( Originally Published 1955 )
One of the most important of the scientific group of artists active in Florence in the first half of the fifteenth century. His art is a logical development of the innovations of Masaccio and the sculptor Donatello. Andrea (or Andreino) di Bartolommeo di Simone was born of lowly parentage in Castagno in the Mugello Valley. According to Vasari, his talent was discovered by Bartolommeo de' Medici, under whose protection he was brought to Florence and trained as a painter. Whether this is true or not, his earliest recorded work (now lost) was a fresco on the Podesta facade, representing the vanquished enemies of the Medici who returned from exile in 1434. He spent a period in Venice before 1444, making cartoons for mosaics in San Marco, and painting, together with a certain Francesco da Faenza, frescoes in the chapel of San Tarasio in San Zaccaria. This decoration, signed and dated 1442, is the earliest extant work of Castagno. Of the several representations, those of the Evangelists and part of the frieze of putti are considered to be by him. In 1444 he was back in Florence and was paid for the cartoon for a stained glass window of the Deposition for the cathedral, at the same time that Uccello was paid for a similar work. Three major fresco works, done on different occasions and now gathered together in the refectory of Sant' Apollonia (now a Castagno museum) in Florence were all done probably between his return from Venice and about 1449. Most notable of these is the Last Supper, painted in the refectory, with representations in an upper course of the Crucifixion, Entombment and Resurrection. This Last Supper serves as a prototype of the subject for the rest of the fifteenth century until Leonardo's more famous treatment of it in Milan. It is among the earliest attempts to make the space in a picture continuous with the actual space of the room where it is painted, which was first attemped in Masaccio's Holy Trinity in Santa Maria Novella. Two frescoes of the Crucifixion, painted for Santa Maria degli Angeli, were moved to Sant' Apollonia. Of these only the one including the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist and Saints Benedict and Romuald is universally attributed to Castagno. The third fresco is the series of nine famous men and women, originally a decoration for the Villa Carducci in Legnaia. It includes the well-known figure of Pippo Spano and ideal portraits of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. From about 1449/50 is the panel of the Assumption of the Virgin, now in Berlin. Later frescoes are the Trinity in the Carboli chapel of SS. Annunziata (1454/5), and the equestrian portrait of the military hero Niccolo da Tolentino (1456) in the cathedral of Florence, done as a pendant to Uccello's portrait of Sir John Hawkwood, which was painted twenty years earlier. A panel of the Crucifixion by Castagno is in the London National Gallery, and a portrait that has been attributed to him is in the Washington National Gallery. Castagno's earliest work reveals a somewhat coarse but vigorous style closely related to Masaccio and Donatello. His art is refined and developed in the frescoes at Sant' Apollonia into a monumental and forceful conception of the human figure in convincing space. As with Masaccio, gravity and intensity of expression are achieved more by monumental form and composition than by facial expression and gesture. Drapery is used to enhance the force of the figures and all forms are plastically modeled in light and shadow, with consistent mastery of anatomy and perspective. Decorative effects are introduced in realistic rendering of colorful marble and mosaic ornament (especially in the Last Supper). The Passion scenes reveal a relation to Domenico Veneziano, especially in their light coloration. The series of famous men is one of the earliest examples of illusionistic placing of figures in false architectural niches so that the figures seem to emerge from the wall into the room. Hands, feet and heads overlap the painted architectural frames to create this effect. Castagno was also one of the first to treat the halo as a material object, with the head reflected on its apparently polished surface. The equestrian portrait in the cathedral may be considered a parallel in painting of Donatello's Gattamelata statue in Padua, and in general Castagno's art seems closer to that of the sculptor than to any contemporary painter.