Paying taxes is not a theme artists have chosen to paint. Masaccio, a famous painter in Italy in the Fifteenth Century, is one of the few to paint the subject. Tommaso de Ser Giovani di Mone (1401-1428), is known as Masaccio, a nickname which meant slovenly, hulking and ugly. However, he was described by fellow artists such as Donatello and Brunelleschi as very well liked and easy going. Michelangelo spent much time studying and making drawings of Masaccio’s art, considered him critical to the development of the Renaissance. On Masaccio’s death at the age of twenty-eight, Brunelleschi said “We have suffered a great loss.”
Masaccio’s “Tribute Money” (1424-27) (fresco) (Brancacci Chapel in Sant Maria Della Carmine, Florence) depicts for the first time almost all the Renaissance discoveries in painting techniques. The pictorial theme of the Brancacci Chapel was several events in the Life of St. Peter from the book of Matthew (17: 24-28) the “Tribute Money.” Christ and the Apostles arrive at Caperneum and are met by a Roman tax collector. After a discussion with the twelve, Christ directs Peter to go to the edge of the sea where he will find the necessary coin in the mouth of a fish. Peter then gives the tax money to the tax collector. Matthew is the only Gospel that contains this story, but Matthew was a tax collector. Another story in Matthew (22: 15-2) in which Christ holds a Roman coin with the head of Caesar on it and says, “Render therefor unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s: and unto God the things that are God’s,” was also used to encourage citizens to pay their taxes.
In “Tribute Money” three scenes are included in the single panel. In the center Christ and the twelve are confronted by the tax collector, who can be easily identified by his short Roman tunic and short hair. He confronts Christ directly, which appears to disturb the twelve. Christ points to St Peter, who traditionally is shown with a short white beard and white hair and tells him to go to the sea where the tax money can be found in the mouth of fish. This group of fourteen is the first-time people are depicted standing in a three-dimensional circle, Christ is in the center. All their heads are at the same level and all their faces can be seen. Their bodies are depicted in appropriate and equal height. No previous artist had managed to place a group of people standing firmly on the ground.
At the far left of the composition is the second scene of the story in which Peter at the edge retrieves the coin from the fish’s mouth. Although Peter is bending down, clearly his anatomy is incorrect. Particularly noticeable are his large, rounded shoulders, small and short arms and hands, and the poorly proportioned and awkward position of his legs. Peter looks down at the fish, the face close to accurate. His halo has slipped to the back of his head and most likely would fall off. Felice Brancacci, who commissioned the work was a silk merchant involved in Mediterranean trade and a member of the Florentine Board of Maritime Councils. The inclusion of this episode as a separate scene would reinforce the knowledge that Florence’s wealth came from the sea. The third sequence in the fresco depicts Peter at the far right as he hands the appropriate coin to the tax collector.
Two explanations for the unique choice of the “Tribute Money” story relate to taxes and to the Papacy. In 1427, the city of Florence imposed the first catasto (income/head tax) on its citizens. Records of these taxes and the amounts paid are available in an archive’ in Florence, and they provide a record of the relative wealth of each household of Florence. Historians have speculated the scene was to encourage Florentines to pay the new tax. However, Felice Brancacci, the owner of the chapel, likely would have been financially hurt by the catasto, and would have opposed it. Later research found that Felice Brancacci was allied with Palla Strozzi, the wealthiest man in Florence, and was married to Strozzi’s sister. They were allied to Pope Martin V (reign 1417-1431) who spent a lot of his Papacy in Florence since the city of Rome was in ruins. Florence made an agreement in 1423 with Pope Martin V that stated Florentine churches were subject to state taxes. Florence was at war with Milan and needed Papal support to finance the war. Since Peter was considered the first Pope, a chapel dedicated to him would have been regarded pro-papacy. At that time not all Italian city states considered themselves Papal states, and they frequently were at war with the Pope. Battles between Italian city states and the Papacy were frequently fought to determine which had the ultimate authority.
“Tribute Money” depicts several other firsts in Renaissance art. Brunelleschi had discovered the technique of linear perspective that allows the artist to realistically depict a three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional surface. The ability to place the group in a realistic space, is one result of linear perspective. Rendering architecture in three-dimensions can be seen in Masaccio’s buildings. All the angle lines of the architecture converge on a single point on the horizon line where the earth and sky meet. Masaccio has used the perspective lines for two purposes. One was to depict the buildings correctly, although they are too small. The other to focus on Christ’s head. The horizon line is in the distance behind Christ’s head.
A second type of perspective is aerial or optical perspective. When outdoor space is depicted, the colors of earth and sky diminish visibly as objects become more distant. The ground at the front is brown, the closer hills are green and gray, and the distant hills a hazy blue gray. The aerial perspective of the scene is too abrupt when compared with nature. The frescoes in the chapel were severely damaged by fire in 1748, and although they have been expertly restored, the smoke damaged frescoes cannot be truly restored to the original.
Masaccio also tried to create individualized faces. Previously age was represented by clean shaved faces for young men, brown beards for middle aged men, and white beards for elderly men. The face of the young St John is the best example of Masaccio’s accomplishments. It likely was modeled on a Greek or Roman sculpture from the Medici collection. Three-dimensionality was achieved using accurate light and shadow. The light source is at the right and highlights the appropriate areas of the forehead, nose, mouth, chin, and neck. The shadows on the face darken as the rounds to the back, under the chin, cheek and neck. The appropriate use of light and shadow to create the ringlets of John’s curls in more easily seen.
“Tribute Money” uses one source of light throughout, another innovation depicted in the fresco. The light source comes from the right, all highlights are on the right and the darkest shadows on the left. Note the cast shadows on the ground and the shadows creating the folds of the drapery. However, this single light source is not bright sun light. The scene appears to take place on a gray day. Masaccio will not discover the technique to depict the scene in sunlight.
Masaccio’s techniques were crucial to the future development of Italian Renaissance art, but some techniques were left for others to develop. Masaccio exposed only a small portion of the body, keeping most under drapery. Note the minimal musculature of the tax collector’s legs. They bow badly and bend awkwardly, but they do exhibit the technique of foreshortening to bring an object forward toward the viewer. The faces of the twelve, although depicting a variety of ages and types remain similar in many ways and have yet to show a variety of emotions. It was speculated that the figure to the far right was Masaccio’s self-portrait. Notice the bare feet, particularly the toes of all the figures. One of the most comical observation are the halos. Masaccio has not managed to have the halos floating above their heads, except for Peter’s. The rest of the halos rest at the back of the head. If one imagines the figures walking, one might see the halos bouncing up and down.
Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) wrote The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first published in 1550, and still a highly recommended reference. He states the Brancacci Chapel “became the spiritual home of Florentine painters…that all the most celebrated sculptors and painters, who have lived from his day to our own, have become excellent and famous by exercising themselves and studying in this chapel… to learn and to grasp the precepts and the rules for good work from the figures of Masaccio…, it is the firm belief of many, that he would have produced even greater fruits in his art, if death, which tore him from us at the age of twenty-six, had not snatched him away from us so prematurely.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.