Leon Battista Alberti

Humanist, Architect, Writer, Mathematician, Prior, Graduate in Canon Law (Genoa, 1404 – Rome, 1472).

After Leon Battista Alberti, it was the destiny of the Renaissance man to never be satisfied. The darting eye that flies and scans from above, that investigates and discovers before knowing, is the symbol that was chosen by the inventor of the Renaissance, a thinker who was interested in and wrote about everything over his long career. A polytropic traveller like the Greek Ulysses, a Florentine exile like Petrarch. Like the latter – and exactly one century later – Alberti came to Bologna to study Law, but he left far more enriched by the men-of-letters and scientists who gravitated around the Università degli Artisti, thanks to whom the old ‘Madre degli Studi’ could still call itself ‘Alma’.

Leon Battista Alberti Leon Battista Alberti was born in 1404 in Genoa, the hometown of his mother, Bianca Fieschi, widow of a Grimaldi.  His father, Lorenzo di Benedetto Alberti, belonged to a wealthy, powerful family of Florentine merchants and bankers, exiled by their rivals, the Albizi.

After a short stay in Venice, the Alberti family went to Padua (1416) where Leon Battista began to study literature, attending the school of the humanist Gasparino Barzizza along with Francesco Barbaro, Il Filelfo and Il Panormita and became friends with Paolo Dal Pozzo Toscanelli and possibly Niccolò Cusano.

Moving to Bologna, he enrolled at the School of Canon Law, although he was immediately drawn to the sparkling humanistic and scientific climate at the nascent Università delle Arti.  Physics and Mathematics were to become the pillars of his literary and artistic production.

During his long period in Bologna, often marked by illness, the young man needed to deal with the aversion of his family which, after his father died in 1421, tried multiple times to disown him, since he was an illegitimate son.

In reaction to this dramatic, solitary period, Alberti turned to writing, composing the amorous comedy Philodoxeos (1424), which was immediately stolen by his friend Il Panormita and only reclaimed by its legitimate author about a decade later. From that point forward, the theme of virtue and hard work as guarantee of the success and well being of modern man was ever present: the figure of the Renaissance humanist launched and embodied by Alberti.  

The year in which he finally graduated, 1428, was also the year that marked the end of the Alberti family’s banishment from Florence, although Leon Battista probably did not return immediately, not feeling much affection for the city of his family and especially the intellectual culture of the previous generation, represented by Leonardo Bruni, who had “tyrannised” from the lofty heights of his elite academicism, as Alberti revealed in his De commodis literarum atque incommodis.

Some biographers have reported that, right after completing his degree, Alberti worked for the Bolognese cardinal legate Aleman and then for the cardinal Albergati, who he followed to France and Germany in the legation sent by Martin V to try to end the Hundred Years War.

From this period, we find numerous loosely verified,  innovative works in the vernacular on themes of love, including theEphoebiam, the Deiphiram and the Ecatonphilea, followed in his more mature years by other, different works, such as the Uxoria, the Letter to Cadagnello, the Sofrona, the elegies Angiletta and Mirzia and the eclogues Corimbo and Tyrsis, as well as sonnets, madrigals, dances, frottolas and sestinas. From this rich amorous production he derived a mistrustful attitude towards women and an almost obsessive conviction that the intellectual needed to remain free and independent.  

Alberti himself confirmed his celibacy, moving to Rome in 1432 as secretary to Biagio Molin, patriarch of Grado and deputy of the papal chancery, took vows and was appointed papal abbreviate, by virtue of his degree. This post had been granted only after Eugene IV removed the obstacle preventing Alberti to take holy orders, since illegitimate.

This new status ensured the young scholar not only a substantial income but also the opportunity to enter the papal cultural circles.

This was the period during which he began to methodically study architecture through the lens of antiquity. He had, however, probably first become curious about the subject in Florence at the end of the 1420s, when he met Brunelleschi and learned of the new instrument, the camera obscura, later becoming an important theoretician of the invention. The new rules of perspective were useful to him in his endeavour to create the first topographical map of ancient Rome, knowledge needed for his brief Descriptio urbis Romae.

In spite of his new life as a prior, in 1433 Alberti also wrote a dialogic treatise on the family in Florentine, the Quattro libri della famiglia (the fourth was written in Florence in 1440), filled with advice about how to raise children and take care of the elderly, matrimonial love, home economics and friendship, once again proving himself to be a worthy representative of the values of the nascent European middle class.

The following year, escaping unrest in Rome, he followed Eugene IV to Florence, where he was in time to cheer the return of Cosimo de’ Medici from exile and renewed his friendships with the Tuscan artists, men-of-letters and philosophers, although he never joined them, his thinking being too far removed from their main ideas, which soon came together in Ficino’s Neoplatonism.

Alberti was instead intrigued by the Tuscan city’s cultural atmosphere and excitement: on the one hand, a more fervent passion for the Florentine vernacular (he wrote the first grammar of the vernacular, demonstrating Flavio Biondo’s theory that the language derived from spoken Latin); on the other hand, deepening interest in painting. Indeed, his treatise on painting, De Pictura, dates to 1435/36. Dedicated to Giovanni Francesco Gonzaga, he then translated it into Italian shortly after, with a dedication to his friend Brunelleschi. The celebrated treatise was the first theoretical text on an art form, freeing it from its status as mere mechanical execution. Comprising three books, the work programmatically covers the discovery of perspective (analysed for the first time); the fundamental elements of painting (line, composition, light and colour); and the new figure of the intellectual artist.

