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
Leon Battista Alberti; drawing by David Levine

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…

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