Leon Battista Alberti

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Late statue of Leon Battista Alberti. Courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Leon Battista Alberti or Leone Battista Alberti (February 14, 1404 – April 25, 1472) was an Italian author, poet, linguist, architect, philosopher, cryptographer, and general Renaissance polymath. In Italy, his first name is usually spelled Leon. Alberti's life was described in Giorgio Vasari's Vite (Lives of the Artists). Alberti studied canon law at the University of Bologna, took Holy Orders, worked for the papal curia and as a canon, but his greatest interest was in mathematics, art, and classical architecture. In 1435, Alberti wrote the first general treatise on the laws of perspective, De pictura (On Painting). De re aedificatoria (1452, Ten Books on Architecture), patterned after the De architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, was the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance, and covered a wide range of subjects, from history to town planning, and engineering to the philosophy of beauty. Translated into Italian, French, Spanish, and English, it became an important reference for Renaissance architects.

Alberti was employed by Pope Nicholas V in the restoration of the papal palace and of the restoration of the Roman aqueduct of Acqua Vergine, which debouched into a simple basin designed by Alberti, replaced later by the Baroque Trevi Fountain. At Mantua he redesigned the church of Sant'Andrea, and at Rimini, the church of Tempio Malatestiano (San Francesco). The only buildings Alberti designed entirely himself, were San Sebastiano (1460), still under construction during Alberti's lifetime, and San Andrea (1470), completed in the eighteenth century.


Childhood and education

Leon Battista Alberti was born February 14, 1404, in Genoa, Italy, one of two illegitimate sons of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Lorenzo Alberti. Leon's mother, Bianca Fieschi, was a Bolognese widow who died during an outbreak of bubonic plague. Leone Battista received early education in mathematics from his father, Lorenzo. Like many other prominent families, the Albertis had been expelled from their native city, Florence, by the republican government, run by the Albizzis. When Genoa was struck by the plague, Lorenzo moved his family to Venice, where Lorenzo ran the family banking business with his brother. Lorenzo married again in 1408. Alberti received the finest education then available to an Italian nobleman. From around 1414 to 1418, he studied classics at the famous school of Gasparino Barzizza in Padua. He then completed his education at the University of Bologna, where he studied law.

A short autobiography written by Alberti c. 1438, in Latin, and transcribed in the eighteenth century by Antonio Muratori, claims that in his youth, he "excelled in all bodily exercises; could, with feet tied, leap over a standing man; could in the great cathedral, throw a coin far up to ring against the vault; amused himself by taming wild horses and climbing mountains." He also claimed that he "learned music without a master, and yet his compositions were admired by professional judges."[1]

After the death of his father, Alberti was supported by his uncles. In 1421, he attended the University of Bologna, where he studied law, but found he did not enjoy this topic. He became ill through overwork, and began pursuing the study of mathematics as a means of relaxation. In his twenties, Alberti wrote On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Letters, which he dedicated to his brother Carlo, also a scholar and writer. He also wrote a Latin comedy, Philodoxeos, intended to teach that "a man dedicated to study and hard work can attain glory, just as well as a rich and fortunate man." For a short time it was passed off as a genuinely antique Roman play by the younger Aldus Manutius, who edited and published it as the genuine work of Lepidus.

Like Petrarch, who had been the first famous philologist to study the works of the ancient Roman poets, Alberti loved classics, but he compared continual reading and rereading in libraries with long confinement in the prison. Later, he also complained, that "the learned don't become rich, or if they do become rich from literary pursuits, the sources of their wealth are shameful." Other early works, Amator (c. 1429), Ecatonfilea (c. 1429), and Deiphira (c. 1429-1434), dealt with love, virtues, and failed relationships.

