Leon Battista Alberti (Italian: [leˈom batˈtista alˈbɛrti]; February 14, 1404 – April 25, 1472) was an Italian Renaissance humanist author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer; he epitomised the Renaissance Man. Although he is often characterized exclusively as an architect, as James Beck has observed, “to single out one of Leon Battista’s ‘fields’ over others as somehow functionally independent and self-sufficient is of no help at all to any effort to characterize Alberti’s extensive explorations in the fine arts.” Although Alberti is known mostly for being an artist, he was also a mathematician of many sorts and made great advances to this field during the 15th century. Alberti’s life was described in Giorgio Vasari‘s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. His two most important buildings are the churches of S. Sebastiano (1460) and S. Andrea, both in Mantua.
Leon Battista Alberti was born in 1404 in Genoa. His mother is not known, and his father was a wealthy Florentine who had been exiled from his own city, allowed to return in 1428. Alberti was sent to boarding school in Padua, then studied Law at Bologna. He lived for a time in Florence, then travelled to Rome in 1431 where he took holy orders and entered the service of the papal court. During this time he studied the ancient ruins, which excited his interest in architecture and strongly influenced the form of the buildings that he designed.
Alberti was gifted in many ways. He was tall, strong and a fine athlete who could ride the wildest horse and jump over a man’s head. He distinguished himself as a writer while he was still a child at school, and by the age of twenty had written a play which was successfully passed off as a genuine piece of Classical literature. In 1435, he began his first major written work, Della pittura, which was inspired by the burgeoning pictorial art in Florence in the early 15th century. In this work he analyses the nature of painting and explores the elements of perspective, composition and colour.
In 1438 he began to focus more on architecture and was encouraged by the Marchese Leonello d’Este of Ferrara, for whom he built a small triumphal arch to support an equestrian statue of Leonello’s father. In 1447 he became the architectural advisor to Pope Nicholas V and was involved with several projects at the Vatican.
First major commission
His first major architectural commission was in 1446 for the facade of the Rucellai Palace in Florence. This was followed in 1450 by a commission from Sigismondo Malatesta to transform the Gothic church of San Francesco in Rimini into a memorial chapel, the Tempio Malatestiano. In Florence, he designed the upper parts of the facade for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, famously bridging the nave and lower aisles with two ornately inlaid scrolls, solving a visual problem and setting a precedent to be followed by architects of churches for four hundred years. In 1452, he completed De re aedificatoria, a treatise on architecture, using as its basis the work of Vitruvius and influenced by the archaeological remains of Rome. The work was not published until 1485. It was followed in 1464 by his less influential work, De statua, in which he examines sculpture. Alberti’s only known sculpture is a self-portrait medallion, sometimes attributed to Pisanello.
Alberti was employed to design two churches in Mantua, San Sebastiano, which was never completed, and for which Alberti’s intention can only be speculated upon, and the Basilica of Sant’Andrea. The design for the latter church was completed in 1471, a year before Alberti’s death, but was brought to completion and is his most significant work.
Alberti as artist
As an artist, Alberti distinguished himself from the ordinary craftsman, educated in workshops. He was a humanist who followed Aristotle and Plotinus, and part of the rapidly expanding entourage of intellectuals and artisans supported by the courts of the princes and lords of the time. Alberti, as a member of noble family and as part of the Roman curia, had special status. He was a welcomed guest at the Este court in Ferrara, and in Urbino he spent part of the hot-weather season with the soldier-prince Federico III da Montefeltro. The Duke of Urbino was a shrewd military commander, who generously spent money on the patronage of art. Alberti planned to dedicate his treatise on architecture to his friend.
Among Alberti’s smaller studies, pioneering in their field, were a treatise in cryptography, De componendis cifris, and the first Italian grammar. With the Florentine cosmographer Paolo Toscanelli he collaborated in astronomy, a close science to geography at that time, and produced a small Latin work on geography, Descriptio urbis Romae (The Panorama of the City of Rome). Just a few years before his death, Alberti completed De iciarchia (On Ruling the Household), a dialogue about Florence during the Medici rule.
Alberti, having taken holy orders, remained unmarried all his life. He loved animals and had a pet dog, a mongrel, for whom he wrote a panegyric, (Canis). Vasari describes him as “an admirable citizen, a man of culture…. a friend of talented men, open and courteous with everyone. He always lived honourably and like the gentleman he was.” Alberti died in Rome on April 25, 1472 at the age of 68.
