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  • Writer's pictureJoe Nickols, MA

A Brief History of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence

What is Santa Maria del Carmine?

Santa Maria del Carmine is a 13th-century church with a Rococo interior that houses ‘the Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance’ by Masaccio.

Santa Maria del Carmine

Santa Maria del Carmine History

From the outside, this medieval church may strike you as rather unassuming. But the interior is famed for housing a triumph of early-Renaissance painting. The modest dimensions of the Brancacci Chapel bely its cultural significance. The chapel’s decoration was commissioned by the politically powerful Felice Brancacci, who played an important role in the expulsion of the Medici in 1433. Masolino (meaning ‘delicate one’) was chosen to lead the project, delegating some of it to his star pupil, Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Guidi, more commonly known as Masaccio (a humorous pun on Tommaso, meaning ‘big’ or even ‘clumsy’). Despite this slur, Masaccio was one of the most innovative artists of the Renaissance. Sadly, he died in 1428 at the tragically young age of 26.

In the Brancacci Chapel, Masaccio consolidated his reputation as one of the greatest artists of the era. With innovative compositions and sophisticated brushwork, he outshone his staid and traditional teacher. The frescoes depict episodes from the life of Saint Peter, the disciple who became the first pope and founded the early Catholic Church.

The significance of tax in the commissioning of Renaissance art is rarely considered, but in the case of these frescoes it’s pivotal. During the 1420s, there was much debate about the State taxing religious institutions. Florence had been involved in many expensive wars with neighbouring cities and needed more money to fund them. Accordingly, Florentine churches, monasteries, convents and other such institutions were heavily taxed. The governors of the city, including Felice Brancacci, appealed repeatedly to the pope to force ecclesiastical establishments to contribute to the running of Florence. As many churches couldn’t pay, their land was seized and the proceeds redistributed. Yet many believed that Church was separate from State and should be exempt from secular matters such as taxation. However, a scene from the Gospel of Saint Matthew records Jesus asking Saint Peter to pay money to a tax collector and this story was seized upon to justify taxing the Church.

Corsini Chapel

Tango7174, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Masaccio painted the moment in exquisite detail (on the chapel’s left-hand wall), with Christ shown directing Saint Peter to pay with money found in the mouth of a fish. Since Peter symbolises the Church in Christian iconography, this scene is used to demonstrate Brancacci’s support for the levy. In this work, known as The Tribute Money, Masaccio has painted the scene in continuous narrative, with several characters appearing multiple times in the image, to denote the passage of time. The tax collector, for instance, dressed in a russet-coloured tunic, is depicted twice; once with his back to the viewer and a second time facing forward, thus demonstrating Masaccio’s mastery of human anatomy by effectively painting a figure in the round. This work is among the first paintings to use single-point perspective, with all sight lines leading towards a vanishing point behind Jesus’s head. The technical prowess demonstrated here was unprecedented in the history of painting and the work is now considered an important catalyst in the development of Renaissance art.

The rest of the fresco cycle focuses on Saint Peter’s interactions with powerful and private individuals. Other scenes include depictions of his meeting with Emperor Nero, baptising believers, healing the sick with a shadow, distributing alms, his imprisonment and release, amongst other miracles. Many details of Tuscan fashions and cityscapes are included.

Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden is visible to the left of The Tribute Money. This famous painting depicts Adam and Eve in a state of heightened emotional despair. The image has a volatile quality, showing the subjects overcome with shame, covering face and body respectively. Compared to the more traditional and emotionless image of The Temptation of Adam and Eve painted opposite by Masolino, the substantial advance in figurative technique achieved by Masaccio is undeniable. The frescoes were left unfinished when Masaccio departed for Rome where he died and were only completed much later in the 1480s by the celebrated Filippino Lippi. The church itself was founded in the 13th century and has been expanded multiple times since then. The Rococo design of the main building dates from the 1780s after a fire destroyed much of the interior.

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