The 4th International Laboratory for the History of Science
Art, Science and Techniques of Drafting in the Renaissance
24 May - 1 June 2001
Florence and Vinci, Italy

Organized by Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza


Leonetto Tintori's Perspective on the Trinity

The 1950-'54 restoration of Masaccio's Trinity, planned by Ugo Procacci and executed by Leonetto Tintori, sparked off an intense scholarly interest in the fresco, which has continued, unabated, for half a century, as this workshop can attest.

In the sixteenth century, a hundred and fifty years after it was painted, the fresco was concealed behind an altarpiece by Vasari, under the orders of Cosimo I. The Trinity remained hidden for three hundred years, until a decision was made to redesign the interior of Santa Maria Novella, a campaign which lasted from 1857 to 1860. During this work, the upper section of the Trinity, from the top down to the kneeling donors, was rediscovered. However, a symmetrical scheme had been planned for the church, which would have been disturbed by the presence of the Trinity in the third bay of the North wall, and so the fresco was moved to the West wall, to the South of the central door. The lower section, however, showing the skeleton in its sepulchre, remained hidden behind the remains of Vasari's altar, and was not transported along with the rest of the fresco.

When Procacci secured funds for a restoration of the Trinity, in 1949, it was still in two pieces, and the existence of the lower section remained largely unknown. The only clues to its presence were a reference to "una morte" in the Libro di Antonio Billi, which, though available to scholars, does not seem to have been widely read up to that time, and the fact that the iconography of the painting makes little sense without the sepulchre.

Procacci had been given permission to carry out a straightforward cleaning of the fresco, and engaged Tintori, one of the leading restorers of the period, to do the work. On a first inspection, the Trinity appeared to be in poor condition; obscured by pollution, and flaking in places. However, as the campaign progressed, it became clear that, under the surface grime, and with the exception of certain areas, such as the legs of Christ, the painting was remarkably well preserved.

The period from the 1950's to the 1970's in Florence is often referred to as the stagione degli stacchi, because of the number of frescos which were detached from the wall at that time, in the interests of preservation. A side-effect of these strappi was that the sinopie of the frescos involved were revealed beneath the top layer of intonaco. The sight of these preparatory drawings, never before seen, caused immense excitement amongst art historians. Tintori was one of the chief practitioners of strappo in the period, and Procacci made his reputation, in part, through a major book devoted to sinopie, and so it is no surprise that, on discovering the good condition of the Trinity, these two decided to undertake its removal, back to its original position.

On clearing the wall of the third bay on the North wall of Santa Maria Novella for the arrival of the Trinity, the long-hidden skeleton was dramatically rediscovered. It was still recognisable, although the architecture of the surrounding tomb had been badly damaged, and the area of transition between the upper section of the fresco and the newly revealed lower section had been completely lost. Thus, although Tintori was required to carry out a large amount of pictorial reconstruction, the two halves of the painting were reunited, and the fresco could be viewed in its entirety for the first time in four hundred years.

This remarkable restoration was hailed as a triumph, since it constituted the rediscovery of a keystone in the history of Western art. During his work, Tintori had the opportunity to study the surface of the Trinity at close quarters, and to observe the snap lines and incisions with which it is punctuated. His interest in this aspect of the painting led him to make the frequently reproduced diagram of construction lines and giornate, which has since fuelled debates on renaissance perspective construction and fresco technique. The restoration also set in train discussions of other aspects of the Trinity, which still continue to this day. The reuniting of the two halves of the fresco revealed a more complex iconography than had previously been suspected, and a broader range of influences behind Masaccio's work, including contemporary tomb architecture. Attempts to unravel the meaning of the fresco now fill many scholarly volumes. Meanwhile, Tintori's imitative reconstruction of the lost sections of the Trinity have stirred up a rich discussion concerning the possible original appearance of the fresco.

While Tintori himself is now too old to be able to speak in public, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview him last year about his experiences with the Trinity. Through his words, and previously published accounts, the story of this chapter in the fresco's history can be reconstructed, and the origins of the Trinity's continuing appeal to art historians revealed.