Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance
Hill and Wang
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WHO WAS LEON BATTISTA ALBERTI?
MAKING AN IDENTITY IN THE 1430S
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A stage, in a fifteenth-century Italian city square. Behind the proscenium, drops and wings depict the stone facades and tile roofs of houses, severe and classical. Some of the roofs extend over covered terraces, and some of the ground floors have loggias opening to the street. Other houses are completely enclosed by rusticated stone. Before one of them, a stone gatepost, worn down by centuries of rain, supports a statue of Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. On one side, a path leads to an inn. On the other, steps run down to a small square, where a sign bearing a Latin motto in golden capital letters appears before an impressive villa. Ancient Rome has temporarily come back to life.
Male actors make their entrances, some dressed as men, others as young women. Some wear the fine fabrics that proclaim high social standing, others are clearly slaves or servants. Standing and conversing in a formal, self-consciously dignified way, they speak neither the Italian they would use in daily life nor the modern, functional Latin of the medieval church and university, but rather the ancient Latin of Roman comedy, a language the playwright has had to reconstruct for them. They act out a complex, somewhat cumbersome storythe tale of how young Philodoxus ("the lover of glory") seeks to win the hand of a young woman, Doxia ("glory"), with the help of his slave Phroneus ("the intellect"). Another young man, Fortunius ("fortune"), the adoptive son of Tychia, also seeks to win Doxia, by force. Not finding her, he takes her sister Phimia ("fame"). Still other characters appear, and the action takes a number of twists. Finally Chronos ("time"), the father of Alithia ("truth"), arranges for Philodoxus and Doxia to marry.
The play's plot, as this summary suggests, is an allegory, a creaky clockwork device designed to produce the right moral at the right time. The characters, as their names proclaim, do not embody individual personalities but personify abstract qualities. They spend more time declaiming than conversing. Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote the first version of this script at the age of twenty, confessed as much in a commentary: "This play has to do with conduct: for it teaches that a man dedicated to study and hard work can attain glory, just as well as a rich and fortunate man."
For all its moralism, Alberti's play had some strikingly fresh qualities: above all, its rich and consistently classical style. Though other Renaissance scholars had previously tried to compose plays in the manner and idiom of the Roman comic poets Plautus and Terence, none had anticipated Alberti's effort to place the action of a play before a unified classical setting. Some of the scenes that Alberti's abstract characters played out, moreover, attacked vital literary and moral problems. Doxia, the love interest, naturally is beautiful; early in the play, the slave Potentio describes her to Philodoxus's rival, Fortunius, in a set piece, a fragile, elegant construction of contrasting clauses that deftly balances panegyrical terms and their moral implications, setting beauty against character, and the open display of beauty against the carefully preserved modesty that paradoxically revealed a woman's good character:
Fort: Is she beautiful?
Pot: She is so beautiful, and so good, that nothing could be added to her, and nothing more could be wishedso much so, indeed, that I think her either more beautiful than Venus, or very like her. Her head is fine, her face lovely, her appearance gay, her walk modest: she holds herself and moves exactly as an honorable matron and a Roman citizen should.
Beauty and decoruma young woman's physical grace and charm and the stern discipline that could prevent these qualities from causing bad behavior in menpreoccupied the young author as well as his characters.
In the first version of Alberti's play, when Philodoxus describes the effect that Doxia has on him, his eloquence carries him to the point of clever eroticism. Imagining himself as a statue holding a light for her at night, admiring her "as you stand there, without law or fantasy, in your robe and your hair," he bursts out, "O gods, I wish I could be your lyre, and while you played me, I would produce pleasant, harmonious, sweet notes.... O gods, how happy this would make me." This fantasy disappeared from Alberti's second draft: in the course of revision, as in the speech itself, self. discipline celebrated a hard triumph over desire.
Alberti's experiments in dialogue embraced not only the emotions of the inexperienced, handsome young but also the hard-nosed, wised-up talk of older men and women. When Phrontisis ("thought") confronts the maid Mnimia ("memory"), for example, she tells the whole sad story of her unhappy marriage, admitting her own guilt for its failure:
Mni: Ah, me. So the fates have decided, so must it be for us. The gods command, so we must wish to have it so.
