by Roderick Conway Morris

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Big Tom and the Splinter


By Roderick Conway Morris
SAN GIOVANNI VALDARNO, Italy 27 March 1999

 

The unprecedented realism and plasticity of Masaccio's painting won him a permanent place in the annals of Western art, even though he died at about 27 in 1428.

His real name was Tommaso (Thomas), but his nickname Masaccio -- perhaps on account of his hulking stature (Big Tom) or, as Vasari suggests, his lovably shambolic and distracted behavior -- was the one he came universally to be remembered by. Equally uncertain as to its origins is his younger brother Giovanni di Ser Giovanni's nickname: "Lo Scheggia" -- the Splinter.

He, too, was an artist, though in comparison with his brother a minor one, who lived into his 80s and, while a well-known figure at the time, was until recently all but forgotten.

Giovanni now emerges from the shadows, as a person of considerable interest in his own right in "Il Fratello di Masaccio" (Masaccio's Brother), a show at the Casa Masaccio, where both were born, in San Giovanni Valdarno, a walled town about halfway between Florence and Arezzo. The exhibition, which continues until May 16, is accompanied by a lucid and attractively illustrated catalogue by the young scholar Laura Cavazzini.

San Giovanni Valdarno was a fortified frontier settlement established by the Florentine Republic 700 years ago to exploit and protect the surrounding territory. Masaccio and Giovanni seem to have gone to Florence at an early age, but the latter kept the family house, maintained connections with his birthplace, executed commissions for local patrons and bought land in the area. Indeed, a fresco in the local San Lorenzo church here provided the art historian Luciano Bellosi with the first clue that has enabled him and his colleagues, through some careful detective work, to bring Giovanni back to life.

The fresco, of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, is in poor condition and the central section has been painted over by a later artist. It is, however, the only work so far discovered that bears Giovanni's signature. And its style was sufficiently distinctive for Bellosi to argue that more than 100 other works -- previously described as by unknown hands or attributed to notional figures such as the Master of the Adimari Chest (now at the Accademia in Florence) and the Master of Fucecchio -- were all in fact by Giovanni.

Masaccio's younger brother assisted him in his studio, but upon his death Giovanni set up on his own. The style of figure painting and perspective technique in what have been identified as early works by Giovanni are clearly influenced by Masaccio, but Giovanni seems to have been realistic about his own talents and his studio came to specialize in the intricately decorated furnishings and wall paneling then in vogue, while continuing to produce altar pieces and other religious works suitable for more provincial destinations.

In the "home interiors" market he decisively made his mark, winning the commission, for example, for the desco da parto, or birth plate, for the delivery of the infant Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1449. These circular wooden platters seem to have been used as trays to present sweets and presents to the mother of the child, and then hung as commemorative pictures. Lorenzo's depicts "The Triumph of Fame" (it is on loan here from the Metropolitan Museum in New York), and the inventory of furnishings in Lorenzo's private room after his death in 1492 notes not only this plate but also another larger decorative sequence (now lost) by "Lo Scheggia," celebrating the famous festive jousts staged by the young aristocrat in 1469.

Another birth plate, or possibly wall panel, shows a scene of young Florentine bloods playing some kind of street game. On the reverse the recent removal of a later layer of fake marble overpainting has brought to light a jocular vignette of two tiny tots in combat, employing the kind of unsporting tactics outlawed by every boxing board of control the world over, the precise symbolism of which is a matter for speculation.

Two outstanding pieces, now attributed to Giovanni, are a beautiful inlaid marriage chest adorned with swags of fruit and foliage and putti engaged in more decorous pursuits, and the Accademia's Adimari Chest.

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THE former provides an important link in the reconstruction of Giovanni's career, contemporary documentation showing that he contributed to pioneering perspective inlay work in one of Brunelleschi's Duomo's sacristies. The panel from the Adimari Chest, an elegantly composed and delicately executed picture of a courtly musical entertainment, is the most widely familiar and frequently reproduced of all Lo Scheggia's productions. But as Cavazzini explains, it is neither a marriage chest nor has it any proven connection with the Adimari family; it is a spalliera, or decorative panel, that once made up part of the type of elaborate wood paneling schemes so popular in the 15th century.

It is diverting to see how the artist, whose fortunes were so closely tied to the business of interior decoration, responded to the latest trends in Florentine art at large. Originally much influenced by his brother, he subsequently adopted elements from others such as Fra Angelico and Domenico Veneziano. A series of late panels on loan from Siena demonstrate how the young Botticelli also had an impact -- although this may well be the result of the contribution of Giovanni's son, Antonfrancesco, who had joined his father's studio and was probably by then even more alive to up-and-coming developments in style than the older artist.

Unlike Masaccio, who changed the course of painting yet died in debt, Giovanni's long life was crowned by financial success. His heirs were established and his last descendants courtiers of the Farnese dukedom in Parma.

The Casa Masaccio turns out to be the perfect setting for these predominantly domestic-scale works, which often record lively scenes of everyday life -- among them the arrival of a pair of newlyweds at their future home, with a porter in train, bent under the weight of one of those must-have marriage chests that Giovanni was a past master at making. And the visitor comes away reminded of what an extraordinarily colorful and richly textured environment prosperous and cultivated Florentines once inhabited.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016