Leon Battista Alberti: Architecture in the Renaissance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Leon Battista Alberti was one of the greatest contributors to Renaissance ideas on architecture. In this lesson, we'll look at his life, works, and legacy and see how Alberti's theories impacted Renaissance society and beyond.

The Italian Renaissance

Different societies end up defining themselves and their ideal citizens in different ways. For some parts of urban America, social values are defined by irony and the ideal citizen is the hipster. Many Americans are not proud of it, but that's what it is. In Europe's transition between the late medieval and early modern era, societies developed their own ideal citizens. During this period, known as the Italian Renaissance of the late 14th through late 16th centuries, society was defined by an obsession with the arts, philosophy, literature, and the achievement of perfection. The ideal citizen, the one who mastered the arts, sciences, philosophy, statesmanship, and courtly behaviors was called the universal man, or Renaissance man. It was a slightly harder title to earn than the hipster, requiring a great deal of education. Of course, this ideal citizen was based on precedent as well. So, who was the first Renaissance man? One possible candidate is Leon Battista Alberti, a man who defined the Renaissance more than nearly any other.

Leon Battista Alberti

The Life of Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti was born in 1404 as an illegitimate (but recognized) son of an extremely wealthy family in Florence, Italy. In the early 15th century, Florence was the epicenter of the growing Renaissance and Alberti played an important role in the movement. He was well-educated in the arts, philosophies, sciences and law, earning his doctorate in law from the University of Bologna by age 24. Later, he also later became a noted theoretician. The diverse nature of his projects, his education and refinement, and his focus on the arts made him one of the first 'universal men' of the Renaissance. He set precedents that would be followed for the next two centuries. Alberti worked at the beginning of the Renaissance, drawing his inspiration from the ancient Romans, and fellow architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who he greatly admired.

While Alberti did try painting and sculpture, he found that his true gift was in developing theories about art and architecture. Three major treatises by Alberti helped define the Renaissance in this regard. De Statua was his work on sculpture, in which he outlines proportional theory and details the temperament necessary of a sculptor. Della Pittura was the first major treatise on painting in the Renaissance, laying down his theory on linear perspective and, again, the behaviors that artists must emulate. Around 1452, he completed his last major treatise, one on architecture called De re Aedificatoria.

Alberti on Architecture

De re Aedificatoria was in many ways the culmination of Alberti's life in the Renaissance. He lived in a very urban society, and grew to believe that the city was a necessary component of civilization. For this reason, he argued architecture was among the most notable of art forms. His focus on ancient Greece and Rome led him to study the Classical architectural orders. In particular, he obsessed over Vitruvius' De Architectura, the only surviving work of the great Roman architectural theorist.

So, what exactly was in De re Aedificatoria? Alberti's focus was on the art of building, both in terms of single buildings and entire urban spaces. He explores this through three focuses, based closely on the three fundamentals of building outlined by Vitruvius, called the Vitruvian Triad. First is the stability and usefulness of a structure. Next are the aesthetic elements of lines, angles, and proportions. Finally are the elements of beauty and ornamentation. In basic terms, a great structure must be stable/useful, aesthetically pleasing, and decorated well, and each element must work with the others to create a consistent and unified whole.

The works of Alberti outlined the practical and philosophical elements of architecture

Therefore, building (and by extension city-planning) required a philosophical mind as well as scientific precision. His work outlined the theories that should guide architects, and set practical and pragmatic standards for creating mathematically harmonious structures. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, he believed that perfect harmony could be mathematically deduced, and represented in the proportions of architectural elements in a structure.

The top half of the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence was designed by Alberti

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