Alberti, Leon Battista

views updated May 14 2018

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)

Alberti, Leone Battista

views updated May 23 2018

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

Leon Battista Alberti

views updated May 29 2018

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. □

Leon Battista Alberti

views updated Jun 11 2018

Leon Battista Alberti


Mathematician, writer, architect


Rough Beginnings. Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian scholar, architect, and author, one of those people who might easily be called a “Renaissance Man.” Born 14 February 1404, he was the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker, but, like many young men in Renaissance Italy whose fathers were wealthy, the circumstances of his birth did not keep him from gaining an excellent education. He studied Latin as a young boy, began studying literature from a private teacher at the age of eleven, and at fourteen or fifteen went to the University of Bologna to study law. Shortly afterward his father died, and he was apparently cheated out of his inheritance by his cousins, though this situation also did little to affect his rise in status. He began writing Latin plays and dialogues and met many prominent humanists and writers, who were impressed by his talents.

Literary Roots. When he was about twenty-four, Alberti completed his legal studies and took a position as the secretary to one of the pope’s assistants. Along with his work as a papal official and secretary, Alberti spent much of his time writing works on decidedly non-religious topics. He wrote two works in Italian on love, which were very popular; they were printed and translated into other languages during his lifetime. (The first printing presses were introduced into Italy in the 1450s.) He wrote a long dialogue, divided into four parts, on the family, which would be copied and plagiarized by many people for years to come.

On the Role of the Patriarch. In this dialogue Della famiglia (On the Family), Alberti has various men of his clan discuss such matters as education, marriage, and house-hold management. The book begins with a long discussion of the duties of the father, in which one of the characters quotes his own father’s advice to male family members:

The duty of a father is not only, as they say, to stock the cupboard and the cradle. He ought, far more, to watch over and guard the family from all sides, to check over and consider the whole company, to examine all the practices of every member, inside and outside the house, and to correct and improve every bad habit. He ought preferably to use reasonable rather than indignant words, authority rather than power. He should appear to give wise counsel where this would help more than commands, and should be severe, rigorous, and harsh only where the situation really calls for it. He ought in every thought always to put first the good, the peace, and the tranquillity of his entire family. This should be a kind of goal toward which he, using his intelligence and experience, guides the whole family with virtue and honor. He knows how to steer according to the wind’s favor, the waves of popular opinion, and the grace given him by his fellow citizens, toward the harbor of honor, prestige, and authority.

A Mother’s Role. Considerations of the duties of a mother are much more brief, but they do appear in the second part of the book:

For the procreation of children, no one can deny that man requires woman. Since a child comes into the world as a tender and delicate creature, he needs someone to whose care and devotion he comes as a cherished trust. This person must also nourish him with diligence and love and must defend him from harm. Too much cold or too much sun, rain, and the wild blowing of a storm are harmful to children. Woman, therefore, did first find a roof under which to nourish and protect herself and her offspring. There she remained, busy in the shadow nourishing and caring for her children. And since woman was busy guarding and taking care of the heir, she was not in a position to go out and find what she and her children required for the maintenance of their life. Man, however, was by nature more energetic and industrious, and he went out to find things and bring what seemed to him necessary. Sometimes the man remained away from home and did not return as soon as his family expected. Because of this, when he came back laden, the woman learned to save things in order to make sure that if in the future her husband stayed away for a long time, neither she nor her children would suffer. In this way it seems clear to me that nature and human reason taught mankind the necessity of having a spouse, both to increase and continue generations and to nourish and preserve those already born.

Speaking to the People. It may seem unusual to us that a man who was officially a priest and employee of the pope wrote on subjects such as love and the family, but Alberti, like all Renaissance authors, based his writings not on personal experience but on classical Greek and Roman writings that provided both the form and content. The dialogue form, particularly one in which a group of men sit around and discuss a particular topic, had been a common literary device since the time of Plato, and many Renaissance writers found it appealing. Alberti broke with other authors in that he wrote his major works in Italian so that they could be read by people who were not literate in Latin. He revised his treatise on the family to make it even more readable, and he later composed the first grammar of the Italian language to assist people as they learned to read.