Early career

The ban on the Alberti family was lifted in 1428, and Alberti visited Florence for the first time and established a friendship with Brunelleschi. The same year, he received his doctorate in canon law in 1428. In the early 1430s, he went to Rome, where he worked as an abbreviator at the Papal curia, drafting papal briefs. A master of Latin and Italian, Alberti also rewrote, in elegant Latin, traditional lives of saints and martyrs. After taking holy orders, he was assigned the priorate of San Martino a Gangalandi at Lastra a Signa. In 1448, he was appointed rector of the parish of San Lorenzo in Mugello. Alberti served also as a papal inspector of monuments, and advised Pope Nicholas V, a former fellow student from Bologna, on the ambitious building projects in the city of Rome.

In the mid-1430s, Alberti moved to Florence with Pope Eugenius IV, who had been driven out of the Holy City by military action. Alberti was appointed canon of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. He greatly admired its dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, which was at that time the largest in the world, a unique integration of art, science, and technology, and the spiritual symbol of the Florentine Rinascita. "Who could be hard or envious enough to fail to praise Pippo [Filippo]," wrote Alberti, "the architect on seeing here such a large structure, rising above the skies, ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people."

Architect and writer

Facade of Santa Maria Novella.

In 1435, Alberti wrote the first general treatise on the laws of perspective, De pictura (On Painting) in Latin, and in 1436, he translated it into Italian as Della pittura (1436). The book was dedicated to Filippo Brunelleschi, and credited Donatello (c. 1386-1466), Lorenzo Ghiberti, Masaccio, and Filippo with "a genius for every laudable enterprise in no way inferior to any of the ancients." The book was printed in 1511.

In 1450, Alberti was commissioned to transform the Gothic church of San. Francesco, Rimini, into a memorial to the local warlord Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, his wife Isotta, and courtiers. The church is usually known as the Tempio Malatestiano. Its dominating form is the classical triumphal arch, Alberti's favorite structure, but the severe, restrained façade was never quite finished. Alberti himself did not live in Rimini, but corresponded with his assistants, who were responsible for most of the actual rebuilding. Like the Tempio Malatestiano, the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is considered to be a landmark in the formation of Renaissance architecture. The only buildings Alberti designed entirely himself, were San Sebastiano (1460), still under construction during Alberti's lifetime, and San Andrea (1470), completed in the eighteenth century. Its triumphal arch was even grander than that of the Tempio Malatestiano.

Alberti studied the ancient sites, ruins, and objects of Rome. His detailed observations, included in De re aedificatoria (1452, Ten Books on Architecture), were patterned after the De architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (fl. 46-30 B.C.E.). The first architectural treatise of the Renaissance, it covered a wide range of subjects, from history to town planning, and engineering to the philosophy of beauty.

Alberti was part of the rapidly expanding entourage of intellectuals and artisans supported by the courts of the princes and lords of the time. As a member of noble family and part of the Roman curia, he was a welcomed guest at the Este court in Ferrara, and in Urbino he spent part of the hot-weather season with the soldier-prince Federigo da Montefeltro. Montefeltro was a shrewd military commander, who generously spent money on the patronage of art, and Alberti planned to dedicate his treatise on architecture to him.

Just a few years before his death, Alberti completed De iciarchia (On Ruling the Household), a dialogue about Florence during the Medici rule. Alberti died on April 25, 1472, in Rome.

Alberti is said to be in Mantegna's great frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi, the older man dressed in dark red clothes, who whispers in the ear of Ludovico Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua. In Alberti's self-portrait, a large plaquette, he is clothed as a Roman. To the left of his profile is a winged eye. On the reverse side is the question, Quid tum? ("what then"), taken from Virgil's Eclogues: "So what, if Amyntas is dark? (quid tum si fuscus Amyntas?) Violets are black, and hyacinths are black."

Thought and works

St. Andrea, Mantova. Iterior. Architect Leon Battista Alberti.

