Humanism and the Urban World
Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City
Humanism and the Urban World
Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City
“Pearson’s use of Alberti’s writings is imaginative and exhaustive, yet tactful. This is a rich and accessible account of a thinker whose concern with both rational reform and social stability could not be more timely.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
“Pearson’s use of Alberti’s writings is imaginative and exhaustive, yet tactful. This is a rich and accessible account of a thinker whose concern with both rational reform and social stability could not be more timely.”
Caspar Pearson is Lecturer at the University of Essex.
2 The Divided City
3 The Limits of Power
4 Beyond the City
5 The Suburbs and Other Places
6 The Beautiful City
“Everyone relies on the city,” wrote Leon Battista Alberti, “and all the public services that it contains.” This statement, delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner, indicates the exceptional importance of cities in the society in which Alberti lived. His world was an urban one. He was born in Genoa, grew up in Venice, was educated in Padua and Bologna, and subsequently lived and worked in Rome, Florence, Mantua, Rimini, and Ferrara. Fifteenth-century Italy, divided into a patchwork of city-states, boasted what was arguably the most developed urban society in Europe at the time. Moreover, Italy offered a wide variety of urban experiences, with cities of radically different sizes, architectural styles, and climates, located in areas with highly diverse geographical and environmental features.
Alberti would have known merchant cities such as Florence, courtly ones like Urbino, maritime ones such as Naples and Venice, and, of course, Rome itself, the urbs, city of the church, with the international crowd of clerics, administrators, and diplomats that it attracted. Furthermore, power within the city-states was exercised in a variety of ways. Dukedoms, nominal republics, and marches rubbed shoulders with kingdoms and straightforward tyrannies. The everyday world of Alberti and his contemporaries was thus deeply engaged with the problems of cities and the peculiarities of urban life: defensive walls, water provision, sewage, drainage, public health, order, policing and crime, thoroughfares, streets and services, relations between neighbors, the search for privacy, and the beauty and impressiveness of buildings. It was a world permeated by government, administration, and law, a place where notaries prospered. It was also a world in which the practicalities of power, the figure of the leader, and competing forms of governance were keenly felt issues and where political strategies were often implemented with remarkable ruthlessness.
In the elite humanist circles in which Alberti moved, a renewed interest in the ancient past had led to a reexamination, and often exultation, of the urban society of antiquity. Ancient texts described a sophisticated urban milieu, while across Italy the ruins of Roman civilization bore enigmatic witness to the great cities of the past and suggested standards for future attainment. It was against this background that Alberti, a humanist scholar and practicing architect, wrote his treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria. Completed in at least some form by 1452, it was the first architectural treatise to be written since ancient times—since, that is, the treatise of the Augustan architect Vitruvius. Yet Alberti’s text is much more than an elaboration or commentary on Vitruvius’s treatise. Rather, a combination of extraordinary learning, practical experience, and theoretical rigor results in a strikingly rich and original work that Alberti’s contemporaries regarded as an outstanding achievement of Latin prose.
Alberti’s treatise is, of course, very much concerned with the city. That is not to say that Alberti offers a specific model and tells the reader how it must be constructed in every detail. He describes no fantasy city, such as the Sforzinda that was later imagined by the Florentine architect Filarete, and none of the ten books of his architectural treatise is devoted to the city as an entity in its own right. Rather, Alberti produced a text that aims to systematically embrace the art of building in its totality.
Basing his divisions on the Vitruvian triad, Alberti devoted the first half of his treatise to the elements of firmitas (stability) and utilitas (usefulness). Thus, he discusses lineamenta (lines and angles, although this is hardly an adequate translation) in Book I, materials in Book II, and construction in Book III. Books IV and V focus on building types, discussing public works and the works of individuals, respectively. The greater part of the treatise’s second half concerns the final element in the Vitruvian triad: venustas, or, in Alberti’s terms, pulchritudo (beauty) and ornamentum (ornament). Book VI deals with ornament in a general sense, Book VII with ornament to sacred buildings, Book VIII with ornament to public secular buildings, and Book IX with ornament to private buildings. Finally, Book X is taken up with building restoration, prevention of damage, and a lengthy section on water.
It is only in the course of this discussion that the city is considered, as and when it impinges on Alberti’s argument. When Alberti does speak of the city, he does not, as it were, always speak of the same one, for the many urban situations that he discusses do not belong to a single “ideal” city that he advocates. Rather, each is bound up with the phase of the argument at which it appears. Indeed, were he writing about a single ideal city, Alberti’s proposals would sometimes appear contradictory. He discusses tyrannies, kingdoms, and republics, cities where the people are separated by class and those where they are mixed together. Sometimes he outlines urban situations inspired directly by the contemporary situation of late medieval Italy, while at other times he seems to be speaking of a far-distant city of antiquity, replete with showgrounds, theaters, and temples to different gods. Yet to acknowledge the open nature of Alberti’s discourse, and the absence of specific models within it, is not to say that his text is neutral regarding the city or that it does not manifest areas of preference. His work is full of judgments, sometimes apparent and at other times less so.