Phron: Why are you standing there? Why don't we go home?
Mni: Alas! I am remembering a great many things, some of which I wish were different, others I prefer and wish to be as they are.
Phron: That's the human condition: to wish and not to wish. Wise men know how to wish and not to wish for something at the right time. Not to want the things you must want, or to want the things you can't have, is for those who only believe in and desire things for themselves. Criminals always give off a certain smell, that of their crime. It accompanies them everywhere, revealing itself, and bringing the proper penalty in its wake. This will not go unavenged.
Mni: I expect it will be as you think. But I also rebuke myself for my own madness, for disagreeing with my husband, with whom I quarreled three years ago at Athens. I refused to give him the gold signet rings that he had deposited with me for safekeeping. I did what we foolish women usually do, especially if we are also pretty: I wanted him to beg for them. The next day he left. Now your name has brought him back to mind. If I had not done this, I would be living a pleasant and rather lavish life, and would not have gone wrong, as I continue to do.
In one speech, Mnimia has managed to range across several urgent contemporary topics: marriage, property relations, the physical beauty of women, and their inborn moral defects. In one burst, from the sharp tongue of a single female character, a fascinating mixture of acute social observation and conventional misogyny emerges. Her biting wit etches sharp sketches of the grasping bourgeoisie of the Italian cities: "Greedy men are especially bold when they deal with spinsters and widows."
Like the turn-of-the-twentieth-century playwright Alfred Jarry, whose schoolboy farce about his lycée science teacher became a lifelong obsession and turned into Ubu Roi, Alberti laid out in this youthful comedy themes and issues that would occupy him for the rest of his life: beauty and property, ancient settings and modern families, the visual world and how to represent it with lines and colors, the social world and how to analyze it in words. Like Jarry, Alberti found inspiration for a lifetime of artistic and literary experiments in his early experienceswhich included breathtaking encounters with radical new forms of art as well as chastening confrontations with philistines. Like Jarry, finally, Alberti amazed and enthralled his contemporaries by bringing together images and ideas, levels of expression and artistic motifs, that had previously existed separately. The inexperienced playwright would soon become a creator of the fifteenth-century avant-garde. Who was he?
In a literal sense, the question seems surprisingly easy to answer. A fair number of historical documents attest to Alberti's central accomplishments as a scholar, writer, and architect, while others identify the brilliant company that he kept. Alberti, they tell us, was born in Genoa in 1404, one of two illegitimate sons of a Florentine merchant, Lorenzo Alberti. The Albertilike many other great clans that fared badly in the dangerous, loser-take-nothing game of Italian city politicshad been exiled from their native city by the rulers of its republican government, the Albizzi family and their allies.
Still prosperous, the Alberti possessed a large-scale business, which they ran as a family partnership. Branch offices served as the nodes of a trading network that stretched as far west as France and England and as far east as the Greek islands and the remains of the Byzantine empire. Though Leon Battista and his brother Carlo were bastards, their father treated them as his own and educated them very well. Leon Battista studied the Latin classics, and possibly some Greek ones, at the famous school of Gasparino Barzizza in Padua, which he attended from around 1416 to 1418. Like a great many other ambitious young men, he then studied law at the ancient University of Bologna. He seemed on the way to a successful career, perhaps as a judge or a professor of law. But his father's death, which took place after his first year as a student, deprived him of protection and financial support. Soon afterward his health gave way under the pressure of academic work. He diverted himself by turning to the study of nature and the visual artsfields that would fascinate and preoccupy him throughout his life. He also began, slowly, to writemostly, at first, formal pieces of literature in the most classical Latin he could compose.
Early in the 1430s, Leon Battista joined the first of many courts. He took a job at the papal curia (the administrative offices of the papacy), where he served as an abbreviator and put his stylistic skills at the service of influential members of the higher clergy. He began to write in Italian as well as Latin, and his dialogues in both languages began to find readers. Church beneficesecclesiastical offices with income from an estategave him some independence. (The first and crucial one was the priory of San in Gangalandi, a Gothic church on a small hill overlooking a town Florence.) At some point after 1428, when the Florentine government lifted the ban on the Alberti family, Leon Battista entered the city of his ancestors for the first time. In the mid-1430s, he moved to Florence with Eugenius IV, who had been driven out of Rome by popular demonstrations. Soon he became a canon of the Florentine Cathedral; his career would remain entwined with the history of the city from then on.