Giorgio Vasari, who included Alberti’s biography in his Lives of the Artists, emphasized Alberti's scholarly achievements, not his artistic talents: "He spent his time finding out about the world and studying the proportions of antiquities; but above all, following his natural genius, he concentrated on writing rather than on applied work." Alberti is remembered both as an architect and as a philosopher, theorist, and writer. Alberti used his artistic treatises to propound a new humanistic theory of art, and drew on his contacts with early Quattrocento artists such as Brunelleschi and Masaccio to provide a practical handbook for the Renaissance artist.

Perspective and proportion

Alberti’s treatise, De pictura (On painting) (1435) contained the first scientific study of perspective. An Italian translation of De pictura (Della pittura) was published in 1436, one year after the original Latin version, and addressed Filippo Brunelleschi in the preface. The Latin version had been dedicated to Alberti's humanist patron, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga of Mantua.

Alberti regarded mathematics as the common ground of art and the sciences. He began his treatise, Della pittura (On Painting), with "to make clear my exposition in writing this brief commentary on painting, I will take first from the mathematicians those things with which my subject is concerned." In both Della pittura and De statua, a short treatise on sculpture, Alberti stressed that "all steps of learning should be sought from nature." The ultimate aim of an artist is to imitate nature. Painters and sculptors strive "through by different skills, at the same goal, namely that as nearly as possible the work they have undertaken shall appear to the observer to be similar to the real objects of nature." Alberti did not mean that artists should imitate nature objectively, as it is, but the artist should be especially attentive to beauty, "for in painting, beauty is as pleasing as it is necessary." The work of art was, according to Alberti, so constructed that it is impossible to take anything away from it or add anything to it, without impairing the beauty of the whole. Beauty was for Alberti "the harmony of all parts in relation to one another…this concord is realized in a particular number, proportion, and arrangement demanded by harmony."

Alberti admired Brunelleschi, a self-taught architect whose early achievements included a formulation of the laws of linear perspective, which he presented in two panels. In his own work, Alberti codified the basic geometry so that the linear perspective became mathematically coherent and related to the spectator. However, the technical first part of “De Pictura” did not have any illustrations. After Alberti, Piero della Francesca presented his own theory of perspective in De prospectiva pingendi.

Nothing pleases me so much as mathematical investigations and demonstrations, especially when I can turn them to some useful practice drawing from mathematics the principles of painting perspective and some amazing propositions on the moving of weights (Leon Battista Alberti).

De re aedificatoria (1452, Ten Books on Architecture), patterned after the De architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (fl. 46-30 B.C.E.), was the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance. By the eighteenth century, it had been translated into Italian, French, Spanish, and English. It covered a wide range of subjects, from history to town planning, and engineering to the philosophy of beauty. A large and expensive book, De re aedificatoria was not fully published until 1485, after which it became an important guide for architects. Alberti announced that the book was written "not only for craftsmen but also for anyone interested in the noble arts." The first Italian edition came out in 1546, and the standard Italian edition by Cosimo Bartoli was published in 1550. Through his book, Alberti spread his theories and ideals of the Florentine Renaissance to the rest of Italy. Pope Nicholas V, to whom Alberti dedicated the work, dreamed of rebuilding the city of Rome, but managed to realize only a fragment of his visionary plans.

While Alberti's treatises on painting and architecture have been hailed as the founding texts of a new form of art, breaking from the gothic past, it is impossible to know the extent of their practical impact within his lifetime. His praise of the Calumny of Apelles led to several attempts to emulate it, including paintings by Botticelli and Signorelli. His stylistic ideals can be seen being put into practice in the works of Mantegna, Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico. It is impossible to ascertain how far Alberti was responsible for these innovations, and how far he was simply articulating the trends of the contemporary artistic movement, with which his practical experience had made him familiar.

Alberti also wrote a work on sculpture, De Statua.

