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The Master Builder

Leon Battista Alberti

by Franco Borsi, translated by Rudolf G. Carpanini
Harper & Row, 397, 386 illustrations pp., $55.00

Leon Battista Alberti was not a modest man. The piece of writing referred to by scholars as the Anonymous Biography, because it is written in the third person, is an obvious self-portrait. “In all by which praise was won,” he writes,

Leon Battista was, from his childhood, the first. Of his various gymnastic feats and exercises we read with astonishment how, with his feet together, he could spring over a man’s head; how, in the cathedral, he threw a coin in the air till it was heard to ring against the distant roof; how the wildest horses trembled under him. In three things he desired to appear faultless to others, in walking, in riding and in speaking. And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets of their craft…. That which others created he welcomed joyfully, and held every human achievement which followed the laws of beauty for something almost divine…. At the sight of noble trees and waving fields of corn he shed tears: handsome and dignified old men he honoured as “delights of nature” and could never look at them enough—and more than once, when he was ill, the sight of a beautiful landscape cured him.1

It is as a result of this paragraph alone (quoted no doubt from Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance) that Alberti has entered the general historical consciousness, and has even been made the hero of a leading article in Life magazine. But how many of those who have had their imaginations stirred by these passages have carried their researches any further? A few may have dipped into his book on architecture, fewer still may have read his writings on morals and social life, Della famiglia (1434), Della tranquillità dell’animo (1443), De Iciarchia (1470), which brought him most renown in his lifetime, but are now completely forgotten. The majority of those who remember him think of the magnificent profile on a bronze medallion and of a number of buildings, the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, the west fronts of S. Andrea in Mantua and S.ta Maria Novella in Florence, and the façade of the Rucellai Palace in Florence, which leave so strong an impression on the mind that we are persuaded to think of him as one of the two greatest architects of the fifteenth century. But until recently it has been difficult to support this impression by other examples or by concrete evidence. Books on Alberti’s architecture have been repetitive and slight. It was a subject that fell apart in one’s hands. I remember an eminent Italian art historian smiling discreetly when I said I was about to write one.

This has now been done by Franco Borsi, and nobody could call his book slight. In an age of heavy books it must be one of the heaviest, and the quantity of illustrations may occasionally strike us as inflationary. It treats very fully Alberti’s famous De re aedificatoria, but it does not deal with the moral writings edited by Bonucci, and printed in 1824 as the Opere volgari. It is limited to Alberti the architect. But with Alberti limitations are misleading. The originality of his architecture and his architectural theories is indivisible from his writings on society. “Man,” he says in the Della famiglia, “is born to be of use to man. And what is the use of all human arts? Simply to benefit humanity.” It sounds like a humanist functionalism. But to Alberti the architecture of humanism was achieved by beauty, order, and mathematical clarity.

Leon Battista Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404 of an ancient Florentine family which had recently been driven into exile by the persecution of the Albizzi. Like Leonardo da Vinci he was illegitimate; but, unlike Leonardo, his father, Lorenzo Alberti, recognized him as a son, took a personal interest in his education, and brought him up in the great traditions of his family. These traditions will be familiar to American readers, for the Alberti were aristocrats of commerce of a kind not uncommon in the United States. They had abandoned feudalism for the wool trade in the early fourteenth century, and for a hundred years had conducted great business undertakings all over Europe.

We know how success in such activities creates a sense of authority, of independence, and of family solidarity greater than any inherited power. In 1411 Lorenzo Alberti moved to Venice, and shortly after Leon Battista was sent to the school of the famous humanist Barzizza in Padua, where he laid the foundations of an immense, indiscriminate classical learning; and already he gave evidence of that almost morbid industry to which he frequently refers in his writings with fanatical earnestness.

Although at no hour of the day could you see him idle, yet that he might win for himself still more of the fruits of life and time, every evening before going to bed he would set beside himself a wax candle of a certain measure and, sitting half undressed, he would read history or poetry until the candle was burnt up. The followers of Pythagoras used, before they slept, to compose their minds with some harmonious music. Now our friend finds his reading no less soothing than was the sound of music to them; but it is more useful. They fall into a profound sleep in which the mind is motionless; but he, even when asleep, has noble and life-giving thoughts revolving in his mind; and often things of great worth become clear to him, which when awake, he had sought with unavailing effort.2

In 1428 the ban of exile on the Alberti was lifted, and the brilliant young man was, for the first time, free to visit Florence. He found himself in a center of creative activity such as the world had not seen since Periclean Athens. Nothing explains this glorious outburst, neither social nor economic history, nor the history of art.

