Alberti, Leon Battista (Writer)


(1404-1472) architect, writer

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe experienced an explosive growth of culture, philosophy, and science, which has come to be known as the renaissance. Although the Renaissance affected many countries, it had the greatest impact in Italy, where brilliant artists, writers, and thinkers lived and worked. Among these people was Leon Bat-tista Alberti.

Alberti was born in the Italian port city of Genoa, the illegitimate son of Lorenzo Alberti, a merchant from Florence who had been exiled from his native city. Lorenzo conducted a prosperous business that had interests throughout the Mediterranean world, and he ensured that Leon received an excellent education in the Latin classics and the law.

After his father’s death, Alberti took a position with the administration of the Vatican, while at the same time he began to explore writing. He became fascinated with language, history, music, art, and architecture, and his writings on these subjects began to attract an increasingly large number of readers. He wrote in both Latin and the vernacular Italian, so that both the well-educated and the layman could read his works. Soon, many powerful figures in various Italian city-states sought out Alberti for advice on artistic and literary subjects. He also began designing architectural projects of his own, though he had never received an education in architecture and was entirely self-taught in the field.

For the remainder of his life, Alberti continued writing, working on his architecture, and assisting the powerful men of Italy. He moved constantly from court to court and eventually died in Rome.

Alberti was a good architect, although his work would be surpassed by other Renaissance masters. He is better known for his literary work than for his architecture, and his writings had a tremendous influence on art and architecture long after his death.

Alberti’s writings are brilliant descriptions of the artistic and cultural world in which he lived, and they provide valuable insight into Renaissance Italy. He composed love poetry, biographies, Ciceronian dialogues, a satirical comedy about court life and philosophy titled Momus (ca. 1450), fables, and a 10-book survey of architecture. He also produced writings on family customs in Florence. One such work is his Della famiglia, a prose dialogue in four books in which he reveals discussions among three generations of his family regarding their social values and business ethics. Alberti wrote the piece to defend his family against its critics. His discussions of children’s education and marriage in books one and two of Della famiglia clearly show that Alberti was influenced by Aristotle and Xenophon. Book three concerns the Alberti family’s responsibility to earn, save, invest, and spend money, while book four concerns friendship.

Another classical influence on Alberti was Lu-cian, whose penchant for satire Alberti adopts in a collection of short dialogues titled Intercenales. This work is noteworthy for its having introduced a playful tone into serious Renaissance literature in Italy.

One of Alberti’s most crucial works was On Painting (1430s), in which he analyzes and explains the technical aspects of painting, paying particular attention to an artist’s perspective in creating realistic, three-dimensional images.

The most famous of Alberti’s treatises is On the Art of Building (1440s), in which he presents his thoughts and ideas concerning architecture. Alberti discusses everything from the architecture of ancient Rome to techniques for contemporary urban planning. Centuries after it was written, On the Art of Building remained the single most important reference work in the field of architecture.

Alberti had a tremendous influence on the artists and architects who came after him, including his friend Filippo Brunelleschi, perhaps the most influential architect of the Renaissance, and Leonardo da Vinci, who apparently studied Alberti’s works. His exploration of so many different interests and subjects marked him as a true Renaissance man.

English Versions of Works by Leon Battista Alberti

Momus. Translated by Sarah Knight and edited by Virginia Brown. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavenor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.

The Family in Renaissance Florence. Translated by Renee N. Watkins. Long Grove, 1ll.: Waveland Press, 1994.

Works about Leon Battista Alberti

Grafton, Anthony. Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. Tavernor, Robert. On Alberti and the Art of Building. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

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