Leon Battista Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404, the second illegitimate son of Lorenzo Alberti, a Florentine banker. Lorenzo Alberti lived in exile from Florence, owing to political enmity with the powerful Albizzi family. The Albertis were unable to return to Florence until 1428.
Lorenzo Alberti's mistress and Leon Battista Alberti's mother was a Bolognese widow. Soon afterwards, Leon Battista and his elder brother Carlo moved to Venice with their father, who married a Florentine woman in 1408. As Carlo and Leon Battista were his only children, Lorenzo Alberti raised his sons with care, paying particular attention to their education. Leon Battista Alberti grew up to be a priest and scholar, with knowledge of mathematics, geography, astronomy, architecture and philosophy.
Like Leonardo Da Vinci who came after him, Leon Battista Alberti is considered to be a perfect Renaissance scholar with a wide range of interests, embracing art and science. Leon Battista was sent to a boarding school in Padua. Here, he learned classical Latin. He later studied law at the University of Bologna, where he graduated with a doctorate in Canon Law. His athletic skill is legendary and it was said he could jump over a man's head. Yet he had also began to develop as a writer. At the age of 20, he wrote a Latin comedy which was successfully passed off as the recently rediscovered work of a classical author and published by the Venetial press of Aldus Manutius.
Leon Battista Alberti's Career Path
Alberti's father had taught him mathematics when he was young. As much as he enjoyed the subject, the boy didn't follow his father into banking. Although he studied law at Bologna, he didn't enjoy it. He entered the Church, taking Holy Orders, and took up a secretarial job in the Papal Chancery. He was given the responsibility of writing the lives of the saints in classical Latin by some influential patrons in the Church. Although he was a man of the Church, his scholarly and literary pursuits, throughout life were usually of the secular type. His ecclesiastical career probably had more to do with its suitability as a career for a young man of his intellectual and educational level than from a strong faith in God. Yet he was a faithful priest and lived a celibate life. With Florence becoming a great art hub, his 1435 book Della Pittura (On Painting) was like a painter's textbook. It covered the rules regarding painting a three-dimensional scene on to a two-dimensional surface.
He was inspired by the growth of Florentine art. From painting, his interest moved to architecture. He designed his first architectural project, a small triumphal arch, for Marchese Leonello d'Este of Ferrara, in 1438. He grew in architectural knowledge and experience and became the architectural advisor to Pope Nicholas V in 1447.He began to supervise various architectural projects at the Vatican. These projects became the first Renaissance buildings of Rome. He had special status in society, as a member of a noble family and as a member of the Papal Court. He was a welcome guest in the homes of the Italian elite of his time. He was a well-known intellectual who was constantly pursuing artistic, philosophical and intellectual goals.
Leon Battista Alberti's Development as an Intellectual
As mentioned earlier, Leon Battista Alberti had learned mathematics as a child. The young boy delighted in the subject. It gave him a love of practicality and rationality, which can be seen in his later architectural work. His love of mathematics brought him into many diverse intellectual fields. He studied the classics at school. He enjoyed the classical writers. In their works he found the answers to many of the questions of his time. His love of practicality did not extend to his law studies and he never took up the legal profession, opting for the Church as a more satisfying career. In Rome, he began to become interested in the glories of the ancient world, inspired by Rome's great past and history. He joined the humanist movement and was a follower of Aristotle and Plotinus in this respect. He was the author of several notable philosophical works.
One was Della Famiglia which was written in 1433. In this book, he wrote about family life, marriage, the education of children and other such matters. It appears that he was a firm believer in homeschooling. Another philosophical work was De Ichiarchia, which is considered a classical work of Florentine humanism. In spite of Alberti's strength in Latin, he wrote these works in the vernacular Italian, Tuscan dialect. He truly believed in writing in the language of the people. He wanted that his work should be read as widely as possible. He could be considered as the father of Italian grammar, having written the first grammar book of this language.
Influences on the Work of Leon Battista Alberti
From his father, Leon Battista Alberti learned the banker's practicality and love of mathematics and order. He was friendly with the Renaissance artists Donatello and Brunelleschi. He became interested in art and painting. We know how his interest in art went from painting to architecture in a type of natural progression. As mentioned, his interest in architecture was actually sparked by his moving to Rome to join the Church, where he got the opportunity to study the ancient Roman buildings. We've seen how he became the Pope's architectural expert, which resulted in his involvement in various projects. He also wrote some influential architectural works, inspired the the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. His 1452 architectural treatise De Re Aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture), inspired by Vitruvius and ancient Rome, was highly influential for subsequent architects.
His 1464 work on statues, De Statua, was also notable. He was influenced by humanism and was a follower of Aristotle and Plotinus in this respect. His influences came from his contemporary world as well as from the ancient world. His friendship with the Florentine cosmography expert Paolo Toscanelli influenced his interest in geography and astronomy and let to a geographical treatise on the rules of mapping and surveying, Descriptio Urbis Romae. There was yet another treatise on the study of cryptography, a very esoteric subject which is still relevant today, with the advent of cryptocurrency in the 21st century. He has been called 'the father of western cryptography'.
Achievements of Leon Battista Alberti
While Leon Battista Alberti had many notable achievements to his credit, his architectural works are probably the most spectacular and visible. In 1446, he was commissioned to create the facade for the Rucellai Palace in Florence. In 1450, he was commissioned by Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini to transform Rimini's Gothic San Francesco Church into a memorial Church for the Malatesta family, the Tempio Malatestiano. Around 1456, he designed the upper part of the facade of the Santa Maria Novella Church, which was, and still is, truly magnificent.
Leon Battista Alberti - His Lasting Legacy
As we know, Leon Battista Alberti left a fascinating body of work for us to admire and study today. As well as his architectural works, which can still be seen, he left many classical literary works on art, architecture, philosophy, geography and cryptography as part of his legacy. He was the author of the first grammar book of the Italian language, to add to his many achievements. He died in Rome in 1472, at the age of 68, having lived a long life by the standards of his time. At the time of his death, he was quite happy and contented with the course of his life, according to the art historian and biographer Giorgio Vasari.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.