Other works

Alberti wrote I Libri della famiglia, a discussion of education, marriage, household management, and money, in the Tuscan dialect. The work was not printed until 1843. Like Erasmus decades later, Alberti stressed the need for a reform in education. He noted that "the care of very young children is women's work, for nurses or the mother," and that at the earliest possible age children should be taught the alphabet. With great hopes, he gave the work to his family to read, but in his autobiography Alberti confesses that "he could hardly avoid feeling rage, moreover, when he saw some of his relatives openly ridiculing both the whole work and the author's futile enterprise along it." Momus, written between 1443 and 1450, was a misogynist comedy about the Olympian gods. It has been considered as a roman à clef; Jupiter has been identified in some sources as Pope Eugenius IV and Pope Nicholas V. Alberti borrowed many of its characters from Lucian, one of his favorite Greek writers. The name of its hero, Momus, refers to the Greek word for blame or criticism. After being expelled from heaven, Momus, the god of mockery, is eventually castrated. Jupiter and the other gods come down to earth also, but they return to heaven after Jupiter breaks his nose in a great storm.

Apart from his treatises on the arts, Alberti also wrote: Philodoxus ("Lover of Glory," 1424), De commodis litterarum atque incommodis ("On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies," 1429), Intercoenales ("Table Talk," c. 1429), Della famiglia ("On the Family," begun 1432) Vita S. Potiti ("Life of St. Potitus," 1433), De iure ("On Law," 1437), Theogenius ("The Origin of the Gods," c. 1440), Profugorium ab aerumna ("Refuge from Mental Anguish",), Momus (1450), and De Iciarchia ("On the Prince," 1468). He has been credited with being the author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a strange fantasy novel, although there is a good deal of debate about this attribution.

Alberti was an accomplished cryptographer and invented the first polyalphabetic ciphers, now known as the Alberti Cipher, and machine-assisted encryption using his Cipher Disk. The polyalphabetic cipher was, at least in principle, for it was not properly used for several hundred years, the most significant advance in cryptography since before Julius Caesar's time. Cryptography historian David Kahn titles him the "Father of Western Cryptography," pointing to three significant advances in the field which can be attributed to Alberti: "The earliest Western exposition of cryptanalysis, the invention of polyalphabetic substitution, and the invention of enciphered code."[2]

Among Alberti's smaller studies, pioneering in their field, were a treatise in cryptography, De componendis cifris, and the first Italian grammar. He was also interested in the drawing of maps. With the Florentine cosmographer and cartographer Paolo Toscanelli, he collaborated in astronomy, a close science to geography at that time, and produced a small Latin work on geography, Descriptio urbis Romae (The Panorama of the City of Rome).

Architecture and design

Alberti took great interest in studying the ruins of classical architecture in Rome and elsewhere. At Rome, he was employed by Pope Nicholas V in the restoration of the papal palace and of the restoration of the Roman aqueduct of Acqua Vergine, which debouched into a simple basin designed by Alberti, replaced later by the Baroque Trevi Fountain. At Mantua he designed The Church of Sant'Andrea, and at Rimini The Church of Tempio Malatestiano (San Francesco). On a commission from the Rucellai family he completed the principal facade of The Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the marble-clad shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, which had been begun in the previous century and perhaps also the Capella Rucellai. He also built the façade, executed by Bernardo Rosselino, for the family palace in the Via della Vigna Nuova, known as the Palazzo Rucellai, though it is not exactly clear what his role as designer was.

Alberti is also now thought to have had an important role in the designing of Pienza, a village that had been called Corsignano, but which was redesigned beginning around 1459. It was the birthplace of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, Pope Pius II; Pius II wanted to use the village as a retreat but needed for it to reflect the dignity of his position. The design, which radically transformed the center of the town, included a palace for the pope, a church, a town hall, and a building for the bishops who would accompany the Pope on his trips. Pienza is considered an early example of Renaissance urban planning.

