Desco da parto (c.1423)

Masaccio (1401-1428)

Desco da parto (Birth plate)
Tempera on poplar panel, diameter 66 cm

In the 15th century, it was customary in Florence to give families a so-called birth plate or desco da parto after the birth of a child. The relatively good state of preservation of this plate shows that it was probably never used to transport objects, but was immediately recognized as a work of art of inestimable value. The obverse on the right shows the moment immediately after childbirth, while in the middle women from a convent to pay their respects to the woman who has just given birth and the newborn. The men stand a little apart on the left and wait until they are allowed to enter the women’s chambers. The first in line blows into a horn to which a flag with a red lily, the heraldic emblem of Florence, is attached. Another man carries a birth plate, which functions as a picture within a picture.

This painting is a milestone in the history of Western art: it is the first surviving example of the depiction of central perspective in a painting. The central perspective depiction was developed around 1415 by the goldsmith, sculptor and later architect Filippo Brunelleschi in Florence, who used it for the first time on two panels that have not survived. The principle is simple: all lines that run vertically to the image plane meet in a single point, the so-called vanishing point. As a result, the two-dimensional representation of space seems much more truthful. The first artist to grasp the significance of this discovery was not a painter, but the sculptor Donatello (his Pazzi Madonna, now in the Bode Museum, is one of the first works with a central perspective, illus. p. 318 above). At the beginning of the 1420s, a young painter also recognized the significance of Brunelleschi‘s discovery and adopted the principle of construction: his name was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni, but everyone called him “Masaccio“, which roughly means “the bad Thomas”. A few years after the design of the Desco, he demonstrated his skills on a monumental scale: in a chapel of the Florentine church of S. Maria Novella, he designed a fresco of the Holy Trinity in perfect perspective representation, which has been preserved to this day.

The viewer may wonder why Masaccio moved this scene to a convent, a space that separated men and women, religious practitioners and laity, because normally births took place in people’s homes, not in convents. There were practical reasons for this choice: Masaccio found the ideal motif in the columns, which were staggered one behind the other, to demonstrate his mastery of the depiction of central perspective as an artist. The capitals are borrowed from antiquity, which had also become a central point of reference for Renaissance artists. At the very end of the colonnade, below the flag, the tip of a coat and part of a human leg are visible, suggesting that someone is hiding in the background (image below left): further evidence of Masaccio‘s virtuosity. The woman who has just entered the birthing room should also be emphasized: while in the corridor the on the back of her body, she is already congratulating her new mother on the other side. They are one and the same person, but their depiction suggests a reproduction at different times.

The back of the birth plate (pictured top left) depicts a naked boy playing with a dog. Qualitatively, there is a clear difference between this image and the painting on the obverse, which led scholars to attribute it to Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, known as Lo Scheggia, Masaccio‘s less gifted younger brother. (Gemäldegalerie)