The Lion of Florence

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 …

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