Skip to main content

Alberti, Leone Battista

Alberti, Leone Battista

(b. Genoa, Italy, 18 February 1404; d. Rome, Italy, April 1472)

mathematics, physics, natural history, technology.

In the twelfth century Alberti’s ancestors were feudal lords of Valdarno who settled in Florence, where they became judges and notaries and were members of the wealthy bourgeoisie. In the fourteenth century they engaged in commercial and banking enterprises, organizing a firm with branches scattered all over Europe; their wealth enriched Florence. At the same time, the Albertis became involved in politics. Toward the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, this led to the family’s exile; they sought refuge in the foreign branches of their firm. Thus Leone Battista Alberti, the son of Lorenzo Alberti, came to be born in Genoa. It is possible that he was illegitimate.

From his early childhood Alberti is said to have been precocious; little else is known about his youth. Fleeing the plague, his father went to Venice, the site of perhaps the most important branch of the house of Alberti. The father died suddenly, leaving his children in the care of their uncle, who disappeared soon thereafter. It is possible that unscrupulous relatives liquidated the Venice branch in order to make themselves rich at the orphans’ expense.

Alberti seems to have started his advanced education at Padua. At any rate, after 1421 he continued it at Bologna, where he began the study of law. Overwork caused him to fall ill, and he had to interrupt his studies; nevertheless, he received a doctorate in canon law. For relaxation he took up the study of mathematics, natural sciences, and physics, subjects that he pursued to a rather advanced level. Subsequently, the decrees of exile against his family having been revoked, Alberti undoubtedly returned to Florence, or at least to Tuscany. In Florence he met Brunelleschi, who became a good friend. Between 1430 and 1432 he was in the service of a cardinal, who took him with his entourage to France, Belgium, and Germany.

In 1432 Alberti arrived in Rome, where he became a functionary at the papal court. In Rome he discovered antiquity and became the artist we know today—painter, sculptor, and then architect. His paintings and sculptures, however, have never been found or identified. As part of the papal court, he necessarily shared all its tribulations. In 1437 he was in Bologna and Ferrara with Pope Eugene IV, who was roaming all over northern Italy. He was often in Rome, yet he also served those humanistic families who ruled small, more or less independent principalities. Thus he certainly spent some time at the court of Rimini, with the Malatesta family. Here Alberti conceived and partially executed his most important architectural work, the Malatesta Temple, a chapel designed to shelter their tombs.

Alberti was, we are told, amiable, very handsome, and witty. He was adept at directing discussions and took pleasure in organizing small conversational groups. Alberti represented, perhaps even better than Brunelleschi, the first scholar-artists of the Renaissance, more inquisitive than given to realization, more collectors of facts and ideas than imaginative and creative. Still close to the expiring Middle Ages, Alberti had trouble freeing himself of its shackles on the scientific level. He was possessed of a perpetual need to know—and a perpetual need to expound his ideas—as well as a desire to mingle with intellectual equals. It is certain that from these encounters at the courts of rulers like the Malatestas, a new scientific spirit arose. In this sense Alberti occupies a place of particular importance in the history of thought. At the end of his life, aside from architectural works or such engineering projects as the attempt to refloat the Roman galleys in Lake Nemi in 1447 (on which he wrote a short treatise, now lost), he was occupied with these meetings and with the editing of his written works, which were numerous.

Unfortunately, a large part of Alberti’s scientific work has been lost. It is not impossible, however, that some of his works may be submerged in the scientific literature of the age without being known. Like all of his contemporaries, Alberti inherited a fragmentary science. He seems to have been interested in isolated problems which furnished subjects for discussion but which individually could not result in anything important. It was difficult to give them a personal emphasis, for these questions had already been debated, discussed, and restated many times.

Alberti’s mathematics is exactly that of his times. He wrote at least on an advanced level only small treatise the Ludi matematici, dedicated to his friend Melidus d’Este, himself an accomplished mathematician. Only twenty problems were involved, some of which had to do on an with mathematics only remotely. Only one of them touched on an abstract question—lunules in “De lunularum quadratura”, in which he furnished an elegant solution to the problem but lost his way in the squaring of the circle. On all other points he shared the preoccupation of a great number of fifteenth-century scholars, considering mathematics as a tool rather an independent science. Often he merely applied formulas. Thus, geometry was used to calculate the height of a tower, the depth of a well, the area of a filed. In this work we find notions of the hygrometer which simply the hygrometer of Nicholas of Cusa. Albert Wrote a book of mathe matical commentaries that may have contained more precise ideas but unfortunately the manuscript has never been found.

