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On 21 December 1401, Tommaso di ser Giovanni Cassai – better known as Masaccio – was born in Castel San Giovanni, nowadays San Giovanni Valdarno in the province of Arezzo.

ponte mediceo

During his short lifetime, this revolutionary painter of the Florentine Renaissance left very important artworks in the city of Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany. Our itinerary starts in Florence, where there are many important works by the artist. It is worth visiting Room 7 in the Uffizi Gallery to admire two youthful works on panel: the “Casini” or Tickling Madonna (1420–22) and the Sant’ Anna Metterza (1424). The revolutionary genius of the Valdarno painter is displayed to full effect in the innovative and expressive power of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of S. Maria del Carmine in Florence (1424–1427/28).

Another fundamental stop for anyone interested in Masaccio’s work is the basilica of Santa Maria Novella, more specifically his fresco of the Trinity (1428). This recently restored work was accomplished by the artist right before his sojourn in Rome, during which he died (1428).
From Florence, and in particular from the Piazza di Badia a Ripoli, turn into Via del Pian di Ripoli (SP1). Drive along this road and then turn right and go up towards Rimaggio. The Church of Santa Maria a Quarto di Rimaggio takes its name from the fourth Roman mile from the decuman of Florence. Cited in 1299 as part of the parish of Bagno a Ripoli, it has been subjected to major modifications over the centuries. The current neo-Gothic interior was designed by Giuseppe Castellucci (1930). The edifice contains, amongst other works of art, a triptych that depicts an Enthroned Madonna and Angels by Bicci di Lorenzo.

Go briefly back on your steps and take a detour that leads to the Church of San Lorenzo a Vicchio di Rimaggio, already mentioned in the 12th century. Many times remodelled, its current exterior is neo-Gothic in style. On the right-hand wall, a fragmentary fresco represents The Entrance of the Souls Into Paradise by Cenni di Francesco (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Florence, documented as having lived between 1369 and 1415). The same artist did the pointed panel on the left-hand wall representing the Mystical Wedding of Saint Catherine and Saints (approximately 1400).
Continuing on the itinerary, we arrive in Vallina, from which a road branches off for the gualchiere di Remole (Remole fulling mills). Designed for the “gualcatura” or fulling of woollen cloth, this industrial archaeological site bears the remains of two towers and a few crenelated building structures that now belong to Florence City Council. Situated near the Arno in order to exploit the hydraulic energy provided by the fluvial current, the fullers of Remole were probably active as of the 14th century.

Continuing along the SP1, we arrive at Rosano. On the right, before the built-up area, is the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Maria that was founded, according to tradition, in 780. It is documented as having been donated by the Conti Guidi in the 11th century. The complex presents architectural modifications from the 13th, 16th and 18th centuries. The inside of the church was brought back to its primitive medieval structure after the last war. In the 16th-century apse, there is a triptych depicting The Annunciation with Saints Lawrence, Benedict, John, John the Baptist and Nicholas (1434) by Giovanni del Ponte (Giovanni di Marco, Florence 1384-1437). Enrolled in 1424 in the San Luca Company, this artist adopted stylistic forms based on Masaccio’s marked plasticism and insistent chiaroscuro, used to confer more perspective to the figuration. Nevertheless, the figuration itself is in keeping with the late-Gothic Florentine pictorial tradition in which the artist was steeped.

Crossing the Arno we arrive in Pontassieve. The small town gets its name from the medieval bridge over the Sieve, rebuilt in 1555. Its origin is linked to its function as a market and the defensive role of the Castle of San Michele Arcangelo. The 19th-century neighbourhoods developed around the original 13th-century centre, the city walls of which were built at the behest of the Florentines in the 14th century. Three of the town’s gates are still intact: the Porta Filicaia (south), the Porta Aretina (or of the Clock) and the Porta Fiorentina (west); the Porta Aretina and Porta Fiorentina date back to the 14th century. We then cross the Medici bridge and enter the hamlet of San Francesco, with its Baroque church dedicated to Saint Francis.

From Pontassieve, turn onto state road 69 to Rignano and, at Sant’Ellero, go towards Reggello. In the hamlet of San Donato in Fronzano, visit the church dedicated to Saint Donato, which was modified in the 17th and 18th centuries. Inside, we can see the remains of the original Romanesque structure made up of sandstone ashlars and fragments of frescoes, including a Madonna and Child by the workshop of Paolo Schiavo (Paolo di Stefano Badaloni, Florence 1397 – Pisa 1478).
Registered as a member of the Guild of Physicians and Pharmacists in 1429, the artist trained with Lorenzo Monaco and collaborated with Masolino on the frescoes of the Collegiata and Palazzo Branda in Castiglione Olona. Paolo Schiavo’s pictorial style is similar to that of Scheggia (Giovanni di ser Giovanni, San Giovanni Valdarno 1406 – Florence 1486, brother of Masaccio), and shows the influence of Angelico.

From San Donato in Fronzano, continue to Pietrapiana and pass the Romanesque country parish church (pieve) of Sant'Agata in Arfoli (12th-13th century), flanked by a 13th-century cloister remodelled during the Renaissance period. Then drive down towards Cancelli and visit the Romanesque Church of Santa Margherita, which houses a fresco depicting a Madonna and Child with Saints Louis and Anthony by Paolo Schiavo’s workshop.
After leaving Pietrapiana, we arrive in Reggello and thus in Cascia. In 1988, the San Giovenale Triptych by Masaccio (dated 23 April 1422) was placed in the Parish Church of San Pietro (late 12th century), which has a portico supported by columns and covered with sandstone ashlars.
Recovered by Luciano Berti in 1961, the triptych was submitted to a lengthy and careful restoration that enabled an almost unanimous attribution to Masaccio. The painting represents the Madonna and Child with Two Angels between Saints Bartholomew and Biagio (on the left), Giovenale and Abbot Anthony (on the right). Originally in the Church of San Giovenale di Cascia and commissioned by the rich and powerful Florentine Castellani family (already big landowners in the area), the painting was placed in the Church of S. Pietro for reasons of conservation and security.

