Renaissance and Reformation Leon Battista Alberti
by
David Marsh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0115

Introduction

Leon Battista Alberti (b. 1404–d. 1472), humanist and architect, was born in Genoa, the illegitimate son of Lorenzo Alberti, a Florentine banker in exile. After studies in Padua and Bologna, he was employed as a papal secretary. He was a prolific and innovative writer in both Latin and Italian. More than any of his contemporaries, Alberti succeeded in fusing ancient and modern elements in all of his humanistic projects ranging from literature to architecture.

Introductory Works

In Alberti’s autobiography, written in 1437, he celebrates the versatility that inspired Burckhardt’s notion of the “universal man of the Renaissance” (see Burckhardt 1878 and Fubini and Menci Gallorini 1972). In the late 20th century, Burckhardt’s image of the optimistic Alberti was challenged by a closer reading of his texts, and studies such as Garin 1972 and Marolda 1988 emphasized the humanist’s conflictual nature, which is seen most prominently in the contrast between his idealizing treatise On Architecture and his bitter satire Momus. Various aspects of Alberti’s humanist compositions are discussed in Marsh 2012 and McLaughlin 2016. A synthetic analysis of Alberti’s philosophical dimension is found in Michel 1930, a classic French monograph.

Biographies

The classic account of Alberti’s life is found in Mancini 1911. Important archival discoveries are included in the monograph by Boschetto 2000, whereas the studies Borsi 2003, Borsi 2004, and Borsi 2006 provide a rich tapestry of Alberti’s situation in diverse Quattrocento contexts. Paoli 2007 offers a brief French biography.

General Studies

Because Alberti wrote on such a wide range of topics, the variety and versatility of his work led to a lack of connection among them, both in their textual survival and in their editorial and scholarly afterlife. However, since the 1960s more critical editions and more systematic archival research have shed light on the influential but elusive Alberti. Readable introductions are offered by Gadol 1969 and Grafton 2000; the rich conference proceedings found in Furlan 2000 and Furlan and Venturi 2010 demonstrate the scope of growing scholarship. Codicological research is central to the invaluable contributions of Bertolini 2004 and Cardini, et al. 2005. Together with the latter, Cardini and Regoliosi 2007 provides rich insights into Alberti’s use of classical and Christian sources. For a rich online biography that stresses his artistic achievements, see Davies and Hemsoll.

Online Sites

Specifically dedicated to Alberti, the website “Alberti, Leon Battista” offers online texts of Alberti’s writings. Other sites offer a vast spectrum of Italian writings, including Alberti’s Biblioteca Italiana, Liber Liber, and Intratext Digital Library.

Italian Dialogues

Following the model of Ciceronian dialogue revived in Latin by Italian humanists, Alberti wrote a number of groundbreaking works in Italian that enriched the philosophical vocabulary of the vernacular. Like authors of the Italian Renaissance, he gave his Italian works Latin titles, presumably to lend them greater dignity.

De familia

Alberti composed an Italian dialogue in three books to which he gave the Latin title De familia. Couched as a ragionamento domestico, or household conversation, the dialogue features distinguished men of the Alberti clan discussing the principles of householding, including such topics as education, marriage, and estate management. The standard editions are Alberti 1960–1973 and Alberti 1994.

Theogenius, Profugia ab erumna, and De iciarchia

Alberti’s later Italian dialogues offer readers a sort of post-Petrarchan moral instruction and consolation. Theogenius and Profugiorum ab erumna libri are consolatory in nature, and De iciarchia treats the social responsibilities of an ideal householder (see Ponte 1991).

Other Writings in Italian

Today Alberti’s moral writings are the most studied. However, in his lifetime and the next century it was his works on the theme of love that were soon published and translated. Besides these more traditional compositions, Alberti displayed his renowned versatility by treating a variety of subjects in Italian. As a champion of the vernacular, he also wrote the first Italian grammar and discussed the Italian language in various works. He also used Italian for a set of mathematical games and wrote an assortment of Italian poems noted for their experimentation with form and theme.