Not much is known about Alberti’s physics. He wrote De motibus Ponderis which been lost also. In some of his works we can find some references to physics, but they are rather elusive ones. Some years ago the Trattati dei pondi, here e tirari, long attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, was reattributed to Alberti. In concerns gravity, density (harking back to the works of Archimedes), hydrostatics, and heat. There are only vague, undoubtedly traditional ideas on the preservation of labor. His optics is more theory of vision. In his opinion bodies, even dark ones, emit in all directions rays that move in a straight line. They converge toward the eye and together form a visual pyramid. This theory is also completely traditional. The camera obscure, which way be his greatest discovery, deeply impressed his contemnporaries, although he perhaps borrowed the device from Brunelleschi to whom he was greatly indebted from his studies on perspective. In his Element picture however he contributed nothing more than applied geometry. He worked from the idea that the construction of similar figures was the basis for all figure representation.

Alberti displayed the same attitude in his writings on the natural sciences, in which he speculated on nature rather than on scientific data. Like many others, he admitted the roundness of the earth, and also wrote briefly on the development of its crust. He seemingly spoke knowledgeably of earthquakes, atmospheric erosion, water circulation, the action of plants on soil, plant decomposition and formation of humus, sedimentary layers and the formation of deltas. He considered fossils merely a freak of nature.

Alberti best-known work, containing many of his scientific ideas, is De re aedificatoria, which was presented to Pope Nicholas V about 1452. The work was printed in 1485 and exerted a certain influence. It was to be a treatise on the art of engineering, but this aim was not completely achieved. Alberti dealt with lifting devices, grain bins and “other conveniences that albeit of little esteem nevertheless bring profit,” water supply, ways a quarrying of the and cutting through mountains, the damming of the sea or of rivers, the drying up of swamps, machines of war, and fortresses. In this work he easy concerned less with architecture per se and architectural tech niques than with an actual attempt at town planning. His ideas of city were still largely inspired by the Middle Ages, but they also contained elements clearly belonging to the Renaissance, such as the respect for urban aesthetics, perspective, and orderly arrangemeant. something that certainly seems new—but we hardly know his predecessors—is the application of the entire range of scientific knowledge to town planning and architectural practice. Alberti applied this knowledge of the natural sciences to building materials his knowledge of physics was applied to equilibrium of buildings the flexibility of beams, and the construction of engines and that mathematics (still very simply mathematics)was shown in the very Pythagorean layout of cities and the arrangement of forstresses.

As was typical of his time, Alberti was preoccupied with various machines and apparatuses some in current used and some the subject of scattered and almost confused observation which made it impossible to draw the parallels and comparisons necessary to develop a technology. He spoke of balances, clocks, sundials, pulleys, water mills and windmills, and canal locks. He developed topographical instruments and envisaged the odometer and “sulcometer,” which measured distances traveled by ships he studied the methods of sounding in deep waters. In all of this work he manifested more interest in manual crafts than in true science.

Alberti is difficult to place in both the history of science and the history of technology. Contemporary works in these fields almost invariably cite him in their lists of scholars, but he is not credited with anything really new. He contributed no new principles, but he seems to have had a very profound knowledge. In short, he seems to have regarded science as a means for action rather than as a system of organized knowledge. On many occasions he ad mitted his interest in knowledge, but more for reasons of efficiency than as an abstract science, as power rather than as intellectuality. He knew only the perspective and natural science that serve the artist or the architect, and only the mathematics and physics of use to the engineer and the technician. Nevertheless, he perceived certain directions for research. He was well aware of the difference between sensation (common observation) and scientific ideas: “Points and lines are not the same for the painter as for the mathematician.” Observation was a point of departure for scientific hypothesis, which must be verified by systematic observation. In the last analysis, al though Alberti contributed nothing but a supplementary collection of special cases to scientific progress, he nevertheless outlined some promising avenues for future work.