Furthermore, it is possible that the same Vanni Castellani may have ordered the Triptych at a moment when Masaccio is documented as being in Florence. However, one cannot exclude that the painter, following Brunelleschi, who was then busy with the construction of San Lorenzo in Florence, met on this construction site Francesco di Bartolomeo, chaplain of the basilica and the parish priest of San Giovenale di Cascia. The painting was probably executed in Florence and remained there until 1441. It is of the utmost importance because it sheds light on the work of the young Masaccio, who demonstrates, especially in the figures of the Virgin and Child, a solid mastery of the new perspectives introduced by Brunelleschi and of the plastic possibilities offered by Donatello’s stiacciato relief. Some critics have hypothesized that assistants and collaborators executed the lateral saints marked by stylistic figures of a later period

On the left-hand wall of the same parish church there is an Annunciation painted by Mariotto di Cristofano (San Giovanni Valdarno 1393 – Florence 1457), who trained in the Florentine workshop of Bicci di Lorenzo. In 1421, he became Masaccio’s brother-in-law after marrying the step-sister, Caterina. It is reasonable to suppose that the older Mariotto exercised some influence on Masaccio’s early development, even if limited to an apprenticeship of a technical nature.

After leaving Reggello, we cross the Arno on the S. Clemente bridge and reach Rignano sull’Arno. Outside of the built-up area, follow signs for the Romanesque Parish Church of San Leolino (Romanesque Church of San Leolino, 10th-11th century), which has three apses and is partially covered by ashlars of alberese and pietraforte stone. Inside there is a fresco (on the left-hand side) with a sinopia by Cenni di Francesco. On the right altar we can see a fresco that was removed from the demolished Oratory of Sezzano and represents the Madonna of the Consolation by Bicci di Lorenzo. Another piece also worth mentioning is the extremely valuable baptismal font in glazed terracotta depicting stories from the life of Saint John the Baptist by Santi Buglioni and his workshop (approximately 1520). Going back to Rignano, follow signs for Bombone, turning onto the road that leads to the Church of San Cristoforo in Perticaia; on the right-hand wall is a triptych (c. 1370) believed to be an autograph work by Cenni di Francesco.

From Rignano, follow the SS69 of the Val d'Arno towards Incisa and turn right towards the "mariapoli" of Loppiano. Declassified to the status of a priory in 1786, the Church of Santi Vito e Modesto – originally a Romanesque building (12th century) – has undergone many changes over the centuries. These concerned the columns, which used to be covered with blocks of sandstone and are now part of the pilasters, and the plaster facing that now covers the underlying stone course. Above an altar dedicated to the Madonna, in the left-hand aisle, we can see a panel representing the Madonna of the Girdle with Saint Thomas and Six Angels painted and signed by Francesco d'Antonio (1427 or 1429). The artist’s style is similar to that of Masolino – recognizable in the iconography of the curtain-bearing angels – and of Masaccio, as regards the physiognomy of the Virgin with her diaphanous and unmoving face. From her solemn figure – portrayed frontally – emanates a fascination that recalls Masaccio’s Madonnas in the San Giovenale Triptych and the Saint Ann Metterza.

 

Back down in the village of Incisa in Val d'Arno we shortly reach the municipality, next to which there is the Parish Church of Sant’Alessandro (started in 1786), erected on the site of an oratory of the same name (dating to 1591). Above the high altar inside the church there is a triptych (mid-15th century) depicting the Madonna and Child between Saint Michael Archangel and Saint John the Evangelist by Andrea di Giusto. The painting, originally intended for the Church of San Michele in Morniano, reveals chromatic suggestions from Angelico and influences from Masaccio in the solid plastic and volumetric techniques used for the Virgin’s figure. Andrea di Giusto was an assistant in the workshop of Bicci di Lorenzo in the years 1423–24. He is documented as having been in Pisa in 1426 along with Masaccio, who had been commissioned by Ser Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi da San Giusto to do a polyptych for the Church of the Carmine of that city.

Continuing along the SS69, we arrive at Figline Valdarno and the Church of San Francesco (first documented in 1229 and rebuilt in the 14th century). On the counter-façade there are frescoes representing a Crucifixion and Saints (on the right), the Annunciation, the Virgin Enthroned (1418) and Saint Francis (on the left), all executed by Francesco d’Antonio (Florence, documented from 1393 to 1433), whose style is similar to that of Lorenzo Monaco.

From Figline one can take a short trip to Gaville by taking the road that branches off from the new Serristori hospital – follow the sign for the Museo della Civiltà Contadina (Museum of Rural Culture) – and arrives at the Parish Church of San Romolo (cited in a document from 1030). The building is flanked by a belfry which dates to an earlier period and might have been erected on the site of a Roman watchtower. The basilica-plan space ends with a semi-circular apse and is divided by pillars with suggestive sculptural decoration and anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and phytomorphic capitals. In a room that overlooks the 15th-century cloister, there is a panel depicting Saint Christopher, attributed to Bicci di Lorenzo (Florence 1373 – Arezzo 1452). The artist trained in his father’s workshop with Andrea di Giusto and Scheggia, and joined the Company of San Luca in the same year as Masaccio (1424).

Going back to Figline and continuing on SS69 towards Arezzo, we reach San Giovanni Valdarno, the first small town in the territory of Arezzo.

Text by Antonio Ugolini

 

Published: 17/4/2014

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