Certainly, scholars have long felt the urge to attribute a city to Alberti and have discussed his urban thought in some detail. Inflected by traditional views of Alberti and the Renaissance, Alberti’s city has largely been considered a republican one. Alberti has occasionally emerged as an enthusiast of the city who envisaged an egalitarian community founded, in both its social and aesthetic aspects, on the idea of harmony—that concept so frequently held as a keystone of Renaissance thought and art. Thus, Eugenio Garin, the scholar who would later effect a startling transformation in Alberti studies, wrote that “Alberti contemplates an earthly city that is as harmonious as one of his palaces, where nature bends herself to the intentions of art just as would the obedient pietra serena of the Florentine hills.” Some authors have emphasized the social inclusiveness of Alberti’s vision and the citizen-based principles on which it is founded. Moreover, there has been a tendency to stress the rational nature of his thought and to contrast this with the “higgledy-piggledy” character of medieval urbanism. He appears as the instigator of a conscious planning that addresses questions of ethics and human interaction, as well as rational ordering and aesthetics. As one scholar puts it, “In De re aedificatoria the city is the place in which individual citizens pursue virtuous activities; more than that, for the first time the city is considered to be a collection of buildings and of open spaces consciously designed and related to one another, a collection that allows the citizens to bring order to their society through their participation in its affairs.”
Alberti thus appears to be a visionary in two ways: first, in his rational approach to urban planning, which considers not only buildings but also their relationships to one another and to spaces (that is to say, the city as a whole, which is more than just the sum of its parts), and second, in his progressive political and social vision, which, founded on the principle of citizen participation, relates built form to social institutions and ethical positions. This image of Alberti contains much truth and has largely prevailed, although there have been dissenting voices. But it is true to say that the widespread revisionism to which Alberti has been subjected has perhaps been less evident in the field of architectural and urban history than elsewhere. Moreover, interpretations of Alberti’s city have often been closely related to dominant narratives of the Renaissance, and particularly of Renaissance Florence, as well as to Alberti’s own historical reputation.
Alberti in Historiography
Alberti’s reputation has a long pedigree both at home and abroad. For instance, a copy of his architectural treatise had reached England by 1487, only a year after its publication in Florence, transported by then bishop of Durham and apostolic protonotary John Shirwood. In 1726, the treatise, which had already appeared in French and Spanish, reached a wider English public with the publication by James (Giacomo) Leoni of an English translation. Thus, when William Roscoe wrote in his 1796 Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici that Alberti warranted “particular notice as one of the earliest scholars that appeared in the revival of letters,” he was speaking of someone who was already well known, at least in architectural circles. Roscoe went on to list some of Alberti’s achievements, commenting particularly on his versatility as an author, but concluded that his real contribution was to be found in his writings on architecture. “His principal merit is certainly to be sought for in his useful discoveries and his perceptive writings,” Roscoe argued, “[for] he was the first author who attempted practical treatises on the arts of design, all of which, but more particularly his treatise on architecture, are allowed to exhibit a profound knowledge of his subject.” This achievement, Roscoe predicted, “will long continue to do honor to his memory.”
In this last particular at least, Roscoe was correct, for Alberti’s reputation was to increase dramatically in the following two centuries. His enhanced standing can be connected to a burgeoning interest in the culture of fifteenth-century Italy. More specifically, it closely parallels the rise of an idea about history that was only really developed in the nineteenth century but has become a cornerstone of Western historical thought—the Renaissance. In his Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, published in 1860, Burckhardt famously singled out Alberti as a man who perfectly exemplified the qualities of his age. With his assertion that “men can do all things if they will,” Alberti seemed to sum up the development of the individual, which Burckhardt considered such a crucial aspect of the Renaissance. His greatness had not been the result of birth or privileged status but had been attained, Burckhardt maintained, through his own talents. Indeed, Alberti, like that other great man of the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci, was an illegitimate child who had been forced to make his own way in the world against the odds. He had excelled in all manner of activities, physical and intellectual, and his many writings, particularly the treatise on architecture, stood as a testament to his abilities. Burckhardt famously dubbed Alberti uomo universale.
This label determined a line of scholarship that has persisted for more than a century. In her 1863 novel Romola, George Eliot described Alberti as a “robust, universal mind, at once practical and theoretic, artist, man of science, inventor, poet”; a succession of authors followed suit. Joan Gadol’s 1969 monograph, written over a century after the publication of Burckhardt’s work, was unambiguously titled Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early Renaissance and began by characterizing Alberti as “a representative of that Renaissance type which Burckhardt calls the ‘universal man.’” The most recent biography of Alberti, Grafton’s Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance, translates to Leon Battista Alberti: Un genio universale in Italian.
One can see why the idea has had such an extraordinary life span. Put simply, it’s true. The range of Alberti’s activities can hardly fail to astonish anyone who contemplates them. The breadth of his interests and expertise extends well beyond that of a typical humanist scholar of the period. Moreover, while Alberti himself may be the ultimate source of Burckhardt’s account, it is clear that some of Alberti’s contemporaries were also struck by his versatility. His friend Lapo da Castiglionchio the Younger wrote, “I so praise his genius that I would compare no one with him. I wonder at his genius to such an extent that it seems to bespeak I know not what for the future. For his genius is of this sort: to whichever area of study he puts his mind, he easily and quickly excels the others.” It is thus interesting that, despite this focus on his universality, important aspects of Alberti’s work were largely ignored for a long time. Perhaps, when contemplating Alberti, we can become too dazzled by the fact of his universality—and by a certain conception of his life that has been present in historiography—to really examine the specifics of his work. Because Alberti’s biography is well known and has been amply set out elsewhere, I shall rehearse its details only briefly.
Battista Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404 into a great exiled Florentine house. The Alberti had been dominant players in the Florentine political scene of the fourteenth century and had extensive commercial interests across Europe and in the Levant. Their business survived their exile, and Battista’s father, Lorenzo, was a very wealthy man. His mother was a Genoese widow, probably of noble birth, whom his father never married. When Battista was two years old, Lorenzo took him and his brother Carlo (also illegitimate) away from Genoa to avoid an outbreak of plague. The same outbreak claimed the boys’ mother.