Between 1435 and 1452, Alberti's creative energies exploded in an astonishing number of directions. He wrote and rewrote brilliant, original treatises on the practices of Florentine painters and the lives of the great Florentine clans. He organized a public poetry contest (which flopped prominently), experimented with the possibilities of Italian prose and verse, and performed a brilliant analysis of the history and structure of the Tuscan dialect. In Rome and elsewhere, he made himself one of Italy's three leading experts on the remains of ancient art and architecture, collecting every passage from a classical text that bore on ancient buildings and statues and turning over the rubble of every site he could reach. By the middle of the fifteenth century, he had set out to write the most ambitious of all his books: the first modern manual of classical architecture, a work designed to rival, and if possible displace, the standard ancient work by Vitruvius on building and city planning. To be sure, the greed of his fellow Florentines soon alienated him, and this feeling was confirmed and deepened by the harsh criticism with which they greeted many of his attempts at innovation. Still, his ambitious writings on these vital, very current topics won him attention from fellow scholars, patrons of the arts, and some artists in central and northern Italy.
Alberti's career coincided with a transformation of the Italian urban world. The mercenary captains and adroit diplomats who ruled small independent cities like Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino came to see cultural patronage as essential, not only to express their own interests and tastes but also to assert their status and legitimacy, which they had not inherited. So, eventually, did a series of popes who thought spectacular buildings and fine art could preserve the faith of the ordinary Christian in the Catholic Church. And so, on the grandest scale of all, did the Medicithe family that came to dominate Florence after Cosimo de' Medici returned from a brief political exile, early in the 1430s. At midcentury, several Italian courts supported new forms of art and architecture. The learning, fearlessness, and social adroitness that enabled Leon Battista to offer advice on many subjects without seeming arrogant or servile made him a valued adviser at these courts, an erudite consultant on aesthetic questions, with impeccable taste.
Soon he also established himself as a designer of major projects in his own right, one who directed architects and builders. His services were valued highly by brilliant, brutal soldier-princes like the Este of Ferrara, Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini, and Federigo da Montefeltro of Urbino. He probably advised Pope Eugenius IV and his successor, Nicholas V, on the restoration of the city of Rome. Later he certainly did the same for the most learned of all fifteenth-century popes, Plus II. Mantuan legend identifies Alberti with an older man who whispers in the ear of the city's ruler, Ludovico Gonzaga, in one of Mantegna's great frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi. Whether or not the story is true, he certainly became a habitué of splendid courts in Mantua and elsewhere, where leggy and disdainful young men attended the greats of state and church at the banquet table and the battlefield.
Florentine cultural patronage had traditionally been ambitious and lavish and public. But under the Medici family, who ruled the city from 1434 onward, values and patterns of cultural consumption shifted. Both the city's rulers and those who supported their regime came to value splendid displays, great buildings, and breathtaking partiesthe common change of court life in the periodmore than the older Florentine practice of concealing wealth to avoid public suspicion and higher taxes. By contrast, the Medici and their friends prized, and enjoyed exercising, the Aristotelian virtue of "magnificence." Classical architecture was soon identified as a primary way to practice this virtue. Eventually Alberti found a friend as well as a patron in the person of the great builder Giovanni Rucellai. In Florence as in Rimini and Ferrara, Alberti's tastes and his vision of the ancient world found widespread favor.
