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



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Interestingly, Masolino's fresco of St. Peter Preaching shows two women among the crowd addressed by Peter's powerful rhetoric. The older, married woman, identified by her covered head, listens attentively and obediently to the lofty wisdom of the first pope. The younger, unmarried woman next to her, identified by her uncovered blond hair, sleeps with a female carnality oblivious to Peter's authority. Like Eve before her, she pays no attention to masculine instruction. If her beautiful blond hair references the blond Eve and female serpent in Masolino's Temptation (and in Masaccio's Expulsion), her unmarried state suggests the larger need for a husband, if not a pope. In part, the fresco shows how humanist marriage controlled the threat of female sexuality by imposing the discipline of marriage on what were otherwise dangerously alluring, young women. The fresco also strengthens civic patriarchy by interweaving ecclesiastical traditions and gender roles. Even the imposing Florentine architecture seen in the Raising of the Sons of Theophilus and other scenes takes on a distinctly gendered quality in elaborating a male, civic order and heightening the erect strength of these solid, fifteenth-century citizens, these manly pillars of the community. A similar architectural rhetoric informed Bruni's oration on Florence quoted above and in the following two passages.
in the center of the city there is a tall and handsome palace of great beauty ... in Florence everyone immediately recognizes that this palace is so immense that it must house the men who are appointed to govern the state.
Bruni continued with the passage on the Roman imperial power of Florentine architecture quoted above and then compared the buildings of Florence to the strength of the greatest Greek boxers in antiquity.
"the image of a strong man ... showing his powerful body and graceful movements and the strength of his members. In like fashion, once this magnificent and splendid city is seen, it dispels all doubts about its greatness ...".

Seen from a feminist perspective, the emotional power of Masaccio's dramatic and highly original treatment of Eve become particularly insidious. If it justified and confirmed male fears of the dangerous female body widespread in fifteenth-century Europe, the fresco also worked to convince female viewers to internalize a deep shame based on their own inherently sinful natures. If women could be persuaded to recognize themselves in Eve and to internalize her exemplary shame and obedience, they could become agents of their own control within a patriarchal society. Instilled in girls from the earliest years as described in Barbaro and Alberti, this culture of modesty, shame, and submission could be experienced as a series of virtues essential to the honor of the family and the stability, prosperity, and strength of the larger community. An internalized patriarchy also make it easier for any community to punish women who forgot their "natural" place and transgressed against the social order.


To raise the analysis of gender to a higher level, one might say the following. In the early fifteenth century, Masaccio painted for a civic official in republican Florence a life of Peter which intertwined civic and religious authority. All of the frescoes explored episodes in the life Peter except two scenes of Adam and Eve which stand out visually on either side of the chapel as framing devices. The appearance of these Old Testament figures is highly unusual and begs some interpretation connecting them to the scenes of Peter. Once we recognize that the frescoes work to define authority itself as masculine, the scenes of Adam and Eve fall into place as images using Eve to define disobedience as feminine. Male authority is greatly strengthened if disobedience can be gendered as female. As the traditional emblem of all women, Eve worked here to universalize the threat of “feminine” disobedience through all time and space not unlike the way papal authority moves through time in the frescoes – from Jerusalem to Antioch to Florentine Streets – and in papal ideology, miraculously inhabiting each successor to Peter and presiding over all Christendom