As a “natural son,” Battista was at the top of the hierarchy of illegitimate children. Although his father did not take the step of legitimizing his sons, as he could have done, they were nonetheless fully integrated into family life. Battista was educated by the famous humanist teacher Gasparino Barzizza at Padua. There followed a degree in law at Bologna, although this was interrupted by the death of Battista’s father. His uncle, who had been left to provide the boys’ inheritance, died soon afterward, and there began a prolonged period of difficult relations with some of the other Alberti who were reluctant or unable to pay the boys their due. An anonymous vita—now recognized as Battista’s autobiography—tells us that the strain led to physical and mental breakdown. The author ascribes this to his own zealous overwork and to the poverty and poor treatment that he endured at the hands of his relatives:
His limbs were weak and thin, the strength of his body was exhausted, his vitality and endurance were almost gone, and finally he was stricken with a terrible affliction. As he was reading, the keenness of his eyesight suddenly failed, and he was overcome with dizziness and pain while a roaring and loud ringing filled his ears. The doctors decided that these things were the result of exhaustion; they warned him again and again not to continue in his laborious studies. He did not obey them, but again consumed himself for love of learning, and as he began to do more work than his constitution could stand, fell into an illness worthy of memory. For at this time he could not recall the names of the most familiar things, as if these would be of no further use to him, but he retained a miraculously firm grasp of anything he saw. On the physicians’ orders, then, he did give up his legal studies, which had so greatly taxed his memory, just as they were about to bear fruit. Since, however, he could not live without intellectual occupation, he turned to physics and mathematics; these he was sure he could cultivate freely, for he could see that they exercised intelligence rather than memory.
Battista Alberti did recover and shortly thereafter embarked on a career at the papal curia in Rome, in the service of various cardinals and in the college of abbreviators. He took minor orders and was possibly ordained a priest. At any rate, he was awarded benefices that ultimately ensured his financial independence. However, the rift with certain members of the Alberti family—above all the two cousins charged with the payment of his inheritance, Benedetto di Bernardo and Antonio di Ricciardo—worsened. It is a theme to which Alberti alludes time and again throughout his writings with marked bitterness.
For most of his adult life, Alberti was based in Rome, although he made extended stays at Florence following the lifting of the ban on some of the Alberti in 1428, and at many of the courts of central and northern Italy, where he claimed some of the most celebrated, and some of the most tyrannical, rulers of the day as patrons. Alberti distinguished himself early on as a brilliant Latinist. Indeed, like Michelangelo, he began his career with a fake, his comic play Philodoxus, which he wrote under the name of Lepidus and successfully passed off as a Roman original. But Alberti was also an early champion of the vernacular. Indeed, he not only wrote a number of his most important works in Tuscan but also composed the first grammar of that language; organized a prominent Tuscan poetry competition, the Certame Coronario; and was the first, along with his friend Leonardo Dati, to compose a Tuscan poem in hexameters. In doing so, he entered into a polemical debate with many of the most prominent scholars of his day and pitted himself against the orthodox view, which did not regard the vernacular as capable of producing great literature.
Alberti’s writings covered an astonishing breadth of subject. Early Latin works include the Philodoxus as well as De commodis litterarum atque incommodis, a treatise on the troubles facing young scholars. He composed four major moral dialogues in the vernacular: the Theogenius, Della famiglia, Profugiorum ab aerumna, and De iciarchia. The Della famiglia (On the family) must be judged one of the greatest works of the age, confronting many of the most pressing issues of the day while utilizing the dialogue form to preserve their complexity and avoid simplistic resolutions.
Throughout the 1430s and 1440s, Alberti penned his Intercenales, or Dinner Pieces, a collection of Latin fables and short stories that often reveal an extraordinary creative energy and an acute, darkly ironic sense of humor. Much the same can be said of his comic “novel” of the 1440s, Momus. Then there are the treatises on painting, sculpture, and architecture, each one the first of its kind to be written since antiquity and each profoundly original. In addition, Alberti was a poet, wrote short treatises on horses and on law, and completed an important work on cryptography. He seems also to have been the first, in his Apologi centum, to have revived the Aesopian fable.
As we have seen, Alberti was a mathematician, having taken up the subject while recovering from the breakdown suffered in his youth. His Ludi rerum mathematicarum demonstrates his proficiency, while those parts that deal with coordinate mapping, when taken together with his Descriptio urbis romae, make Alberti the ancestor of modern surveying techniques. A contemporary source refers to him as the equal, in both mathematics and astronomy, of the great astronomer Paolo Toscanelli. Moreover, Alberti was an enthusiast of practical knowledge and a technologist. He tells us in his autobiography that he never ceased looking at things for himself, visiting craftsmen and inquiring of their craft. He employed Genoese divers in an attempt (in good measure successful) to raise a sunken Roman barge from the bed of Lake Nemi. Toward the end of his life, we find him filled with enthusiasm for the “German inventor who recently, by means of moveable type characters, made it possible to reproduce more than 200 volumes from one original text in 100 days with the help of no more than three workmen.” Perhaps most famously, Alberti became, in his maturity, an architect, designing some of the canonical works of the fifteenth century and helping to establish the all’antica style in Italy.
This brief and selective overview of Alberti’s activity gives some indication of his impressive range. In this sense, it is hardly surprising that the idea of his universality has long followed hard at his heels. Yet, insofar as it has become formulaic, the term sometimes seems to obscure the specifics of Alberti’s thought rather than to illuminate them. Alberti was, for a long time, bound to a Burckhardtian, “heroic” idea of the Renaissance, which he was traditionally seen to personify. For it was Burckhardt, elaborating on Michelet’s sketch, who bequeathed the lasting characterization of the Renaissance as a progressive era exemplified by great men. In doing so, of course, he was reviving a narrative structure that was popular during the Renaissance itself and had its origins in classical civilization. As Anthony Grafton has pointed out, Burckhardt’s account of Alberti was fundamentally based on the latter’s autobiography, in which Alberti had in turn sought to cast himself in the mold of the great man of ancient times. The heroic concept of the great man subsequently became central to most accounts of the Renaissance. Even Engels, who was hardly an exponent of the importance of individuals in the historical process, wrote enthusiastically of the Renaissance as a period of universal “giants,” exemplified by Leonardo.
