The entrance to the Brancacci Chapel is on the right of the steps up to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Masolino di Panicale, originally Masaccio’s teacher, was commissioned to do the cycle of frescoes, but Masaccio, whose talent had surpassed his master, took over from him in 1424-5.
The cycle was completed after 1480-85 by Filippino Lippi. These frescoes, (Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise, the Payment of the Tribute Money, etc.), were to influence generations of artists and pave the way for the Florentine Renaissance. On the first day after his arrival in Florence, Stendhal had gone to see the tombs of the great men in Santa Croce, while re-reading Foscolo’s poem I Sepolcri, which he had in his attach case; the second day he went to the “church of the Carmine where Masaccio’s frescoes are”. Stendhal’s instincts were right, for a visit to see Masaccio’s frescoes in the Carmine is an experience beyond that of going to museums and mausoleums; it is a visit to the heart of Florence and to one of the greatest works of art in the city. What we know of Masaccio’s life suggests that he eschewed high living and was dedicated only to his art, unlike his great Flemish contemporary, Van Eyck, who acted both as a diplomat and as a courtier in his native Bruges. Masaccio was held in high esteem by such politically important figures as Felice Brancacci, who commissioned this chapel in the Carmine, and later he was called to Rome to work for members of the Holy See. It was there that Masaccio died in 1428 aged 26, either from the plague or from poisoning. At the outset of his career, he had portrayed the consecration of the church of the Carmine in 1422 in the famous fresco called the Sagra, formerly in the cloister of that church but destroyed in 1600. The fresco showed the square in front of the church and a great procession of people, amongst whom he included portraits of his friends: Brunelleschi was shown wearing wooden clogs, also Donatello and Masolino (who later worked with Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel). He also portrayed the foremost political figures of the day: Uzzano, Giovanni di Bicci dei Medici, Brancacci and others, and he included the gatekeeper standing with the keys in his hands by the door of the convent. All this was shown with the utmost realism; sadly, we only know of the fresco’s appearance from copies. The Brancacci Chapel became the school of the Florentine Renaissance painters, including Michelangelo. Here we shall limit ourselves to pointing out the civic meaning of this cycle, which, as is indicated by the episode of the Tribute Money, is obviously a reference to the catasto, the important egalitarian tax reform passed in Florence in 1427. Masaccio was implying that it is necessary to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” i.e. pay one’s taxes. He himself made his tax declaration in July 1427, from which we learn that he lived in a rented house with his mother and his younger brother and that he also paid the rent for half a workshop near the Bargello; also, he had many debts. At that time this very modest tax-payer was, together with Van Eyck, one of the greatest painters in the world; and no one knows how his painting would have developed if he had not died the following year. Brunelleschi, usually very pungent in his remarks about other artists, this time commented: “We have suffered a great loss”.