Alberti's 'On Painting': Summary

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever had to write instructions for how to do something? Would it be difficult to do for the first time? That's what Leon Battista Alberti did for painters. In this lesson, we will examine the fundamentals of Alberti's 'On Painting'.


Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472) was born in Genoa, Italy and was the illegitimate son of a Florentine businessman. He received classical Latin training and then studied law at the University of Bologna, but law didn't interest him like other subjects. Pursuing a wide-ranging career during the early part of the Italian Renaissance, he became a scholar, author, philosopher, artist, and architect. He's a spectacular example of the original Renaissance Man, a person with expertise on many subjects.

Portrait of Leon Battista Alberti
Alberti portrait

Alberti spent part of his career in Florence, where he met famed sculptor Donatello and architect Filippo Brunelleschi, two leading figures in the development of Renaissance art. Partially influenced by them, Alberti wrote two treatises or written formal studies on a subject (as opposed to a less detailed essay or sketch). The first was De statua or On Sculpture. The second was one of his most important achievements, Della pittura or On Painting.

Alberti's On Painting

Della pittura or On Painting was the first modern treatise on painting. People before Alberti had written about art in a practical sense, like how to grind pigments for paints and make brushes, but Alberti was interested in more than basic instructions and penned the first scientific and philosophical foundation for art and art history. He wrote On Painting in 1435 in Latin, and it was translated into Italian a year later. To make the subject clear to his audience, he divided the content into three books. Let's discuss each in more detail.

Book 1 was mathematical. It included a lengthy discussion of linear perspective, the system artists' use as a means of replicating how three-dimensional objects like people and buildings sit in space. Alberti wrote of the vanishing point, the point on the horizon that optics don't allow people to see beyond. Understanding perspective helped artists render three-dimensional views on a two-dimensional surface like a wall or canvas.

Graph detailing linear perspective and vanishing point, from On Painting
System of perspective

Alberti went into great detail, explaining complicated calculations and a grid system with a series of diagonal lines that, when mastered, enabled the artist to develop skill in rendering perspective. Now, Alberti wasn't the first person to understand perspective and he didn't create the concept. An early artwork that Donatello carved around 1412 possibly used it, but Alberti was the first to put the laws of perspective into writing.

Book 2 discussed the history and virtues of painting and its worthiness as a profession. Alberti then outlined three important elements a beginning artist had to master: circumscription, the line drawing done to understand the contour of figures in a painting; composition, the underlying whole structure of the painting; and light, or understanding how light fell on the objects being painted. He also distinguished the elements of art for the artists and discussed different types of paintings. Alberti meant Book 2 to be advice for young artists.

In Book 3 Alberti instructed the artist on how to master the art of painting, with an emphasis on drawing skills. Alberti also discussed the necessary qualities for making a good painter: someone of balanced disposition, who was classically trained, well-read, and understood history and philosophy as well as the mechanics of painting; and someone who studied nature, practiced drawing, and could accurately render what was to be painted.

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