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The Lion of Florence

1.

A solution must be found. After so much has been spoken and written, it was a question both of science and national pride, a debt of honor to the dignity of our Nation.”

With these words Mussolini switched on a powerful pump that began to drain the water from a lake in the volcanic hills south of Rome, the Lake of Nemi. The year was 1927. In the course of the following weeks the water receded and the hulls of two Roman ships, with many bronze fittings and some of the marble revetment of the decks intact, began to emerge. They were imperial barges from the time of Caligula, probably used in religious rites connected with the Temple of Diana on the shore. The ships were important to the Fascist regime both as Roman artifacts and as documents of Renaissance archaeology.

The first attempt to raise them, as everyone knew, had been made by the most famous humanist of the early Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti. It was important to Mussolini to show that his regime could succeed where even Alberti, one of the archetypal “universal men” of the Renaissance, had failed. Indeed, the senator invited to preside over the salvage operation was Corrado Ricci, the author of two books on Alberti. The ships were winched to the shore, much photographed and visited, and by 1932 installed in a new museum. They would still be one of the great sights of the Roman countryside, had they not been put to the torch by retreating German troops in 1944.

In 1446, when he tried to raise the ships, Alberti was forty-two. He was then composing the first treatise on architecture since antiquity, a work in ten “books” to rival the De architectura libri decem written by Vitruvius in the Twenties of the first century BC. Alberti’s long treatise, the De re aedificatoria, even though written in dense Latin and circulated during the author’s lifetime only in manuscript, eventually became the most influential book on architecture to come out of the Renaissance. After he finished it, and nearing fifty, Alberti turned from his literary pursuits to take up the practice of architecture. Among fifteenth-century architects only Brunelleschi rivals him in quantity and quality of achievement. Not until 1665, when the young astronomer Christopher Wren was called in to restore the cathedral of London, would an improbable career change again have such an impact on the course of architecture.

Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404, out of wedlock. The family had been one of the richest banking clans of fourteenth-century Florence, with branches in London, Spain, and the Low Countries. But one by one the leading men of the clan, including Alberti’s father and grandfather, had been exiled from Florence by a rival political faction. Alberti’s father named the boy Battista, after John the Baptist, patron of the city he would never see again.

The double stigma of exile and illegitimacy clouded Alberti’s youth, which was passed between Venice, Padua, Genoa, and the towns of the Po Valley. This watery world fostered an interest in ships, flood control, and issues of public health in cities on beaches and in bogs. Alberti was fascinated by the hydraulics of the Venetian lagoon and by buildings that sink into ooze. When he first saw the half-buried temples of the Roman Forum his explanation was that they had sunk into a swamp. His metaphor for foundations—snowshoes—was resurrected in Bernini’s time when the façade of St. Peter’s began to sink into an underground stream. Alberti wrote a book on ships and composed horrific stories about shipwreck. To raise the ships of Nemi he called in divers from his native Genoa. Exile gave him interests that would not have come so easily had he been brought up in the green valley of the Arno.

Alberti’s father put the boy in the best boarding school of Padua and supported his education in Venice and Bologna. But he died when Alberti was sixteen, and relatives unforgiving of his bastardry tried to deprive the orphan of his inheritance and with it access to higher education. The young man passed through a phase of stress and depression. But he took adversity as an occasion for training his will, studying until, in his words, the letters on the page turned to spiders. Cultivation of the will would become an obsession with Alberti. Willing and able, volere and potere, are an inseparable pair in his vocabulary. For relief from legal studies he turned to mathematics, but he also found an outlet in painting and modeling. He had no known teacher, but his studies allowed him to see the interaction between mathematics and art in a way that no conventional apprenticeship would have. Seldom has an amateur exerted a greater influence on the arts.

Alberti received his doctorate in law from Bologna in 1428, the year when the ban on his family was finally lifted. But he had been raised in too long an exile to seek a career in Florence. Anthony Grafton, whose extremely informative book comes principally out of a study of literary humanism and scientific culture, has many fascinating things to say about the career patterns open to humanists like Alberti. In the early twentieth century the great schoolmasters of the early Renaissance, men like Gasparino da Verona or Vittorino da Feltre, were seen as lanterns of learning who protected their charges from vice while grafting humanist learning onto the rootstock of Christian morals. Grafton is decidedly less reverent. Indeed, he seems to take a positive delight in exposing the vulgarity of the learned. He resurrects the poem about a prostitute that a budding humanist dedicated to the young Alberti, and he describes fights in the antechambers of the Vatican between distinguished scholars who were rolling on the floor, “clutching each other’s testicles and poking at each other’s eyes.” The book is peppered with such passages.

