Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472)

Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian humanist, architect, and principal initiator of Renaissance art theory. For his personality, works, and breadth of knowledge, he is considered the prototype of the Renaissance “Universal Man”.

Portret van Leon Battista Alberti
Leon Battista Alberti

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About his life

Leon Battista Alberti was born on February 14, 1404, in Genoa and died on April 25 of 1472 in Rome. He was the son of the wealthy Florentine merchant Lorenzo Alberti, whose firms were widespread in northern Italy. The success of the city of Florence during this period is largely a consequence of the success of the Alberti family. It was Leon Battista’s father who instilled in him an interest in mathematics and business, that awakened his understanding of the rational structure and processes of the physical world.

Leon Battista Alberti, Casa di Andrea Mantegna, Modena, Italy, 1476_2
Leon Battista Alberti, Casa di Andrea Mantegna, Modena, Italy, 1476

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Leon Battista Alberti, Casa di Andrea Mantegna, Modena, Italy, 1476
by Leon Battista Alberti, Casa di Andrea Mantegna, Modena, Italy, 1476

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His early formal education was humanistic. The “new learning” was largely literary, and Alberti emerged from the school an accomplished Latinist and literary stylist. Alberti studied law at the University of Bologna, but his interests and activities were completely secular.

As a humanist, he drew his vision of an urban, secular, and rational world from the literature of ancient Rome. Guided by the concepts and ideas of antiquity, he brought his emotional and intellectual tendencies to the core of his thought. He produced a series of humanistic and technical works.

The ideal city attributed to Luciano Laurana or Melozzo da Forlì

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Contribution to philosophy, science and the arts

In 1432, in Rome, he began working on the treatise “Della Famiglia” (“On the Family”). It was 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 his native language, especially for the general urban public who did not know Latin.

These works brought to the day-to-day concerns of 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 stimulate a kind of modern view: morality based on the idea of ​​labor.

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

English title page of the first edition of Giacomo Leoni’s translation of Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria (1452)

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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).

This had an immediate and profound influence on Italian painting and relief work, giving rise to a correct, spatial, geometrically ordered Renaissance style. Alberti’s principles still underpin the projective science of perspective, although the artist Piero della Francesca and Leonardo later refined perspective principles.

De re aedificatoria, title page of the 1541 edition-  by Leon Battista Alberti.

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In 1452, he created “De re aedificatoria”(“On the Art of Building”), a treatise on architecture that was not published until 1485. The treatise was written under the influence of the work of  Vitruvius and the Roman archaeological sites. In 1464 his less influential work “De statua” followed, in which he examines sculpture.

A Parallel of the Ancient Architecture with the Modern with Leon Battista Alberti's Treatise on Statues, Roland Fréart Sieur de Chambray (French, 1606–1676), Illustrations: etching and engraving
A Parallel of the Ancient Architecture with the Modern with Leon Battista Alberti’s Treatise on Statues

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Architectural works

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

Firenze. Palazzo Rucellai Exterieur: Zuidelijke gevel
Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, italy.

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Firenze. Palazzo Rucellai Interieur: Binnenkoer met zuilengalerij. Detail: Twee Korinthische kapitelen
Firenze. Palazzo Rucellai Interieur

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In 1450, Sigismondo Malatesta commissioned Alberti to renovate the Gothic church of San Francesco in Rimini into the Tempio Malatestiano memorial chapel.

Card_reader_16in1_Rimini_Feb_10 032
Leon Battista Alberti Façade, Tempio Malatestiano, c. 1450 Rimini.

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Tempio Malatestiano - Tomba di Isotta
Tempio Malatestiano – Tomba di Isotta- by Leon Battista Alberti, c. 1450 Rimini.

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In Florence, he designed the upper parts of the façade for the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella. He brilliantly solved the visual problem of joining the nave with the lower aisles with two decorative inlays. This example will be followed by the architects of the churches for four hundred years.

Façade (lower side: end 13Th-half 14th century; portal and upper side (after 1458) by Leon Battista Alberti (Genova 1404-Rome 1472) - Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence
Church of Santa Maria Novella, facade by Leon Battista Alberti, 1456–70, Florence, Italy.

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Façade (Detail, after 1458) by Leon Battista Alberti (Genova 1404-Rome 1472) - Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence
Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence- (Detail, after 1458) by Leon Battista Alberti

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Other buildings:

  • San Sebastiano, Mantua, (early 1458), whose unfinished façade sparked much debate;
  • Sepolcro Rucellai in San Pancrazio, (1467);
  • The Tribune for Santissima Annunziata, Florence (1470, completed with alterations, 1477).

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

File:CdM, presunto autoritratto di leon battista alberti, white ground.jpg
Alberti’s self-portrait plaque, c.1430-45, Paris, Cabinet des Médailles.

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Info sources: