Wealth, Gender, and Civic Humanism in Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel



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Since Florence was then one of the few republican city states in Italy, the unusual architectural rhetoric of Masaccio's frescoes was more than a proud artistic display of one point perspective or a device to create deep spaces. Perspective space itself needs to seen as a system geared toward impressive architectural settings and a new, humanist civic imagery. Seen as architectural rhetoric, perspective recovers its original political and social meaning in the urban values of Renaissance humanism. While perspective spaces were admired as new forms of Renaissance artistry, they also allowed Renaissance courtly, burgher, and ecclesiastical elites new ways to represent political orders, whether republican, courtly, or Catholic.

Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve and the Sexual Politics of the Body
The traditional reading of the Expulsion focuses on style and notes the reemergence of the expressive, rhetorical, heroic nude in Renaissance art. By playing off Adam's outer anguish with Eve's inner shame, Masaccio made each speak more powerfully as rhetorical bodies. The restoration of the frescoes in the 1980s removed the leaves added later to cover the genitals and revealed Masaccio's unusual decision to paint Adam and Eve naked. Ignoring the clothing of animals skins mentioned in the Bible and featured in most artistic representations, Masaccio used nudity to develop a more dramatic and emotionally powerful display of physical shame all the more poignant and novel for its anatomical expression.
Scholars have long noted the origins of Eve in classical sculptures of Venus, the relation of some heads in the Tribute Money to ancient Roman busts, and the way the bodies in the Expulsion seem studied "from life". While these observations are perfectly correct, they are also tied to a historically superficial stylistic analysis disinterested in a wider range of historical questions encompassing papal and civic politics and here, the central issues of gender. To be fair, art historians writing before the women's movement of the mid-1970s were almost all male and they remained blind to gender issues. So too, the recent cleaning of the frescoes and the disappearance of the leaves makes it easier to sniff out Renaissance sexual politics in the highly unusual visibility of Adam's genitals.
In the Biblical story, Adam and Eve were naked and without sin or shame until they ate the forbidden fruit. Immediately afterwards, they felt enormous shame at their nakedness and covered themselves with animal skins provided by God. All earlier representations of the Expulsion either show them in skins or else covering their genitals. In Masaccio’s rendering, Adam almost flaunts his large penis while Eve covers her vagina in a convulsion of shame as if her body was more guilty and shamefully carnal.
Here Masaccio gave novel visual expression to the traditional understanding of the Fall, already laid out in Scripture, which blamed Eve for the Fall and subordinated her to Adam as an extra punishment for her disobedience to God. Masaccio’s shameful female body also affirmed traditional theological discussions of the Fall as a sexual descent triggered by a supposedly weaker, "fleshier," less rational woman.
Genesis 3:12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

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16. Unto the woman he [God] said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree .... cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

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19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

