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You Are What You Hat: An analysis of the head adornments in the Brancacci Chapel frescos

Masaccio who frescoed some of the most famous scenes in the early 1400's. The chapel is dedicated to Saint Peter, the patron saint of the Brancacci family who commissioned the paintings, and most of the larger frescoes depict stories from Saint
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   " Conor Eckert ARHI 3020 11/11/15 You Are What You Hat An analysis of the head adornments in the Brancacci Chapel frescos Located inside the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, the Brancacci Chapel was painted by Masolino de Panicale and his apprentice Masaccio in 1427. After Masolino left for Hungary, the commission for the chapel was given to the 21-year old Masaccio who frescoed some of the most famous scenes in the early 1400’s. The chapel is dedicated to Saint Peter, the patron saint of the Brancacci family who commissioned the paintings, and most of the larger frescoes depict stories from Saint Peter’s life. While much is known about St. Peter, Jesus, the disciples, and some of the more major people in the frescos, little is known about the identities of the other figures. Many of these figures wear hats or adornments on their heads and their purpose in the paintings is unknown. This essay argues that these hats signaled the social class or identity of those wearing them. Masaccio painted halos to illustrate the holiness of Jesus and disciples, small caps or no hats on the poor, and extravagant, colored hats on the heads of the  political elite. The elite often disliked Jesus and his disciples because their actions disrupted the social order. In the Brancacci chapel frescos, men that are indifferent or oppositional to Saint Peter wear the most fanciful painted hats. An article by Evelyn Welch supports the idea that the hat-wearing men depicted in the Brancacci chapel frescos were nobles. In her paper "Art on the Edge: Hair, Hats and Hands in Renaissance Italy" Welch draws primarily on portraiture to formulate an argument about the uses of accessories during the renaissance. Regarding the social elites of Milan, Mantua, and Florence, Welch asserts that hats have symbolic and metaphorical   # meaning since they can be put on and taken off so easily. Symbolic meanings of hats included political allegiances and familial alliances, and the color and style of a hat would have cultural meaning. Aside from stylistic preferences, these deeper meanings were some of the reasons we see so many patrons wishing to be painted while wearing hats in later Renaissance portraiture (Welch, 11). Another reason Welch provides for the nobility’s attraction to hats is their mutability. Hats could only be scrutinized for a small  period of time before a new style emerged and the owner updated his wardrobe (Welch, 18). Powerful people enjoyed this because they could change hats as their preferences for their personal images transitioned. Saint Peter lived during a tumultuous time full of social change. Hats came in all shapes and sizes, as we see in the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel, and their use was both stylistic and symbolic for the beliefs of their owner. The Brancacci scene of the  Raising the Son of Theophilus  contains a high concentration of hats. Saint Peter is resurrecting the son of Theophilus who had died 14 years earlier (“Masaccio’s Frescos”). Theophilus stands to the left of the crowd gathered around his son. The Florentine Chancellor Salutati sits to Theophilus’s right; both wear extravagant hats marking their positions in the upper class. The majority of the figures in the painting are gathered in the middle of the scene surrounding Theophilus’s son who Peter is about to raise. Adorned with red and black hats sporting tails, frills, and folds, the members of the crowd dwell in their own world as they stretch their necks to see better and gossip about the event with the other bystanders ("Massacio's Frescos”). The selfishness of the crowd members could be Masaccio’s commentary on the rich. Their   $ hats signify their wealth, which prevents them from empathizing for the situation – in this way hats represent the selfishness that Saint Peter was constantly trying to combat. Additional insight into the hats of the Brancacci chapel can be given by basic analysis of colored clothing during the renaissance. There is no authentic way to know how stylistically knowledgeable was Masaccio at the age of 21; however, if the use of color to broadcast social class, wealth, and intention was widely cultural, then it could be assumed that Masaccio knew something about colored clothing simply by cultural osmosis. Red clothing in the Renaissance was a sign of high social