A Humanist architect, artist, and writer on many subjects (1404-1472); no intellectual of the 15th century showed more enthusiasm for modernity. As a young man he praised the dome that Brunelleschi had raised over the Florentine cathedral as a feat of technology "unknown and unthought of among the ancients." As an old man, he walked the Vatican gardens with his old friend Leonardo Dati, enthusiastically discussing the new art of printing. He wrote innovative books in Italian as well as in Latin. Yet no one did more to show that ancient forms could take on new life when applied to modern topics and problems.
Born in Genoa, the illegitimate son of an exiled member of a great Florentine family, Alberti learned the crafts of Humanism at the school of Gasparino Barzizza and may have studied law at Bologna. In the 1420s he became an abbreviator at the papal curia, and in the 1430s, when the ban on his family was lifted and the curia of Eugenius IV moved north to Florence, he returned to his family's native city. The new Florentine art of Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Masaccio, and della Robbia astonished and delighted him. A skilled Latinist, Alberti had already tried his hand at a number of genres, including a saint's life and a treatise on the state of letters, when he went to Florence. But his Florentine years saw him create radically new kinds of classicism.
Struck by the transformation of painting and sculpture in Florence, he wrote a treatise, On Painting (Della pittura, 1435), which defined the painter's task in a new way. Using one-point perspective (analyzed at length), with rigorous treatment of the geometry and optics required, the painter was to create an illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, and to dispose figures in a dramatic but decorous way that would affect viewers emotionally, just as a superb classical speech would affect listeners. A master of ancient rhetoric, Alberti modeled his treatise on the Institutio oratoria of Quintilian. The painter—in his prophetic view—should be less a craftsman than a good man skilled in painting, the practitioner of a learned art. His work should be purely classical, every figure balanced, symmetrical, anatomically correct but more than humanly beautiful. Alberti produced two versions of this: a first one in Italian, dedicated to Brunelleschi and evidently aimed at painters; then a second in Latin, probably meant for scholars like himself and informed patrons. In the same years, he wrote a series of four connected Ciceronian dialogues in Italian, On the Family (Della famiglia, 1435-1444). Here he drew on ancient moral philosophy to explain how one should go about preserving a great clan like his own in the shark-filled waters of Florentine economic and political life—a dazzling demonstration, in a very different sphere, of the contemporary uses of the classics.
He would never cease to experiment with the techniques of Humanism. His writings during the 1440s included Lucianic dialogues, the Intercenales, and a strange satire, also Lucianic, on the papacy and the curia, the Momus; a late treatise, On Statuary, in which he pursued his interest in the proportions of the ideal human body; and a grammar of Italian, in which he applied the Humanist grammarian's technique of direct observation, for the first time, to a vernacular language.
In the 1440s Alberti's interest in the visual arts began to dominate his career. In Ferrara he advised the young ruler Leonello d'Este on artistic questions. A bronze plaque he created with his own self-portrait in profile, classically dressed and set off by a winged eye and his motto, Quid tum? (What then?), may well have helped to create the fashionable new genre of classicizing portrait medals that became a Ferrarese specialty. In Urbino he advised Federico da Montefeltre on his great palace complex. In Rome, often working with Flavio Biondo, he became a skilled antiquary. Alberti devised new ways to survey and map the ancient city. He even tried, in 1446, to raise one of the sunken Roman ships from the bottom of Lake Nemi in the Alban hills.
Above all, Alberti studied ancient ways of building and city planning. In the field, he surveyed the Pantheon from porch to roof and examined Rome's ancient bridges, arches, and insulae (apartment buildings) with minute care. In his study—and in the new Vatican Library of Nicholas V—he gathered information from a vast range of texts, Greek as well as Latin. Everything that he learned, he used, both in three dimensions and in writing. As an architect, he worked with Matteo de' Pasti and other builders who could translate his proposals into stone and brick. His major architectural works, which variously occupied him from the later 1440s until virtually the end of his life, included the classical, symmetrical outer shell of the Malatesta Temple in Rimini; the Rucellai Palace in Florence, with its facade, intricately alluding to the Colosseum; the decorated facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the tiny Holy Sepulchre inside the Florentine church of San Pancrazio; and two major churches in Mantua. He pioneered in the use of the ancient temple porch as a prominent element in church design, experimented with inscriptions, and planned to top off the Malatesta temple with an immense dome—an unrealized project, but one that other architects would bring into being elsewhere.
Alberti also assembled his findings on the built world of the Greeks and Romans in a massive, systematic study, Ten Books on the Art of Building (De re aedificatoria). Here he set out both to emulate, and to replace, Vitruvius, whose work he denounced, unfairly but effectively, as both unintelligible and corrupt. Alberti's book, completed in the 1450s, was the first of his major works to be printed. It helped to shape the tastes of patrons and architects working in what they saw as classical styles down to the 18th century and after.
Bitter, ironic, perpetually critical of his predecessors and contemporaries, Alberti showed that ancient literary genres could be reconfigured to deal with radically modern topics, and that ancient forms could be reused to create new, classicizing environments for private life and public worship. His work made clear that Humanist scholarship could be productively applied to technical fields like mathematics and architecture—and thus opened up realms that others would explore for two centuries after his death.
- Giotto and the Orators (Oxford1971). ,
- La Roma di Leon Battista Alberti: Umanisti, architetti e artisti alla scoperta dell'antico nella città del Quattrocento (Milan2005). , with ,
- Leon Battista Alberti (New York2000). ,
- Leon Battista Alberti (Milan1994). and , eds.,
- Il nuovo "De pictura" di Leon Battista Alberti: The New "De Pictura" of Leon Battista Alberti (Rome2006). ,
- Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Eloquence, 1400--1470 (Oxford1992). ,
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