20 And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.
With Genesis in mind, one might say the first and most important sin was female disobedience to God. To reverse this disobedience, God punished Eve by placing her and all women after her under the authority of their husbands and by defining her as a mother subject to painful labor. If the theme of obedience to sacred authorities had special significance in Masaccio's papalist fresco cycle, the gendered theme of female obedience to male authority was also important. This was true with respect to official church culture and to Florentine burgher republican culture which defined the public sphere of education and politics as male and the private sphere as female, domestic, emotional, and carnal.
Since Western Christian culture conveniently blamed human sin on Eve, all women were, to one extent or another, liable to attacks as modern, Eve-like sinners and threats to the established order. The female sex itself was routinely described in Medieval and Renaissance writing, both religious and humanist, as a naturally disobedient, unruly, carnal, sinful sex, a sex in need of supervision and government from a higher, male mind, a sex incapable of governing itself, much less participating in public life or politics of any kind, a sex best confined to the home and subject to a domestic discipline of lesser but important household affairs such as child-bearing, child-raising, domestic budgets, and the supervision of servants. One typical expression in the early fifteenth century came from Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris.
The female sex is forbidden on apostolic authority [I Tim. 2:12] to teach in public, that is either by word or writing. . . . All women's teaching, particularly formal teaching by word and by writing, is to be held suspect unless it has been diligently examined, and much more fully than men's. The reason is clear: common law - and not any kind of common law, but that which comes from on high - forbids them. And why? Because they are easily seduced, and determined seducers; and because it is not proved that they are witnesses to divine grace. 2
At certain times, the medieval and early modern (1400-1800) attack on women reached an ugly, violent extreme as in the witch mania of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when socially marginal women were denounced as Eve-like agents of Satan. Most of the time, a more moderate misogyny operated in European culture. In this form, male lament over Eve and Eve-like women helped justify the social, political, economic, and judicial constraints which kept women from becoming decision-makers, from speaking in any public forum, and from exercising autonomy and freedom. A typical example of this moderate misogyny came in a letter written by the late fourteenth-century humanist chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati.
Immediately after the creation of man began the proud ambition of woman, her silly curiosity, her damnable desire to have what was forbidden and her appetite for forbidden fruit; and so great was this sin that when these first parents were driven from Paradise it brought condemnation upon the whole human race. To that is to be traced the first fratricide, that of Abel; then followed the bigamy of Lamech, the murder of Cain, the violent death of the young man and, not to mention many others, the vileness of the Sodomites who tried to corrupt the angelic guests of Lot and the divine judgment by which the whole Palestinian Pentapolis, with the exception of Zoar (formerly called Bala), was destroyed by a rain of fire from Heaven.
To clarify his Eve as a sexual transgressor and a threat to the republican city, Masaccio based his figure loosely on a classical sculpture, the "modest Venus" or Venus pudica. Here was a typically Renaissance, intelligent transformation of a classical source. By drawing on Venus for an intensely shameful Eve, Masaccio exploited the traditional medieval sense of Venus as a personification of lust to suggest both the sinful, fleshy world following the Fall and the larger social dangers of unbridled female sexuality in general. Eve became a Christian humanist version of Venus and doubly tagged as a figure of lust. In later Renaissance art, Eve became a shameful sexualized figure like that found in misogynist texts of the day and exemplified elsewhere in Christian culture by the penitential Mary Magdalen.
Masaccio’s Expulsion also displayed a Renaissance Christian decorum which significantly altered the gestures of the classical statue it referenced. Despite the supposed modesty of the classical Venus pudica, Venus's hands never covered up much of anything in classical art. Instead her "modest" gestures played a coy game of "peek a boo" with male spectators. A superficial tribute to “female modesty” coexisted with the overt eroticizing of the “modest” female body. In striking contrast to this classical patriarchy with its unembarrassed, large-scale, mythological erotica, Masaccio's Eve displayed a genuine Christian shame and sin. While such intense shame was foreign to classical notions of sexuality, it was consistent with gendered, upper-class, fifteenth-century Christian notions of the shamefulness and danger of the (exposed) female body and the need to protect all "decent" women by locking them away in expensive homes. Woe to the unescorted woman walking the streets of Italian cities in the 1400s. Such shameless behavior was strictly forbidden by fathers, husbands and well-socialized mothers. Single women walking the streets were assumed to be prostitutes and as such were vulnerable to harassment or worse. (In some parts of the world today, this thinking still rules the day.)
Since Adam covers his eyes, not his genitals, it may indicate a belated attempt to shield sight and “masculine mind” from temptation of the dangerous, disorderly, female body, to guard Adam against Eve's disruptive yet fatally alluring nakedness. If this reading is correct, Adam’s gesture plays on the traditional Western idea that lust enters through the eyes, an idea already found in traditional interpretations of The Fall.
Masolino's fresco of the Temptation of Adam and Eve echoes these mainstream ideas on gender. This fresco also offered an unusual genital nudity for both figures (now visible after the recent restoration). Here is one of the relatively few vaginas in Western painting, especially church art. Standing coyly next to a phallic Tree of Knowledge encircled by an equally phallic serpent and attracting Adam's intent gaze and the beginnings of a caress, Eve appears as a blond temptress. The exact duplication of her blond hair in the female head of the watchful serpent hovering over her followed an old tradition interpreting the Fall as a seduction, as a descent into female carnality, and a medieval monastic tradition demonizing Eve and feminizing Satan. .
The exposed penis and the covered vagina in Masaccio’s fresco also plays on traditional Western notions of a supposedly innate, female modesty or shame which appears routinely in writings on women. In a long discussion of Venus, female beauty, and male desire, the early Florentine humanist, Boccaccio noted, And so he placed Priapus in a more open place than Venus, since men care less that their secret parts are seen by women than the women do. 3 By defining an innate, female shame, Western writers encouraged women to internalize their own sexual denial and chastity and to link these closely to a larger social confinement and political invisibility. The virtuous woman was modest, covered up, domesticated, out of sight.
Since Eve represented all women, blaming her in large, public works of art and other form of high culture helped men maintain a patriarchal social order requiring "carnal" women to submit to “rational” men. An important part of this male "government" was the removal of all women from public spaces and offices into a private domestic sphere where they could be firmly ruled by fathers and husbands and subject to narrow roles as daughters, marriage pawns, sexual partners, mothers, and domestic managers. In this way, the "natural" weakness, carnal impulses, and Eve-like transgression of all women could be safely contained.
This was the normal, mainstream view of women in Renaissance court, burgher, and church culture and it appeared, in somewhat different forms, in texts and images generated by each group. The civic humanist gender roles seen in Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel were well articulated a decade later (1434) in a treatise on the politics of family life by the great Florentine civic humanist and architect, Alberti. A good friend of Masaccio, Alberti actually appeared with Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Masolino in the portrait group at the far right of the Raising of the Son of Theophilus. His thinking on gender closely parallels that found in the Brancacci Chapel.
Lionardo: A woman worthy of praise must show first of all in her conduct, modesty, and purity. Marius, the illustrious Roman, said in that first speech of his to the Roman people, 'Of women we require purity, of men labor'. And I certainly agree. ...
They [the natural philosophers] always have a preference for youth, based on a number of arguments which I need not expound here, but particularly on the point that a young girl has a more adaptable mind. Young girls are pure by virtue of their age and have not developed any spitefulness. They are by nature modest and free of vice. They quickly learn to accept affectionately and unresistingly the habits and wishes of their husbands.
The subject of gender comes up again later in the discussion.
Giannozzo: "Let the father of the family follow my example. Since I find it no easy matter to deal with the needs of the household when I must often be engaged outside with other men in arranging matters of wider consequence, I have found it wise to set aside a certain amount [of money] for outside use, for investments and purchases. The rest, which takes care of all the smaller household affairs, I leave to my wife's care. I have done it this way, for, to tell the truth, it would hardly win us respect if our wife busied herself among the men in the marketplace, out in the public eye. It also seems somewhat demeaning to me to remain shut up in the house among women when I have manly things to do among men, fellow citizens and worthy and distinguished foreigners."
Lionardo ... Women, on the other hand, are almost all timid by nature, soft, slow, and therefore more useful when they sit still and watch over our things. It is as though nature thus provided for our well-being, arranging for men to bring things home and for women to guard them. The woman, as she remains locked up at home, should watch over things by staying at her post, by diligent care and watchfulness. ... those idle creatures [men] who stay all day among the little females or who keep their minds occupied with little feminine trifles certainly lack a masculine and glorious spirit. ...
Giannozzo: Yes, you see that's my longstanding conviction. I believe that a man who is the father of a family not only should do all that is proper to a man, but that he must abstain from such activities as properly pertain to a woman. The details of housekeeping he should commit entirely into their hands, as I do.
... My wife certainly did turn into a perfect mother for my household. Partly this was the result of her particular nature and temperament, but mainly it was due to my instruction.

