Situated deep in the Oltrarno area of Florence is the beautiful Brancacci Chapel fresco cycle; a real hidden gem on the “other” side of the river. The chapel itself dates back to 1367, when wealthy Florentine silk merchant Piero di Piuvichese Brancacci stipulated in his will that a family chapel be constructed inside the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, and dedicated to his name saint, St. Peter.
Construction was completed in 1389, and the decorative work began in 1424 as a result of the efforts of Pieros’ nephew, Felice Brancacci. The commission for the Stories of Saint Peter were given to two men: the Late Gothic painter known as Masolino, and the much younger, more revolutionary artist, Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai, nicknamed Masaccio.
The reasons behind this collaboration are still unknown, and what is more puzzling is why the work was left unfinished by Masolino in the summer of 1425 (when he left Florence to go to Hungary), and by Masaccio in 1428 when he went to Rome, where he died shortly after his arrival. Most recent scholarship finds that even given the nearly 30-year age difference, the two artists seemed to have worked independently at the Brancacci Chapel, painting in their own styles and each working on separate scenes—inferring that they were professional equals.
The 1430s saw the once popular and wealthy Brancacci family fall into political disgrace. After marrying into the Strozzi family (sworn enemies of the Medici), they were later declared rebels and subsequently exiled for siding with the Strozzi, who had tried to prevent the rise of Cosimo de’ Medici as the unofficial ruler of Florence.
After the Brancacci family’s banishment, the chapel was renamed Madonna del Popolo with the 13th-century panel of Madonna Enthroned being moved here from the high altar (it is still in place today). This is perhaps when parts of Masaccio’s fresco featuring portraits of the Brancacci patrons were destroyed.
Toward the end of the 1400s, the chapel’s decoration was revived once again, most likely commissioned by individuals from patrician Florentine families, including Piero del Pugliese and Tommaso Soderini (both are portrayed in the Raising of the Son of Theophilus). From then on, work was completed by Filippino Lippi, who worked on the lower register of the left wall (completing the Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned), which Masaccio had begun. Filippino went on to paint Saint Peter in prison visited by Saint Paul, Disputation of Saint Peter and Saint Paul with Simon Magus, the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, and Saint Peter Freed from Prison.
Due to 18th century redecoration in the chapel, several works have unfortunately been lost, including Masolino’s Evangelists in the ceiling vaults, and the Masaccio lunettes depicting the Shipwreck of the Apostles and the Calling of the Apostle Peter. Part of the frescoes in the upper portion of the back wall were also destroyed when the wide Baroque window was inserted. Substantial damage to the original colors was caused by smoke and heat from a large fire in the roof of the Church in 1771.
1 The Temptation of Adam and Eve
2 Expulsion from Paradise
3 The Tribute Money
4 The Sermon of Saint Peter
5 Baptism of the Neophytes
6 The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha
7 Saint Paul Visiting Saint Peter in Prison
8 Liberation of Saint Peter
9 Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned
10 Saint Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow
11 The Distribution of Alms and The Death of Ananias
12 Disputation with Simon Magus and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter
This tiny little chapel provides some of Florence’s most powerful Renaissance art. Masaccio, in his very short life, was responsible for revolutionary changes in the way figures were depicted and for the use of mathematical perspective (he will be the first to use it in painting in the Early Modern period). His slender Expulsion and sweeping Tribute Money are two of the most studied paintings in the history of art—both make a dramatic break with tradition in favor of a more intense, dynamic naturalism. During the same century, but several decades later, Filippino Lippi will fill the chapel walls with new, more expressive figures, in part heralding the Mannerist movement.
The Brancacci Chapel is open from 10am to 5pm (closed Tuesdays) – For more information and to book tickets visit their website.
See: Giardino Torrigiani is just a few moments from here, and a real hidden gem which happens to be the largest privately owned garden inside a historical center in Europe. It was designed by Marquis Pietro Torrigiani, who wanted to create a romantic park in an English style. Contact them via email to organise a guided tour of the gardens.
Eat: The area has countless of places I could recommend, here you are in the ‘real’ Florence, with many restaurants and eateries full of locals. I’ve had great meals at I’Brindellone and Al Tranvai; for baked goods and sandwiches you can’t beat Santo Forno. If it’s gelato you’re after try the sinfully creamy stracciatella at Gelateria alla Carraia, just around the corner.
Drink: This area is popular for the younger crowd, so it’s full of quirky wine and cocktails bars. Rasputin is a definite must, the location is a secret (they tell you the road, and a few clues) but the cocktails are great and the bar has a really cool atmosphere. For beer try Archea brewery on Via dei Serragli or Berbere (Piazza de’ Nerli) for craft beer and great pizza.
The Brancacci Chapel is part of my Oltrarno: History + Artisans walk, which you can book here!