In 1436, after Antongaleazzo Bentivoglio was killed by the papal legate, Eugene IV retook possession of Bologna, setting up his residence there for two years. Alberti came with him, of course, and took advantage of the opportunity to rekindle relations with his friends from university and dedicate a few works to them, including the unusual De Iure: a short Latin pamphlet written for the jurist Francesco Coppini in which we find his delusion with the severe, theoretical medieval legal system, which was more oriented towards the well being of the judges than the people.

When the Council of Ferrara opened in 1438, he followed the pope to that city, then returning to Florence when it became the seat of the meeting between the Church of the East and that of the West (1439).

For Alberti, this new period in Tuscany, which extended to 1443, allowed him some longed-for leisure, and he was able to devote himself to his writings, including the already mentioned Uxoria and the Teogenio, a treatise written in the vernacular and  dedicated to Lionello d’Este in which he returned to the themes of human misfortune and the virtue of the sage, a figure who was for Alberti necessarily stoic, as he explained in detail in the dialogic treatise Della tranquillità dell’anima (c. 1441). Alberti also dedicated his De equo animante (1441), on horse training, to the lord of Ferrara, followed by a short text in praise of the dog, Canis. Whereas the Latin pamphlet Musca (1442-43), dedicated to his friend Cristoforo Landino, and the Intercenales, begun while a student in Bologna, were instead goliardic, Lucianesque and moralising. A political comedy that sets the odious conformism and subtle  iniquities of the fifteenth-century courts on Mount Olympus, Momus , written before 1450 and it, too, Lucianesque, was far more complex and successfully crafted.

Alberti the courtier, who, like Momus had to submit to the rules of the game, followed his lord, Eugene IV, when he returned to Rome (1443), beginning a long period of theoretical activity centred on, but not exclusively, architecture.

Alberti spend the first years of this new period in Rome on the completion of De re aedificatoria (although he made further changes to it later), a monumental work in ten volumes that, expanding on Vitruvius’s De architectura, expounded on the principles of architecture (firmitas, utilitas and venustas), and included innovative reflections on hydraulics, the use of mathematical and scientific procedures, the invention of mechanical devices, damage caused by wear and weather and the influence of the classical legacy on modern building. The artist, by now an intellectual, was becoming a Pythagorean priest seeking everything, including the divine, in the number, the discovery of its simple relations giving shape to the theory of proportion and with it that of the governing order of the universe. Nature and culture thus became like sisters, inscribed in the circles and squares of Alberti and his followers.

The work was dedicated to the new pope Nicholas V – born Tommaso Parentucelli and a friend since they studied law together in Bologna – in 1452. It is supposed that, in exchange, the pope had given Alberti permission to have a hand in the countless worksites that were opening up in the city, entrusting him with duties similar to those he had already performed, and would later do so to a greater degree, for various aristocratic families in Florence and the Po Valley.

For the lord of Rimini, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Alberti had designed a new exterior for the church of San Francesco (1450), converting it into a family temple (the Tempio Malatestiano), while he undertook a series of projects for the Rucellai family of Florence that taught much to the local architects: Palazzo Rucellai (begun in 1447), the Loggia Rucellai (by 1460), the Tempietto del Santo Sepolcro in San Pancrazio (1457-67) and the facade of Santa Maria Novella (1458-70).

It was probably during his time in Florence (c. 1440) that Alberti began working on the Rotonda of the church of Santissima Annunziata (completed in the 1470s), commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga, who he would continue to work for in Mantua, designing the churches of San Sebastiano (before 1460) and Sant’Andrea (after 1460). He arrived at the Mantuan court in 1459, accompanying the new pope, Pius II, to a meeting for organising a crusade against the Turks, rulers of Byzantium since 1453.

These were all projects for which Alberti stayed away from the worksite, delegating the responsibility for their construction to the master builders, following the instructions laid out in his plans.  The architect, understood as a maker of superior things (from the Greek archè tekton) was thus freed from the chisel and dust, launched towards omniscient and aesthetic horizons that, as Momus complained, should have legitimised him as the builder of the world, in place of the vacuous philosophers.

Alberti was creating not only splendid churches and refined palazzos, but the foundations of the entire Renaissance.

One of his most fortunate encounters was with the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom he dedicated a Latin pamphlet on the art of public speaking, Trivia senatoria, in 1462, perhaps intuiting and possibly influencing the future diplomatic skill of the young peacemaker of Italy.

Influenced in turn by the papal secretary Leonardo Dati, after he was released by Paul II from his post as papal abbreviate, he had the time to take up cryptography, the subject of his De componendis cifris (1466), in which he celebrated the invention of printing and discussed the use of secret alphabets (a theme that must have also been of interest to the young mathematician Luca Pacioli, his guest in Rome).

With the addition of De Statua to De Pictura and De re aedificatoria in 1462 (although some argue that the text was written much earlier), his series of treatises on art was complete.

Alberti’s wide-ranging intellectual and artistic activity ended with the dialogic treatise De Iciarchia, written just a few years before his death (1472), in 1468. The revolutionary intellectual, creator of a new superior world, thus revealed the truth of humankind and its multi-faceted nature, persisting in the world of politics and the family in a paternalistic, conservative vision.