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Leon Battista Alberti

The First Renaissance Man

Alberti (statue in the Loggia of the Uffizi)

Beauty: the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change without impairing the harmony of the whole. Alberti

One of the key figures of the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72) achieved his greatest fame as an architect though he was also known as a theorist of art, a scientist, mathematician and author. Even in his own day he was considered the ideal of the universal genius—the first 'Renaissance man'.

The Alberti were one of Florence's leading banking familiies; Leon Battista was born in Genoa during a period when the family was in exile. Though illegitimate, Alberti was well taken care of; he studied at Padua and Bologna, and a series of papal patronage jobs allowed him to do what he liked without financial worries.

Alberti took a good long time finding his way to architecture. In the 1430s he wrote his famous Della Pittura, in which he laid a philosophical and scientific basis for painting through the use of perspective. It was the beginning of art theory, and it had a huge influence on painters in the century that followed. At the same time he wrote satires and other literary works, notably the Della Famiglia, a treatise on moral philosophy, works on the practice of law and the priesthood, began a survey of the ancient buildings and relics of Rome, and still found time to tour the courts of Italy as a teacher and artistic adviser to princes.

The Alberti were allowed to return to Florence in 1428, but Leon Battista continued to spend most of his time in Rome and elsewhere. His first major commission in his native city would be a masterpiece, the Palazzo Rucellai (1446), in which he showed how to incorporate the classical orders and the principles of Vitruvius into Renaissance architecture. The same year saw the first edition of his great treatise on architecture, De Re Aedificatoria, which quickly became the handbook for architects, and remained influential through the Renaissance.

Rucellai Palace

His other major works here are the remarkable facade of Santa Maria Novella and the Rucellai Chapel (recently restored and visited via the Museo Marino Marini. He also designed the first proper pleasure villa suburba the Villa Medici in Fiesole, for Giovanni de' Medici, son of the Elder Cosimo.

Outside Florence, his major works are Sant'Andrea in Mantua and the unfinished Tempio Malatestiana in Rimini.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Giovanni Lusini, Carolus, Federico Pelloni