We must suppose that Alberti was introduced immediately into the circle of the Florentine humanists, and by them to the artists who were interpreting their ideals, for although he was forced to leave Florence almost immediately and spend the next two years in France, in the train of his patron Cardinal Albergati, he could, on his return, refer to the leading artists of the time as old friends. This short visit to Florence was of importance because it revealed to him the means through which his sense of order might be satisfied. It opened his eyes. Before that date the winged eye (which was his emblem) had been quick to read the classics, to follow the point of a rapier, or to detect human weakness; but it does not seem to have concerned itself with shapes and textures, outlines and proportions. By the time he had arrived in Rome in 1431 he was a potential architect.

The student of Renaissance art is resigned to a paucity of documents, but those concerning Alberti’s activities in Rome are so exiguous that a prudent historian might well omit this period in Alberti’s life altogether. This would be a mistake because it is clear that Alberti was a close friend of Tommaso Parentucelli, later Pope Nicholas V, and it was under Nicholas that the first great building projects of Renaissance Rome were inaugurated. Moreover, there is evidence that the execution of those projects was in the hands of Bernardo Rossellino, who remained throughout his life one of the men who put Alberti’s ideas into effect. It therefore seems probable that Alberti was Nicholas V’s adviser, and may well have been responsible for the reconstruction of that beautiful early Christian church, S. Stefano Rotondo. He probably designed the classical section of the façade of St. Peter’s, and may even have produced the first plan for the rebuilding of the Basilica. In his Della architettura, he describes how it should have in front of it a great piazza, the width of the church, around which should be placed a continuous portico of columns. The colonnade that surrounds St. Peter’s Square, one of the greatest architectural achievements in the world, is the remote offspring of Alberti’s imagination. All this is treated fully in Franco Borsi’s book, but it remains speculation.

In 1434 Alberti returned to Florence in the company of Pope Eugenius IV, and joined forces with the leading Florentine artists of the day. He must have met them all in Rome, where he seems to have been a self-appointed guide to the antiquities, and wrote a description of the city. He was already on terms of friendship with the greatest architect and theorist of his day, Brunelleschi, and dedicated to him a book he wrote on painting in these words—which, for some mysterious reason, do not seem to be quoted in Franco Borsi’s book:

Since I have returned to this country of ours from the long exile in which we Albertis have grown old, I have perceived in many—first in thee Filippo and then in our dear friend Donato and in those others Nencio [Ghiberti] Luca and Masaccio a talent for all praiseworthy arts which the most famous of ancient cities did not excel.

There is no doubt that in 1435, the date of the earliest MS of the Della pittura, Alberti was at the center of a group of artists of genius, followed their practices, and his book contains an account of their theories which was to remain influential for over a century.

In particular the Della pittura had a profound influence on Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della Pittura, a fact that Franco Borsi seems to deny (p. 300), although it can be substantiated by parallel passages that are almost quotations. But then he is not greatly interested in Alberti’s influence on painters. He does not, for example, mention the name of Paolo Uccello. In his early frescoes Uccello painted in a late Gothic style. As a result of Alberti’s theories he painted the frescoes in the cloister of S.ta Maria Novella, The Deluge and The Drunkenness of Noah, which are an attempt to employ the new science of perspective and the geometrical simplification of forms with an almost touching confidence in Alberti’s prescriptions, and even his subject matter. When Alberti left Florence Uccello returned to his decorative and quasi-Gothic style. Borsi does briefly mention the other great painter influenced by Alberti, Piero della Francesca. He could hardly fail to do so, as Piero’s fresco of Sigismondo Malatesta in Alberti’s most perfect building, the Tempio Malatestiano, has an architectural surround, probably designed by Alberti himself. And we may reasonably suppose that the views of towns, which are so curious a production of Piero’s workshop, were realizations of Alberti’s dreams. They are not among the 386 illustrations of Franco Borsi’s book. Nor does Borsi consider how, through Piero, Alberti may have influenced the style of the Palace of Urbino, which was already established before the arrival of Laurana.

I have said enough to suggest that this enormous tome is not exactly the book on Alberti that we have been hoping for. The fault lies less with Franco Borsi than with the present fashions of competitive scholarship, which demand of the writer an accumulation of totally irrelevant details and prevent him from seeing his subject as a whole. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Alberti, where the whole man, the friend of princes, the rather self-righteous moralist, the athlete, the mathematician, the misogynist, the hypochondriac—all are expressed by his writings on architecture.

Having said this, I must record my gratitude to Franco Borsi and his publisher for the generous accumulation of material, both photographic and textual, which his book provides. Almost every building with which Alberti’s name has been associated has been illustrated, analyzed, and, if necessary, reconstructed.

What led this many-sided man to become a practicing architect? Alberti himself gives the reason:

Him I call an architect who by sure and admirable reason and practice is able, both with mind and spirit, to devise, and in execution to complete, all those works which by means of the movement of weights and the conjunction and composition of bodies can, with the greatest beauty, be adapted to the uses of mankind; to which end he must recognize and understand all noble and excellent sciences.