The Renaissance as "Revival" of Antiquity and Renewal of Body and Nature
It is a cliché that Renaissance art revived classical art and thinking. It is more accurate to say that the Renaissance selectively revived and reinterpreted classical culture to forge modern values. Pagan deities and themes were inscribed with a series of Renaissance moral, political, social, and religious codes. For example, Masaccio borrowed the classical goddess of love and desire to make a powerful Christian figure of female sin, shame and transgression. Yet sixty years later, social and cultural morays had changed sufficiently in Florence to allow Botticelli to use a naked Venus to symbolize the sanctity of Christian marriage (Birth of Venus). By the 1530s, images of the naked Venus began to appear frequently in large-scale paintings in accord with later thinking on sexuality, the body, gender and nature. Rather than a stable subject "revived" by Renaissance culture, Venus was a flexible metaphor, a thematic arena where Renaissance culture could discuss a variety of issues and negotiate new values.
The other great cliché about Renaissance art is that it developed a new, more positive understanding of the body similar to that found in classical culture. (In Masaccio’s Expulsion, the classical celebration of male nudity struggles to emerge in a Christian setting.) While this generalization about the Renaissance revival of the classical body is true enough, it needs to be examined more closely in historical terms to reveal the ways in which the new, positive body and bodily sphere, supposedly revived from antiquity or "studied from nature," was itself inscribed with Renaissance values.
Despite its rhetoric of universality, timeless truth, and unquestionable beauty, the body and the bodily realm of nature found in Renaissance culture were two more arenas in which Renaissance groups projected and defined contemporary social, political, economic, and sexual values. In the end, as Masaccio's Expulsion makes all too clear, some bodies and natures were more honored than others. Some were more rational, godlike, and powerful while others were more frequently inscribed with shame and submission. Some were born to achieve great feats in the public arena, to stride forward, majestically and gloriously unveiled even in the midst of sin and shame. Others were born to retreat into a concealed, private sphere and cultivate modesty, penitence, silence, invisibility, obedience, and the other virtues sacred to women.
The Tribute Money, Raising of Theophilus, and Expulsion, all show how fifteenth-century sexual politics were inscribed and interwoven in subtle and complex ways into high church culture, humanist social and political morality, human psychology, and scientific anatomy. We are reminded that no realm of knowledge or culture in the Renaissance (or any other period) was free from gender values. They circulated everywhere through every conceivable discourse, issue, and human activity.


Artistic Self-Consciousness and the Power of Natural Images
In many ways, the whole story of Masaccio's Raising of the Son of Theophilus showed how papal power depended on a variety of external, visible images. These included the publicly staged, theatrical miracles performed by Christ and Peter to show the power of the Christian deity. Other visual demonstrations or "images" included the grand architecture of Christian churches, symbolic enthronements, the church sacraments evoked by Masaccio's St. Peter Baptizing the Converted Pagans, and finally, artistic images.
Masaccio may have even commented on his own ability to externalize papal power in vivid images. By showing Peter not as a living pope enthroned in the church of Antioch but painted on a banner outside the church, Masaccio turned Peter into a powerful religious image worshipped by the faithful. In this form, St. Peter recalled Masaccio's frescoes which were also grand religious "banners" of Peter decorating a church, this one in Florence. We should also see in Masaccio's ground-breaking naturalism a "miraculous" power to make Peter appear in any location, even the streets of Florence. All such images of Peter highlighted the power of Masaccio's highly rhetorical images to affect, move, sway, and "heal" the viewer. Though his frescoes could not revive the dead, they could bring long dead figures to life in deep, illusionistic spaces which were "miraculously lifelike". Already an old cliché of medieval writing on religious art, this phrase was even more common after 1420 when the advent of a new, striking Renaissance naturalism seemed to bring all manner of things "to life".
Even more telling of a new artistic self-consciousness and pride are the portraits of four leading Florentine artists at the far right of the Raising. In purely religious terms, they take their place among the many pious Christians submitting to the papal authority of St. Peter. But in artistic terms, they appear as a group of innovative painters and architects admiring the bold new naturalism of Masaccio’s painted banner, and by implication, the whole fresco cycle. Set in the larger terms of the new humanist civic culture, the artists appear here to claim their importance in designing and embellishing the material fabric of the ideal city described in Bruni’s Panegyric on Florence. In a fresco boasting the new Renaissance architecture of Brunelleschi and Alberti, the portraits of these two architects takes on special resonance. Like Nanni di Banco’s Four Artisan Martyrs sculpted for the exterior of Orsanmichele thirteen years earlier, Masaccio’s four artists claim a new stature as “noble” thinkers and inventors shaping the ideal city.
While the new Renaissance aesthetic brought a new appreciation for the individual artist as an intellectually-minded innovator and visual "thinker," we are still far from the modern mentality of art for art's sake. All of Masaccio's artistic talent served to strengthen papal authority, legitimize the Carmelite Order, and flatter his patron, Felice Brancacci. By showing vividly how Christ's miraculous powers were inherited by an "eternal" Peter, Masaccio's persuasive, rhetorical images made papal power all the more plausible and convincing. On the one hand, Masaccio naturalized the miraculous and made it believable. On the other hand, he endowed a naturalistic world with visionary qualities. In the end, he endowed papal mythology with the truth of a Renaissance humanist natural order while preserving the spiritual qualities essential to Christian claims of eternity and universality.
This power to translate the values and agendas of any particular group into a plausible image of a true reality as seen by the eye was probably the single most appealing feature of the new Renaissance manner for social elites. In naturalizing all group agendas and values within a spiritualized reality, Renaissance art gave them a convincing sense of truth. Every Renaissance painting can be seen as a rewriting of "reality" in conformity with the values of a patron. Thus imbedded in nature, social values operated more powerfully as aspects of an unchanging world.