...
Only my books and records and those of my ancestors did I determine to keep well sealed both then and thereafter. These my wife not only could not read, she could not even lay hands on then, I kept my records at all times not in the sleeves of my dress, but locked up and arranged in order in my study, almost like sacred and religious objects. I never gave my wife permission to enter that place, with me or alone. I also ordered her, if she ever came across any writing of mine, to give it over to my keeping at once. To take away any taste she might have for looking at my notes or prying into my private affairs, I often used to express my disapproval of bold and forward females who try too hard to know about things outside the house and about the concerns of their husband and of men in general.
Giannozzo: ...I always tried to make sure, first that she could not, and second that she did not wish, to know more of my secrets than I cared to impart. One should never, in fact, tell a secret, even a trivial one, to one's wife or any woman. I am greatly displeased with those husbands who take counsel with their wives and don't know how to confine any kind of secret to their own breast. They are madmen if they think true prudence or good counsel lies in the female brain, and still more clearly mad if they suppose that a wife will be more constant in silence concerning her husband's business than he himself has proved. ...
Giannozzo: She replied by saying that her father and mother had taught her to obey them and had ordered her always to obey me, and so she was prepared to do anything I told her to. "My dear wife," said I, "a girl who knows how to obey her father and mother soon learns to please her husband...."

...
Giannozzo:...To this I said, "Dear wife. listen to me, I shall be most pleased if you do just three things: first, my wife, see that you never want another man to share this bed but me. You understand." She blushed and cast down her eyes. ... The second, I said, was that she should take care of the household, preside over it with modesty, serenity, tranquility, and peace. That was the second point. The third thing, I said, was that she should see that nothing went wrong in the house.

