Complete Visitor's Guide for the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy
If You Love Art, Don't Skip These Frescoes!
Any decent Florence guidebook will wax poetic about Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. These masterpieces aren't exactly unknown gems.
So, why do so many people skip them? Well, you need to make a reservation. And the church that houses the chapel, S. Maria del Carmine, is kind of out of the way, at least for most tourists. Most people decide it's not worth the effort.
After all, it's not like frescoes are hard to find in Florence, right?
Well, these are not just run-of-the-mill frescoes. They are among the most historically significant works of art in Florence.
As for the alleged obstacles?
S. Maria del Carmine is a 12-15 minute walk from the Uffizi. In practice, "making a reservation" usually just means waiting for 20 minutes or so.
For the record, reservations are required because only 30 people can be in the chapel at any given time.
That should be music to any tourist's ears. Florence's signature sights are wonderful, but they are very crowded. Dealing with selfie sticks and inconsiderate tourists who don't respect personal space can be a little soul-crushing.
The Brancacci Chapel can be a wonderful respite. Visitors have the opportunity to quietly and thoughtfully examine a masterpiece of European art so closely that one can see the detail of the brush strokes and the cracks of the paint.
This is a lengthy visitors guide, but I have tried to make it fairly comprehensive. It includes:
- Information on hours and ticket prices
- Background on the Brancacci family, the history of the chapel, and the social-political significance of chapels in Florentine society.
- Highlights from the frescoes
- A map and directions
- A introduction to the area in case you have to wait for your reservation or want to explore the neighborhood further
Sunday (and some religious holidays)
Regular adult, Sat./Sun. and Mon.
Regular adult, Wed.-Fri.
Adults 18-25 (may need to show a certain ID)
€5.00 on Sat/Sun/Mon; €4.50 on Wed/Thu/Fri
Children under 18; disabled guests and companions; student groups and their teachers (ID required); licensed tour guides or interpreters
Official Brancacci Chapel Website
- Cappella Brancacci
Be sure to check the Chapel's official website for information on extraordinary closings or other changes to their hours or prices.
The Brancacci Family
The Brancacci family acquired a chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the 14th century.
While the church was not among the most prestigious in Florence, the family chapel was a good size and could be a promising blank canvas for the right artist.
It would be up to Felice di Michele Brancacci to find that artist.
Felice was a silk merchant. In Florence, the silk industry was represented by the Arte della Seta, one of the city's seven most powerful guilds.
Since the guilds were a source of political power, Felice had the chance to serve as a diplomat in Egypt.
While Felice aligned himself with the powerful Medici family at the beginning of his career, that changed when he married the daughter of an extremely powerful man named Palla Strozzi.
Felice's connection to the Strozzi would eventually become more burden than blessing.
The Brancacci Chapel: A History (ca. 1425-present)
After returning from Egypt, Felice began to search for an artist to work on the chapel. Eventually he selected Masolino da Panicale, and work began somewhere around 1425. Masolino also enjoyed patronage from Pope Martin V and the King of Hungary.
Initially, Masolino worked with a young star named Masaccio. The two of them were charged with executing scenes from the life of St. Peter. Felice inherited the chapel from his uncle Pietro.
Masaccio was given full responsibility for the chapel when Masolino was called to Hungary.
The work Masaccio produced for Felice was revolutionary. Masaccio was able to take what Brunelleschi had taught him about three-point perspective and take it to unimagined heights. His figures were so lifelike it was simply dazzling.
Unfortunately for Felice, Masaccio died in 1428, with much of the chapel still unfinished. Masaccio was only 26--some sources say 27--and did not leave a large body of work, which is why he is not as well-known as other Italian masters.
An even bigger disaster struck when the Brancacci were exiled from Florence.
Felice's father-in-law, Palla Strozzi, had been the only man in Florence with the capacity to seriously oppose the city's de facto ruler, Cosimo de'Medici.
In fact, he helped send Cosimo into exile. However, Cosimo was able to engineer a triumphant return only a year later. Upon his return, the Strozzi and their allies were forced to leave the city.
The Brancacci were eventually able to return, but work on the chapel did not resume until the early 1480s. The artist Filippo Lippi was brought in to complete the work.
Always on the edge of disaster
The frescoes have regularly been threatened by calamity. Like many Florentine masterpieces of the early Renaissance, they were damaged by later attempts to modernize Florence's churches and chapels. They were also the victims of overpainting, as attitudes toward nudity became more puritanical.
The chapel was also spared in the fire of 1771, which destroyed much of the church, and the 1996 Arno River flood, which significantly damaged the convent. The chapel was fully restored during the 1980s.
The Social-political Meaning of Florentine Family Chapels
Renaissance Florentines were visually sophisticated in ways that are difficult for those of us who live in societies dominated by writing to understand. As the art historian Marvin Trachtenberg tells us, everything from the way a building was angled in a piazza to the placement of a family coat of arms was an expression of political power.
A chapel was an extremely important place for a Florentine family to demonstrate its status. For example, in the Florentine Histories, Niccolo Machiavelli talks about how Cosimo de'Medici built reputation and status through religious patronage, including decorated chapels.
Ideally, a family would have a well-placed chapel in a prestigious church, and the chapel would be decorated by a leading artist. Such a chapel would increase a family's soft political power by serving as a permanent physical example of influence that could be displayed to the city.
It was disastrous when a family was forced to sell its chapel. As the historian Jonathan Katz Nelson notes, selling a chapel signaled to the rest of Florence that a family no longer had influence.
Masaccio visited Rome in 1423, and most scholars believe what he saw there had a decisive impact on the frescoes he executed in the Brancacci Chapel.
As Dr. Leonard Barkan tells us in his book Unearthing the Past, by the early 1400s, artists were flocking to Rome to view newly uncovered (or rediscovered) classical statues. The lifelike, kinetic bodies of these classical statues offered a tempting alternative to the Gothic style of painting and sculpture that had dominated the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Gothic style had favored static, stylized figures. While Giotto, the greatest Florentine painter of the 14th century, had taken drastic steps to make his figures more realistic, you can still see vestiges of formalism in his work.
If Giotto had loosened the bolts on the door of realism, Masaccio kicked the door down. As Paoletti and Radke said in Art in Renaissance Italy, "Masaccio's figures seem to have no precedent in contemporary painting."
No wonder the young Michelangelo did drawings of Masaccio's work. In fact, as the legend goes, Michelangelo's nose was broken by fellow artist Pietro Torrigiano while they were copying Masaccio's figures in the chapel.
Complete Brancacci Chapel Gallery
- Web Gallery of Art - Brancacci Chapel
This link contains images of the entire cycle of frescoes at the Brancacci Chapel
Highlights from the Frescoes: The Temptation and the Expulsion from the Garden
Although most of the frescoes in the chapel depict St. Peter, the chapel's most famous frescoes are about Adam and Eve.
The Temptation was done by Masolino, and comparing it with Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden effectively illustrates the difference between Masolino's Gothic-inspired prettiness and Masaccio's new realism.
In the Temptation, Adam and Eve are lovely and balanced, but almost appear to be superimposed on the dark background. We have no sense of motion or energy in these figures.
On the other hand, in the Explusion, we get a completely different feel. Masaccio's placement of Eve behind Adam and his use of shadowing (chiaroscuro) creates depth. The posing of the figures--the twist of Adam's torso and the arrangement of Eve's arms are well-known tropes from classical sculpture--helps create a sense of energy and motion that contributes to the overall realistic effect.
Highlights from the Frescoes: The Tribute Money
Masaccio's The Tribute Money tells the story of the tax collector in Capernaum (Matt. 17:24-27) by using the common early Renaissance technique of portraying different moments in time in a single panel.
In the center, we see the tax collector demanding payment from Christ and the Apostles. On the left, we see St. Peter finding the money for the payment in the mouth of a fish. On the right, we see St. Peter giving the tribute money.
This fresco demonstrates an even more finely developed understanding of chiaroscuro and using perspective to create depth. The posing of Christ in the center is Classical, as are the clothes worn by the other figures.
Some scholars have argued this fresco is a commentary in support of certain tax laws that were under consideration in Florence at the time. It was very common for fresco painters to make such contemporary allusions in their work.
