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Masaccio, Trinity, (detail) 1425-28, fresco, 640 x 317 cm, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Travel guide for Tuscany

Masaccio | The Holy Trinity, Santa Maria Novella, Firenze


The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors (Italian: Santa Trinità ) is a fresco by the Early Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio. It is located in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. Trinity is the most famous work of Masaccio beside the frescoes in the Cappelle Brancacci. There are various opinions as to exactly when this fresco was painted between 1425 and 1428. It was described in detail by Vasari in 1568, who emphasized the virtuosity of the trompe l'oeil in the architectural structure of the painting: "a barrel vault drawn in perspective, and divided into squares with rosettes which diminish and are foreshortened so well that there seems to be a hole in the wall."

Only two years after Vasari's book was published, the erection of a stone altar caused the fresco to be covered up by a panel of the Madonna of the Rosary painted by Vasari himself. Thus the fresco remained unknown for further generations from 1570 to 1861 when owing to the removal of the 16th century altar it was again uncovered. After being removed and placed on the internal facade of the church between the left and the central doors, it was put back in its original position in 1952, as a result of the discovery, beneath the 19th century neo-Gothic altar, of the lower section of the fresco with Adam's skeleton and the painted altar table, once part of the whole work.

The reconstructed work was taken up by critics as the symbol and revelation of Brunelleschi's principles in architecture and the use of perspective, to the point that some believed Brunelleschi to have had a direct hand in the work.

The entire church was initially covered in frescoes but these were painted over in the 16th century by Vasari when he carried out massive works ordered by Cosimo de' Medici. The Trinità was covered by a massive painting and only rediscovered around 1860 when further refurbishments were carried out. [2]

The most likely interpretation of the Trinity is that the painting alludes to the traditional medieval double chapel of Golgotha, with Adam's tomb in the lower part (the skeleton) and the Crucifixion in the upper part. But it can also assume the significance of the journey the human spirit must undertake to reach salvation, rising from the earthly life (the corruptible body) through prayer (the two petitioners) and the intercession of the Virgin and saints (John the Evangelist) to the Trinity.

The tomb consists of a sarcophagus on which lies a skeleton. "Carved" in the wall above the skeleton is an inscription: "IO FU[I] G[I]A QUEL CHE VOI S[I]ETE E QUEL CH['] I[O] SONO VO[I] A[N]C[OR] SARETE" (I once was what you are and what I am you also will be). This memento mori underlines that the painting was intended to serve as a lesson to the viewers. At the simplest level the imagery must have suggested to the 15th-century faithful that, since they all would die, only their faith in the Trinity and Christ's sacrifice would allow them to overcome their transitory existences.



The Trinity is noteworthy for its inspiration taken from ancient Roman triumphal arches and the strict adherence to the recent perspective discoveries, with a vanishing point at the viewer's eye level, so that, as Vasari describes it 'a barrel vault drawn in perspective, and divided into squares with rosettes that diminish and are foreshortened so well that there seems to be a hole in the wall.' This artistic technique is called trompe l'oeil, which means 'deceives the eye,' in French.
The fresco had a transforming effect on generations of Florentine painters and visiting artists. The sole figure without a fully-realized three-dimensional occupation of space is the majestic God supporting the Cross, considered an immeasurable being. The kneeling patrons represent another important novelty, occupying the viewer's own space, "in front of" the picture plane, which is represented by the Ionic columns and the Corinthian pilasters from which the feigned vault appears to spring; they are depicted in the traditional prayerful pose of donor portraits, but at life size, rather than the more usual small scale, and with a noteworthy attention to realism and volume.

Several diverse interpretations of the fresco have been proposed. Most scholars have seen it as a traditional kind of image, intended for personal devotions and commemorations of the dead, although explanations of how the painting reflects these functions differ in their details.
The iconography of the Trinity, flanked by Mary and John or including donors, is not uncommon in Italian art of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and the association of the Trinity with a tomb also has precedents. No precedent for the exact iconography of Masaccio's fresco, combining all these elements, has been discovered, however. The figures of the two patrons have most often been identified as members of the Lenzi family or, more recently, a member of the Berti family of the Santa Maria Novella quarter of Florence.[4] They serve as models of religious devotion for viewers but, because they are located closer to the sacred figures than the viewers are, they also lay claim to special status.

The pilasters in Masaccio's Trinity fresco have ornamental capitals in Corinthean style; the columns supporting the vault have ornamental capitals in Ionic style. All of these ornamental capitals line up along straight lines that happen to be vanishing lines. The Ionic capitals atop the front columns lie with the Corinthean capitals in a plane that is parallel to the picture plane. But those same Ionic capitals atop the front columns lie with the Ionic capitals atop the back columns in a plane that is orthogonal to the picture plane. So what look like simple straight lines in two dimensions represent segments that have very different orientations in three dimensions.

The reconstruction of Masaccio's Trinity inspired by Polzer (1971) proceeds from a vertical organization of three squares. The circular arch that covers the front of the vault coincides with the top half of a circle inscribed in the top square. The top of the nimbus behind the head of God the Father coincides with the center of the circle. Christ's head is exactly in the middle of the lower half of the square. When a vanishing point is chosen at the location of the head of the viewer shown in the bottom square, the whole construction of this convincing perspective, including the semi-circular vault, can be done according to traditional pre -perspective two-dimensional rules.

Joseph Polzer, "The Anatomy of Masaccio's Holy Trinity," Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 13 (1971) 18-59.


The detail shows the figure of the Virgin.

The detail shows the figure of Saint John the Evangelist.


