Masolino in Empoli
«Therefore, Empoli can boast the possession of two of Masolino’s paintings»: thus in 1902 did the famous American critic, Bernard Berenson, attribute to Masolino the two masterpieces present in this Tuscan city: the Madonna with Child in the Church of Santo Stefano degli Agostiniani («the most charming») and the Christ in Pietà in the Collegiate Church («the most noble»), at one time attributed to Masaccio.
A few years later, in 1905, documents related to the 1424 payment for the frescoes of the Company of the Cross to Masolino were discovered: «Said chapel named above for which the Company commissioned its painting have paid to Maso di Cristofano, a painter from Florence, seventy-four gold florins on the day of 2 November 1424, as appears in our ancient books» (O.H. Giglioli 1905). This opened new investigative routes towards the discovery of the missing frescoes. These were found in 1943 in the chapel dedicated to Saint Helena that the Company had in the Church of the Agostiniani in a fragmentary state.
The fragments were found in the intrados of the entry arch, the splayed window jambs, (the trompe l’oeil still life), under the plaster, since the friars, gathered in the chapter in 1792, decided «to peel off the frescos, remove the plaster and re-plaster». The sinopia drawings, among the most beautiful of the Florentine 15th century, were found under the frescoes. It is the first documented work by Masolino, who was about forty years old at the time. If his stay in Empoli certainly does not succeed in clearing away the mystery of his youth, (a sojourn in Hungary accompanying Pippo Spano?), it does mark our artist’s return to Tuscany, helping us to understand the close relationship with Masaccio that has characterized the whole critical vicissitude of Masolino, constantly compared to Masaccio, using a process of contrast and underestimation of Masolino himself.
At the time of the Empoli works, the two artists certainly knew each other. A careful study of the modeling of the Pietà in the Collegiate Church of Empoli has suggested to critics the possibility of a trip to Rome by Masolino in order to see works from classical antiquity. But, the superb volumetrical synthesis and the exceptional harmony of light from a precise source, and of natural shadow, show him to be current with the Renaissance research that Masaccio was carrying forward, which he counters with a profound sadness, devoid of dramatic power, in the sorrowful figures of Christ and the mourners.
Thus the spatiality of the elegant figures in the sinopia drawings of the Story of the True Cross, the study of a diffuse light and shadow in the charming trompe l’oeil still life in the same chapel are combined with Masolino’s other characteristics: the slow and elegant rhythms, the refined shading, the subtle color transitions and, above all, a freshness and vernal tone that distinguish the Madonna with Child and Saint Ives and pupils in the transept of the Church of the Agostiniani. Masolino’s faithfulness to the Gothic tradition enlivened by a delicacy of color and a pictorial sense of space, makes him a key figure in the Florence of the third decade of the 15th century, being the point of departure for one of the currents in the splitting of Renaissance painting, which, on one hand carries forward the Masaccio – Filippo Lippi current, on the other develops the Angelico – Domenico Veneziano one.
Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani
in, Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Andrea a Empoli. Guida alla visita del museo e alla scoperta del territorio, a cura di Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani. Polistampa 2006