class, royalty, gentlemen, and men of justice. Judges and men with power and prestige commonly wore red in the Renaissance (“Meaning of Renaissance Colors”). In the scene of The Crucifixion of Saint Peter,  subjects bearing fluffy, red hats surround Emperor Nero. These hats are extremely similar to the hats worn in Raphael’s later portraits of the Medici cardinals, meaning that the figures in the Brancacci chapel may be taken from specific upper-class catholic citizens of the Renaissance (Christiansen, 42). It seems odd that the hats of catholic cardinals were used in these frescos and it could be another commentary by Masaccio about the church of the renaissance. Whatever the inspiration for the red hats of Emperor Nero’s subjects, it is clear that they are members of the high court and do nothing to stop Peter’s crucifixion taking place before them. Certain scenes that lack extravagant hats provide further evidence to the idea that fancy hats were markers of the upper class in Masaccio’s paintings. In the  Distribution of  Alms and Death of Ananias , the head coverings are totally different from the hats of other scenes. Bald heads and scraggly hair are visible as St. Peter hands out assistance to the  poor. The richer social classes, having no need for alms, were absent from this scene and   % the hats change accordingly. Almost no red appears in this fresco and the small head coverings that are apparent are white, ragged caps. White was symbolic of the humanities in the renaissance, so it is possible that Masaccio was making another social commentary (“Meaning of Renaissance Colors”). The poor are depicted as humane while the nobles who wear red in the other scenes lack the generosity and compassion of humanity. Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier   could provide authentic cultural support to the argument that hats in the Brancacci chapel are signs of nobility. Although  published 80 years after Masaccio’s frescos in the Brancacci Chapel, the Courtier   is a fictional story from 1507 that discusses the desired appearance for a courtier - someone who attends a royal court as a companion or adviser to the king or queen – in this case the Court of Urbino. The chapter addresses looks and appearance for a courtier, and while hats are not explicitly mentioned, it does provide context for renaissance standards of appearance. One of the characters, Bernardo Bibbiena, remarks that a Courtier should be naturally endowed with a “beautiful countenance” and an “attractive grace”. To this the Count replies, “Certainly it’s no lie to say that you possess the grace of countenance that I mentioned, and I have no need of any other example of illustrate it; for undoubtedly we can see that your appearance is very agreeable and pleasing to all…” (Castiglione, 60-61). The “attractive grace” and “agreeable appearance” of a chosen courtier would be necessary to gain access to the noble court; a courtier would have no need of a hat. But what of a nobleman who did not possess that same attractiveness? Hats would have been   & nice accessories to draw attention from the faces of less attractive members in the court. One could be rich without being handsome during the renaissance, and it is quite possible that members of the court wore hats to enhance their appearance or draw attention away from their face. Hats could be signs of nobility, albeit ugly nobility, who were part of the royal court, possibly like the members of Emperor Nero’s court in the Crucifixion of  Peter   in the Brancacci Chapel. Although published much later in the renaissance than when Masaccio lived, the themes surrounding noble appearance discussed in the  Book of the Courtier   may have been similar to noble appearances during the painting of the Brancacci Chapel. Research of Masaccio’s intentions for the hats of the figures in the Brancacci Chapel is mostly speculative. Evelyn Welch and Keith Christiansen provide insights into the accessories worn by subjects in portraiture during the renaissance. Modern theory would assume that these stylistic preferences present in portraits would also apply to the hats of figures in frescos, but there is no way to be completely certain. Masaccio’s fancy hats certainly appear to be worn by the upper class while the simpler hats appear to be worn by the lower classes in the Brancacci frescos. The positioning and poses of the figures in the frescos support the assertion that the poor were much more supportive of Saint Peter than were the rich who opposed a social upheaval through Christianity. The extravagant hats appear to identify the noble and powerful, embody Masaccio’s commentary on the rich, and these hats certainly make the Brancacci Chapel full of entertainment value.
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