A heroic image of Alberti could be employed to a number of ends. In Girolamo Mancini’s major monograph of 1882, for example, Alberti became a symbol of the Risorgimento. Mancini explained in the preface that he considered it a citizenly duty to restore Alberti, who had been such a great benefactor to the patria, to the fame that he deserved. For not only was Alberti an important figure in the emergence of the Italian vernacular and a man gripped with the spirit of Italian renewal, but his own life and treatment by posterity seemed to parallel Italian history. After all, it was not long after Alberti’s death that there began “the fatal period of servitude to foreigners.” Alberti was forgotten. “He had taught the way in which men, families, and nations become preeminent, prosper, and resist calamities,” Mancini observed. “They did not listen and the descendants paid by measure of tears and blood for the faults of the ancestors.” Alberti’s works and reputation, we are told, dwindled into obscurity and were revived only when Italy herself began her revival toward the end of the eighteenth century. Mancini closed the book, just as he began it, with a patriotic, autobiographical note: “In early youth I put myself to search for information about him [Alberti], and fancying to tell his life story I girded myself up to put the longed-for project into action. Then, for a long time, I was prevented from realizing my youthful design by family affairs, private matters, and the patria, which, for its reconstruction, required the work of all its children and was served by me on town and provincial councils, in Parliament, and with arms in the volunteers’ corps.”
The years spent in the archives researching Alberti’s life, it is implied, were part of an act of patriotic duty similar to those listed above. Mancini’s archival work was of no little consequence. A brilliant and thorough scholar, he unearthed documents and works by Alberti that formed the basis on which modern studies were founded. His overall view of Alberti was also influential for the literature that followed. Alberti was later singled out again as one of the great figures in Italian culture when his Momus was republished with an Italian translation by a fascist press.
Alberti, the Renaissance, and Architectural History
Alberti was thus connected at an early stage to a rather heroic conception of the Renaissance, portrayed as one of the first to throw off the shackles of the Middle Ages and usher in modernity. Subsequent developments in Renaissance historiography sometimes served to reinforce this idea. Perhaps the most dramatic of these was the postwar view of the Renaissance pioneered by Hans Baron, which emphasized the importance of “civic humanism” as exemplified by the writings of Leonardo Bruni. This idea of the Renaissance was broadly positive and sometimes teleological, as can be seen from Baron’s The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, written in the direct aftermath of the Second World War and published in 1955. Writing in the tradition of Sismondi, Baron argued that Florence’s lone defense of her republic against the Milanese tyranny of Giangaleazzo Visconti from 1400 to 1402 was a crucial moment in the formation of the Renaissance and, by implication, in the history of the world. With the rest of Italy under the Milanese yoke, the Florentines developed a political culture and discourse based on the liberty they so treasured, which went on to form the basis of modern political thought. Baron’s language is emotive. He describes the Florentines’ “heroic defiance” of the “triumph of tyranny” as the “Athens on the Arno” stood “alone to confront one of those challenges of history in which a nation, facing eclipse or regeneration, has to prove its worth in a fight for survival.” Baron is quite explicit about the influence of the recent war on his writings, saying,
One cannot trace the history of this explosive stage in the genesis of the states-system of the Renaissance without being struck by its resemblance to events in modern history when unifying conquest loomed over Europe. In a like fashion, Napoleon and Hitler, poised on the coast of the English channel and made confident by their victories over every relevant power but one, waited for the propitious time for their final leap. . . . This is the only perspective from which one can adequately reconstruct the crisis of the summer of 1402 and grasp its material and psychological significance for the political history of the Renaissance, and in particular for the growth of the Florentine civic spirit.
Baron, moreover, spells out the process of historical evolution, linking the Italian city-states to those of ancient Greece and arguing that they reflected the modern system of nations in embryo. “The issue,” he writes, “was an alternative between two diametrically opposed ways into the future. One possible outcome would be a system of equal states including princedoms and republics—an equilibrium of forces making Renaissance Italy in some respects akin to the Greek pattern of independent city-states and, in other respects, a miniature prototype of the modern western family of nations.”
Alberti was not a major figure in Baron’s scheme, since his writings did not much resemble those of Salutati, Bruni, and the rest. Indeed, in a perceptive essay, Baron explored the extent to which Alberti’s thought diverged from that of his “civic humanist” predecessors. Nonetheless, Alberti was sometimes called a civic humanist by scholars who did not give much consideration to his political thought. More generally, this postwar version of the Renaissance sustained the idea of the period as a leap toward modernity, in which the narrow constraints of the Middle Ages were left behind. The Renaissance, Baron appears to suggest, was nothing less than the ancestor of Western democracy. Such a framework did not provide much impetus to reassess Alberti’s thought, since it continued the tradition of a positive, progressive Renaissance, the movement to which Alberti had become inextricably bound.