I. Original Works. In most cases only very old editions of Alberti’s works are extant. De re aedificatoria was first published in Florence in 1485; there were many subsequent editions in Italian, and a French version appeared in Paris in 1553. Opere volgari dei L.B. Alberti, IV (Florence, 1847), contains Ludi matematici. Opera inedita et pauca separatim impressa (Florence, 1890) includes Elementa picturae; it also contains a treatise on perspective incorrectly attributed to Alberti. Trattati dei pondi, lieve e tirari was published as an appendix to Vasari (Florence, 1917).

II. Secondary Literature. There are few works on Alberti. The essential work is P.H. Michel, La pensée de L.B. Alberti (Paris 1930). with an exhaustive bibliography of works published until then. There is a good chapter on Alberti in L. Olschki, Geschichte der neuspralichen Literatur (Leipzig, 1919). The technological aspects of Alberti’s work are discussed by B. Gille in Les ingénieurs de la Renaissance (Paris, 1967), pp. 80–84.

Bertrand Gille

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alberti, Leone Battista." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 22 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Alberti, Leone Battista." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (March 22, 2017).

"Alberti, Leone Battista." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved March 22, 2017 from

Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was an Italian writer, humanist, and architect. Through his theoretical writings on painting, sculpture, and architecture, he raised them from the level of the mechanical arts to that of the liberal arts.

Leon Battista Alberti, as a scholar and philosopher who moved in humanist circles in Florence and the papal court in Rome, was involved in all the central concepts of the Renaissance. He was concerned with reforming his society and the arts in the image of ancient Roman culture. Throughout most of his writings the problem of man's relation to society is fundamental.

Leon Battista Alberti was born in Genoa on Feb. 14, 1404. He was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo Alberti, who belonged to one of the most prominent and oldest Florentine families but had been banished in 1401 from his native city. As a young boy, Leon Battista attended the famous school of the humanist Gasparino Barzizza in Padua, probably at the time Lorenzo Alberti was in Venice (1414). By 1421 Leon Battista was at the University of Bologna; while there he wrote a Latin comedy, Philodoxeus (ca. 1424). He received a degree in canon law prior to 1428, and it is probable that after earning his degree in Bologna he went to Rome. Sometime before 1431 Alberti was appointed prior of S. Martino in Gangalandi, Tuscany, which benefice he held until his death. In 1431 and early 1432 he accompanied Cardinal Albergati on a tour of northern Europe. On his return to Rome, Alberti became secretary to the patriarch of Grado and in October 1432 abbreviator at the papal court.

Soon after this Alberti wrote Descriptio urbis Romae as an index for an archeological map of Rome and in 3 months composed the first three books of Della famiglia, which is concerned with domestic life and the education of children. The fourth book of the treatise on the family, dealing with friendship, was written in Florence in 1437, and the entire work was revised in 1443. The sociological approach of this treatise remained central to his later writings.

The Treatises

In June 1434 Alberti accompanied the court of Pope Eugenius IV to Florence when it fled from the unrest in Rome. Florence, under the leadership of artists such as Donatello, Masaccio, and Filippo Brunelleschi, was then the art capital of Europe. Here Alberti composed his theoretical treatises on the visual arts. His treatise in Latin on painting, De pictura, was completed in 1435; the following year he prepared in Italian a briefer, more popular version, Della pittura. The Latin edition, dedicated to Gianfrancesco Gonzaga of Mantua, was written to persuade patrons that the art of painting was not merely a mechanical craft. The treatise explained for the first time in writing the mathematical foundations of one-point linear perspective as it was developed by the architect Brunelleschi, to whom the Italian version was dedicated; it also discussed antique themes and their appropriate expression. A Latin treatise on sculpture, De sculptura, may have originated at this time, although there is much uncertainty about its date.

As a member of the papal court, Alberti accompanied the Pope to Bologna in April 1436, and in January 1438 he was at Ferrara for the convocation of the council of the Latin and Greek churches. During this period Alberti wrote a work on law, De iure (1437), and another on the priest, Pontifex (1437). In 1442 Leonello d'Este, the ruler of Ferrara, recalled Alberti to advise him on a memorial equestrian statue of his father, Niccolo d'Este. Alberti's treatise on the horse, De equo animante, is related to this commission. His philosophical dialogue on peace of mind, Della tranquillità dell'animo, probably dates from the same period.