Between the middle of the century and his death in 1472, Alberti lived in a fairly regular orbit that took him from Florence to his favorite courtslike that of Urbino, where he often spent part of the hot-weather season with his friend, the learned soldier-prince Federigo da Montefeltro. He designed, or helped to design, some of the most original and influential buildings of the fifteenth century: the Malatesta Temple in Rimini, Santa Maria Novella and the Rucellai Palace in Florence, Sant'Andrea in Mantua, and others. At the same time, he composed a full-scale treatise on architecture, On the Art of Building, and continued to write shorter works in many fields, from sculpture through moral philosophy to cryptography. He died a celebrity, renowned for his originality and versatility, which had won him many powerful friends and patrons. His books survived him, doing much to spread the taste for a classical style to Northern Europe and to form a language in which Italians and northerners alike could discuss works of art critically. No wonder that highly influential Florentine writers like Cristoforo Landino and Angelo Poliziano heaped up phosphorescent metaphors when they praised his intellect and his erudition.
Yet if Alberti's vital statistics are easily gathered and presented, his achievementsand many vitally important minor details of his workremain controversial. What accounted for his ability to achieve so much in so many fields? Did any common themes and methods connect his work as a writer to his practical efforts as artist and builder? More than a century ago, the Basel historian Jacob Burckhardt proposed what remains the most influential single answer to this question. Burckhardt's dazzling study, The Civilization of the Renaisance in Italy: An Essay, called the modern study of the Renaissance into existence, and his deeply sympathetic portrait of Alberti has shaped much subsequent research, even though scholars' knowledge of Alberti's life, work, and context has since changed beyond recognition. Until recently, most of the new materials about Alberti that scholars have discovered in the last century have been forced into the mold that Burckhardt crafted.
With unforgettable brilliance and pathos, Burckhardt depicted Alberti as ideal combination of intellectual and athlete, the perfect example of the "universal man." He could ride the wildest horses and jump from a standing start over the head of a man standing next to him. When Alberti's memory failed him after an illness, he turned to the study of nature and natural philosophy. He invented practical devices, like the cipher used at the papal curia; he devised a magnificent "show box," in which he created spectacularly effective renderings of sky and landscape; he wrote in every literary genre and in both Italian and Latin; and he practiced all the fine arts. He had a gift for cultivating friendships with men of radically different kinds, from pious monks to humanist pornographers.
Alberti, in short, mastered all the traditional arts of the medieval courtier and all the new ones of the Renaissance intellectual. At the same time, he made the presentation of self in everyday life into a new art of its own, Alberti, as Burckhardt emphasized, trained himself systematically to walk, ride, and converse in attractive waysand never to reveal the effort that had gone into doing so. He thus adumbrated the courtier's steely, subtle discipline of self-cultivation, the elegant, sometimes deadly performance art that Baldassare Castiglione would describe definitively in his Book of the Courtier, long after Alberti's death. Yet all this severe self-discipline did not dull the keen edge of Alberti's sensibility. On the contrary, he responded emotionally to every setting. He loved the countryside, even though spring flowers and fall fruits filled him with melancholy, making him feel unproductive, and he delighted in the sight of virtuous old men. In short, he expressed a new creative ideal in his everyday life as well as in his treatisesthe first modern oneson painting, architecture, and society. His easy "inner contact" with the world even enabled him, Burckhardt claimed, to predict the future. He foresaw a terrible crisis that faced the Este in Ferrara, foretold the troubled future of Florence and Rome for years to come, and read the characters of his acquaintances from their physiognomies. A unique force of will united all of these qualities. Alberti believed that men could do anything, "if they only have the will to do so."
For Burckhardt, moreover, Alberti's overriding desire for fameand the discipline and passion with which he developed every talent he had to win itstemmed directly from the environment he inhabited, and to which he had to adapt himself. In Renaissance Italy, as tyrants without inherited claims to their thrones took power in state after state, achieving and maintaining political and social standing became infinitely difficult. Only talent, not high birth, could enable an artist to win the ear and favor of one of the soldier-kings, whose trademark was the brutal rapidity with which they could shed blood in a crisis. Danger promoted deftness: walking a tightrope over the shark-pool of such courts forced men to develop every sense and every strength they had. Alberti, who cultivated arms and letters together, was the quintessential product of his age. Even his iron will depended for its existence on conditions that affected all his fellow citizensconditions that produced, after Alberti's death, a second "universal man," who was to Alberti as the virtuoso to the dilettante: Leonardo da Vinci.
