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.

In recent years the dominant view of Alberti has been of a humanist, a virtuoso in the taxing art of writing Ciceronian Latin, who drew on rhetoric to devise an original theory of painting, on which no classical treatises had survived. Even his interests in perspective, painting, building and architectural proportion have been seen as more those of a scholar than of a practical man. But Grafton makes us see Alberti as an up-to-the-minute and active technologist (even at the end of his life he was fascinated by printing); so famous for it, in fact, that he was credited with the authorship of an anonymous treatise on bronze casting. Far from being sedentary, Alberti declared that he preferred patrolling the streets of cities and examining buildings to reading about them. He organised the first experiment in underwater archaeology, using complex lifting devices and diving suits to raise two Roman ships from the depths of Lake Nemi. He surveyed a map of Rome and made astronomical discoveries as well as producing his own system of perspective, painting his own pictures, casting his own portrait in bronze relief and designing buildings.

Thus, rereading On Painting, which was written in both an Italian and a Latin version, one should take more seriously his opening remarks on perspective: ‘I speak about these things not like a mathematician but as a painter.’ Similarly, when he asks: ‘And who, unless he has tried, would believe it to be so difficult to represent smiling faces using the veil, and to avoid their appearing more tearful than happy?’ He had tried, and indeed the veil was his invention: a rectangular frame covered in translucent linen (like most windows of the time) and subdivided into squares so as to assist the artist in drawing from life in correct perspective. I’m told it remains in use in the (compulsory) art classes in Italian secondary schools, where Alberti’s approach to painting remains the basis of practical art education.

Alberti, therefore, was emphatically a practising painter as well as a ‘completely equipped humanist’, the description given to him by Michael Baxandall thirty years ago in Giotto and the Orators, the book that has done most to establish the current view of Alberti. Grafton has contextualised him more fully, but there are also important differences in the way he and Baxandall interpret the balance between Alberti’s humanism and his interest in painting. For Baxandall, On Painting was primarily a textbook for the princely pupils at the humanist boarding school run by Vittorino da Feltre between 1423 and 1446 for the Marquis of Mantua, to whom the Latin version was dedicated – it was essentially ‘a handbook for the active appreciation of painting for an unusual kind of informed humanist’. Grafton, however, thinks the book was intended as a practical manual for painters, and that it was the first manifesto of an artistic avant-garde led by Brunelleschi, to whom the Italian text was dedicated. Baxandall’s Alberti was the author of De Pictura rather than Della Pittura, which he considered to be ‘a rather perfunctory translation from De Pictura’, and he dismissed the uncertainties surrounding the question of which text was written first, which Grafton resurrects.

Whereas Baxandall’s primary concern was to identify Alberti as the inventor of our modern conception of pictorial composition, derived from the rhetorical notion of compositio (the formation of the well-wrought sentence), Grafton’s Alberti is very much the practitioner who nonetheless seeks to introduce into painting some of the literary procedures he learned from Barzizza. These included giving much thought to the subject matter, making lots of exploratory sketches for the composition, consulting at every stage with literary and artistic friends, and making changes in the light of their criticisms.

This milieu of collaborative trial and error is a welcome change of emphasis, but at the same time something important has been lost. In his superb The Discovery of Pictorial Composition, Thomas Puttfarken points out that while composition was indeed central for Alberti, he rather oddly failed to provide any rules for what nowadays most people understand as the formal composition of a picture: the placing (or dispositio, to use the rhetorical term) of the figures, or abstract shapes, in relation to one another and to the frame of the picture in some kind of geometrical order.

Before Puttfarken no one had noticed this strange omission, for which he provides several explanations. The most fascinating is his suggestion that Alberti’s silence may have been deliberate, derived from the rhetorical handbooks on which much of his theory was based. Quintilian claims that while the dispositio or plan of a speech is of crucial importance, one can’t always stick to precise rules because every case, particularly in the law courts, is different. One must therefore rely more on judgment and ingenuity than the blind following of hard-and-fast rules. Nonetheless, Quintilian, like Cicero before him, did provide rules.

