Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472)

He was an Italian humanist, architect, and principal initiator of Renaissance art theory. In his personality, works, and breadth of learning, he is considered the prototype of the Renaissance “universal man”.

Leon Battista Alberti, Portrait.
Leon Battista Alberti, Portrait.

image source: https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/psu-arh-205-fall-2015-final/deck/15878353

Leon Battista Alberti was born on February 14 of 1404 in Genoa and died on April 25 of 1472 in Rome.

His Life

Leone Battista Alberti’s father was Lorenzo Alberti. His father’s family were wealthy and had been involved in banking and commercial business in Florence during the 14th century. In fact the success of the city of Florence during this period is to a large extent a consequence of the success of the Alberti family, whose firm had branches spread widely through north Italy.

It was from his father that Battista received his mathematical training. The useful intellectual tools of the businessman inspired in him a lifelong love for the regular, for rational order, and a lasting delight in the practical application of mathematical principles.

Mathematics led Alberti into several seemingly disparate fields of learning and practice. At one stroke, it resolved a diversity of problems and awakened an appreciation of the rational structure and processes of the physical world.

His early formal education was humanistic.

 Statue of Leon Battista Alberti of Giovanni Lusini , located in Florence's Uffizi Gallery .

Statue of Leon Battista Alberti of Giovanni Lusini , located in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery .

The “new learning” was largely literary, and Alberti emerged from the school an accomplished Latinist and literary stylist.

As for most humanists, the literature of ancient Rome opened up for him the vision of an urbane, secular, and rational world that seemed remarkably similar to the emerging life of the Italian cities and met its cultural needs. He brought his own emotional and intellectual tendencies to “the ancients”, but from them he drew the conceptual substance of his thought.

Alberti completed his formal education at the University of Bologna in an apparently joyless study of law.

His interests and activities were wholly secular and began to issue in an impressive series of humanistic and technical writings.

the master of renaissance

Alberti was in the vanguard of the cultural life of early Renaissance Italy.

His intellectual and artistic pursuits were all of a piece, and he struck a unique balance between theory and practice, realizing this dominant aspiration of his age at the very moment social and political events had begun to cause it to fade.

Contribution to philosophy, science and the arts

The treatise “Della famiglia” (“On the Family”), which he began in Rome in 1432, is the first of several dialogues on moral philosophy upon which his reputation as an ethical thinker and literary stylist largely rests. He wrote these dialogues in the vernacular, expressly for a broad urban public that would not be skilled in Latin: for the “non litteratissimi cittadini”, as he called them.

These works brought to the day-to-day concerns of a bourgeois society and the reasonable counsel of the ancients—on the fickleness of fortune, on meeting adversity and prosperity, on husbandry, on friendship and family, on education and obligation to the common good.

In Alberti’s dialogues the ethical ideals of the ancient world are made to foster a distinctively modern outlook: a morality founded upon the idea of work.

Virtue has become a matter of action, not of right thinking. It arises not out of serene detachment but out of striving, labouring, producing.

This ethic of achievement, which corresponds to the social reality of his youth, found ready acceptance in the urban society of central and northern Italy in which Alberti moved after 1434.

Title page from Leon Battista Alberti, De Pictura (On Painting), Published in 1540, Library, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.
Title page from Leon Battista Alberti, De Pictura (On Painting), Published in 1540, Library, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.

Image source: http://italianrenaissanceresources.com/units/unit-3/essays/introduction/

In his treatise De pictura (“On Painting”), in 1435, he explains the theory of the accumulation of people, animals, and buildings, which create harmony amongst each other, and “hold the eye of the learned and unlearned spectator for a long while with a certain sense of pleasure and emotion”. It is contained the first scientific study of perspective (the Latin version had been dedicated to Alberti’s humanist patron, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga of Mantua).

It had an immediate and profound effect upon Italian painting and relief work, giving rise to the correct, ample, geometrically ordered space of the perspectival Renaissance style. Later perspectival theorists, such as the painter Piero della Francesca and Leonardo, elaborated upon Alberti’s work, but his principles remain as basic to the projective science of perspective as Euclid’s do to plane geometry.

First page by De Re Aedificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti.
First page by De Re Aedificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti.

Image source: http://buzznews.it/rinascimento-leon-battista-alberti-32773/

In 1452, he completed De re aedificatoria, a treatise on architecture, using as its basis the work of Vitruvius and influenced by the archaeological remains of Rome. The work was not published until 1485. It was followed in 1464 by his less influential work, De statua (“On Sculpture”), in which he examines sculpture.


His first major architectural commission was in 1446 for the facade of the Rucellai Palace in Florence.

Alberti constructed the façade of the Palazzo over a period of five years, from 1446-1451; the home was just one of many important commissions that Alberti completed for the Rucellais—a wealthy merchant family.
Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, italy.

image source: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/early-renaissance1/sculpture-architecture-florence/a/alberti-palazzo-rucellai

This was followed in 1450 by a commission from Sigismondo Malatesta to transform the Gothic church of San Francesco in Rimini into a memorial chapel, the Tempio Malatestiano.

facade and plane of Tempio malatestiano
Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini, Italy. facade and plan.

image source: http://thebookofarchitecture.weebly.com/leon-battista-alberti.html


In Florence, he designed the upper parts of the facade for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, famously bridging the nave and lower aisles with two ornately inlaid scrolls, solving a visual problem and setting a precedent to be followed by architects of churches for four hundred years.

Church of Santa Maria Novella, facade by Leon Battista Alberti, 1456–70, Florence, Italy.
Church of Santa Maria Novella, facade by Leon Battista Alberti, 1456–70, Florence, Italy.

image source: http://www.lindaproud.com/Itinerary-Florence.html

Alberti’s only known sculpture is a self-portrait medallion, sometimes attributed to Pisanello.

Alberti's self-portrait plaque, c.1430-45, Paris, Cabinet des Médailles.
Alberti’s self-portrait plaque, c.1430-45, Paris, Cabinet des Médailles.

image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CdM,_presunto_autoritratto_di_leon_battista_alberti.jpg

Other Buildings

  • San Sebastiano, Mantua, (begun 1458) the unfinished facade of which has promoted much speculation as to Alberti’s intention;
  • Sepolcro Rucellai in San Pancrazio, (1467);
  • The Tribune for Santissima Annunziata, Florence (1470, completed with alterations, 1477).

Info source: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Leon-Battista-Alberti




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