Alberti regarded mathematics as a starting point for the discussion of art and the sciences. “To make clear my exposition in writing this brief commentary on painting,” Alberti began his treatise, Della Pittura (On Painting) which he dedicated to Brunelleschi, “I will take first from the mathematicians those things with which my subject is concerned.”
Della pittura (also known in Latin as De Pictura) relied in its scientific content on classical optics in determining perspective as a geometric instrument of artistic and architectural representation. Alberti was well-versed in the sciences of his age. His knowledge of optics was connected to the handed-down long-standing tradition of the Kitab al-manazir (The Optics; De aspectibus) of the Arab polymath Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham, d. c. 1041), which was mediated by Franciscan optical workshops of the 13th-century Perspectivae traditions of scholars such as Roger Bacon, John Peckham and Witelo (similar influences are also traceable in the third commentary of Lorenzo Ghiberti, Commentario terzo).
English title page of the first edition of Giacomo Leoni’s translation of Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria (1452). The book is bilingual, with the Italian version being printed on the left and the English version printed on the right.
In both Della pittura and De statua, Alberti stressed that “all steps of learning should be sought from nature.” The ultimate aim of an artist is to imitate nature. Painters and sculptors strive “through by different skills, at the same goal, namely that as nearly as possible the work they have undertaken shall appear to the observer to be similar to the real objects of nature.” However, Alberti did not mean that artists should imitate nature objectively, as it is, but the artist should be especially attentive to beauty, “for in painting beauty is as pleasing as it is necessary.” The work of art is, according to Alberti, so constructed that it is impossible to take anything away from it or add anything to it, without impairing the beauty of the whole. Beauty was for Alberti “the harmony of all parts in relation to one another,” and subsequently “this concord is realized in a particular number, proportion, and arrangement demanded by harmony.” Alberti’s thoughts on harmony were not new—they could be traced back to Pythagoras—but he set them in a fresh context, which fit in well with the contemporary aesthetic discourse.
In Rome, Alberti had plenty of time to study its ancient sites, ruins, and objects. His detailed observations, included in his De re aedificatoria (1452, On the Art of Building), were patterned after the De architectura by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (fl. 46–30 BC). The work was the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance. It covered a wide range of subjects, from history to town planning, and engineering to the philosophy of beauty. De re aedificatoria, a large and expensive book, was not fully published until 1485, after which it became a major reference for architects. However, the book was written “not only for craftsmen but also for anyone interested in the noble arts,” as Alberti put it. Originally published in Latin, the first Italian edition came out in 1546. and the standard Italian edition by Cosimo Bartoli was published in 1550. Pope Nicholas V, to whom Alberti dedicated the whole work, dreamed of rebuilding the city of Rome, but he managed to realize only a fragment of his visionary plans. Through his book, Alberti opened up his theories and ideals of the Florentine Renaissance to architects, scholars and others.
Alberti wrote I Libri della famiglia—which discussed education, marriage, household management, and money—in the Tuscan dialect. The work was not printed until 1843. Like Erasmus decades later, Alberti stressed the need for a reform in education. He noted that “the care of very young children is women’s work, for nurses or the mother,” and that at the earliest possible age children should be taught the alphabet. With great hopes, he gave the work to his family to read, but in his autobiography Alberti confesses that “he could hardly avoid feeling rage, moreover, when he saw some of his relatives openly ridiculing both the whole work and the author’s futile enterprise along it.” Momus, written between 1443 and 1450, was a misogynist comedy about the Olympian gods. It has been considered as a roman à clef—Jupiter has been identified in some sources as Pope Eugenius IV and Pope Nicholas V. Alberti borrowed many of its characters from Lucian, one of his favorite Greek writers. The name of its hero, Momus, refers to the Greek word for blame or criticism. After being expelled from heaven, Momus, the god of mockery, is eventually castrated. Jupiter and the other gods come down to earth also, but they return to heaven after Jupiter breaks his nose in a great storm.
Borsi states that Alberti’s writings on architecture continue to influence modern and contemporary architecture stating: “The organicism and nature-worship of Wright, the neat classicism of van der Mies, the regulatory outlines and anthropomorphic, harmonic, modular systems of Le Corbusier, and Kahn’s revival of the ‘antique’ are all elements that tempt one to trace Alberti’s influence on modern architecture.”