For Alberti, the rewards of acceptance into the ranks of the learned were considerable. Just as today speakers of elegant English are valued in Brussels, even though that is not the language of the land, speakers and writers of flawless Latin were valued in the courts and capitals of Italy, especially the papal curia and the Florentine chancery. Good grammar and a flawless Ciceronian style could stave off wars, buttress ancient privilege, and demolish pretensions based on forgery. And there was no better way to demonstrate one’s skill than to become a forger oneself. So Grafton’s book opens with a performance of a Latin play, Philodoxeos, written by the young Alberti but passed off as the work of one Lepidus, a fictional author who would remain in the canon of Roman Silver Age poets until the nineteenth century. It is the world of neo-Latin letters that bred Alberti and gave him his start, quite different from the goldsmith’s shop that produced Brunelleschi or the quarries where the young Michelangelo learned his trade.

After graduation Alberti attached himself to several highly placed clerics and was given a post in the papal chancery as an abbreviator, or summarizer of long papal bulls. He was legitimized and took minor orders in order to enjoy the income from benefices. Although he does not seem to have been ordained as a priest he moved in a clerical world and absorbed more than his share of its endemic misogyny. He usually wore clerical dress, and when he looked at the oculus of the Pantheon the first image that came to mind was a tonsure.

After the long “Avignon captivity” and a subsequent schism the papacy had finally returned to Rome in 1420, but it did not receive a warm welcome from the Romans. Alberti came to live in the Vatican in 1433 but the following year the Pope, Eugene IV, was forced by a mob to flee. He took his court to Florence, where he stayed for nearly a decade. Thus Alberti, at the age of thirty, finally came to live in the ancestral city of the Albertis. His command of the local dialect was at first unsteady but he mastered it and soon became an advocate of the vernacular in the quarrel that pitted it against Latin. He organized a public contest in vernacular poetry and wrote the first grammar of Tuscan, the language that has become modern Italian.

The years in Florence, 1434–1443, were a period of what we would now call the formation of Alberti’s identity. He had written a treatise on the Florentine family just before leaving Rome and had hoped it would win him the approval of his relatives. It did not, and after the initial disappointment he sought solace in the formation of a unique individuality, independent of family ties. He wrote an autobiographical sketch, unsigned as though written by an admirer. In it he appears as a man of great athletic prowess, who could dance, race, play ball, ride unbroken horses, throw the javelin, shoot arrows through armor, jump as high as a man’s head, pitch apples over the cathedral roof and coins that rang on the vaults. He sang and played the organ, wrote poetry and “dinner pieces,” short dialogues in the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian. He could foresee the future, look through men’s souls with a glance, stand extremes of heat or cold, and deliver himself of pithy sayings like the Greek philosopher Thales. Gems, flowers, and beautiful landscapes restored his spirit, but the sight of boughs weighed down by autumn fruit always made him ask himself what fruit he had produced for the family of man.

This anonymous life was published in 1843 and attracted the attention of Jacob Burckhardt, the great Basel historian of the Renaissance. He used it as the core of a chapter on the development of the individual in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860. There Alberti’s picture of himself is transmitted in all its undiminished glory, not because Burckhardt was incapable of skepticism, but because Alberti’s genius served as the foil for what came afterward: “And Leonardo da Vinci was to Alberti as the finisher to the beginner, as the master to the dilettante….”1

Grafton is deeply interested in historiography, which is one of the things that makes his book different from any of the books on Alberti that preceded it. He has not only read Burckhardt but plowed through his notes in the archives and reconstructed the context in which he wrote. His opening chapter, “Who was Alberti?,” which looks at first as if it’s going to be the usual biographical sketch, is meant to be read as, “Who has Alberti been thought to have been?” In it he sketches the universal man of early-twentieth-century historians, but also the ironic, skeptical satirist rediscovered by recent scholarship.

In postwar Italy the literary historian Eugenio Garin described an authority-hating Alberti drenched in cynic philosophy and trapped in a world of dissimulation. This Alberti seemed a perfect match for the malaise of Italy’s “years of lead”: he was seen as the skeptical philosopher, the reviver of Lucian’s irony, the anticlerical cleric, the man of the permanently unhealed wound. Garin’s scholarship formed the basis of the work of the late Manfredo Tafuri, a Marxist architectural historian who tried to uproot the age-old picture of Alberti as the man who inspired Pope Nicholas V in his plans to restore Rome. For Tafuri, a veteran of the barricades of ‘68, it was no longer possible to see Alberti as a collaborator with the established order.

  1. 1

    Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Harper and Row, 1958), Vol. 1, p. 150.

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