Amatory Works

While in Bologna, Alberti composed two Italian works on the subject of love, to which he gave Greek names in the manner of Boccaccio: the treatise Ecatonfilea and the dialogue Deifira. These two works enjoyed enormous success both in the original and in translation and were the only works of Alberti printed (Padua, in 1471) in his lifetime. He subsequently wrote another dialogue Sofrona, in which the title character discusses love. Later in Florence, he wrote an Italian epistle to Paolo Codagnello with the Latin title De amore, dissuading his friend from the abasement of amatory passion. A parallel short treatise in Latin, Amator, arrives at the same conclusion. As one of his Intercenales, he composed a debate titled Uxoria, in which three Spartan brothers argue for or against marriage. The work survives in both Latin and Italian, the latter version with a dedication to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici. An Italian novella called Istorietta amorosa fra Leonora de’ Bardi e Ippolito Bondelmonti has been attributed to Alberti, but the evidence is slight. The works are included in Volume 3 of Alberti 1960–1973 (see above, under De familia).

Grammatichetta

A champion of the vernacular, Alberti composed the first grammar of the Italian language, the Grammatichetta della lingua Toscana (see Alberti 1996 and Patota 1999).

Ludi rerum mathematicarum

Alberti dedicated his composition on mathematical games, Ludi rerum mathematicarum (1450–1452), an Italian handbook of twenty exercises in surveying and applied geometry, to Meliaduso d’Este, brother of his late friend Leonello. The work is printed in Volume 3 of Alberti 1960–1973 (cited under De familia).

Poetry

Alberti was also an innovator as an Italian poet. He wrote the first Italian eclogue or pastoral poem titled Tirsi, and he experimented with classical meters such as unrhymed hexameters. In 1441, precisely one hundred years after Petrarch had been crowned in Rome for his Latin poetry, Alberti organized an Italian poetic competition in Florence that he called the Certame coronario (see Gorni 1972 and Bertolini 1993). The authoritative edition of Alberti 2002 offers the richest commentary on the poems.

Humorous Writings in Latin

Despite his intellectual brilliance, Alberti’s life was notably difficult—not least because of his illegitimacy—but he sought to detach himself from harsh realities through works in a comic or satiric vein. Such works are often his most inspired literary creations.

Philodoxeos

While studying law at Bologna, Alberti wrote a Latin comedy in prose titled Philodoxeos, which he circulated as the work of an ancient Roman playwright named Lepidus (Latin for “witty man”). Since the prosody of the comedians Plautus and Terence was not yet understood, this work in prose was thought by many to be ancient. In 1441, Alberti rewrote the work with a dedication to Leonello d’Este of Ferrara. The piece is a veiled allegory of a humanist thwarted by wealthy opponents, but comic elements are not lacking. The authoritative edition is that by Cesarini Martinelli (Alberti 1977). For the Latin text with English translation and notes, see Grund 2005.

Intercenales, Vita Sancti Potiti, Apologi centum, Canis, and Musca

In the 1430s and 1440s Alberti collected his most imaginative dialogues and satires in books that he titled Intercenales, but the texts were soon dispersed and have only recently been reunited, if imperfectly (the flawed edition in Alberti 1890 and the more reliable text in Alberti 2003 have been superseded by Alberti 2010; for an English translation, see Alberti 1987). From 1436 to 1438, Alberti was in Bologna with the Curia, and the return to the city of his student days inspired a number of short compositions in Latin, including a hundred Aesopic fables, titled Apologi (see Testi Massetani 1972 and Marsh 2004). Around 1440, Alberti wrote a pair of humorous Latin works inspired by animals: Canis, a eulogy of his deceased dog; and Musca, a rewriting of Lucian’s Encomium of the Fly (see Alberti 1954). Another source of inspiration was the Latin author Apuleius (see Marsh 2000).

Momus

Around 1450, Alberti published his most ambitious literary work in Latin, Momus sive De principe, a prose novel in four books. Borrowing from Lucian’s satirical dialogues of the gods, Alberti narrates how a feckless Jupiter wavers in his resolve to destroy the world and create a new one. Scenes set in heaven and on earth satirize the foolish ambitions and political machinations of both gods and men, suggesting veiled hints at the pope and his Curia. The Latin text is accompanied by an English translation in Alberti 2003 and by an Italian translation in Alberti 2007; a new Latin text with Italian translation is found in Alberti 2010 (cited under Intercenales, Vita Sancti Potiti, Apologi centum, Canis, and Musca). For interpretations of this complex work, see Borsi 1999 and Marassi 2004.

Serious Writings in Latin

Early in his career, Alberti composed the Latin essay De commodis litterarum atque incommodis, in which he decries the low social status accorded those who pursue scholarly knowledge (see Alberti 1976 with its important introduction). While in Bologna from 1436 to 1438, Alberti wrote a treatise on law titled De jure (see Grayson 1998) and a dialogue on episcopal duties titled Pontifex (see Alberti 2007). In 1443 at Ferrara, as a consultant for an equestrian statue, he composed a treatise on the horse, De equo animante, which he dedicated to Leonello d’Este (see Alberti 1999 and Grayson 1998). Some fifteen years later, probably in the late 1450s, he wrote a Latin outline of deliberative oratory called Trivia senatoria, dedicated to the young Lorenzo de’ Medici (see Alberti 2008).

