De Pictura / On Painting

The book On Painting, written in 1435 by Leon Battista Alberti, established for the first time the rules for drawing an image of a three-dimensional scene on 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, large, geometrically ordered space of the Renaissance perspectival 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’s knowledge of optics was linked to the tradition handed down by the Kitab al-manazir (The Optics; De aspectibus) of the polyhedral Arab Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham, d. c. 1041), which was mediated by Franciscan optical laboratories of the perspectivae traditions of the 13th-century by scholars such as Roger Bacon, John Peckham and Witelo (similar influences can also be found in the third comment by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Commentario terzo).

In 1435, he begins his first important written work, “Della pittura” (On Painting), in which, inspired by the flourishing of pictorial art in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century, he analyzes the nature of painting and explores the elements of perspective, composition, and color.

He explains the theory of the accumulation of peopleanimals, and buildings, creating harmony between them, and “hold the eye of the educated and ignorant spectator for a long time with a certain sense of pleasure and emotion”.

In this work, painting is defined as a projection of lines and colors onto a surface, and insists that artists know poetry and rhetoric and more general to render their subjects appropriately.

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

Later perspective theorists, such as Piero della Francesca and Leonardo, elaborated on Alberti’s work, yet his principles remain as fundamental to the projective science of perspective as Euclid’s to plane geometry.

For Leon Battista mathematics was considered 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 believed that historical progress in art had been achieved with Michelangelo, underlined not so much the artistic talents as the conquest of Alberti: “He spent his time discovering the world and studying the proportions of antiquities; but above all, following his natural genius, he focused on writing rather than applied work”.

In fact, as a painter, or sculptor, he was an amateur. “In painting Alberti did not achieve anything of great importance or beauty”, wrote Vasari. His existing paintings are believed to be far from perfect as he devoted himself primarily to his studies rather than drawing.

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, for the same purpose, that is, that the work they have undertaken appears to the observer similar to the real objects of nature.”

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

  1. Circumscriptio (Italian: disegno), consisting in outlining the bodies
  2. Compositio (commensuratio), including the tracing of the seam lines of the bodies
  3. Receptio luminum (color), taking into account colors and light.

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