De Pitura / On Painting

The book On Painting, which he wrote in 1435, set forth for the first time the rules for drawing a picture of a three-dimensional scene upon the two-dimensional plane of a panel or wall.

 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.

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.

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Alberti was well-versed in the sciences of his age. His knowledge of optics was connected to the handed-down long-standing tradition of the Kitab al-manazir (The Optics; De aspectibus) of the Arab polymath Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham, d. c. 1041), which was mediated by Franciscan optical workshops of the 13th-century perspectivae traditions of scholars such as Roger Bacon, John Peckham and Witelo (similar influences are also traceable in the third commentary of Lorenzo Ghiberti, Commentario terzo).

In 1435, he began his first major written work, “Della pittura” (On Painting), in which, inspired by the burgeoning of pictorial art in Florence in the early 15th century, he analyses the nature of painting and explores the elements of perspective, composition and colour.

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”.

In this work he defines painting as a projection of lines and colours onto a surface, and insists that artists have a knowledge of poetry and rhetoric as well as a certain amount of general knowledge so as to be able to render their subjects appropriately.

Besides his theoretical advice on how to paint and his exhaustive explanation of perspective, this grate author also describes the appropriate criteria for evaluating a painting or other work of art.

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.

Leon Battista regarded mathematics as the common ground of art and the sciences.

“To make clear my exposition in writing this brief commentary on painting”.

He began his treatise: “I will take first from the mathematicians those things with which my subject is concerned”.

 The code contains the principles of perspective drawing elaborated by Alberti in Florence in 1435. The figure shows the "perfect way" ideated by the author to draw properly in perspective through the intersection of the visual pyramid.
Leon Battista Alberti, 1435, De pictura e Elementa picture.

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Giorgio Vasari, who argued that historical progress in art reached its peak in Michelangelo, 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”.

In On Painting, he uses the expression “We Painters”, but as a painter, or sculptor, he was a dilettante. “In painting Alberti achieved nothing of any great importance or beauty”, wrote Vasari. “The very few paintings of his that are extant are far from perfect, but this is not surprising since he devoted himself more to his studies than to draughtsmanship.”

In both Della pittura and De statua, Leon Battista 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.”

De pictura aimed to describe systematically the figurative arts through “geometry“. Alberti divided painting into three parts:

  1. Circumscriptio (Italian: disegno), consisting in drawing the bodies’ contour
  2. Compositio (commensuratio in the Italian version of the treatise), including tracing the lines joining the bodies
  3. Receptio luminum (color), taking into consideration colors and light.

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