In other words, architecture is the proper field for the universal man, in which he can combine science, practice, and the love of beauty. This idea of architecture was supported by the inexhaustible study of antique architecture which occupied him when he was in Rome, and his conversations with his dear friend Brunelleschi as they visited and measured the antique buildings, of which incredibly more were visible before the depredations of the next two centuries.

But the fact remains that only one of the buildings which are certainly from his design is directly inspired by antiquity. This is the façade of the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, which bears some relation to the Arch of Augustus in the same city, and to the Arch at Orange. Even so the beautiful door is more closely related to Venice than to Rome, and there is no antique precedent for the austere arcades, forming a series of gigantic niches, that run along the sides. These are Alberti’s most personal and powerful invention, and predicate a previous practice of architecture of which we are completely ignorant. On stylistic grounds I believe that the base of the bell tower at Ferrara is one of these works, but for this we have no documentary evidence.

Here I must repeat that the elucidation of Alberti’s architecture is one of the most frustrating of all art-historical exercises, and it is not made any easier by Professor Borsi’s book. There are documents without buildings, buildings without documents. It is almost impossible to say which parts of a building were designed by Alberti himself, and to make matters worse, nearly all his buildings have been restored, and considerably altered. But we have one priceless document, the long letter that he wrote to Matteo de’ Pasti about the building of the Tempio Malatestiano. It must seem almost inconceivable to a modern architect that Alberti never went to the sites where his buildings were being erected. He sent plans, measurements, detailed instructions, and left the architect in charge to get on with the construction by himself. It was part of his austere reliance on abstract theory. However, his letter to Matteo de’ Pasti shows how firm was his grasp on everything that was being done. Naturally Professor Borsi refers to this letter, but it would have been a great convenience to the reader if he had printed it entire in an appendix.

The Tempio is grave and massive. It is a proof of Alberti’s adaptability and inventiveness that his chief works in Florence are conceived as decoration, and follow the black and white marble style that went back to S. Miniato. What parts of the façade of S.ta Maria Novella are from his design is a debatable problem. Personally I believe that almost everything above the base of the building was designed by Alberti, and the way he has assimilated the original Gothic arches is a masterpiece of tact. The elongated pilasters, although in a classical style, are Gothic in their proportions. The architrave and the great inscription are pure Alberti. But the great surprise in Florence is the precious edicule, ostensibly a reproduction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, known as the S. Sepolcro Rucellai. There is unusually good evidence that it was designed by Alberti, and the exquisite inlays, which are well reproduced in Professor Borsi’s book, follow exactly the instructions about decoration in the Della architettura.

The characters in Alberti’s dialogues are the Florentine bourgeoisie, prodigal of common sense, and for one such family, the Rucellai, he designed the first and best town house of the quattrocento. But much of his time was spent in the company of popes and princes—Nicholas V, Pius II, the terrible Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini, the amiable Ludovico Gonzaga in Mantua—and it was for Ludovico that he undertook what should have been his greatest work, the Church of S. Andrea. As usual it has been transformed by restoration. The walls of the interior are covered with seventeenth-century decoration, but personally I think that they follow Alberti’s simple grandiose plan. The façade, although repaired, seems to preserve his designs, and is the first great façade of the quattrocento. In Mantua he also designed the small Church of S. Sebastiano, which is the first Renaissance church on a central plan.

The first, the first—how often one writes this word when presenting Alberti’s works. The first book on painting (1435), the first autobiography, the first self-portrait, above all the first book on architecture, which was still being reprinted in the eighteenth century. De re aedificatoria (Della architettura) is indeed one of the few prose works of the fifteenth century that can still be read with pleasure. It contains digressions, prejudices, and poetical descriptions which make it more like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy than an architectural treatise. Because among his “firsts” Alberti was one of the first entirely free men. He had no country, no religion, no need to make a living. He needed nothing from society. He could say exactly what he liked to anyone on every topic, and a contemporary architect could read his remarks with profit. But what would Alberti have thought of the huge, featureless office blocks that occupy so much of the modern architect’s time? Nothing, I fear, but contempt for the inhuman conditions which make such buildings a necessity.

Letters

Accessible Alberti March 23, 1978

  1. 1

    This invaluable fragment (in a different translation) is printed in the volume under review. It has previously been almost inaccessible among the “Documenti Illustrativi,” in the introduction to Bonucci’s Opere volgari di Leon Battista Alberti, 1824.

  2. 2

    From De Iciarchia, Book II (Op. volg. III, 90-91). De Iciarchia is Alberti’s last work, in which he recalls his own practice as an example to the young.

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