Alberti followed the papal court back to Rome in September 1443 and, probably at the instigation of Leonello d'Este, began to write the first five books of his important Latin treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria. After Nicholas V was elected pope in 1447, Alberti finished the remaining five books, and the complete work was presented to the Pope in 1452 (first printed in 1485). The treatise not only relates architecture to the classical principles enunciated by the ancient Roman writer Vitruvius but, inspired by Alberti's previous concern for the family and society, studies architecture as a sociological phenomenon. For the remainder of his life, however, Alberti was more involved with the design and execution of architecture than with theoretical treatises.

The Architecture

The Rucellai Palace in Florence was begun by Alberti about 1447 and completed in 1451. The facade has three superimposed stories of classical pilasters. His first design for the facade was probably square and had a single entrance portal, but Bernardo Rossellino, who executed the building, lengthened the palace and constructed two portals, which contradicted Alberti's architectural principles.

In 1450 Sigismondo Malatesta commissioned Alberti to refurbish the Gothic church of S. Francesco at Rimini, later known as the Tempio Malatestiano. Alberti enclosed the exterior in a classical envelope of arcades at the sides and a triumphal arch motif on the facade. The great domed sanctuary, depicted in the foundation medal of 1450 and related, according to Alberti in a letter of 1454, to the Pantheon at Rome, was never executed, as the building was left incomplete at the death of Sigismondo in 1466.

In 1450, under the aegis of Pope Nicholas V, a great building program for the city of Rome was formulated, including additions to the Vatican Palace and the rebuilding of St. Peter's and the portion of the city near the Vatican called the Leonine Borgo. Except for some preliminary work at St. Peter's, this project was not carried out, but several features of the urban plan and of the palace additions suggest at least the counsel of Alberti.

Giovanni Rucellai, whose palace Alberti had designed, commissioned him in 1458 to complete the facade of the great Gothic church of S. Maria Novella in Florence. Limited by the medieval work of the lower part of the facade, Alberti created an ingenious compromise design in the classical mode that harmonized with the earlier portion. He also renovated the family chapel in S. Pancrazio for Rucellai and executed the Shrine of the Holy Sepulcher for the chapel in 1467.

In May 1459 Alberti followed Pope Pius II to Mantua. Probably at this time Lodovico Gonzaga of Mantua commissioned Alberti to build the church of S. Sebastiano, since its model was prepared by February 1460 and the foundation begun the following month. Alberti designed a centralized church plan with monumental entrance stairs leading up to a temple front facade; he altered the design of the facade in 1470, but it was never completed.

Late in 1464 Pope Paul II dismissed the papal abbreviators, including Alberti, which gave Alberti more time for his architectural commissions. For the church of S. Andrea in Mantua, he designed in 1470 a great Latin cross plan with transept and domed crossing; he described it as an "Etruscan temple." Construction began in 1472, the year of his death, and was continued until 1493 by Luca Fancelli, who supervised Alberti's Mantuan commissions. Only the nave flanked by chapels was executed in the 15th century; S. Andrea was finally completed in the 18th century.

Lodovico Gonzaga was the patron of the Church of S. Annunziata in Florence, and in 1470 he commissioned Alberti to revise Michelozzo's earlier plan for the rotunda of the church. At the same time Alberti wrote a treatise on morality, De iciarchia, lamenting the corruption of the times. In September 1471, he served as a guide to the antiquities of Rome, when Lorenzo de' Medici and the Florentine representatives came to pay homage to the newly elected pope, Sixtus IV. In 1472, probably early in April, Alberti died at Rome.

Widespread Influence

Alberti's treatises on painting and architecture exerted a great influence on 16th-and 17th-century artistic thought. The teachings of the French 17th-century academies of painting and architecture represent a codification of artistic principles first formulated less rigidly by Alberti.

Of his architecture, the plan of S. Andrea, through its impact on Giacomo da Vignola's design for the Jesuit church, the Gesù, at Rome, was important for two centuries of church architecture. In the same way, the facade of S. Maria Novella, with its great scrolls, became the model for classicizing church facades, as seen also in the Gesù. In both his architecture and architectural theory Alberti paved the way for the High Renaissance architecture of Rome, exemplified in Donato Bramante's work of the early 16th century.