Varied Contributions. Alberti continued to compose a variety of types of works in both Italian and Latin, and in the 1430s he became interested in artistic issues as well, first writing about and then trying his hand at architecture. He composed a treatise on painting in 1435, in which he discussed issues of linear perspective, and he received a commission to design an arch that would support an equestrian statue of Nicolo III d’Este, a member of a powerful Italian noble family and the ruler of the city-state of Ferrara. His work in architecture continued throughout the rest of his life; his architectural writings expanded into a ten-volume work, De re aedificatoria, which covered every aspect of the subject—proportion, symmetry, decoration, proper restoration of existing buildings, and urban planning. He designed new buildings, such as the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, a huge mansion for the Rucellai family, and he planned the restorations and renovations of several churches in Florence, Rome, and Mantua. In some ways his architectural work was similar to his writings on love and the family, in that it was based on theoretical principles and not on day-to-day experiences. Just as he wrote about the family from afar— never marrying or having children himself—he did not supervise the building of his architectural designs but left that to others.

Codes. Toward the end of his life Alberti became interested in a new subject, cryptology, and wrote a treatise on how to devise codes, probably to assist a friend, Leonardo Dati, who was in charge of encoding papal correspondence so that it could not be read if it came into the wrong hands. Historians of codes, in fact, often regard Alberti as the father of Western cryptology, as he was the first to invent a code with multiple letter substitutions. As in his writings on other subjects, he drew on many different traditions and yet developed his own ideas. This blend of classical and modern elements marks all of Alberti’s work, both written and architectural, and is what has led contemporary historians to view him as a model Renaissance man.


Leon Battista Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, translated by Rene Neu Watkins (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969).

Franco Borsi, Leon Battista Alberti, translated by Rudolf G. Carpanini (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977).

Joan Kelly, Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

Alberti, Leon Battista

views updated May 23 2018

Leon Battista Alberti




Leon Battista Alberti has long been considered one of the finest examples of the Renaissance "universal man." During his relatively long life he mastered an enormous number of arts, made important contributions to humanist scholarship, and fulfilled administrative roles within the papal government and the noble courts of Italy. In the history of architecture he played a key role as a designer and in deepening contemporary understanding of the buildings of classical Antiquity. His treatise, On the Art of the Building (1452), had a great impact on later fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century designers.

Early Life.

Alberti's early life had been filled with problems. He had been born illegitimate, the son of Lorenzo Alberti, a member of a powerful Florentine banking family. At the time Alberti's family was in exile from Florence, and as a young boy, he grew up in Genoa and Venice. He received his early schooling in Padua before attending the University of Bologna, then Europe's premier center for the study of church law. His father intended for Alberti to have a career in the church bureaucracy, but he died during Alberti's student days, and members of the Alberti clan appropriated his inheritance. Alberti was drawn to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, which taught disregard for fortune and worldly cares, as a solace for these problems. One of his closest associates in his student days was Tommaso Parentucelli, a figure whom Alberti later served. Parentucelli became Pope Nicholas V (r. 1447–1455), the first humanist scholar to hold the office. As Alberti completed his law degree, he took holy orders and accepted a position within the church bureaucracy. In 1432, he finally visited his family's native Florence, where he remained for several years. His exposure to Florentine humanism and the vigorous artistic culture of the city left a profound mark on his subsequent development. The quality of Alberti's written work deepened. He wrote his famous Book of the Family, a work that analyzes the strategies that preserve great families over time, during this first period in the city. The work is a lively dialogue in Italian, an unusual innovation for a humanistic work of the time. Alberti's display of the possibilities of literary Italian helped to encourage other humanists to use the language. In Florence, Alberti also befriended the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and in 1435, he composed a Latin treatise entitled On Painting. The work included a technical method for artists who wished to use linear perspective. Alberti likely learned these techniques from his friendship with Brunelleschi. He soon saw the need for a translation of his work into Italian since many of the artists of the time could not read Latin. A year after completing the Latin version he issued his new Italian version. Alberti followed his treatise on painting with other works on artistic theory and practice, including his On Sculpture and On the Art of Building. This latter work dates from 1452 and its ten books written in Latin treat many aspects of the theory and practical application of architecture. Alberti relied on the ancient Roman architectural treatise of Vitruvius, but the views expressed in his work did not support a slavish imitation of antique designs. Instead he showed how classical symmetry, ornament, and proportion could be mined to solve contemporary design problems in new and imaginative ways. Alberti had acquired much of the obvious architectural sophistication evident in On the Art of Building while serving in the 1440s in the church government at Rome. One of the tasks he undertook in these years was the survey of the city's ancient monuments, and when his friend Parentucelli became pope, he took on many planning projects for the renewal of Rome.


