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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti. It's uncertain as
to whether this is a self-portrait, but if
so, it's not hard to see why Vasari
considered Alberti a mediocre painter.
When we hear the term, "Renaissance man," the first and perhaps only name to come to mind is that of Leonardo da Vinci. Historically speaking, that's only natural in that Leonardo, having been born in 1452 and died in 1519, worked and lived during the whole of the high Renaissance (1480-1520). Of course, this soaring genius was not the first or last artist/scientist to deserve such a lofty designation. It's just that, well, few others come easily to mind. Let me, then, provide the name of one who should: Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti lived from 1404 to 1472, thus his life overlapped that of Leonard by some twenty years at the end. Moreover, Leonardo, though he was to outshine Alberti in many (if not most) areas of artistic endeavor, is nonetheless said to have been inspired by him.

Santa Maria Novella facade, 1456-70, Leon Battista Alberti
Another artist who might well be considered a Renaissance man, was Giorgio Vasari. Vasari lived from 1511 to 1574. He was an architect and painter, not just on plastered ceilings but a painter with words, quite rightly more famous for his book, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, than his Mannerist contrivances in paint looming high over the heads of his fellow Florentines. His book helped make both Leonardo and Alberti famous, becoming the philosophical basis for modern day art history. Alberti died before Vasari was born, who was a mere child of nine when Leonardo died, so it's unlikely, even impossible, that they knew one another. However, they certainly had much in common--three generations of Renaissance thinkers and writers. Not discounting Leonardo's painting skills, it's still safe to say these men were more influential based upon their writings than upon their art.
Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, 1446-51,
Leon Battista Alberti
That's definitely the case with Alberti. Though he wrote the first "how-to" book on painting and drawing (particularly liner perspective), Vasari, in effect, terms him a fairly mediocre painter. Few, if any, of his paintings exist today. Architecturally, we're more fortunate. Alberti specialized in church facades and palazzos, yet here, again, his surviving work is thin. He did exactly two churches--Sant' Andrea in Mantua, and Florence's Santa Maria Novella (above). He designed only one palazzo, the Palazzo Rucellai (right, 1446) also in Florence. This latter effort was by far his most successful and influential work.
If Alberti's art is so thin as to be nearly non-existent his writings more than make up the difference. Highly educated in the classics childhood, Alberti was a poet, playwright, lawyer, cryptographer, sculptor, philosopher, and mathematician, as well as an expert horseman, and acrobat. Even Leonardo could not claim the latter! Like Leonardo though, his skills and interests were so varied that he seems to have been spread thin in all of them. While he may not have been a prolific practitioner in any of these arts and sciences, he quite literally "wrote the book" in many of them.

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