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Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti was known as the Father of Modern Architecture. As an Italian humanist, architect and principal initiator of Renaissance art theory, Alberti was a multi-faceted personality with a kaleidoscope of talent and knowledge, being known as the prototype of the Renaissance ‘universal man’. Combining in perfect proportions and details, Alberti designed the Palazzo Rucellai on all three floors with the architecture of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars. Versatile in both the Latin and Italian languages, Alberti scripted and wrote many love poems, fables, Latin comedy and dialogues. Alberti with an innate sense of technicalities wrote treatises on sculpture, agriculture, law and a host of technical subjects. He also wrote a ten book treatise on the detailed technical nature of how a city should be structured. Alberti went into minute details of how the water should be properly channeled, how work sites should be constructed, the types of materials to be used and the different kinds of buildings that should be positioned in suitable and ideal locations. As a man with the spirit of the Renaissance embedded in his work and ideals, Leon Battista Alberti as one of the greatest architects, contributed unique ideas and exceptional knowledge to the development of architectural styles to the Renaissance period.

On Painting

Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti was the perfect ideal man and artist of the Renaissance period. Multi talented and versatile, Alberti was an Italian architect, art theorist, writer, linguist, cryptographer, musician, architect, and general Renaissance polymath. His theoritic works underlined a guide for future architects and artists besides enhancing and promoting arts, literature, philosophy, painting and sculpture. His writing on painting and sculpture (1436) were pioneering works revealing treatment and technique giving it significance and substance.

The Man

Leon Battista Alberti was a multi-faceted personality whose achievements reflected almost every walk of life. He was one of the sons of a Florentine merchant, Lorenzo Alberti and a Bolognese mother, Bianca Fieschi. Alberti was born in Genoa on 18th February in the year 1404, but the family had been exiled by the republican government. Alberti was introduced to architecture when the family was allowed back in Florence in 1428.

Alberti’s was fascinated with the study of architecture and art. Though he never went through a formal architectural education, his ideas in this field were self-motivated with research and an all-consuming interest. Alberti studied at Padua receiving the best education and then went on to study law at the University of Bologna. He went on a tour of Europe when he was in his mid-twenties but was beset by an illness which induced a partial loss of memory. When he recovered, he channeled his talents into the fields of art and science, being supported by his uncles after the death of his father.

The Maestro

As the ‘universal man’, Alberti was called the ‘prophet’ of the new grand style in art, being influenced by Leonardo Da Vinci, the author of the Renaissance. Alberti’s talents have revealed him as a humanist, antiquarian, mathematician and an art theorist. Alberti wrote ‘On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Letters’ which he dedicated to Carlo, his brother, who was a scholar. Receiving a doctorate in Canon law, Alberti traveled to Rome during the 1430s, where he drafted papal briefs at the Papal curia. Mastering the Latin and Italian languages, Alberti rewrote the traditional lives of martyrs and saints in Latin. On taking the Holy Order, Alberti held the Priorate of San Martino a Gangalandi at Lastra a Signa after which he was appointed the rector of the parish of San Lorenzo in Mugello. Alberti was appointed as the papal inspector of monuments from 1447 to 1455, and was involved in major building projects in Rome. Alberti wrote a Latin comedy which was adapted into an antique Roman play ‘Philodoxeos’. He also loved the classics and was a prolific reader. His other early works were ‘Amator’ (1429), ‘Ecatonfilea’ (1429), and ‘Deiphira’ (1429), which showcased love, virtues, and failed relationships.

The Masterpiece

When Pope Eugenius IV was driven away from the Holy City, Alberti accompanied him. Alberti was ordained as the Canon of the Florentine Cathedral. Alberti admired the dome which was the largest in the world, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. As a comprehensive interpretation of art, science and technology and the spiritual symbol of the Florentine Rinascita, the dome was quoted by Alberti as a piece of architecture which would be huge enough to cover all the Tuscan people with its shadow. Alberti was commissioned to re-structure the Gothic church of Saint Francesco, Rimini, which was known as the Tempio Malatestiano as a memorial to the warlord Sigismondo Malatesta and his court. Alberti coordinated with his assistants and completed the dominating classical triumphal arch but the façade was left incomplete. But the only buildings designed by Alberti were, S. Sebastino (1460) and S. Andrea (1470) whose triumphal arches were declared to be more magnificent than that of the Tempio Malatestiano. His greatest achievement is the facade of Santa Maria Novella (1458-71) which displays a clear statement of his new principles. Alberti’s wrote ‘De pictura’ (1435) which was the first version of ‘On Painting’ in Latin. He translated the same into Italian called ‘Della pittura’ (1436), which was dedicated to Filippo Brunelleschi who was famous for his formulation of the laws of linear perspective, Alberti de-coded the basic geometry into a simpler formulation which could easily be understood mathematically which was imperative to the design and creation of pictorial space as the basis of Renaissance art.