Despite his professional duties and his scholarly interests, Alberti was also a practicing architect in his spare time. His first important design was for the Malatesta Temple, a project he undertook for the ruthless despot Sigismondo Malatesta at Rimini around 1450. Alberti was an official of the papal government, but he seems to have had few qualms about desecrating an existing church in Rimini by transforming it into a Roman-style temple intended to glorify pagan virtues. He clothed the existing church with a new skin of marble and planned a classical arched façade for the exterior. A change in Malatesta's fortunes left the building unfinished. Among Alberti's subsequent architectural plans, several works had broad influence. These included his plans for a new Rucellai family palace in Florence and his Church of St. Andrea in Mantua. Alberti's palace design successfully adapted classical elements to the building of a contemporary palace; his façade, harmonious and more elegantly refined than was the custom in Florence at the time, inspired later designers from other parts of Italy to adopt his style in similar projects. At the Church of St. Andrea in Mantua he forged massive barrel vaults to cover the church's nave, transepts, and choir, and for the crossing he designed an attractive dome. His design dispensed with the side aisles traditional in most Italian churches to this point. He recessed the lesser chapels of the church into the building's walls. In this way he created clear sight lines that focused on the church's central altar, at once creating a structure that was symmetrical and harmonious. In his architectural treatise Alberti had described beauty in building as an organic phenomenon that arose from the balanced interrelationships of a structure's constituent parts. At St. Andrea, Alberti achieved his ideal, and elements of the structure can be found in many later Renaissance church designs, including that of St. Peter's Basilica and the famous Jesuit Church of the Gesù in Rome. This latter structure became, in turn, the model for many Baroque churches throughout Europe. Even in Alberti's lifetime, his architectural ideas bore fruit in new structures from the hands of other designers. Although his buildings were not particularly influential among Florentine builders, who preferred the more severe style first developed by Brunelleschi, figures working in Central Italy and Rome, in particular, relied heavily upon Alberti's designs in the decades that followed his death.


M. Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

J. Kelly, Leon Battista Alberti; Universal Man of the Early Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

C. Smith, Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Alberti, Leon Battista (1404–1472)

views updated May 23 2018

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

Leon Battista Alberti

views updated May 14 2018

Leon Battista Alberti


Italian Architect and Writer

Like many key figures in the history of mathematics during the Middle Ages, Leon Battista Alberti was not a professional mathematician, and the advances he made in that discipline were in service to another—in his case, architecture. Nonetheless, his contributions were of great importance and included the first general study on the laws of perspective (Della pittura, 1435) and a book on cryptography that includes the first use of a frequency table. Alberti also worked with Toscanelli dal Pozzo (1397-1482), who later provided the maps used by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) for his now-famous first voyage on a project involving geometrical mapping.

Born in Genoa on February 14, 1404, Alberti was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo Alberti, a prominent Florentine who had been banished from his city three years before. He attended school at Padua, then enrolled at the University of Bologna in 1421. There he earned a degree in canon law in about 1428, and around this time received an appointment as prior of San Martino in Tuscany. Alberti would hold that position for the remainder of his life, but he also served the church in a number of other capacities.

Alberti wrote a large number of works on a vast array of subjects, from architecture to the family to morality to law. These began to appear in the 1430s, and his most important writings—those on the arts—began after he was appointed to the court of Pope Eugenius IV in 1434. The following year saw the publication of the Latin De pictura, which appeared in a more popular Italian version as Della pittura in 1436. The latter marked the first mathematical explanation of the theories of one-point linear perspective developed by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446).

The 1430s and 1440s saw Alberti in a number of locations around Italy, serving a papal court that was often forced to relocate temporarily due to unrest in Rome. By 1443, the pope had returned to his home, and it was during this time that Alberti began his seminal Latin study of architecture, De re aedificatoria. The latter, which drew on the ideas of the Roman writer Vitruvius (c. a.d. 1), would have an enormous impact on European architects in the two centuries that followed.

Alberti's work as an architect dates primarily to the period beginning in 1447, when he designed the Rucellai Palace in Florence. There followed numerous commissions throughout Italy, though the grandest of these—a vast building plan for Rome commissioned by Pope Nicholas V in 1450—was never realized.

In 1471 Alberti, who had played a key role in reviving Italians' interest in their architectural past, served as a guide to the Roman ruins for a distinguished party that included Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492). Alberti died in Rome soon afterward, most likely in early April 1472.


Alberti, Leon Battista

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.

Leon Battista Alberti

views updated May 21 2018

Leon Battista Alberti


Italian architect and writer who, in addition to his work in mathematics, wrote on geology. In about 1450 Alberti discussed the erosive effect of the atmosphere, and in so doing served as a forerunner for the modern science of hydrogeology. Though not a professional mathematician or scientist, he also laid the groundwork for the scientific study of perspective in his Trattato della pittura (1436).

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