Technical Treatises

In 1443, the Curia returned to Rome, where Alberti produced his Descriptio urbis Romae, a map of the city viewed from the Capitoline Hill and charted on polar coordinates (for a critical edition of his survey, see Alberti 2005; for the larger context of his project, see Fiore and Nesselrath 2005). During the same period, Alberti wrote Latin and Italian versions of a treatise on painting called Elementa picturae, Elementi di pittura (see Alberti 1960–1973, cited under Amatory Works. In about 1468, he wrote the first treatise on cryptography titled De componendis cyfris, dedicated to Leonardo Dati, a colleague in the Curia who may have been employed to encode papal correspondence (see Alberti 1998).

Writings on Art and Architecture

Today Alberti is best known as a theorist of painting, sculpture, and architecture, as well as an original architect. His writings and works in all of these fields helped shape the course of Renaissance art.

De pictura, Elementa picturae

In 1435, Alberti composed a treatise on painting, De pictura, written in Italian with a dedication to Filippo Brunelleschi, and later translated into Latin (see Alberti 1960–1973, cited under De familia, and Alberti 1972). In its three books, Alberti sets forth the principles of optics and linear perspective, reflects on the narrative subject (istoria), and asserts the value of humanist learning in the visual arts. He later compiled a shorter outline of the subject called Elementa picturae. Alberti composed these two works on painting both in Latin and Italian, suggesting a bridge between humanist learning and artisanal skills. Indeed, the Italian version of De pictura is dedicated to Brunelleschi. A variorum edition of the treatise on painting is found in Sinisgalli 2006.

  • Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting and On Sculpture: The Latin Texts of “De pictura” and “De sculptura.” Edited by Cecil Grayson. London: Phaidon, 1972.

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    Critical editions of the two Latin treatises.

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  • Sinisgalli, Rocco. Il nuovo “De pictura” di Leon Battista Alberti: The New “De pictura” of Leon Battista Alberti. Rome: Kappa, 2006.

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    A trilingual volume (Alberti’s Italian and Latin texts, with English and Italian translations) that claims to restore the “true text” of the treatise from the Editio princeps (Basel, Switzerland, 1540) with ample commentary and illustrations. The appendixes include a facsimile of the Basel edition and numerous images related to the discussion.

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De statua

In the early 1440s, Alberti wrote a Latin treatise on sculpture, De statua, in which he describes how a given statue can be copied using a series of measurements taken from a central vertical axis. Editions are found in Alberti 1972 (cited under De Pictura, Elementa picturae) and Alberti 1998.

De re aedificatoria

Around 1452, Alberti completed his De re aedificatoria, ten books written in Latin on the art of building and the theory and practice of architecture. Although the Roman treatise by Vitruvius, c. 1st century BC, served as a model, Alberti’s work is largely original in its weighing of historical evidence and in its treatment of building styles in their social context. Addressing every aspect of the subject—topics such as symmetry, proportion, ornamentation, restoration, and even urban planning—Alberti’s books often prove more comprehensive than the subsequent architectural treatises of the High Renaissance. Alberti’s geometrical principles are at the center of the analysis in Wittkower 1998, whereas their rhetorical orientation is stressed in Payne 1994. For the Latin text with Italian translation and notes, see Alberti 1966; for an English translation, see Alberti 1988. For a discussion of Albertian architecture in its Renaissance context, see Smith 1992, Tavernor 1998, and (in Italian) Calzona and Comitato nazionale VI centenario della nascita di Leon Battista Alberti 2007.

  • Alberti, Leon Battista. L’architettura (De re aedificatoria). 2 vols. Edited and translated by Giovanni Orlandi and Paolo Portoghesi. Milan: Il Polifilo, 1966.

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    The standard Latin edition of the text with Italian translation and notes.

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  • Alberti, Leon Battista. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Edited and translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988.

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    A modern English version of De re aedificatoria, supplemented with diagrams and notes, but marred by occasional inconsistencies in translation and commentary.

