ALBERTI, Leon Battista
(b. 1404, Genova, d. 1472, Roma)


Italian architect, humanist, antiquarian, mathematician, art theorist, "universal man" of the Early Renaissance. He is principally famous as an architect, but is also known to have practised as a painter and sculptor. The only work attributable to him in these arts is the plaque, said to be a self-portrait, in Washington. His importance in the arts of painting and sculpture is on account of his theoretical writings, De Sculptura and especially Della Pittura (1435), which gives the first exposition in the Renaissance of the theory of perspective as well as of History Painting. His influential treatise Della Pittura (On Painting) was the first modern manual for painters. It was circulated in manuscript until 1540, when it was first printed.

Alberti was an illegitimate son of a noble Florentine banking family (in exile at the time of his birth). After receiving his doctorate in canon and civil law from Bologna University in 1428, he was employed by the papacy and eventually became a canon of Florence cathedral. He authored a number of literary works that included discourses on family life (Della famiglia) (1433-34) and treatises on art, namely Della pittura (On Painting) (1435) and De statua ( On Sculpture) (c. 1443-52). His Della pittura, written at the start of his nine-year sojourn in Florence (1434-43), where he was influenced by the works of Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Donatello, provides the first written account of pictorial (linear) perspective, and proved instrumental to the theory and practice of Renaissance painting. Soon after, Alberti authored De statua, a shorter yet equally innovative text that instructs the reader on methods for creating a sculpture in various sizes while maintaining its proportions. Although few of Alberti's own paintings and sculptures are known, Vasari mentions several perspectival paintings attributed to him, and two bronze portrait medals and a portrait bust survive. The bronze medals, both of which are self-portraits, are two of the earliest in this genre, revealing Alberti's contribution to the development of Renaissance portraiture.

In the 1440s Alberti began writing De re aedificatoria (On Architecture) (completed 1452, published 1485), the first treatise on architecture since antiquity modeled largely on Vitruvius's ancient text De architettura. Like Vitruvius's text, Alberti's treatise comprises 10 books, each devoted to a different aspect of a building, such as structure and ornamentation, and discusses the means to achieving an ideal beauty through harmony and proportion. Alberti originally wrote the treatise in Latin, intending it to be read by the patron as well as the architect.

Alberti designed both religious and domestic structures, incorporating classical elements into each. One of his earliest patrons, Sigismondo Malatesta, commissioned Alberti to redesign the exterior of San Francesco in Rimini (known as the Tempio Malatestiano, begun c. 1450). Alberti designed a temple-front façade that incorporated elements of the nearby triumphal Arch of Augustus and created long arcades for the side walls, notably applying classical features to an ecclesiastical structure, and attempting to reconcile the long-standing problem of creating a façade for a church with a high nave and lower side chapels. In Florence, Giovanni Rucellai commissioned Alberti to design façades for his private palace, the Palazzo Rucellai (1450-64), and for the church of Santa Maria Novella (c. 1458-70), and to design the Rucellai loggia, and the Rucellai sepulchre at San Pancrazio (after 1457). At the Palazzo Rucellai, Alberti broke away from traditional palace design with his unprecedented use of classical ornament on a domestic structure, placing pilasters onto a rusticated façade. He combined classical features with Tuscan-Romanesque elements on the façade of Santa Maria Novella. His designs for the church of San Sebastiano in Mantua (1460) and the tribune of SS Annunziata in Florence (1450-70) were based on a centralized plan, which Alberti considered to be ideal. His other works include the church of Sant'Andrea in Mantua (1470), a significant commission that afforded Alberti the opportunity to design both the exterior and the interior of the structure. Although most of Alberti's buildings were left incomplete or underwent significant changes, his designs proved instrumental to Palladio, Vignola and other later architects.