This suggestion of Puttfarken’s can perhaps be developed. In another, more famous passage, Quintilian says that ‘the all-important gift of an orator is to respond to change and variety in things,’ just as a general has to adapt his tactics to the contingencies of the battlefield. But Quintilian employed another analogy: he compared the orator’s need for variety to the practice of painters. They show some figures ‘running or rushing forward, others sit or recline, some are nude, some clothed, while some are half-dressed, half-naked’. He also gave the example of The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, a famous painting by Timanthes of Cyprus, which did not survive antiquity. Timanthes won a competition with this picture because he solved the problem of how to express the overwhelming grief of the girl’s father, Agamemnon. His solution was to cover Agamemnon’s head in a veil, leaving the spectator to imagine the depth of his sorrow. And Alberti, in the section where one would expect him to explain the rules for placing figures in a good composition, incorporates exactly those passages from Quintilian about the need for flexible problem-solving, and elaborates on them in the way he was taught at school.

For Alberti it was more than a matter of every case being different. At the heart of his theory was the requirement that painting, like literature, should depict complex stories and allegories of a philosophical nature, for which there were no ready-made formulae. It was hard to represent a smiling face, even harder to work out an effective means to depict Agamemnon’s grief, hardest of all to fit the figures together in a composition that explained the story to the spectator. That, precisely, was the painter’s job – to solve such problems employing a purely visual language with the utmost economy. Pictures weren’t allowed to run riot.

Alberti’s idea of the artist as a visual problem-solver was hugely influential on Western art. Building on his careful study of the subtle and enigmatic art of Giotto, whose mosaic of the Navicella in old St Peter’s is the only modern image he describes, and on his knowledge of the work of his ingenious contemporaries Donatello, Ghiberti and Masaccio, he transmitted the idea to Leonardo and Raphael and it has remained central to our conception of visual art. The innovative idea that art was restless, exploratory and experimental made far greater demands on the spectator, who could no longer rely on compositional formulae to signify the subject of a composition, nor on gestures whose meanings were as well established as those of words. Alberti’s views are at their clearest in his observations about The Sacrifice of Iphigenia. He stuck broadly to Quintilian’s words but, characteristically, made subtle but significant changes concerning the spectator’s role, since the spectator, too, had to become a problem-solver if he was to interpret the images representing the complex mental states Alberti wanted artists to depict.

Alberti did not begin on his magnum opus, De Re Aedificatoria, until the mid-1440s, when he occupied ‘a position of immense cultural authority’ in the d’Este Court in Ferrara, a little-known episode which Grafton skilfully reconstructs. Grafton’s account of De Re again takes Alberti out of the study. He is quoted saying that one of the drawbacks of being a humanist was that it deprived him of time for ‘wandering through cities and provinces, examining many temples and theatres, walls and buildings of every kind . . . both beautiful and safe against enemy attacks’. Grafton has to admit that, written as it was only in Latin, De Re was addressed to princes, who apparently devoured it. Lorenzo de Medici, who bought the first printed edition of 1486, couldn’t wait for the whole book to be printed and bound, and insisted on its being sent to him gathering by gathering as they came off the press.

Grafton sees the book as a treatise on the environmental governance of cities, arguing that Alberti extrapolates from the experience of the rebuilding of Florence in the early Renaissance to the rebuilding of Rome under Popes Eugenius IV, Nicholas V and their successors. Grafton conveys the overwhelming effect on the Curia of the staging of the consecration of Florence Cathedral, topped by Brunelleschi’s great new dome, in 1436: Florence was an ‘art city’ in which viewpoints of monuments were calculated to impress visitors and inhabitants alike with the realities of power.