The Magnificence

As an artist, Alberti derived his concepts from nature and declared that the final aim of the artist is not only to imitate nature but to adhere to its form and harmonize all the facets into a complete aesthetic rendition. Alberti’s also wrote a treatise ‘I Libri della famiglia’ in Tuscan, where he stressed on the importance of education, marriage, household management and money. Alberti wrote, ‘Momus’ between 1443 and 1450, as a misogynist comedy on the Olympian gods. As one of Alberti’s passion for architecture was disclosed in his book, De re aedificatoria (1452), or the Ten Books on architecture which was a guide book based on ‘De architecture’ by the Roman Architect and engineer Vitruvius as the first architectural treatise on architecture of the Renaissance. With dreams of re-building Rome, Alberti dedicated the book to Pope Nicholas V, but managed to spread only his theories and ideals to Italy about the Florentine Renaissance. Alberti wrote a treatise on cryptography, ‘De componendis cifris’ and the first Italian grammar. He also wrote a small book on geography in Latin, ‘Descriptio urbis Romae’ (The panorama of the city of Rome). He also completed ‘De ichiarchia’ (On Ruling the Household) just before he died.

The Magic

Alberti was an innate artist and craftsman with an extraordinary equation with the royal families. He was a celebrated guest at the Este court in Ferrara and in Urbino with the soldier-prince, Federigo da Montfeltro who was a patron of the arts. Alberti dedicated his treatise on architecture to him. Alberti designed many buildings for the Rucellai family in Florence including the facade of the palazzo Rucellai, the façade of S. Maria Novella, the marble-clad shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Capella Rucellai. Alberti loved austere and puritan churches of the early centuries preferring the interiors in white. He was also commissioned by the Marquis of Ludovico Gonzaga to design the tribune of SS Annunziata. He gave architecture a language endowing it with a classical culture. Despite many criticisms of his work and his theories, Alberti was a humane person. He loved animals and had a pet mongrel for which he wrote a panegyric, ‘Canis’ (1441-1442). Johann Gutenberg, in 1457, discovered a very ingenious method of printing books. Alberti invented a way of tracing natural perspectives with the effect of diminution of figures and another method where he could reproduce small objects on a large scale which enhanced the facets of art.

The Mystery

Leon Battista Alberti was an important figure during the Renaissance. He was an elaborator of mathematical perspective and theoretician of art being a craftsman and an intellectual. He died on April 25th, 1472, in Rome leaving a legacy of books which revealed a scientific basis to works of art and equated it to works of literature and philosophy. His intellect was of high order which placed him above superior men of learning. Alberti was the author of ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a fascinating fantasy with typographic qualities and illustrations which is legendary and memorable. His musical abilities were phenomenal being a reputed organist. Alberti also designed the restoration of the papal palace and the restoration of the Roman aqueduct of acqua Vergine. In his book on architecture, Alberti explained new methods of fortification. Alberti was accomplished in cryptography and invented both the poly alphabetic ciphers and machine-assisted encryption using his cipher disk as a notable advancement in cryptography before the time of Julius Caesar. David Kahn, the cryptography historian, has given him the title of the “Father of Cryptography”, besides attributing Alberti as an inventor of, “The earliest Western exposition of cryptanalysis, the invention of polyalphabetic substitution, and the invention of enciphered code”.

Leon Battista Alberti was more than a prodigy who was capable of standing with his feet together and springing over a man’s head. Florence called him a, ‘monstrously perfect man’, who was handsome and strong. Alberti was adept at all bodily exercises. He could throw a coin so far as to ring against the vault. His favorite amusements were to tame wild horses and climb mountains. Accomplished with a mystic talent, Alberti could sing beautifully besides performing in a versatile manner on the organ. He was an entrancing conversationalist, an eloquent orator, alert with sober intelligence, refinement and courtesy. Leon Battista Alberti is compared to Leonardo da Vinci as a master with skills in mathematics, mechanics, architecture, sculpture, painting music, poetry, drama, philosophy, civil and common law besides drawing maps and as a cartographer adept at astronomy.

In summing up the life history of Alberti, his quote describes his appreciation of life, the celebration of all that is on earth and within ourselves, "When I investigate and when I discover that the forces of the heavens and the planets are within ourselves then truly I seem to be living among the gods".