Highlights from the Frescoes: St. Peter Enthroned
The image below is a detail of the large fresco at the very top of this guide, Raising the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned. Like The Tribute Money, this fresco tells multiple stories.
While this fresco was planned out and started by Masaccio, it was unfinished at the time of his death. Much of the work was done by Filippo Lippi.
Here we see St. Peter on his throne. The draping around his knee is painted in such as way as to make it seem like it is protruding, thus providing depth and realism. We can see the realism in the facial expressions of the men as well. Scholars believe the man standing to St. Peter's left, wearing red and glancing at the viewer, is a self-portrait of Masaccio.
This is the most fool-proof method for getting to Carmine from the Uffizi. These directions rely on extremely obvious landmarks and minimize the number of turns you have to make.
According to Google Maps, this route takes 16 minutes (for comparison, their "recommended" fastest route is 15 minutes). When I walk quickly, I can make it in 10-12 minutes.
- First, cut through the Galleria degli Uffizi to get the Arno River.
- Head right and start walking along the river. You'll pass the Ponte Vecchio. Keep walking.
- The next bridge you come to will be the Ponte Santa Trinità. Keep walking.
- The next bridge is the Ponte alla Carraia. Cross the Arno at this bridge, using the sidewalk on the right-hand side of the bridge.
- Keep going straight after you cross the bridge.
- In about .20 mi. you will come to Via S. Monaca. Take a right. The sign for Via S. Monaca is unobstructed and easy to see.
- Via S. Monaca ends in Piazza del Carmine, right next to the church. It will be on your left (see picture below). Use the side entrance for the Ticket Office (Biglietteria).
The exterior facade of S. Maria del Carmine
What to do in the area
- The La Carraia gelateria (Piazza Sauro, 25/r) is only a few minutes away. It is right by the bridge (it is marked on the map). It is generally considered one of the best gelaterie in Florence. It opens at 11:00 a.m.
- The restaurant L'Brindelone is about a minute away. It is in the smaller, cone-shaped Piazza Piattellina. Exit the church and take a left to leave Piazza del Carmine. You'll be right there. Brindelone has a reputation of putting out respectable versions of Florentine classics like bistecca alla fiorentina. It opens at 12:00 p.m.
- If you go to the chapel in the late afternoon, you can have drinks at the Hidden Pub, which opens at 3:00 p.m. If you stand with your back to the church, you will see a street leading out of the piazza. The Pub is on that short street.
- Carmine is not far from the church of Santo Spirito, which features a facade by Brunelleschi. It also houses a small cross by Michelangelo, but that cross is generally on display only whenever they feel like it, so there's no guarantee you'll see it. Take Via S. Monaca back to the intersection with Via dei Serragli. Keep going (relatively) straight, onto Via S. Agostino, which sort of bends to the right. Before long, Piazza Santo Spirito will appear on your left.
- The Brancacci Chapel frescoes by Masaccio are masterpieces that demonstrate a revolutionary use of perspective and advances in realism.
- It takes about 15 minutes to walk to the Chapel from the Uffizi Gallery.
- The Chapel is open every day EXCEPT Tuesday.
- A reservation is required, but rarely requires much of a wait.
- Full ticket prices cost between €6-7.
- Since no more than 30 people can be in the Chapel, it is a welcome respite from the dreadful crowds elsewhere in Florence.
- Felice Brancacci was a wealthy and influential silk merchant. He wanted his family to have a decorated chapel to demonstrate their status and power.
- The commission was initially given to Masolino and his young collaborator Masaccio. Masaccio took over when Masolino had to go to Hungary.
- Masaccio died when he was 27. Not long after, the Brancacci family were forced into exile. Filippo Lippi finished the Chapel in the 1480s.
- Fires, floods, and renovations have all just missed destroying the frescoes.
Brief Bibliographical Note
The sources I used for this guide include the Brancacci Chapel's official website, Google Maps, documentation gathered during my in-person study of Florentine family chapels, and the notes I use for teaching and guiding. Those notes have an extensive (50+ sources) peer-reviewed scholarly bibliography that includes work by Marvin Trachtenberg, Anthony Molho, Deb Kent, Peter Howard, F.W. Kent, Richard Goldthwaite, and Richard Trexler.
I will provide the complete bibliography on request.