Architectural works

  • S. Francesco, Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini (1447,1453-50)
  • Façade of Palazzo Rucellai (1446-51)
  • Completion of the facade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1448-1470).
  • San Sebastiano, Mantua (begun 1458)
  • Pienza, as consultant (1459-62)
  • Sepolcro Rucellai in San Pancrazio (1467)
  • Tribune for Santissima Annunziata, Florence (1470, completed with alteratiosn, 1477).
  • Sant'Andrea, Mantua (begun 1471)[3]

Renaissance Villa

Recent studies[4] propose for the first time that the Villa Medici in Fiesole owes its design to Alberti, not to Michelozzo, and that it then became the prototype of the Renaissance villa. The original building, once subsequent alterations had been identified, was then studied and particular attention paid to the proportions; new elements emerged regarding its attribution, leading to the conclusion not only that Leon Battista Alberti was involved in its design, but also that this hilltop dwelling, commissioned by Giovanni de' Medici, Cosimo il Vecchio's second son, with its view over the city, is the very first example of a Renaissance villa: That is to say it follows the Albertian criteria for rendering a country dwelling a "villa suburbana." The beauty of this building is not due to medieval decorative elements, but to the simplicity of the structure which results in economy, necessity, beauty and, above all, harmony in the proportions. The parts of the villa are balanced, both internally and externally, following Alberti's canons of ideal harmony, which relate to numerical order, to music, and geometry. The Villa Medici in Fiesole should therefore be considered the "muse" for numerous other buildings, not only in the Florence area, which from the end of the fifteenth century onwards took inspiration from it.

Exactly answering the middle of your courtyard place your entrance, with a handsome vestibule, neither narrow, difficult or obscure. Let the first room that offers itself be a chapel dedicated to God, with its altar, where strangers and guests may offer their devotions, beginning their friendship by religion; and where the father of the family may put up his prayers for the peace of his house and the welfare of his relations. here let him embrace those who come to visit him, and if any cause be referred to him by his friends, or he has any other serious business of that nature to transact, let him do it in this place. Nothing is handsomer in the middle of the portico, than windows of glass, through which you may receive the pleasure either of sun or air, according to the season. Martial says, "that windows looking to the south, receive a pure sun and a clear light; and the ancients thought it best to place their porticoes fronting the south, because the sun in summer running his course higher, did not throw in his rays, where they would enter in winter."[5]


  1. Jacob Burckhard, "The Civilization of the Renaissaince Italy: An Essay" (1860).
  2. David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The story of Secret Writing (New York: MacMillan, 1967).
  3. Franco Borsi, Leon battista Alberti (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
  4. D. Mazzini and S. Simone, Villa Medici a Fiesole. Leon Battista Alberti e il prototipo di villa rinascimentale (Centro Di, Firenze 2004).
  5. LIH Landscape Information Hub, Alberti. Retrieved May 17, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Alberti, Leon Battista, and Renée Neu Watkins. 1969. The Family in Renaissance Florence. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0872491528.
  • Alberti, Leon Battista, Cecil Grayson, and Leon Battista Alberti. 1972. On Painting and On Sculpture. The Latin Texts of De pictura and De statua. London: Phaidon. ISBN 0714815527.
  • Alberti, Leon Battista, Cosimo Bartoli, Giacomo Leone, and James Leoni. 1726. The Architecture of Leon Battista Alberti in Ten Books, of Painting in Three Books, and of Statuary in one Book. London: T. Edlin.
  • Alberti, Leon Battista. 1988. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN 0262010992.
  • Borsi, Franco. 1977. Leon Battista Alberti. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060104112.
  • Gille, Bertrand. 1970. "Alberti, Leone Battista." Dictionary of Scientific Biography 1: 96-98. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Grafton, Anthony, and Leon Battista Alberti. 2000. Leon Battista Alberti: master builder of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0809097524.
  • Kelly, Joan. 1969. Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226307891.
  • Wood, James, Leon Battista Alberti, Virginia Brown, and Sarah Knight. 2003. Books and the Arts—The History of Laughter—Momus.
  • Wright, D.R. Edward, "Alberti's De Pictura: Its Literary Structure and Purpose," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 47 (1984): 52-71.

External links

All links retrieved October 25, 2022.


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