ALBERTI Leone Battista—a scholar and humanist, theoretician of art, an architect of the early Renaissance, b. February 14, 1404 in Genoa, d. April 25, 1472 in Florence.
He was born into a powerful family that had been banished from Florence. He was educated in Padua and Bologna in canon law. For many years he held a high position in the Roman Curia and was artistic advisor to Pope Nicholas V (he rebuilt St. Peter’s Basilica). He was very closely connected with the artistic milieu of Florence, and with Ficino’s circle and disciples.
He wrote a variety of literary works—comedies, dialogues, novels, and fables—and he published scientific works in various fields, at first in Latin and later in the Tuscan dialect. He was actively interested in natural science, the humanities, and technology. Alberti’s works included topics in art, morality, statistics, and optics. His architectural works include the Palazzo Rucellai (1446–1551)—he developed the elevations of the palace with the use of pilasters, the facade of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (1456–1470)—he introduced new elements that became part of Baroque facades, with two levels joined by volutes or scrolls, the Church of S. Francisco in Rimini (1446–1455), and the Church of S. Sebastiano in Mantua (1470–1494).
Alberti was the author of a work concerning social morality—Familia (a treatise in four books, of which the first three were completed in 1434, and the last one in 1441), in which he wrote of the experiences and matters of life in his time. In his views we see a typical Renaissance attitude where virtue triumphs over fate, and human work is praised. For Alberti, virtue means wise and prudent action that is connected with the forces that rule the world. In Alberti’s opinion, we should seek human dignity in creative work. Nature and fate make it difficult to realize virtue, but virtue ultimately triumphs over them, since virtue subjects them to the man’s spiritual laws.
Alberti is also known from three theoretical works: on architecture, on painting, and on sculpture. He first wrote the treatise on painting, De pictura libri III, in Latin in 1435 then published it in Italian in 1436 (published in Latin around 1540; in Italian in the 19th century, in Polish as O malarstwie [On painting], Wr 1963). The treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria libri X, was written from 1450 to 1452, and first published posthumously in 1486, with an Italian version in 1546 (published in Polish as Ksiąg dziesięć o sztuce budowania [Ten books on the art of building], Wwa 1960). His treatise on sculpture, De statua was written after 1464 (the Latin original was published in the 19th century, the Italian translation was published earlier in 1568).
In his theoretical works on art, Albert returned to naturalism and turned away from the symbolic understanding of art. He looked to empiricism and turned away from the a priori and mystical understanding of beauty that was present in the views of certain neo-Platonists from the Academy of Florence. He returned to an aesthetic understanding of art and avoided evaluating art from a moral point of view. He did not conceive of the principles of art in absolute terms. In his understanding of beauty, he returned to humanism and classicism. According to Albert, beauty is an agreeable arrangement of parts in perfect proportion. In this view, he was referring back to the way beauty was understood in ancient times. His basic theses on the understanding of beauty are as follows: (1) there is one beauty for each thing; (2) the arrangement of parts depends upon a definite proportion; (3) harmonious proportion occurs in nature and is a law that governs nature (here he was referring to classical philosophers); (4) beauty is an objective quality of things; (5) beauty is teleological and suitable. The proper way in art is to imitate nature, and he understood the imitation of nature as the imitation of its laws. He emphasized that an architect should imitate the structure of reality and the geometric relations hidden in reality. He thought that art’s essential aim was beauty, and that art is kind of intellectual knowledge.
G. Vasari, Vite de piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, Na 1896 (Żywoty najsławniejszych malarzy, rzeźbiarzy i architektów, Wwa 1984); E. Garin, L’umanesimo italiano. Filosofia e vita civile nel Rinascimento, Bari 1947, 19653 (Filozofia odrodzenia we Włoszech, Wwa 1969); J. Białostocki, Potęga piękna. O utopijnej idei Leone Battista Alberti [The power of beauty. On the utopian idea of Leone Battista Alberti], Estetyka [Aesthetics] 4 (1961), 127–137; M. Rzepińska, Doktryna i wizja artystyczna w rozprawie Leone Battista Alberti “O malarstwie” [Artistic doctrine and vision in Leone Battista Alberti’s treatise “On painting”], Estetyka 4 (1963), 107–126; W. Tatarkiewicz, Albertiego teoria sztuki, Wwa 1971; M. Bicer, Leon Battista Alberti, Sof 1983.
Mirella Nawracała Urban