Burckhardt's beautiful profile of Alberti stamps itself on the memory of every reader and has continued to inspire studies of Alberti. Girolamo Mancini, the erudite Italian scholar whose expert research in archival documents and literary texts turned up most of what is known today about the details of Alberti's life, wanted to show how Alberti's achievements in many fields precisely fitted the needs of his time. In the 1960s, a pioneering social and cultural historian, Joan Gadol, took Burckhardt as the inspiration for her effort to draw connections among all areas of Alberti's work and thought. Tireless in her pursuit of substantive links between Alberti's scholarship and his scientific work, Gadol shirked no difficulty, textual or intellectual, and broke much new ground, especially in her exploration of Alberti's work on perspective and practical arithmetic. Like Mancini's detailed, informative biography, Gadol's rich study, Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early Renaissance, remains a standard work, one inspired by the belief that Alberti's diverse achievements formed a coherent response to the world he knew. So does the erudite book in which the French scholar Paul-Henri Michel tried to find the unity in Alberti's varied pursuitsthough he noted the persistence of medieval elements in many areas of Alberti's thought, an idea that would be pursued by many later scholars as well.
Gadol's work, however, was unusual for its time, In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, historical scholarship became increasingly specialized, even fragmented. Art history, Renaissance intellectual history, and the history of Italian literature (among other fields) established themselves as independent disciplines, each with its own methods, standards, and burgeoning scholarly literature. German scholars, attracted by unexplored archives as well as the lively streetcorner society outdoors, flooded into Italy. Italians responded to national unification and the challenge of the German empire by declaring the production of solid, document-based history to be a fundamental patriotic duty. By the turn of the century, adventurous Americans and Britons were also taking an active part in research. After World War II, Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians joined them.
The various facets of Alberti's life and work attracted the attention of specialists in each field. But few scholars could muster all the skills needed to address the full dazzling range of his pursuits. Monographs multipliedbut as they did, the possibility of achieving a synthesis became more and more elusive. The new specialized scholarship gave Alberti an enhancedeven a dramaticrole in central areas of Renaissance culture. From the 1920s onward, the great German art historian Erwin Panofsky studied perspective, a complex tradition belonging to both art and science and based on geometry and optics, one form of which enabled painters and sculptors in the early fifteenth century, for the first time, to create a convincing illusion of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional painting or a low relief. Alberti's achievementwhich was not to invent this crucial form of applied geometry, but to give its principles coherent written form for the first timeloomed large, even central, in the story of the Renaissance. The humanistic scholars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Panofsky argued, showed their contemporaries how to see the ancient world from a fixed point in timetheir own. They grasped, for the first time, the full chronological distance that stretched, the great social and political changes that had taken place, between the time of Cicero and Virgil and their own day. Alberti showed them how to see the visual world in a similar way: from a fixed viewpoint, and in logically coherent terms. The space of Renaissance paintingand indeed of Renaissance sciencereflected the same cultural origins as the time of humanistic scholarship. It was Albertian space, subject to a rigorous geometry, as historical time was subject to a rigorous philology. Alberti stood revealed as one of the creators of the modern world.
Rudolf Wittkower, another of the eminent German art historians whose emigration to England and the United States transformed the humanities in so many vital ways, advanced a similar thesis about Alberti and architecture. Alberti, he argued, devised a visual language for modern architecture in the classical stylea lexicon of ancient forms, like the triumphal arch and the dome, whose proportions and shapes were determined by rigorous mathematical ratios like those that underlay musical harmony. This system, as developed in Alberti's own practice and perfected by later architects like Andrea Palladio and Sebastiano Serlio, yielded churches and palaces of a new kindan architecture as radically new as Albertian perspective. A third great German scholar, Richard Krautheimer, ranged across Alberti's world and the disciplines he practiced, shedding light on everything he touched, from Alberti's texts to the Florentine and Roman contexts in which he composed them.
These detailed studies and the dozens of others they inspired did more, over time, than make individual aspects of Alberti's life and work appear with greater clarity. They also gave rise to disagreements, some of them radical. In the first place, they made it harder and harder to see all of Alberti's activities as fitting together in a coherent way. Julius von Schlosser, a prolific and influential Viennese art historian of the first part of the twentieth century, took a deep and passionate interest in the formal treatises and commentaries devoted to the visual arts by scholars and philosophers in antiquity and afterward. He collected the texts and wrote what remains, in updated form, the standard survey of themthe magnificent, indispensable The Literature of Art.