Further Reading

Alberti's treatises include Ten Books on Architecture, edited by Joseph Rykwert and translated by James Leoni (1955); On Painting, translated with an introduction by John R. Spencer (1956; rev. ed. 1966); and The Family in Renaissance Florence, translated with an introduction by Renée N. Watkins (1969). The standard biography of Alberti is in Italian: Girolamo Mancini, Vita di Leon Battista Alberti (1882; 2d rev. ed. 1911). A study in English is Joan Gadol, Leon Battista Alberti (1969). The fundamental study of his architectural style and theory is in Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1949; 3d rev. ed. 1962).

Additional Sources

Borsi, Franco., Leon Battista Alberti, Oxford: Phaidon, 1977. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Leon Battista Alberti." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 22 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Leon Battista Alberti." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (March 22, 2017).

"Leon Battista Alberti." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved March 22, 2017 from

Alberti, Leon Battista

Alberti, Leon Battista (1404–72). Uomo universale of the Italian early Renaissance, and architect of genius (though never involved in the actual building of his designs), he was the first architectural theorist of the Renaissance, and established the moral and intellectual essence of architecture, placing it in realms more exalted than those inhabited by the master-craftsman of the medieval period (although there had been exceptions then).

Born in Genoa, educated at Padua and Bologna, he visited Florence in 1428 where he became acquainted with leading intellectuals: in his De Pictura (the Italian version of 1436 is dedicated to Brunelleschi) he provided the first written description of the principles of perspective. His admiration of the achievements of Brunelleschi and his appreciation of the importance of architecture in the revitalization of the spirit of Antiquity led him to a study of theoretical and archaeological bases, and therefore to Rome, where he became closely involved in the Papal Court from 1431. In Descriptio urbis Romanae (1443), a key work of Roman topography, his understanding of Antiquity and of Renaissance principles of proportion is displayed. He became an intimate of Tommaso Parentucelli, who became Pope Nicholas V (1447–55), and Alberti became consultant to the Papacy on architectural and restoration projects. In 1452 he presented his De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building) to the Pope: the book (published complete in 1486), intended to be a modern equivalent of Vitruvius's great work, encapsulated concerns with the Orders and proportion, extolled Antique architecture, gave practical advice, and explained the principles of Roman civic design and how they had contemporary significance. The book was translated into English by Leoni and first published in 1726–9 as The Architecture of L. B. Alberti, with subsequent editions of 1739 and 1753–5: a new edition, edited by Joseph Rykwert, was published in 1966.

Alberti prepared plans (from 1450) for the transformation of the medieval church of San Francesco in Rimini into a mortuary-chapel-cum-mausoleum for Sigismondo Malatesta (1417–68), Lord of Rimini. He encased the Gothic structure in Classical ashlar fabric, with an unfinished front (the first Renaissance example of a Classical west front on a basilican church), the lower part of which is based on a Roman triumphal arch (symbolizing Christian triumph over death). The Tempio Malatestiano (as it became known) was a deeply serious building, evoking the power and severity of Ancient Roman architecture.

C15 perception of the Romanesque Church of San Miniato al Monte, Florence, as Antique probably inspired Alberti in his designs for the west front of the Gothic Church of Santa Maria Novella in that city (1456–70), executed in a skin of coloured marble applied to the brick structure behind. This celebrated front is an attempted solution to the problem of providing a Classical façade for the traditional basilican shape of a clerestoreyed nave with lean-to aisles: the Orders framing the central doorway (itself based on that of the Roman Pantheon) and the blind arcading merge the triumphal-arch theme with the treatment of the façade of San Miniato. Above, the crowning pediment is carried on an entablature and four pilasters, suggesting a temple-front, and large scrolls hide the roofs of the aisles. There are clear geometrical relationships between the various parts of the façade and the whole, and these complex interconnections are the first use of harmonic proportions in the Renaissance period. This design was carried out for Giovanni Rucellai (1403–81), for whom Alberti also prepared a scheme for the façade of the new palazzo (erected under the direction of Bernardo di Matteo Gambarelli, called Rossellino, c.1460). The Palazzo Rucellai was the first domestic Renaissance building in which each storey was defined by an Order (but owes something to Brunelleschi's Palazzo di Parte Guelfa).

