by Roderick Conway Morris

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An Architect's Architect

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA 26 November 1994


It has been the occupational hazard of the architect down the ages not to live long enough to see a life's work reach completion, but Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was especially unfortunate in this respect.

The author of 'De re aedificatoria', the architectural treatise that became the bible of his fellow architects for over 300 years, Alberti did more than any other Renaissance artist to rationalize the theory and practice of building and to revive classical architecture, yet hardly any of his inspirational designs came to fruition during his lifetime.

Consequently, this immensely influential figure has been doomed to a kind of limbo: a constant presence for art and architectural historians, he remains an elusive, shadowy figure for the wider public. In an attempt to remedy this, 'Leon Battista Alberti', the first ever exhibition devoted to him, is being staged at Palazzo Te (till 11 December), in Mantua (where Alberti's largest extant work, the church of Sant'Andrea, was begun shortly after his death), illuminatingly illustrated both by beautiful, newly-constructed wooden models and impressive three-dimensional computer simulations that recreate his existing buildings as Alberti originally conceived them, stripping away the numerous later modifications and accretions.

Alberti was born the illegitimate son a Florentine then living in exile in Genoa. His father's peregrinations in search of business opportunities took the family to Venice, giving the boy the chance to study at Italy's leading universities nearby. Though finally graduating from Bologna in Law, he also studied Greek, maths, physics and even optics at Padua.

When the Florentine ban on the Alberti clan was lifted in 1428, Leon Battista was able to see his 'native' city for the first time. Brunelleschi's still-amazing cathedral dome was then under construction, and the experience of seeing it and Florence's other artistic riches had a profound effect on him. Initially, however, he followed a literary and ecclesiastical career, in which his exceptional talents and intelligence assured him a meteoric rise. While only in his late twenties Alberti took up residence in Rome, and with his financial independence guaranteed by lucrative church posts, he was free to devote himself to research and scholarship.

One of the fascinating aspects of Alberti's life is the constant interplay and cross-fertilization between his scientific and artistic interests. By the time he was thirty he had written a magisterial description of Rome and its monuments, having surveyed the city with a camera obscura and geodetic device of his own invention. There followed a Latin treatise on painting, 'De pictura', in which he more or less single-handedly laid the foundations for all subsequent art theory. The year after, he published the work in 'Tuscan' (the dialect that formed the basis of Italian), and became one of the most influential champions of the use of the vernacular as a literary and scientific language.

For twenty years immersed in his studies (during which he mastered and interpreted the sometimes highly obscure writings of the ancient architectural author Vitruvius), and frequently traveling from Italian court to court as an artistic advisor, it was not until he completed his own monumental architectural treatise that he turned his attention to designing buildings.

'The 16th-century art historian Vasari was a bit snooty about Alberti', said Professor Joseph Rykwert, whose Edinburgh-based 'Alberti Group' did much of the research for the show, 'saying he was a better writer than artist, better with the pen than the brush - but, in reality, there is no doubt that Alberti was a considerable artist, an accomplished painter and knew all the necessary techniques, such as how to cast bronze.'

Nor was it surprising that Alberti should eventually have chosen to devote himself to architecture, Rykwert said. 'It was a way in which a man who was free, and freedom was a concept very dear to certain thinkers in the 15th century, and who sought after virtue - which is not exactly what we'd call virtue, but a kind of inner power - could make his mark on society, on the city, to make his virtue visible.'

Equally, added Rykwerk, the view that Alberti remained more a theorist than a practioner is contradicted by the evidence. 'All the letters we have prove that he did go on site and was a very practical man, and in that sense very much an architect. We can actually show now, because we've done computerized surveys, the dimensional precision with which he worked. If he was designing a building for Florence he would do the measurements in Florentine 'braccia' because that is what the craftsmen used there, whereas for Mantua he used Mantuan feet. He was also very interested in harmonizing the dimensions used in different cities. And, in fact, one of the things he proposes in his survey of Rome is a standard measure based on the circumference of the earth, which is indeed - the metre.'

Why, then, given his enormous prestige and the fact that his services were in demand all over Italy, was hardly a single one of Alberti's buildings finished during his twenty years of activity in the field? Part of the difficulty was because Alberti came to achitecture relatively late, but also, said Rykwert, because his patrons had financial problems. The exception was the Florentine magnate Giovanni Rucellai, who was 'Mr. Money-Bags himself', and commissioned Alberti to design a palazzo, a sepulchre and the facade for Santa Maria Novella.

'The Sepulchre was the only thing actually finished in Alberti's lifetime and was, we think, more or less as he wanted it. It is a fascinating object because Giovanni Rucellai sent masons to Jerusalem to take measurements of the Holy Sepulchre, so the tomb is a kind of half-sized model of the original one.'

Even then, the setting of the Sepulchre was radically altered subsequently: Alberti had placed it in an open-sided loggia so that it would be visible from the main body of the church, but the opening was later bricked up, boxing the tomb in. A computer simulation of the intended arrangement, which allows one to see the tomb from a distance and then walk round it, convincingly reveals how much more dramatic the presentation of this exquisitely elegant and proportioned structure must once have been.

Rykwert and his team also use models and vivid computer visuals to re-create Mantua's Sant'Andrea as-it-might-have-been, suggesting that the church's poor internal light is the result of changes in Alberti's original plans, which included large windows in the domes of the side chapels and in the walls above them. Yet more intriguing is the group's finished version of the never-completed Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, based on a medallion cast by Matteo de'Pasti, Alberti's assistant, who was supervizing the building works. Although only 4cm across the medallion not only gives a detailed picture of Alberti's intended facade and dome, but also an exact scaled-down, image of the proportions he had in mind.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016