Alberti, Leon Battista (1404-72)

'Where shall I put Battista Alberti: in what category of learned men shall I place him?' As his contemporary Landino saw, Alberti evades any pigeonholing: humanist scholar, natural scientist, mathematician, architect, cryptographer, pioneer of the Italian vernacular and author of Latin pastiches, he also transformed the theory and practice of the visual arts with his treatises on painting and architecture.

The illegitimate offspring of an exiled Florentine family, Alberti was born in Genoa and educated at Padua and Bologna in the classics, mathematics, and canon law. In the 1430s a papal secretary's job in Rome brought the financial security necessary for a literary life, and, the ban on his family now lifted (1428), he could accompany Eugenius IV to Florence, where the works of Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Donatello reassured him - as he says in the preface to Della pittura (1436) - that the arts could be revived. First written in Latin (1435), this treatise lent intellectual respectability to painting by grounding it in the rational laws of mathematical perspective, giving to pictorial composition a dignified structure derived from rhetoric, and recommending mythological subjects for the narratives (historiae) which are taken to be the painter's proper aim. Though literary in form, the De pictura is also a practitioner's guide, and shows a painter's sensitivity to questions of light and colour, expression and movement. Enormously influential on patrons and painters, Alberti's ideas were the starting point for Leonardo's Trattato and the basis of subsequent academic art theory.

From the later 1430s Alberti combined papal service with protracted visits to Florence and peripatetic artistic advice to the Italian courts (Ferrara, Mantua, Urbino, Rimini). These were the years of the Della famiglia, in which members of his own family are made the mouthpieces for discussions of domestic morality. Works of satire (Intercenales; Momus) and moral philosophy (Teogenio; Della tranquillità dell'animo) gradually yielded to an increasing preoccupation with the physical remains of antiquity, seen in the brief treatise De statua and the outline for a survey of Rome. Study of Vitruvius's obscurities led to Alberti's own architectural treatise De re aedificatoria (completed 1452, published 1485), and to the practice of architecture which dominated his later life. Alberti used the Ciceronian division between utility and ornament as the framework for his view of architecture, where beauty is identified with harmony (concinnitas); and derived partly from fixed numerical proportions based on the intervals of music. Equally fundamental is the firm socio-political basis Alberti gives to architecture, seen as responsive to the nature of different societies and their inhabitants: within a hierarehy of building types, culminating in churches, the emphasis is on appropriateness and variety of solution.

Despite his praise for Brunelleschi in the Della pittura, Alberti's own architecture was based on unified hierarchies, not modular repetitions, and on a more specific use of ancient models: his first building, an outer shell for the church of S. Francesco in Rimini, already draws on the nearby Arch of Augustus. In his Mantuan churches Alberti had a freer hand: he gave S. Sebastiano (1460) a Greek cross form, and turned S. Andrea (1470) into his own interpretation of Vitruvius's templum Etruscum, a single barrel-vaulted nave buttressed by thick-walled side chapels, and fronted by a portico which combined temple façade and triumphal arch. Alberti's buildings can be seen as a series of experimental reinventions of all'antica types for modern use; incorporating the Vitruvian language of the orders. At the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, the façade is unified by a delicate grid of superimposed pilasters.

Alberti's treatise is packed with technical guidance, and he should not be seen as an architectural dilettante: when forced to design by correspondence, he nevertheless controlled the smallest details of design and construction. His ideas influenced Pius II's Pienza, and the Ducal Palace at Urbino, while his treatise was closely studied by patrons like Lorenzo de' Medici and Ercole d'Este. Printed in 1485, and translated into many languages, it continued to be essential reading for architects well into the 18th century.

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