Historical vs. Aesthetic Explanations of the Impact of Masaccio's Art
Beyond contributing to the development of papal imagery in Italian Renaissance art, Masaccio's highly original frescoes also exercised a larger impact on Florentine painting which transcended the particularities of its subject matter and the agendas of the moment. Within two decades, most younger Florentine artists began working in styles which were indebted in one way or another to Masaccio. Thus the Brancacci Chapel helped launch a sea change in Florentine painting as it moved from the ornate, highly refined "International Style" of Gentile da Fabriano to a new manner grounded in "natural" forms.
Traditional art history credited the onset of Renaissance naturalism in painting to Masaccio as if the quality and originality of his work had some sort of magical effect on other artists or as if broad artistic change could be explained by praising the heroic artistic accomplishments of individual "geniuses". A moment's reflection should allow us to move beyond such simplistic historical thinking.
If Masaccio's art eventually inspired a younger generation of patrons and artists to move in a new direction, it was only because his grand, earthy naturalism, deep spaces, dramatic compositions, and civic architectural rhetoric resonated with a new generation of Florentine burgher and courtly elites oriented toward an emerging humanist culture of civic values, practical knowledge and urban spirituality. Masaccio was the right artist for the right time. His art embodied a new set of values which made the showy expensiveness and ethereal bodies of the courtly International Style seem outmoded within two decades. While Gentile remained highly successful in Masaccio's time, his historical moment was already losing ground in the face of broad historical changes. Well aware of the new currents, Gentile even experimented with elements of Masaccio's new style in smaller works.

The Brancacci Chapel as Textbook Masterpiece and the Traditional History of Art
Seen as a whole, the Brancacci Chapel invites us to move beyond twentieth centuries mythologies of Great Books and Great Works of Art as some sort of repository of our greatest spiritual values, our timeless and universal ideals and truths. If anything, the Brancacci Chapel shows how, at one particular moment, various groups inscribed onto their highest, "universal" ideals a series of historically-bound, group values tied to class, institutional interests, local politics, and sexual hierarchies. None of this takes away from the striking artistic originality, expressive power, and aesthetic quality of Masaccio's frescoes. This quality survives to impress modern viewers long after we have forgotten the fifteenth-century issues and values which the frescoes originally addressed so forcefully.
By defining female nature as shameful and encouraging viewers to accept and internalize this definition of women, Masaccio's fresco helped perpetuate patriarchal thinking and practices that limited the lives of Renaissance women in a countless ways. One response might be to denounce Masaccio for promoting sexist values. The problem is that just about every other artist from the past was equally "guilty" and the exercise soon becomes repetitive, facile, shallow, and self-indulgent. Men (and women) from the fifteenth-century cannot be blamed for not grasping the feminist awareness which is only possible today thanks to the women's movement of the last forty years. Attacking Masaccio for a sexist ideology is, in its own way, just as one-sided as praising him for his artistic "genius". The first looks only at sexual politics, the second only at artistic form.


1 Lionardo Bruni, Panegyric to the City of Florence, trans. Benjamin Kohl, in Benjamin Kohl and Ronald Witt, eds., The Earthly Republic. Italian Humanists on Government and Society, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978, (1991 ed., pp. 135-175, quotation on p. 143.


2 Jean Gerson, De examinatione doctrinam, I.2a-3a, cited in Bynum, Jesus as Mother, pp. 135-136


3 Boccaccio, Gloss to Teseide, VII. Temple of Venus; see Boccaccio, The Book of Theseus, New York: Teesdale, 1974, p. 342
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