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Leon Battista Alberti

A Concise Biography


Leon Battista Alberti Statue

Leon Battista Alberti Statue

Public Domain

Humanist philosopher, writer, Renaissance architect and artistic theorist, Leon Battista Alberti (also Battista Alberti; sometimes spelled Leo or Leone Battista Alberti) is considered by many scholars to be the quintessential Renaissance "universal man" of learning. In addition to painting, designing buildings, and writing scientific, artistic and philosophical treatises, Leon Battista Alberti wrote the first book on Italian grammar and a groundbreaking work on cryptography. He is credited with inventing the cypher wheel, and it was said that from a standing position, with his feet together, Leon Battista Alberti could jump over a man's head.

Battista Alberti was born into a wealthy Florentine family, and although he and his brother were illegitimate, both were well-loved and cared for by their father, Lorenzo Alberti, and received all the benefits of education available. Battista (he took on the name "Leo" or "Leon" later in life) acquired a love of mathematics from his father, which would serve him well in the field of art as well as engineering.

At about age 10 Battista went to a boarding school in Padua, where he received classical training in Latin and literature and became an accomplished writer. At age 20 he wrote a Latin comedy that was proclaimed the work of an ancient Roman playwright, and which was still published as such in the late 16th century. Battista's formal education was completed at the University of Bologna, where he received a doctorate in canon law in 1428.

But law held no great allure for Battista Alberti, and he chose instead to accept the position of a literary secretary. Taking holy orders, he became a secretary in the Papal Chancery and took on a commission from an ecclesiastical patron to rewrite the lives of the saints in classical Latin. Thenceforward Alberti earned his livelihood from the Church; but although he stuck to his vows and led a clean and celibate life, his interests were largely secular.

Alberti's position in the Chancery gave him opportunities to travel and meet a variety of important people of the day. Influenced and inspired by some of these friends and colleagues, Alberti wrote on a range of subjects, from philosophical dialogues to technical treatises to the observations on the principles of art and architecture for which he is best known.

One of Alberti's earliest significant works was Della famiglia (On the Family); it is the first of several dialogues on moral philosophy, written in the vernacular, for a population not tutored in Latin. In these moral dialogues, Battista Alberti combined the ethical ideals of ancient Rome with a contemporary viewpoint that valued labor as a virtue -- a particularly humanistic outlook.

Leon Battista Alberti could and did paint, but barely a painting of his survives. However, in 1435 he wrote the book On Painting, which set out the rules for drawing a three-dimensional picture on a two-dimensional surface for the first time. These principles of perspective had been rediscovered and demonstrated by Filippo Brunelleschi. Leon Battista Alberti's work coalesced these ideas and set them forth with clarity; On Painting would guide dozens of Renaissance artists in producing more realistic, perspectival artwork.

Alberti did not confine himself to philosophy and art. He developed a friendship with the Florentine cosmographer Paolo Toscanelli, who would later provide Columbus with the map that guided him on his first voyage. They collaborated on studies in astronomy; and, probably strongly influenced by Toscanelli, Alberti would produce a treatise on geography that laid out the rules for surveying and mapping a land area. Later geographical depictions of the 15th and 16th centuries, notable for their advances in accuracy, would be produced with the instruments and methods Leon Battista Alberti described in this treatise.

In 1438, Alberti met the Marchese Leonello at the Este court in Ferrara. Leonello encouraged Alberti to turn his attentions to the field of architecture. Alberti's earliest work still stands: a miniature triumphal arch, which supports a statue of Leonello's father on horseback. At Leonello's urging, Alberti undertook a thorough study of architectural theory and began restoring the text of the architect and architectural theorist Vitruvius of classical Rome.

When Nicholas V became pope in 1447, Alberti became his architectural advisor. Alberti and Nicholas collaborated on a series of building projects in Rome, including the reconstruction of St. Peter's and the Vatican Palace. In 1452 Alberti at long last completed his study of Vitruvius and finished his own completely new architectural text, De re aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture). This monumental work would serve as a guideline for virtually all succeeding Renaissance architecture.

For the next two decades, Leon Battista Alberti contributed to a number of notable buildings, including the facades of Sta. Maria Novella and the Palazzo Rucellai, the Tempio Malatestiano, and the Church of San Andrea. Though he continued to travel to various cities and courts of Renaissance Italy, Rome and Florence remained significant to his outlook.

In the tradition of civic Humanism, Leon Battista Alberti always turned his talents to the kind of work that would benefit others, be it writing instructional guides or designing buildings of worship. His last dialogue was De iciarchia (On the Man of Excellence and Ruler of His Family), a prime example of the public spirit that had come to characterize his work and his life. He died several years later, in Rome, at the age of 68.

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