Alberti again entered the service of the Papacy under Pope Pius II (1458–64), for whom the architect may have played a part in the rebuilding of Pienza, and was probably involved in the design of the Benediction Loggia at the Vatican. He was very likely responsible for the barrel-vaulted mortuary-chapel (Cappella Rucellai) at the Church of San Pancrazio, Florence, of 1460–7, and certainly designed the exquisite marble shrine (c.1467) of the Holy Sepulchre (articulated with pilasters) for that chapel. Also dating from the 1460s is Alberti's Church of San Sebastiano, Mantua, built on a Greek-cross plan, and with an entrance temple-front originally intended to have six pilasters carrying a broken entablature and pediment: the arch linking the two parts of the pediment and the elimination of two of the pilasters suggest the triumphal arch of Tiberius at Orange (late C1 BC) and also a certain freedom of expression, but the real model is probably Diocletian's Palace at Spalato (c. AD 300) and the Antique façades of the tombs of Annia Regilla (near the Via Appia) and of the Cercenii (south of Rome‐a point emphasized by the similarity of the plan of San Sebastiano to that tomb). Another precedent for the plan can be found in the Greek Library at Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli.

In 1464, on the death of Pius II, Alberti devoted himself to the service of the Gonzaga family of Mantua. In 1470 he was involved in the construction of the rotunda of the Florentine Church of Santissima Annunziata, which is derived from Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence (1434), in turn derived from the so-called temple of ‘Minerva Medica’ in Rome (c. AD 250), although Michelozzo di Bartolommeo was involved earlier. For the Gonzagas, he designed his great Church of Sant'Andrea in Mantua (commenced 1470), where the influence of Roman exemplars is clear. The nave is roofed with a gigantic barrel-vault (the largest and heaviest to be erected since Antiquity): to carry this, Alberti drew on the structural principles of Roman thermae, and formed massive abutments at right angles to the axis of the nave, between which he created large barrel-vaulted and smaller domed chapels in what would have been the ‘aisles’ of a normal basilican arrangement. Furthermore, the elevation of the nave arcades consists of three interlocked triumphal arches, and the west front combines an Antique temple-front with a triumphal arch that echoes the arches of the interior as well as the great barrel-vault within. The grand interior with chapels instead of aisles is the precedent for most Italian and Counter-Reformation churches of C16.


Alberti (1988);
F. Borsi (1989);
Boschetto (2000);
Gadol (1969);
Grafton (2000);
Heydenreich (1996);
Rykwert (ed.) (1966);
Rykwert & and Engel (1994);
Tavernor (1998);
Jane Turner (1996);
Wittkower (1998)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alberti, Leon Battista." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . 22 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Alberti, Leon Battista." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . (March 22, 2017).

"Alberti, Leon Battista." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Retrieved March 22, 2017 from

Alberti, Leon Battista (1404–1472)

Alberti, Leon Battista (14041472)

An Italian painter, essayist, poet, philosopher, mathematician, musician, and architect, Alberti was one of the universal scholars of the early Renaissance. Born in Genoa, he was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo Alberti, a merchant of Florence who had been placed under a ban by the city. After moving from Genoa to Venice, Lorenzo Alberti established a bank. He soon entered a well-known academy in Padua run by Gasparino Barzizza, then studied law at the University of Bologna. He earned his doctorate in canon (church) law in 1428. Skilled in Latin, he wrote Philodoxius in Latin verse and fooled a publisher into claiming it to be the work of the ancient poet Lepidus.

In 1429 the Alberti family returned to Florence, where Leon began a study of architecture. He joined the Florentine court of Pope Eugenius IV, who had been driven out of Rome, and became canon of the cathedral of Florence. At some time in the 1430s he moved to Rome where, in 1432 he became an abbreviator, whose job was to prepare documents for the pope and his administration. Alberti wrote treatises on a variety of subjects. His works from this early period include On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Letters, biographies of the saints, and Descriptio urbis Romae, a guide to the ancient ruins of Rome. In De Componendis Cifris he explores cryptography; in I Libri della Famiglia he instructs readers on domestic life and the education of children.