Like painting, architecture was a form of rhetoric, and the job of the architect was as much conceptual as practical. Indeed, Nicholas V is quoted justifying his expensive building projects along the lines of Gregory the Great’s defence of religious paintings – as books for the illiterate. His churches would offer the pilgrim ‘perpetual monuments, and almost eternal testimonies, made, so to speak, by God himself’. Grafton rightly dismisses attempts to portray Alberti as some kind of radical, even as a socialist, who defended traditional liberties from ‘the inroads of the tyrannical state’. He stresses that despite his private parsimony, he was all in favour of public magnificence as a means of social control, and he also advocated the segregation of classes in the city and of sexes in the house. Grafton’s Alberti is an ‘old gentleman’ who was ‘still an ambivalent moralist – at once radical in his critique of the corruption of society and conservative in his abhorrence of attempts at revolution’. This, however, makes him sound a rather congenial old buffer – a misconception, for Grafton has underplayed the brutality of Alberti’s idea of the city as an instrument of the state, which is one consequence of seeing him (and indeed the Italian Renaissance) as a forerunner of the Enlightenment. In Grafton’s account of De Re, the darker side of Alberti’s notions is missing.

This, for example, is how he advocates what Grafton politely calls ‘residential segregation’, calling for the building of an inner citadel for the working classes (in the words of the 18th-century translation):

This wall or division, I think, ought not to be drawn like a diameter clear through the area, but ought rather to be made to enclose one circle within another: for the richer sort, desiring a more open space and more room, will easily consent to be shut out of the inner circle, and will be very willing to leave the middle of the town, to cooks, victuallers and other such trades; and all the scoundrel rabble belonging to Terence’s parasite, cooks, bakers, butchers and the like will be less dangerous there than if they were not to live separate from the nobler citizens.

Nor does he stop there. The inner wall should be fortified with high towers from which armed guards can keep watch over the houses of this ‘enemy within’. He concludes: ‘In a word, the whole should be so contrived that every place, which any way commands the town, should be in the hands of the Prince.’ This isn’t ‘social segregation’, it’s apartheid. The same passage is also curious in that it contains Alberti’s only, fleeting reference to the industrial base of the Renaissance city, which made Florence and the Alberti family so rich. But in his chapters on the villa he goes into the most minute details of animal husbandry and welfare, the design of luxurious rabbit hutches, dovecotes and the like.

Alberti hated the booming industrial, commercial and trading cities of his day. He lived in terror of the frequently riotous and potentially revolutionary proletariat. To eradicate it he advocated a ban on foreign trade, deindustrialisation and the promotion of a self-sufficient agrarian economy. Far from being committed to the culture of cities, he saw them as a barely necessary evil which should be kept as small and tightly controlled as possible, with a few beautiful monuments and very powerful fortifications. Nor was this policy utopian: it was actually implemented a century later by the humanist policy-makers of the English state under Elizabeth I, and remained in force under her Stuart successors. In the interests of social stability they, like Alberti, wanted to get rid of large cities.

In his ruthless concern for the maintenance of the power of the ruler or ruling class, Alberti resembles Machiavelli, who looked more to political and military means of repression. But while Alberti concentrated on the built environment, he also enlisted every other possible force – psychology, espionage and surveillance, law, arms and even the power of beauty – to disarm an enemy.

On Building shows little trace of the open-endedness to be found in the earlier On Painting. Alberti’s definition of beauty in building as ‘a harmony of all the parts, fitted together with such proportion and connection that nothing could be added, diminished or altered but for the worse’ amounts to a set of hard-and-fast rules, and the architect of such buildings has to have total control. Did Alberti change in the twenty years between the two books? It’s difficult to decide. He was always a control freak, who no more wanted the figures in a painting than the urban proletariat to run riot. Town planning, however, demands a more political approach than painting. He had certainly read more Plato, and maybe the demise of Florence’s unstable republicanism on the installation of the Medici regime in 1434 led Alberti to recognise, to his considerable relief, that the future lay with a powerful, centralised monarchy.

One doesn’t, however, have to agree with Grafton’s every word to admire his Alberti as one of the few outstanding books on Renaissance art to be published in the last quarter-century.