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  • Calzona, Arturo, and Comitato nazionale VI centenario della nascita di Leon Battista Alberti, eds. Leon Battista Alberti: Teorico delle arti e gli impegni civili del “De re aedificatoria”: Atti dei Convegni internazionali del Comitato nazionale VI centenario della nascita di Leon Battista Alberti, Mantova, 17–19 ottobre 2002, Mantova, 23–25 ottobre 2003. 2 vols. Florence: Olschki, 2007.

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    A collection of forty-five essays on Alberti’s artistic theories that originated in a Mantua conference, with particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on the books on architecture.

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  • Payne, Alina A. “Rudolf Wittkower and Architectural Principles in the Age of Modernism.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 53.3 (1994): 322–342.

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    A challenge to Wittkower’s influential book as too narrowly focused on Alberti and Palladio. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Smith, Christine. Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Eloquence, 1400–1470. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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    An rich analysis of early Renaissance architecture in its cultural context with important discussions of Alberti’s contribution.

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  • Tavernor, Robert. On Alberti and the Art of Building. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

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    A comprehensive and well-written introduction to Alberti’s architectural theory and practice, beautifully illustrated, in part, with computer-generated images.

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  • Wittkower, Rudolf. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. 5th ed. Chichester, UK: Academy, 1998.

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    An influential study that formulates the concepts of form and space underlying the geometry of Renaissance architecture from Alberti to Palladio, long considered a canonical work but recently challenged by Alina Payne as simplistic in its approach.

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Architectural Projects

Like his writings, Alberti’s architecture demonstrates the practical fertility of cross-fertilization by designing innovative monuments that incorporate classical models and motifs. However, Alberti’s classicism is eclectic rather than dogmatic. Thus, the private structure of the Rucellai Palace in Florence adapts an elevation based on the Roman Colosseum, and his Christian churches feature decorative motifs borrowed from Roman triumphal arches and structural units, such as the barrel vault used in Roman baths. For illustrated surveys, see Borsi 1975, Grassi and Patetta 2005, and Bulgarelli 2006. For studies of the historical context of Quattrocento building, see Frommel 2006 and Bulgarelli 2008. A specific study of Albertian church façades is found in Lorch 1999.

Rimini

After 1450, Alberti increasingly devoted himself to architectural projects. For Sigismondo Malatesta, the lord of Rimini, Alberti created the Tempio Malatestiano by encasing the church of San Francesco in a classical exterior. The work is analyzed in detail in Pasini 2000 and Turchini 2000, whereas the larger cultural context of the project is discussed in Musmeci 2003.

  • Musmeci, Marco, ed. Templum mirabile: Atti del Convegno sul Tempio malatestiano, Rimini, Palazzo Buonadrata 21/22 settembre 2001. Rimini, Italy: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Rimini, 2003.

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    A series of essays on various aspects of the Rimini reworking of the church of San Francesco supplemented by ground plans and black-and-white illustrations of the decoration.

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  • Pasini, Pier Giorgio. Il Tempio malatestiano: Splendore cortese e classicismo umanistico. Milan: Skira, 2000.

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    A monograph on Alberti’s first major project, the classicizing transformation of the church of San Francesco in Rimini, richly illustrated with documentary evidence and photographs, many of them in color.

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  • Turchini, Angelo. Il tempio Malatestiano, Sigismondo Pandolfa Malatesta e Leon Battista Alberti. Cesena, Italy: Il “Ponte Vecchio, 2000.

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    A 1000-page monograph on all aspects of the project with ample documentation and black-and-white plans and photographs.

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Florence

For the wealthy Florentine merchant Giovanni Rucellai, Alberti employed classical elements in the Rucellai Palace and Loggia, and also designed a Holy Sepulcher for the parish church of San Pancrazio (see Bracciali 2006). His most prominent Florentine project, also financed by Rucellai, was the façade of Santa Maria Novella, in which the Gothic lower façade yields to a rich geometric design surmounted by a “temple/aedicula façade” with sloping volutes—a feature that became standard in later church architecture (see Lorch 1999, pp. 38–46 [cited under Architectural Projects], and Morolli 2003).

Mantua

From Ludovico Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua, Alberti received three important commissions: the tribune of Santissima Annunziata in Florence and the churches of San Sebastiano and Sant’Andrea in Mantua. For additional information on San Sebastiano, see Lamoureux 1979 and Böckmann 2004; for Sant’Andrea, generally considered Alberti’s masterpiece, see Reale Accademia virgiliana di scienze, lettere ed arti 1974 and Carpeggiani and Tellini Perina 1987. For a detailed history of the protracted building of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, see Johnson 1975.

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