The greater part of Alberti scholarship for a long while adhered to the figure cut by Burckhardt. Many of the dominant narratives of Renaissance scholarship and sometimes, by extension, of Alberti himself, were markedly teleological. Their final destinations may have diverged (modern unified Italy for Mancini; the twentieth-century Western democracy for Baron), but they shared the view of the Renaissance as essentially forward looking and progressive. Time and again, the Renaissance has been characterized as one of the great periods of history and specifically linked with both classical civilization and the Enlightenment. Voltaire, for example, ranked the age of the Medici—along with those of Pericles, Augustus, and Louis XIV—as one of the great peaks of history. Walter Pater, who strongly emphasized the link between the Renaissance and the classical period, also connected it to the Enlightenment, pointedly including an essay on Winkelmann in his famous volume Renaissance. More recently, the historian George Holmes titled his 1969 book on Florentine fifteenth-century humanism The Florentine Enlightenment. He went further still, calling his first chapter “The Humanist Avant-Garde” and thereby implicitly connecting the Renaissance not only with the Enlightenment but also with the cultural developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the birth of modernism itself.
This idea of the great periods of history provides a clue in understanding the enduring image of Alberti. For it was, above all, in the sphere of cultural history that periods were generally judged to have been exceptional or not. The very idea of the Renaissance, in its modern sense, grew out of the fledgling discourse of the history of art and architecture, rather than history proper. Alberti, as an architect, architectural and artistic theorist, and urbanist, accordingly occupied a place of great importance. Indeed, it can hardly be missed that those periods of history typically identified as “great” in these narratives—ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and the Enlightenment—coincide more or less exactly with key phases in the development of “classical” architecture. As the author of De re aedificatoria, Alberti thus provides a crucial historical link, connecting the culture of his own period, through Vitruvius and the architectural principles of the ancient builders, to that of the ancient world, and bequeathing this legacy to the academicians, treatise writers, and architects of the Enlightenment.
These great historical periods, it should be stressed, typically have been seen as pinnacles not only in the history of architecture but also in the history of the city. Civilization, not unreasonably, has been viewed as an outgrowth of the civitas and, by extension, the urbs. Thus, in the introduction to the 1952 text Golden Ages of the Great Cities, Sir Ernest Barker writes,
The purpose of this book . . . has been to assemble (as it were on a necklace or in a coronet) a collection of historical essays on the dozen or so most famous cities of Europe, as they were at the time of their highest civilization and the peak of their cultural influence. There is a reason, and a cogent reason for this concentration on the city. Etymology is sufficient to teach us that the city (civitas) is the nursing mother of civilization. The Greek city-state, or Polis, was the original fountain of the notion of a free political society composed of equal citizens living together in fraternity under a system of ordered justice. The city-state, or civitas, of Rome was the source of our notions of civilization, or “civility” (or in other words the way of life which belongs to cities); and another Latin word for city—the word urbs—has produced the tradition of “urbanity,” that is to say of grace and good manners in social intercourse. A book on the golden cities of Europe, as they stood at their prime, is accordingly also a book on the sources and springs of European civilization.
Of course, Renaissance Florence is represented in the subsequent pages in an essay by Harold Acton, along with the other cities that one might expect to see. Acton argues that during the fifteenth century, “Florence was the centre of human culture, second only to Athens in its influence on European civilization.” Again, the overall conception of the work, written during the cold war, is teleological. The final city discussed is New York, the modern city par excellence, which was in the process of cementing its takeover from Paris as the cultural center of the Western world. New York, center of culture and beacon of liberty, stands as the inheritor of a long civic and cultural tradition that begins in democratic Athens and travels by way of republican Florence. That such narratives still have life is amply demonstrated by recent events. It is surely no accident that the British government’s Urban Task Force, chaired by the high-profile architect Lord Rogers of Riverside, titled its 1999 report Towards an Urban Renaissance. Aside from the reference to Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture, the title employs the word “renaissance” both to signal the rebirth of the city and to associate it with what is seen as a great period in urban history. This message is spelled out in the first paragraph of the report’s opening chapter: “From Hellenic Athens and classical Rome, to renaissance Florence and Georgian London, history is rich with examples of towns and cities which embodied the best of urban tradition. These were the places which stimulated new ideas and transacted knowledge. They inspired generations in terms of their design, their economic strength and their cultural diversity. They live on as a reminder of the vital links which can be forged between city and citizen.” Here again is the familiar narrative employed by historians and art historians since the eighteenth century, aimed directly at influencing urban planning in Britain at the start of the twenty-first century. The great eras of history are also seen as the great eras of the city, just as they were for Voltaire, Burckhardt, and Engels, to name but a few. Even Ruskin would have recognized the story, although he would have interpreted it differently.
The historical reputation of Renaissance Florence is of particular importance here because of its effect on ideas about Alberti as an urbanist. The Renaissance has been thought of as a pinnacle of urban history in two specific ways: first, it witnessed the flourishing of the actual city, generally exemplified by Florence, and second, it witnessed the creation of a body of theoretical writing about the city, as exemplified by De re aedificatoria. It is perhaps not surprising then that the boundaries have on occasion become blurred and that Alberti, the son of a prominent Florentine family and a eulogist of Florentine art and architecture, has sometimes been seen as advocating a city organized along Florentine lines. Westfall, for example, strongly implies that Florence and its civic-humanist political philosophy were at the base of Alberti’s speculations:
The architectural treatise contains an extremely advanced consciousness of activity as a positive virtue, and it is permeated with the belief that civic activity which involves all citizens in the actions of the city brings order to the city. Alberti acquired this belief in Florence. The individual, the city, and virtue were among the main issues under discussion among the humanists in Florence when he arrived for his first extended residence in his patria in 1434. During the two decades that followed he argued that the individual must actively use his talents and that the city should be his arena.