...
Lionardo: What a perfect wife. I can well believe that such a woman, so obedient to your word and so modest by her own nature, could elicit respect and good behavior in the rest of the household.
Giannozzo: All wives are thus obedient, if their husbands know how to be husbands.
In Renaissance civic humanism, whether burgher or courtly, the virtuous wife and the harmonious marriage were frequently described as the bedrock of the larger social and political order. The first important humanist discussion on marriage was written in 1415 by the Venetian humanist, Barbaro, for his good friend in Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici. Barbaro dedicated his essay, On Wifely Duties to Lorenzo on the occasion of his marriage. Since this text was well known among Florentine humanists such as Alberti after 1415, it was also probably familiar to Brancacci and Masaccio. In the section titled, "On Modesty," Barbaro cited the ancient Greek philosopher, Gorgias
... who wanted women to be shut up at home so that nothing could be known about them except their reputation. But Thucydides did not think that they merited such treatment, for he declared that he had the best wife, about whom there was not the least word praising or censuring her. [i.e., an invisible wife]

We who follow a middle way, should establish some rather liberal rules for our wives. They should not be shut up in their bedrooms as in a prison but should be permitted to go out, and this privilege should be taken as evidence of their virtue and propriety. Still, wives should not act with their husbands as the moon does with the sun; for when the moon is near the sun it is never visible, but when it is distant it stands resplendent by itself. Therefore, I would have wives be seen in public with their husbands, but when their husbands are away, wives should stay at home.
For Barbaro, female modesty also required the silencing of married women, especially in public arenas and political matters. He developed these ideas in a separate section, "On Silence" with a revealing comparison between the dangers of unbridled female speech and unveiled female bodies.
Loquacity cannot be sufficiently reproached in women, as many very learned and wise men have stated, nor can silence be sufficiently applauded. For this reason women were prohibited by the laws of the Romans from pleading either criminal or civil law cases. And when Maesia, Afrania, and Hortensia deviated from these laws, their actions were reproved, criticized and censured in the histories of the Romans. When Marcus Cato the Elder, observed that Roman women, contrary to nature's law and the condition of the female sex, sometimes frequented the Forum, sought a favorable decision, and spoke with strangers, he inveighed against, criticized, and restrained them as was required by that great citizen's honor and the dignity of his State.
When addressed, wives should reply very modestly to familiar friends and return their greetings, and they should very briefly treat those matters that the time and place offer them. In this way they will always seem to be provoked into conversation rather than to provoke it. They should also take pains to be praised for the dignified brevity of their speech rather for its glittering prolixity. When a certain young man saw the noble woman Theano stretch her arm out of her mantle that had been drawn back, he said to his companions: 'How handsome is her arm.' To this she replied: 'It is not a public one'. It is proper, however, that not only arms but indeed the speech of women never be made public; for the speech of a noble woman can be no less dangerous than the nakedness of her limbs. For this reason, women ought to avoid conversations with strangers since manners and feelings often draw notice easily in these situations.

...
Even if I were to concede, following his opinion, that it is usually appropriate for men to speak, still I consider such speechmaking to be, in the main, repugnant to the modesty, constancy, and dignity of a wife. For this reason, the author Sophocles, who is certainly no worse than the Venetian [man] I am discussing - and most men consider him better - has termed silence the most outstanding ornament of women. Therefore, women should believe they have achieved glory of eloquence if they will honor themselves with the outstanding ornament of silence.
Both Barbaro's text and Masaccio's frescoes demonstrate the profound link between female carnality and the need to remove the threatening female from all public spaces, offices, and public speaking. In the Brancacci Chapel, the autonomous woman was as much a threat to the overlapping civic, social, and ecclesiastical orders represented in the fresco cycle as to God's original, perfect order in the Garden of Eden. Masaccio made this clear by juxtaposing two, perfect, orderly, and conspicuously all-male communities, one established by God in the Tribute Money - Christ and his disciples - and the other located in the perfect civic community of the Raising of the Son of Theophilus where city fathers and other leading male citizens gathered around St. Peter with two additional, enthroned patriarchs supervising from the sides: Theophilus and St. Peter on the banner. All three works are connected in a compositional, theological, and historical dynamic which sweeps across from the Expulsion into the Tribute Money and descends to the Raising where it ends up in modern Florence.
Read in terms of its gender messages, the left wall of the Brancacci Chapel connects Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the later, divinely sanctioned "expulsion" of women from participating in ecclesiastical and civic governance. To rephrase this in line with Barbaro and Alberti, humanist culture used books and images to justify hiding shameful, carnal woman away from the body politic of the church and the state and from the social body as a whole. By expelling women from public life, and from the public action and rhetoric seen in all of these frescoes, male elites preserved a larger sanctity, order, and good government in both the public and private spheres.
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