Alberti took a great interest in art and architecture, and was one of the first critics to write extensively on the emerging trends of the early Renaissance. His book De Pictura was a manual on the art of painting. Writing for the aristocratic patrons of art in Italy, Alberti expounded on the science of mathematics as the foundation for the art of painting. De Pictura contained a detailed explanation of linear perspective, as first developed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect who designed the dome of the cathedral of Florence. In Alberti's view, the true aim of the artist, whether painter or sculptor, was to create harmony by imitating nature to the best of his ability. This perspective represents an important break from the medieval sensibility that emphasized biblical themes and devotion to the Christian faith.

Alberti's appointments allowed him time and freedom to pursue his studies and writing. He was appointed as prior of San Martino in the town of Gangalandi, Tuscany, and in 1448 became the rector of the parish of San Lorenzo in Mugello. In 1447 he became an inspector of monuments for the pope, an appointment he held until 1455. He was employed as a musician as well as an architect, and was appointed by Pope Nicholas V to restore the papal palace and to design the Trevi Fountain. Alberti designed the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, an important symbol of early Renaissance architecture, as well as the church of San Andrea and the church of San Francesco in Rimini, a work commissioned by Sigismondo Malatesta, the city's ruler. San Francesco married religious architecture with classical motifs, including a triumphal arch and a great dome in imitation of the ancient Pantheon of Rome (the dome was never completed, however, as work on the church ended with the death of Malatesta in 1466).

San Francesco was the first structure Alberti designed on the principles described in De Re Aedificatoria, his best-known work. De Re Aedificatoria held up ancient Roman architecture as a model for his Italian contemporaries, and propounded principles of architecture that Renaissance builders would follow for the next two centuries. Modeled on the work of Vitruvius, a Roman architect, De Re Aedificatoria covered town planning, building techniques, engineering, and aesthetics. The book spread the ideas of the Florentine Renaissance to the rest of Italy and remained a standard text on architecture until the eighteenth century. To historians Alberti represents the classic Renaissance humanist, the universal man who applied his talents and genius to many different fields and who strived to achieve a classical harmony and balance in his works.

See Also: architecture; Florence; humanism; Vitruvius

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alberti, Leon Battista (1404–1472)." The Renaissance. . 22 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Alberti, Leon Battista (1404–1472)." The Renaissance. . (March 22, 2017).

"Alberti, Leon Battista (1404–1472)." The Renaissance. . Retrieved March 22, 2017 from

Alberti, Leone Battista

Leone Battista Alberti, 1404–72, Italian architect, musician, painter, and humanist, active at the papal court, Florence, Rimini, and Mantua. Alberti was the first architect to argue for the correct use of the classical orders during the Renaissance. His ecclesiastical works include the exteriors of the churches of San Francesco in Rimini (begun 1451), Sant' Andrea in Mantua (c.1470), and part of the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (c.1458–70). On the facade of the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence (c.1452–70), Alberti used tiers of superimposed classical orders, as inspired by such antique buildings as the Roman Colosseum. Alberti was the author of several important treatises on the visual arts. His De re aedificatoria, written c.1450, became the first printed book on architecture (1485). Although largely dependent on Vitruvius, it was the first modern work on the subject, and it included important new material. His treatise on painting (1436) was the first book in this field to treat theory as well as technique. His treatise on sculpture (c.1464) was another pioneering work in its field, and it was significant for its discussion of human proportions.

See his On Painting, tr. by J. R. Spencer (rev. ed. 1966) and his Ten Books of Architecture, tr. by G. Leoni (1755, repr. 1986); biography by A. Grafton (2000).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alberti, Leone Battista." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 22 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Alberti, Leone Battista." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (March 22, 2017).

"Alberti, Leone Battista." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved March 22, 2017 from

Alberti, Leon Battista

Alberti, Leon Battista (1404–72) Italian architect, humanist and writer. The first major art theorist of the Renaissance, Alberti's treatise On Painting (1435) was highly influential. His buildings include the Rucellai Palace, Florence, Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini, and the Church of San Andrea, Mantua.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Alberti, Leon Battista." World Encyclopedia. . 22 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Alberti, Leon Battista." World Encyclopedia. . (March 22, 2017).

"Alberti, Leon Battista." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved March 22, 2017 from