Alberti, Leon Battista 1404–1472 Italian Author and Architect

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Alberti, Leon Battista
Italian author and architect

Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian author, architect, and humanist* of the 1400s. His works embody the Renaissance ideal of combining ancient and modern ideas. He wrote in both Latin and Italian on a great variety of subjects. As an architect, he incorporated forms used by the ancient Greeks and Romans into modern structures. In the 1800s, historian Jakob Burckhardt described Alberti as the "universal man of the Renaissance," meaning a man who could do many things well.

Early Life. Alberti was born in Genoa, Italy. He entered the University of Bologna to study law but preferred literary activities to legal studies. During his ten years at the university, he produced many works in Latin, including a comedy and several pieces on moral themes that were based on the works of Lucian, an ancient Greek writer.

After finishing his law degree in 1428, Alberti joined the Roman Catholic clergy. He sought employment in the papal Curia, the organization that assisted the pope in governing the church. Meanwhile he continued to write, producing two works in Italian on the subject of love. These pieces were very popular, both in their original form and in translation. In fact, they were the only works of Alberti's to be printed during his lifetime.

In 1432 Alberti received a post in Florence. The city was home to many humanists, but they gave Alberti a cool welcome. In response, he wrote a Latin essay protesting the low social status of students and teachers.

Literary Works. While in Florence, Alberti wrote The Family, a three-part work in Italian. It contained a series of dialogues on the principles of running a household, covering such topics as education, marriage, and the management of an estate. Alberti later added a fourth section on friendship.

Alberti originally wrote The Family in the dialect of Tuscany, the region surrounding Florence. However, the language did not come naturally to him, and he revised the piece in a style that blended formal discourse with everyday speech. Alberti went on to become a leading supporter of the use of the vernacular* in writing. He later created the first Italian grammar book and composed poetry in Italian.

Alberti also continued to write in Latin. His 1436 work, On Painting, discussed the principles of perspective* and the use of stories as subjects for paintings. It also stressed the importance of humanist learning in the visual arts. Alberti translated this work into Italian to make it available to artists who did not speak Latin.

Alberti's other Latin writings included a treatise* on law, a dialogue on church duties, and a book of fables. He also produced an autobiography in 1437. Alberti's most ambitious Latin work was Momus, or On theRuler, published in 1450. This four-part novel was a satire* on the foolish ambitions and political schemes of both gods and men.

Architecture. Alberti received his first job as an architect in 1438. The Este family, which ruled the city of Ferrara, hired Alberti to design an arch to support a statue of Nicolò III, the head of the family. In 1443 Alberti went to Rome with the Curia. While there, he produced an elaborate map of the city. He also participated in various projects involving restoration and city planning.

After 1450, Alberti devoted more time to architecture. His first major project involved converting a church in the town of Rimini into a new structure called the Malatesta Temple. He created an outer shell around the old building with a front based on a Roman arch. In 1452 Alberti completed a work on architecture called On the Art of Building. It addressed every aspect of architecture, from symmetry* and proportion to urban planning.

In the 1460s and 1470s, Alberti worked on several projects for Giovanni Rucellai, a wealthy merchant in Florence. His plan for the Rucellai palace successfully adapted elements of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Alberti also undertook several projects for the Gonzaga family, which ruled the city of Mantua. One of these, the church of Sant' Andrea, is widely viewed as his masterpiece. Begun in the 1470s, the building was not completed until after Alberti's death. The huge arched vaults of Sant' Andrea, based on ancient Roman architecture, had an influence on the design of St. Peter's and of many other churches in Rome.

Alberti's Influence. Alberti's accomplishments were largely over-looked for a generation after his death. This was due, in part, to Alberti's own secretive nature. He often wrote under assumed names, and he supervised many of his architectural projects from a distance. Moreover, he failed to finish many of his more ambitious literary efforts. Alberti's works began to attract interest in the 1520s with the publication of Momus and the translation of several of his other works.

Alberti was a true Renaissance thinker. In his translations of Latin works and his monuments based on ancient models, he smoothly blended old and new ideas. At the same time, his treatises on grammar, painting, and architecture provided a basis for new literary and artistic creation.

(See alsoArchitecture; Florence; Humanism; Italian Language and Literature; Literature; Rome. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

see color plate 5, vol. 1

* symmetry

balance created by matching forms on opposite sides of a structure

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Alberti, Leon Battista 1404–1472 Italian Author and Architect

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