There is double cause to be cautious here, for not only is the idea of Alberti as a “civic humanist” highly questionable, but the image of Renaissance Florence is also far from contentious. Historians of Florentine art and architecture have, perhaps understandably, tended to idealize their accounts of the city, connecting its cultural flourish to the “republican” constitution—sometimes in a rather nonspecific way. The effect of such ideas on perceptions of Alberti is exemplified by Samuel Y. Edgerton’s 1976 text The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective, in which Renaissance Florence is discussed under the heading “Alberti’s Florence.” Edgerton does not examine Alberti’s urban theory here, but he does draw a direct link between Florence and Alberti’s character and ideas. “The miracle of Renaissance art and thought,” he writes, “including the advent of linear perspective, owed in large measure to the unique institution of the Italian city-state, with its republican form of government. The relatively small size of these Italian states itself encouraged individuality by making possible frequent and easy communication between the lowliest citizens and the top-level governmental administrators, for new ideas to find reception and reward, and for unorthodox opinion to enjoy tolerance. Indeed, the city-state fostered a general feeling that any citizen could make his fame and fortune through the exercise of pure intelligence.”
The claim that the formulation of the rules of linear perspective owed in large measure to the republican form of government in Florence, though not absurd, is nonetheless rather startling. One wonders how it could then be possible that so much high-quality mathematical and artistic theory emerged from, for instance, ducal Urbino. Edgerton’s account of Florence must be considered rather partial. As many historians have pointed out, one could equally construct an image of Florence as a city with quite staggering disparities of wealth, where the poor were harshly treated and where few, in reality, enjoyed political rights. Nor was life guaranteed to be pleasurable for the rich, for whom factional struggles could be devastating. The image of Florence as a society offering a kind of equality of opportunity, where anyone could make their fame and fortune on the basis of sharp wits and enthusiasm, would seem, at the very least, to be overstating the case. The purpose of this book is not to rehash debates about the historiography of Renaissance Florence, nor to brand the city, in a simplistic manner, as having been essentially “nice” or “nasty.” We should be aware, however, of the effects that idealizing scholarship can and have had on our image of Alberti as a Florentine and as an urbanist.
This is not to deny that Florence made a strong impression on Alberti. The exile of his family came to an end in 1428, and he became acquainted with his patria soon afterward. The famous preface to the Tuscan version of his treatise on painting, De pictura, amply testifies to the enthusiasm that the city inspired in him. He addressed the work to Brunelleschi, who had succeeded in constructing the vast dome of Florence Cathedral without recourse to wooden centering—a previously unheard-of feat of engineering. “I used both to marvel,” Alberti writes, “and to regret that so many excellent and divine arts and sciences, which we know from their works and from historical accounts were possessed in great abundance by the talented men of antiquity, have now disappeared and are almost entirely lost. . . . Consequently I believed what I heard many say that Nature, mistress of all things, had grown old and weary, and was no longer producing intellects any more than giants on a vast and wonderful scale such as she did in what one might call her youthful and more glorious days.” Alberti’s introduction to Florence, however, caused a change of heart:
But after I came back here to this most beautiful of cities from the long exile in which we Albertis have grown old, I recognized in many, but above all in you, Filippo, and in our great friend the sculptor Donatello and in the others, Nencio, Luca and Masaccio, a genius for every laudable enterprise in no way inferior to any of the ancients who gained fame in these arts. I then realized that the ability to achieve the highest distinction in any meritorious activity lies in our own industry and diligence no less than in the favours of Nature and of the times. I admit that for the ancients, who had many precedents to learn from and to imitate, it was less difficult to master those noble arts which for us today prove arduous; but it follows that our fame should be all the greater if without preceptors and without any model to imitate we discover arts and sciences hitherto unheard of and unseen. What man, however hard of heart or jealous, would not praise Filippo the architect when he sees here such an enormous construction towering above the skies, vast enough to cover the entire Tuscan population with its shadow, and done without the aid of beams or elaborate wooden supports? Surely a feat of engineering, if I am not mistaken, that people did not believe possible these days and was probably equally unknown and unimaginable among the ancients.
The youthful Alberti was clearly impressed by the city and enthused by the architectural and artistic accomplishments of his Florentine compatriots, going so far as to argue that they had surpassed even the ancients. Such enthusiasm must surely bear on Alberti’s urban thought, but we should not consider this preface the last word on his position regarding Florence. It must be remembered that it is a dedicatory piece of writing and is naturally laudatory in tone. One must balance Alberti’s enthusiasm with his remark later in life that he never managed to feel truly at home in his patria. “I am like a foreigner there,” he says in the De iciarchia. “I went there too rarely, and lived there too little.” Florence was undoubtedly of great importance in shaping Alberti’s urban thought, but that does not mean that we should understand his attitude toward it as one of straightforward approval. Much less should Florence be considered the model for an ideal city that Alberti advocates in De re aedificatoria.
It is no exaggeration to say that Alberti studies have undergone a revolution in the last forty years. Led by Eugenio Garin’s pioneering article of 1973, many scholars have radically reassessed Alberti’s reputation and position. Having discovered some previously unknown Intercenales (the short “dinner pieces” written by Alberti throughout the 1430s and 1440s), Garin began to see Alberti as a “disquieting, unforeseeable, and bizarre writer,” constantly engaging in “games of wild fantasy and affected styles.” Rather than the positive, civic-minded individual he had sometimes been made to appear, Alberti stood out for his pessimism and sense of existential crisis. The effects of Garin’s intervention may hardly be overstated; one distinguished scholar has recently described Garin’s writings on Alberti as being the first worth reading since those of Cristoforo Landino in the fifteenth century. Unsurprisingly, many scholars followed Garin’s lead, and a vigorous revisionist current developed in Alberti scholarship.
