The First Universal Man

Jules Lubbock

  • Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance by Anthony Grafton
    Allen Lane, 432 pp, £9.99, January 2002, ISBN 0 14 029169 5
  • The Discovery of Pictorial Composition: Theories of Visual Order in Painting, 1400-1800 by Thomas Puttfarken
    Yale, 332 pp, £30.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 300 08156 1

Giovanni Pisano and Giotto are widely recognised as the founders of Renaissance sculpture and painting, and Brunelleschi of Renaissance architecture, but it was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) who established the theoretical framework within which those arts have since been practised. He interpreted them in two great books, De Pictura (‘On Painting’) of 1435 and De Re Aedificatoria (‘On Building’), completed around 1460. The received wisdom is that Alberti handed down our notions of pictorial composition, of the imitation of nature, and of how to portray narrative; that he provided the first written account of single-point perspective; and that he defined the architectural ideal of the well-ordered city, arranged in a hierarchy of buildings rising from modest houses to beautiful churches set on magnificent piazzas. All theory of art is said to be a footnote to Alberti, just as all philosophy is said to be a footnote to Plato.

Anthony Grafton admits that he comes to Alberti not as an art historian but as an outsider. On the other hand, outsiders can revitalise a subject withered by odium academicum, and Grafton has achieved this in the first intellectual biography of Alberti to present him as a rounded character – a hard task given the poverty of biographical information. Grafton has used his philological skills to reconstruct Alberti’s life ‘from fragments of evidence, assembled with the eye-straining attention to detail and painfully held breath of a watchmaker’.

It’s the details that bring the story to life. Most books on Alberti tell us that he was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Florentine exile, Lorenzo Alberti. But to learn that in 1408, on the occasion of Lorenzo’s marriage in Genoa, the authorities shut the shops for three days to provide a suitably splendid setting for the festivities, is to appreciate just how wealthy and powerful the Alberti family remained even after decades of exile. They were Renaissance billionaires – hence Leon Battista’s anguish at being deprived of his legacy on his father’s death in 1421. Nonetheless, he had the best education money could buy, first under the leading humanist schoolteacher Gasparino Barzizza between 1416 and 1418 in Padua, where he became familiar with Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, painted a century earlier; many of his ideas about painting were formed in front of them. With Barzizza the young Alberti became adept not merely in reading classical literature but in imitating it so successfully that his early play, Philodoxeos Fabula, was widely credited as a work of antiquity. Grafton shows how he also learned to incorporate classical references seamlessly into his own writings, often adapted so as to change the emphasis of the original.

Alberti next took a doctorate in law at the University of Bologna, but decided against practising as a lawyer because he despised ‘their deceitfulness, their perfidy, their bearing of false witness, their falsifications of contracts and wills’ – a reference, no doubt, to the lawyers’ role in his disinheritance. He had also suffered a nervous breakdown from overwork, and begun to write. He remained a neurotic, however, a depressive and insomniac, conditions he alleviated by painting, by an obsession with intellectual and mathematical puzzles, and by becoming even more of a workaholic in fields more to his fancy than the law. Like many with unstable personalities, he was obsessed with finding a balance between extremes, and order and moderation were paramount in his ideas about the visual arts. Through his humanist network he obtained several lifelong posts and benefices, including membership of the Papal civil service, which provided him with ample leisure and financial security for his chosen career, initially as a humanist writer and subsequently as a theoretician of the visual arts, practising artist and architect, town planner, archaeologist and engineer; in short, the first universal man, epitomised by Burckhardt as the forerunner of Leonardo da Vinci.

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