscovery of Classical canons of beauty. Adam and Eve, the latter inspired by the Venus Pudica, are being expelled from the Garden of Eden by a mighty angel with a sword, the angel’s posture and dynamic rather increase the drama of this scene. Leaving the Garden of Eden they enter into a rather dull land, with no background, it is a painful scene and Adam and Even are crying and trying to hide their shame and nudity.
The first scene of the life of Saint Peter is Masaccio’s Tribute Money: the story of Peter and the tax collector from Matthew 17:24-27. It is quite remindful of the Medieval tax collection in Florence. The fresco is divided in three parts: in the centre is the tax collector who asks Christ for a tribute for the temple. Christ sends Peter to collect a coin from the mouth of a fish, on the left and on the right he gives it to the tax collector. This is not a chronological representation of the miracle, but rather it puts its emphasis on Christ’s gesture, surrounded by the apostles, who does not get involved in earthly business but rather sends Peter at the gate to be the mediator. It somehow resumes the work of the Church here on earth. The background is quite simple, but still rather dramatic: dark clouds descend from the mountains - rather unusual, but it represents the vanishing point of the work, in the infinite.
The scene follows on the opposite wall on the same upper side, this time it is divided in two parts that represent the Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha, respectively on the left and on the right. Both Masaccio and Masolino appear to have worked here, the two miracle are set in the every day life of what looks like one of the main squares of Florence. Although there is a late Gothic influence, for example in the loggia, the use of the perspective is widely used. It is fascinating to study the scene, besides the miracles, to actually see what Renaissance life was like: flower pots on the windows, hanging laundry, bird cages, monkeys (a curious form of entertainment for the nobility) and people chatting with each other, such as the two gentlemen with splendid dresses that divide the two scenes.
On the central wall on the left side are St. Peter Preaching and St. Peter healing the Sick with his Shadow (upper and lower part) and on the right side are the Baptism of the Neophytes and the Distribution of Alms and Death by Ananias (upper and lower part). In the first scene Peter is shown preaching before a crown in a rather expressive way, the people in the group are at different stages of attention, from that of a veiled nun to the sleepiness of the girl and old man behind her. The mountains in the background and spacial unity can be interpreted as Masaccio’s trademark. On the lower part is another work by Masaccio, once again proved y the use of the perspective and also by the Renaissance and Medieval buildings in the scenery, probably an early Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo Vecchio (whereas Masolino preferred magical landscapes) and the realism of the figures. It represents Saint Peter in the act of healing the sick with his shadow, a brief passage found in Acts 5:12-16. John, behind Peter, has the facial features of Masaccio’s brother, whereas the old man in the background should be Donatello. On the opposite side of the wall, on the upper part is the Baptism of the Neophytes by Masaccio, again here is an incredible realism: from the trembling neophyte to the water dropping from his air and the white towel. It represents very well the emotion and pathos caused by the descent of the Holy Spirit through water, by the end of the Prince of the Apostles. Here Masaccio also experiments for the first time the cangiantismo technique, the use of the different colours to simulate the movement of textiles. The last scene is the distribution of alms and death of Ananias, found in Acts 4:32;5:1-11. It is a very moving scene: all the Christians had to see their possessions to bring the proceeds to the apostles who distributed them to everyone in need. Ananias kept most of it and only brought some of the proceeds to Peter, he was then reprimanded by Peter, but then fell and died. This fresco concentrates on the part in which Peter, accompanied by John, gives alms to a woman with child.
On the lower right wall is Masaccio’s Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned that were never finished. Approximately fifty years later Filipino Lippi will complete the work with: the five bystanders on the left, the Carmelites' drapery and the central part of St Peter's arm in the "enthroned" representation. These scene is found in the Golden Lagend by the Dominican Friar, Jacopo da Voragine: after being released from prison, Peter resuscitates, with Paul’s assistance, Theophilus’s son, who had been dead for fourteen years. People therefore venerated Peter and dedicated him a church where he was enthroned. With this work is more widely introduced a second, more “political” meaning to the cycle. It recalls the conflict between Florence and the Duchy of Milan. Theophilus is remindful of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Florence’s enemy, a tyrant who wanted to strip Florence of its freedom. The figure on Theophilus’ right would be Coluccio Salutati, Florentine Chancellor, whereas Peter would be Pope Martin V Colonna, representing the mediating role of the Church. At the extreme right are portraits of Masaccio, Masolino, Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. In this scene, like in the Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha, the figures seem to interact quite expressively with each other.
From now on all the scenes will be executed by Filippino Lippi, the following one is Saint Paul visiting Saint Peter in Prison, probably following a sketch by Masaccio. It is set in perfect architectural continuity with the nearby scene of the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus and it portrays Peter behind bars and Paul just outside who seems to direct him about what is going to happen.
On the opposite wall is the Liberation of Peter by an Angel, here too the architecture is connected with that of the following section. A sword-armed guard is sleeping while the miracle representing Christian salvation is just happening: the angel in a white surplice and blue apparel rescues Peter. “May Thy will be done”.
The last, large scene on the right wall, by Filipino Lippi represents the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, set outside the city walls, the Pyramid of Cestius and the Aurelian Walls can be seen behind the merlons. On the right is the disputation between Simon Magus and Saint Peter in front of Nero, with a pagan idol at his feet. On the left is the crucifixion of Peter, dramatically upside down as he refused to be crucified like Christ as a symbol of unity.
This fresco does also have several portraits: the young boy with a beret on the right is Filippino himself, the old man with the red hat is another great artist of the time: Antonio del Pollaiolo and of course there is Lippi's master: Sandro Botticelli as the young man below the archway and looking towards us.