Alongside this reassessment, and to a large extent stimulated by it, there has been an ever greater focus on particular aspects of Alberti’s oeuvre. Light has been shed on many hitherto dark corners, and some of the texts that were traditionally considered less important have received more attention. There is now a journal titled Albertiana, the Fondazione Centro Studi Leon Battista Alberti has been established in Mantua, and Alberti’s writings continue to appear in new editions and translations. Indeed, since the centenary celebrations of 2004, the field of Alberti studies has rather exploded and a series of major conferences and exhibitions has stimulated an exponential rise in new publications.
It might seem surprising that any one figure could sustain the kind of attention that Alberti has received in recent years. That it has been possible in Alberti’s case is testament to one thing above all: the stunning richness of his writings. Alberti, it must be emphasized from the beginning, was a writer of extraordinary brilliance and originality. We should not mistake him for an architect and theorist of the arts who also produced some minor literary works. Nor should we characterize him as a kind of humanist hack, adept at stringing together commonplaces and churning out derivative treatises. On the contrary, Alberti ought to be recognized as a major figure in the literary history of Italy and Europe—a highly original Latin stylist who also developed a fundamentally new kind of vernacular literature. Alberti’s writings turn an acute and sophisticated eye on man and the world, regarding them in all of their moral and intellectual complexity.
One can readily see why increased attention has been paid to Alberti’s literary output in recent decades. Apart from the rediscovery of a number of the Intercenales, a growing interest in literary irony and ambiguity from the mid-twentieth century provided fertile ground for a new appreciation of Alberti’s works. Moreover, some of the most prominent features of his writings cohere closely with those things that have been of greatest interest to postmodernist critics—for example, his intertextuality and his persistent authorial self-reflection. Much insight has been gained from the approach, pioneered by Roberto Cardini, that conceives of Alberti’s writings as a form of literary mosaic that may be dismantled by a patient scholar. Such an approach, which strongly foregrounds intertextuality, appears to be sanctioned by Alberti himself in a passage of the Profugiorum ab aerumna in which a character uses a mosaic floor as a simile for literary composition.
It is quite understandable that the reassessment of Alberti’s writing has taken place largely, although by no means exclusively, in Italian. While Alberti’s literary contribution was for a long time rather ignored, this was perhaps less the case in Italy than elsewhere. Certainly, Anglophone scholarship—with some important exceptions—tended for a long time to regard him as, above all, an architect and theorist of the arts, relegating his literary works to an inferior position. Italian, quite naturally, remains the language of Alberti scholarship today, and the majority of newly published material has appeared in that language.
One of the most important results of the reassessment of Alberti has been a new focus on his comic “novel” Momus. Having remained in relative obscurity for centuries, the Momus is now hailed as a unique and brilliant masterpiece, one of Alberti’s most significant achievements. It has appeared in new editions and recently in English translation for the first time ever. Satirical in intention, the Momus undoubtedly takes aim at the papacy and the curia. Scholars have successively rolled back the presumed date of its composition so that it is now no longer seen to target only Eugenius IV but perhaps even the entire papacy of Nicholas V as well. It is likely that Alberti’s work on the Momus overlapped to some degree with his work on De re aedificatoria.
Momus is the story of a minor deity, the god of harsh and biting criticism. Although lowly in status, Alberti tells us, Momus is a thoroughly unique individual entirely unlike any other god or man. He is not simply a contrarian but despises gods and men in equal measure. Alberti relates an intricate narrative in which Momus, having offended the gods and challenged the position of Jupiter, is awarded the same punishment suffered by Prometheus. Desperate to avoid this, Momus takes flight and falls through a hole in the heavens. He finds himself in Etruria, where he must live as an exile among men and where he instantly invents new ways to pursue his vendetta against the gods. He becomes first a poet who tells only of the immoral ways of the gods, and then a philosopher in the cynic mode, arguing that gods do not exist, or none such as would pay the slightest heed to human beings. In a short period of time, Momus succeeds in reducing a formerly pious people to a nation of atheists.
The gods ultimately decide that it would be less risky to bring Momus back to heaven than to allow him to continue his activities on earth, and thus he is restored to his old dignity. However, he is not the same individual as he was before. Having learned from men the arts of simulation and dissimulation, Momus prospers as a courtier and is able to convince Jupiter, in revenge for his ill treatment at the hands of men, that the world should be destroyed and replaced with a new and superior version. Momus’s strategy eventually comes unstuck as he allows his mask to slip. This time he does not escape the wrath of the gods and ends up castrated and chained to a rock in the ocean with only his head above the surface of the water.
Momus is animated by a pervasive satirical energy that is directed at all and sundry: gods, mortals, philosophers, and particularly, in the form of Jupiter, the figure of the ruler. There is a clear debt to Lucian, and Alberti explains early on that he wrote in a consciously ironic style. The reader should both laugh and learn; although his manner may be comic, Alberti says that he will address subjects of the utmost seriousness. Given the playful nature of the text, it is not surprising that the interpretation of Momus should have proved difficult. We are continually left uncertain as to where the author’s irony begins and ends. Momus reveals an intense interest in the notion of dissimulation, the adoption of masks, cunning speech, and the issue of appearances that are at variance with reality. It appears to be marked by emotional ferment and contradictory sentiments of bitterness, mockery, self-doubt, and exultation. The text feels distinctly subversive, even if we might sometimes struggle to identify exactly what is at stake. It also feels, just as Alberti says of Momus himself, as though it is rather different from any other work of the period. It has been suggested that Alberti proposes here a radically new form of humorism.