Alberti, the pioneering author of On Painting, On Sculpture, and On the Art of Building, naturally received a prominent place in Schlosser's cast of characters. The historian and critic emphatically praised Alberti, not only for his ambition and learning but also for his practical mastery of the arts, which enbled him to formulate central problems of creativity in ways that remained provocative for centuries. Yet as Schlosser continued to work on Alberti and the arts, as he tried to embrace not only Alberti's writings but his buildings as well, in a synthetic treatment, he found himself unable any longer to discern the unity that had so impressed Burckhardt. For Schlosser, finally, Alberti was not a "universal man" but an intellectual dilettante. In trying not only to write but to cultivate all the arts and sciences, he revealedas most, if not all, critics would havehis own catastrophic lack of artistic talent. The temple he built for the Malatesta in Rimini was "a masquerade"; his Church of Sant'Andrea in Mantua amounted to "a purely decorative form, almost like a stage setting."
Schlosser conceded that Alberti's treatises were informative and historically important. But he dismissed his architectural work as pedantic and incoherent, and he insisted that Alberti himself played no active role in the history of the arts. Alberti had been an overambitious scholar, whose work rewarded the art historian not with a hidden unity but with problems of comprehension.
In recent years, monographic work on all these aspects of Alberti's workand othershas multiplied. Scholars have studied and edited many of Alberti's texts, though to this day, few of them are available in critical editions, and two ongoing projects to produce editions of his complete works will not reach completion for some time to come. But this painstaking, indispensable work has yielded neither clarity nor consensus. Some estimable scholars firmly believe that Alberti knew and worked with practicing artists; others argue that he remained essentially a theorist, aloof from the world of practice (which, in turn, remained largely aloof from him). Some hold that Alberti's treatises had a powerful impact on painters and sculptors, while others argue that it had little or none. Some ascribe a great many buildings to Alberti or to architects working in consultation with him; others maintain that no surviving building reflects his concrete activity as planner and builder.
One schoolnowadays the dominant onehas found a dark, mysterious world of irony and self-torment under the smooth classical surface of Alberti's built and written work, especially in his satire on court life, the Momus, and his short dialogues, the Dinner Pieces. These scholars' investigations have revealed stress fractures cutting jaggedly across the smooth bright self that Burckhardt ascribed to Alberti. In the past, many historians saw Alberti as an optimistic urbanist and architect who eagerly worked with Pope Nicholas V to redesign Rome as a magnificent ideal city. But, as Eugenio Garin, the leading Italian historian of Renaissance thought, and Manfredo Tafuri, a brilliant, contentious specialist on architectural history, point out, Alberti devoted the Momus to a scarifying satire on all such grandiose plans. Alberti, long seen as a deft and willing courtier, turns out to have harbored subversive, radical feelings against the very rulers he supposedly served.
Alberti, the optimist, was at times deeply pessimistic. The engineer who wrote about how to create great bridges and praised man's power to dominate and master nature also evoked, with a modern environmentalist's horror, the destruction wrought by man's demonic, excess energy on an innocent natural world. The warm-hearted idealist who held that any individual could accomplish any feat, however difficult, on his own, longed for the love and support that his own extended family, the Alberti, denied him. He gave expression to his mourning in magnificent prosewhen they refused to treat him as a legitimate member of the clan. The glorious summer of Burckhardt's Alberti was haunted by the perpetual winter of this newer Alberti's discontent.
(C) 2000 Anthony Grafton All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-8090-9752-4
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Recto: Temple Types: in Antis and Prostyle (Vitruvius, Book 3, Chapter 2, nos. 2, 3); Verso: Temple Types: Peripteral (Vitruvius, Book 3, Chapter 2, no. 5).
Villa Almerico (Villa Rotonda): From I quattro libri dell'architettura (book 2, page 19)
I quattro libri dell'architettura di Andrea Palladio. Ne'quale dopo un breue trattato de' cinque ordini (Book 2, page 19)
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