Leon Battista Alberti’s theoretical treatise on architecture, titled De Re Aedificatoria (About Buildings), was dedicated in 1452 but not published until 1485. What qualifies it as an architectural feat? It changed the understanding and practice of architecture in much of Europe and continued to influence developments there and in the New World for about 400 years. Although he was gathering the ideas for the book, Alberti (1404–1472) was not an architect but a Catholic priest.
Alberti was born in Genoa, the illegitimate child of Lorenzo, an exiled Florentine from a family of bankers. When he was about ten years old, Battista (he added “Leon” later) entered a boarding school in Padua to receive a basic classical education. Several years of legal studies at the University of Bologna led to a doctorate in church law in 1428, after which he went to Florence. He soon began writing. His first published anthology of poems, Il cavallo (The Horse) of 1431, was quickly followed by Della famiglia (About the Family)—the first of many philosophical dialogues—and La tranquillità (Composure), a collection of essays, short stories, and plays, both in 1432. By then he was employed as a secretary in the Papal Chancery in Rome and was about to undertake a lives of the saints and martyrs, written, as was fashionable, in classical Latin. Living in Rome opened Alberti’s eyes to classicism, although the city was to remain neglected for another fifteen years. In 1434 he wrote a study about urban design entitled Descriptio urbis Romae (Description of the City of Rome), in which he first explored the classical notion that beauty existed in harmony, achievable through mathematical rules.
Alberti’s future lay not in the law but in the church. Taking holy orders, he would eventually become a canon of the Metropolitan Church of Florence in 1447. Other clerical offices and their benefits followed: abbot of San Sovino, Pisa, Gangalandi Priory, Florence, and the rectory of Borgo San Lorenzo in Mugello. In 1436 he completed his first major book, written in classical Latin, that touched upon architecture: De pictura (About Painting) was an attempt to bring system to perspective and set down rules for the painter to achieve concord with cosmic harmony. An Italian translation appeared in the same year.
From about 1434 Alberti traveled through northern Italy in the retinue of Pope Eugenius IV, visiting Florence, Bologna, and Ferrara, where, in 1438, under the patronage of Marchese Leonello, he began a more careful study of classical architecture, delving into the ten-part book De Architectura, written by one Marcus Vitruvius Pollio around 20 b.c. Alberti returned to Rome six years later and extended that study among the ancient buildings. When Nicholas V succeeded to the papacy in 1447, Alberti was appointed inspector of monuments, an office he held until 1455. De Re Aedificatoria, written in classical Latin and structured in ten parts like Vitruvius’s De Architectura, was completed in 1452. Vitruvius’s book was its principal source and model, but Alberti also drew upon Plato, Pythagoras, and the Christian fathers; his own archeological studies; and, importantly, the consensus of contemporary architectural thought. Vitruvius had summarized the architectural practice of his day; Alberti went further to lay down universal rules.
As Italian society and fashions changed, from around 1420 the mason-architect had begun to be displaced, first by the artist-architect and then the courtier-artist-architect. With training in neither building nor art, Alberti wrote a book about the art of building that completed the metamorphosis of the architect into a dilettante-scholar; that made “design distinct from matter,” as he put it, and turned the art of architecture into an academic pursuit in which creativity and design skill could be honed to perfection simply by obeying a set of rules. Intuition was replaced with measurable absolutes. It gave architectural design a thoroughly developed theory of harmony and proportion and made it simple—at least in theory. According to some sources, the last Latin edition was a folio version in Bologna, of 1782. Translations and many derivative works found their way through western Europe.
Book I of De Re Aedificatoria defined design, set down the criteria for good architecture (convenience, stability, and delight), and discussed the basis of composition and proportion. Book II dealt with matters of professional practice and building materials. Book III addressed practical building construction. Book IV covered many aspects of civic design, and Book V dealt with plans for various building types. The next book explored the esthetic dimension of architecture, defining beauty as “a harmony of all the parts in whatsoever subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for the worse.” It also included a section on mechanical and technical details. Alberti’s strong attachment to antiquity was revealed in Books VII and VIII, that took up the subjects of ornament in religious buildings and Roman urban design, respectively. In Book IX the axiomatic principle underlying Renaissance architecture was restated: that beauty is an innate property of things, achieved by following cosmic rules. Then there was an assortment of chapters about mostly practical issues. Book X descended to the pragmatic: water supply, engineering, repairing cracks, and even how to get rid of fleas.
Alberti applied his theories in only a few buildings, mostly unfinished renovations or extensions. They included the facades of the Church of San Francesco (otherwise known as Tempio Malatestiano) of 1450, in Rimini; the facades of the Palazzo Rucellai (1446–1451) and Santa Maria Novella (1458–1471), both in Florence; and San Sebastiano (1459) and Sant’Andrea (1470–1472), both in Mantua. His biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote in 1550, “His writings possess such force that it is commonly supposed that he surpassed all those who were actually his superiors in art” and added, “He was a person of the most courteous and praiseworthy manners … generous and kind to all.”