Everyone who visits the Uffizi naturally wants to see all the most famous works, like the works by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. At the Uffizi, the galleries displaying works by these masters are the most crowded. Many other masterworks by artists who were just as influential and important in the history of art are often overlooked. One of these artists is the Florentine painter Masaccio. He used linear perspective for the first time in painting, marking the beginning of Renaissance painting. Perspective was not invented in the Renaissance (the ancient Romans already had perspective); it was revived and adapted by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century. Perspective was applied to relief sculpture by Donatello and to painting by Masaccio. Perspective gave works the illusion of real three-dimensional space on a flat surface. In his notebooks, Leonardo claimed that this was the true goal of a painter.
Besides the use of perspective, other Renaissance innovations in painting included the realistic depiction of the body through the study of anatomy and through the use of light and shadow to give images depth and volume. The Renaissance also transformed the depiction of holy figures by depicting them in a naturalistic way, as human individuals. These were no longer mystical figures as in medieval icons, but real people with emotion, gestures, and expression. Masaccio was a master of all of these techniques.
Two works by Masaccio are on display at the Uffizi. The first, the Saint Anne Metterza (c. 1424), is an altarpiece made in collaboration with Masolino. It shows St. Anne, the mother of Mary, seated behind the Virgin and Child. It was made for the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Florence where the cults of Corpus Domini and the Immaculate Conception were especially venerated. The piece may have been part of a container made to hold the consecrated bread for the Eucharist (believed to be the actual body of Christ by worshippers). This is to be kept in mind when we look at this painting, especially when we see the body of the infant Jesus, a detail attributed to Masaccio. Learning his lessons from Donatello and from the ancient masters, Masaccio has given the body of the infant Christ a sculptural quality. Details in the contours of the body with the shading and light give it a real three-dimensional appearance. Masaccio has given us Christ literally in the flesh.
The other work at the Uffizi is a rather small panel, Madonna and Child (c. 1426), also known as the “tickling Madonna”. It was probably commissioned as a private devotional piece. It is an example of how the Renaissance changed the way religious figures were depicted. They are given not only three-dimensional realistic bodies but also real gestures and emotions. Mary and her infant are depicted as a typical mother and child, sharing a tender moment of play.
Other places in Florence to discover works by Masaccio are Santa Maria Novella Church and the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine Church, two great places to visit without all the massive crowds. These churches preserve ground-breaking frescoes by Masaccio that inspired future generations of artists, including Michelangelo.