Alberti's Perspective Construction and One-point perspective | The location of the eye in Masaccio's Trinity | Tony Phillips, Alberti’s perspective construction, the January, 2002, AMS Feature Column

One-point perspective is the most common systematic method for representing space on a surface. The idea is that the picture in its frame should give the illusion of being a window through which the immobile eye of the observer looks at an outside 3-dimensional world. (Alberti speaks of the canvas as ``an open window through which I see what I want to paint.'') Each spot visible through the window gives a spot in the picture, located at the intersection with the picture plane of the straight line joining it to the eye.

The Magic of Illusion — presented here in a seven-part podcast series — is a film about how we see, what we see, or what it is we think we see. Al Roker guides us on a journey into the secrets of illusion, utilizing special effects to illustrate the artistic and visionary discoveries of the Renaissance. While Copernicus and Columbus were changing our understanding of the world, the Renaissance masters were dramatically changing the way we see that world. The film uses recent technology to look at old works in new ways. Each segment of this podcast presentation unlocks new secrets of illusion and perspective as seen in the works of old masters. This program made possible by The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
In 1427 inside Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Masaccio created the masterpiece The Trinity using linear perspective for the first time. This segment explains how he was able to make the wall behind the work seem to disappear so that the painting becomes an extension of the room the viewer is in.
Part 2 | Masaccio's Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, Firenze

[1] Not much is known about Masaccio other than the fact he must have admired and studied deeply the work of Giotto in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. At the age of 21 he became a member of the painter's guild and began his life's work in painting a series of frescos in the Brancacci Chapel sometime after 1425.

"In sculpture Donatello had already given body to the new ideals when Masaccio began his brief career, and in the education, the awakening, of the younger artist the example of the elder must have been of incalculable force. But a type gains vastly in significance by being presented in some action along with other individuals of the same type; and here Donatello was apt, rather than to draw his meed of profit, to incur loss by descending to the obvious - witness his bas reliefs at Siena, Florence, and Padua. Masaccio was untouched by this taint. Types, in themselves of the manliest, he presents with a sense for the materially significant which makes us realize to the utmost their power and dignity; and the spiritual significance thus gained he uses to give the highest import to the event he is portraying; this import, in turn, gives a higher value to the types, and thus, whether we devote our attention to his types or to his action, Masaccio, keeps us on a high plane of reality and significance. In later painting we shall easily find greater science, greater craft, and greater perfection of detail, but greater reality, greater significance, I venture to say, never. Dust bitten and ruined though his Brancacci Chapel frescoes now are, I never see them without the strongest stimulation of my tactile consciousness. I feel that I could touch every figure, that it would yield a definite resistance to my touch, that I should have to expend thus much effort to displace it, that I could walk around it. In short, I scarcely could realize it more, and in real life I should scarcely realize it so well, the attention of each of us being too apt to concentrate itself upon some dynamic quality, before we have at all begun to realize the full material significance of the person before us. Then what strength to his young men, and what gravity and power to his old! How quickly a race like this would possess itself of the earth, and brook no rivals but the forces of nature! Whatever they do - simply because it is they - is impressive and important, and every movement, every gesture, is world changing. Compared with his figures, those in the same chapel by his precursor, Masolino, are childish, and those by his follower, Filippino, unconvincing and without significance, because without tactile values. Even Michelangelo, where he comes in rivalry, has, for both reality and significance, to take a second place. Compare his 'Expulsion from Paradise' (in the Sixtine Chapel) with the one here by Masaccio. Michelangelo's figures are more correct, but far less tangible and less powerful; and while he represents nothing but a man warding off a blow dealt by a sword, and a woman cringing with ignoble fear, Masaccio's Adam and Eve stride away from Eden heart broken with shame and grief, hearing, perhaps, but not seeing, the angel hovering high overhead who directs their exiled footsteps.
Masaccio, then, like Giotto a century earlier - himself the Giotto of an artistically more propitious world - was, as an artist, a great master of the significant, and, as a painter, endowed to the highest degree with a sense of tactile values, and with a skill in rendering them. In a career of but few years he gave to Florentine painting the direction it pursued to the end. In many ways he reminds us of the young Bellini. Who knows? Had he but lived as long, he might have laid the foundation for a painting not less delightful and far more profound than that of Venice. As it was, his frescoes at once became, and for as long as there were real artists among them remained, the training school of Florentine painters."
[From Bernard Berenson, "Italian Painters of the Renaissance"
Berenson published his first book, Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, in 1894, and followed quickly with other books on the painters of Florence and central and northern Italy, Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, 1896, and Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance, 1897. Along with a book he wrote in 1907, North Italian Painters of the Renaissance, all of his early works were collected into one volume in 1930, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. That book served as the definitive authority on Italian Renaissance painting throughout the 20th century.]
[2] Vasari's changes. The church initially had been divided into two parts - the higher part was divided by a wall and reserved for the friars while the lower part was open to the faithful that entered by the eastern side door. The wall was demolished by Vasari in the 16th century but you can clearly see where the division used to be as Giotto's Crucifix hangs right above. This also explains why the pulpit is so far down the church in the lower part.
The side door was also closed off by Vasari and was just reopened in 2000 on occasion of the Jubilee celebrations which permits once again to correctly observe Masaccio's Trinity as it was intended.
[5] McCarthy, Mary (August 22, 1959). "A City of Stone". The New Yorker (New York): 48.


Santa Trinita in Florence
Piazza della Santissima Annunziata
in Florence
San Marco, Florence

Holiday accomodation in Tuscany | Podere Santa Pia | Artist and writer's residency

Banfi Castle

Castello Banfi
Podere Santa Pia
Podere Santa Pia, garden view, April

Santa Maria Novella a Firenze
The Valle d'Ombrone
Santa Maria del Carmine, Firenze
Sunset with view on the island of Monte Christo

Podere Santa Poa offers its guests a breathtaking view over the Maremma hills and Montecristo, the island in the Tyrrhenian Sea