In a pioneering essay, Manfredo Tafuri suggested that Momus is a crucial text for understanding Alberti as a theorist of architecture. Indeed, he asserted that Momus stands in a dialogue with De re aedificatoria and that each work must be read with an eye to its counterpart. Arguing from this premise, Tafuri succeeded in turning received wisdom on its head: Alberti was not the architectural brain behind Nicholas V’s renovatio of Rome but was instead a dissident figure, one who was highly skeptical of the pope’s architectural schemes. Tafuri observed that a close reading of the Momus and De re together remained to be undertaken but would likely be highly remunerative. Many steps have since been taken toward this end, and Tafuri’s view has largely prevailed. The current study is nothing like the systematic reading of the two texts that Tafuri proposed, but it shall, nonetheless, make frequent reference to the Momus. More broadly, the principle that Alberti’s architectural theory and his literary output are strongly interrelated shall be observed here. Alberti’s architectural thought has sometimes been treated as though it may be entirely separable from his more literary work. However, an attentive reading of the texts does not support such a view.
That is not to say that there are not methodological advantages to be had by concentrating on individual works. Françoise Choay’s structuralist reading of De re considers the treatise apart from Alberti’s other works, as a fundamentally distinct order of writing, and constitutes one of the major recent contributions to our understanding of Alberti as an urbanist. Choay argues that Alberti does not offer an ideal city in De re but rather is concerned with generative rules for the entire built domain. An ideal city may well exist, she argues, in the Theogenius or the Della famiglia, but not in De re. Such has more or less become the orthodoxy regarding Alberti and the city, and many scholars have since dismissed the term “ideal city” altogether, arguing that it is inapplicable not only to Alberti but to the fifteenth century in general.
It is certainly true that Alberti does not propose an ideal city in De re, nor does he do so in any of his other works. The issue of the city for Alberti, one senses, was too complex for such reductive treatment. Moreover, he was not interested in unobtainable ideals but in what might truly be achieved. Alberti was born in exile, and we might speculate that for exiles the city became a “question” in a way that it was not for ordinary citizens. Excluded from their patria, exiles were forced to turn a more objective eye on the other cities of the peninsula—to compare one city to the next, consider the advantages and disadvantages of each, and ask what really constitutes a functioning and attractive urban environment. Precisely this point is raised in the Della famiglia when the young humanist Lionardo asks the elderly Giannozzo how he would choose a city in which to live in a foreign land. “How would you be able to tell whether the city is suitable in every respect?” Lionardo inquires. “Would it not be difficult to recognize, not to speak of finding it?”
Giannozzo replies with a lengthy discourse in which he enumerates those features that one should search for in the good city. It should have a healthy environment, not be too exposed to enemy attack, be sited in fertile land without the need to import necessities, and be free from disease, easy to withdraw from in emergencies, and populated with honest and wealthy citizens. Most of all, it should be justly administered, something that in itself will protect from “enemy attack, adversity, or the wrath of God.” This prompts Lionardo to ask, “Where is one ever to find a city with so many marvelous qualities? Unless you think Venice is less lacking in these virtues than any other city, for I know you enjoy living there. As for me, I certainly think such a city would be difficult to find.” “Nevertheless,” maintains Giannozzo, “I should look for it, for I should not want to be sorry later because of my negligence. I should settle in the city where the best and the largest number of the things I mentioned are to be found.” This type of pragmatic formulation is typical of Alberti’s thinking.
It should be no surprise, then, that he does not offer us an ideal city. Alberti does, however, offer a range of proposals and considers a number of different urban situations, some of which cohere well with one another. His speculations regarding the city have a remarkable richness, the same richness that pervades a great deal of his thought. Indeed, Alberti’s general reluctance to reduce the tensions inherent in intellectual positions and his tendencies to highlight ambivalence and to explore oppositions are some of the things that make him an important and compelling thinker.
Any student of Alberti must confront difficult problems of interpretation. Time and again, scholars have commented that Alberti often appears to face in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, there is the Alberti who believes that man is born to be of use to his fellow man, a staunch defender of the active life with supreme confidence in reason and the value of the liberal arts. There is Alberti the builder, literally remaking the city according to humanistic principles. However, these facets of Alberti’s character are balanced by others: Alberti the disillusioned skeptic, the bitter and wounded exile and orphan, the man who despairs of human nature and detects vanitas in man’s supposedly great undertakings. These binary opposites can feel unsatisfactory, and many scholars have, from time to time, spoken of the need to restore Alberti to a unified whole. Yet it is hard to read Alberti’s works without the impression that he is indeed, in many ways, a divided thinker. The reader must also keep in mind that Alberti’s works are many and various, comprising a number of different orders of writing and produced for different purposes. Many Albertian works touch on common themes, but they cannot be read as though they might constitute a single text.
Like all humanist writers, Alberti makes frequent allusion to antique literature. He was fond of Terence’s maxim nihil dictum quin prius dictum (nothing is said which has not been said before), and a considerable portion of his writings is made up of material that could be described as commonplace. This complicates matters for the reader, who is sometimes left wondering whether Alberti is speaking his mind or merely going through the motions, saying the kind of things that “everyone” said. There is a temptation to dismiss much of Alberti’s discourse (for example, when he writes about town versus country) as being merely the reiteration of commonplaces. Where topoi are employed, it has sometimes been suggested, we will learn more about Alberti’s attitudes toward writing than his attitudes toward the subject being discussed. Yet this approach does a kind of violence to Alberti’s creations. While his works do indeed contain material that has been taken from ancient and other sources, they must also be considered as wholes—texts that are animated by their own particular driving force. In reality, all language, as Alberti is fond of reminding us, has a history. All language is made up of things that have been uttered before, and all utterances have the potential to drag their histories along behind them. Alberti must be read with an eye to his own arguments and to the consistency of his positions.
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