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Leon Battista Alberti

(1404—1472) Italian architect, humanist, painter, and art critic

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Uomo universale of the Italian early Renaissance, and architect of genius (though never involved in the actual building of his designs), he was the first architectural theorist of the Renaissance, and established the moral and intellectual essence of architecture, placing it in realms more exalted than those inhabited by the master-craftsman of the medieval period (although there had been exceptions then).

Born in Genoa, educated at Padua and Bologna, he visited Florence in 1428 where he became acquainted with leading intellectuals: in his De Pictura (the Italian version of 1436 is dedicated to Brunelleschi) he provided the first written description of the principles of perspective. His admiration of the achievements of Brunelleschi and his appreciation of the importance of architecture in the revitalization of the spirit of Antiquity led him to a study of theoretical and archaeological bases, and therefore to Rome, where he became closely involved in the Papal Court from 1431. In Descriptio urbis Romanae (1443), a key work of Roman topography, his understanding of Antiquity and of Renaissance principles of proportion is displayed. He became an intimate of Tommaso Parentucelli, who became Pope Nicholas V (1447–55), and Alberti became consultant to the Papacy on architectural and restoration projects. In 1452 he presented his De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building) to the Pope: the book (published complete in 1486), intended to be a modern equivalent of Vitruvius's great work, encapsulated concerns with the Orders and proportion, extolled Antique architecture, gave practical advice, and explained the principles of Roman civic design and how they had contemporary significance. The book was translated into English by Leoni and first published in 1726–9 as The Architecture of L. B. Alberti, with subsequent editions of 1739 and 1753–5: a new edition, edited by Joseph Rykwert, was published in 1966.

Alberti prepared plans (from 1450) for the transformation of the medieval church of San Francesco in Rimini into a mortuary-chapel-cum-mausoleum for Sigismondo Malatesta (1417–68), Lord of Rimini. He encased the Gothic structure in Classical ashlar fabric, with an unfinished front (the first Renaissance example of a Classical west front on a basilican church), the lower part of which is based on a Roman triumphal arch (symbolizing Christian triumph over death). The Tempio Malatestiano (as it became known) was a deeply serious building, evoking the power and severity of Ancient Roman architecture.

C15 perception of the Romanesque Church of San Miniato al Monte, Florence, as Antique probably inspired Alberti in his designs for the west front of the Gothic Church of Santa Maria Novella in that city (1456–70), executed in a skin of coloured marble applied to the brick structure behind. This celebrated front is an attempted solution to the problem of providing a Classical façade for the traditional basilican shape of a clerestoreyed nave with lean-to aisles: the Orders framing the central doorway (itself based on that of the Roman Pantheon) and the blind arcading merge the triumphal-arch theme with the treatment of the façade of San Miniato. Above, the crowning pediment is carried on an entablature and four pilasters, suggesting a temple-front, and large scrolls hide the roofs of the aisles. There are clear geometrical relationships between the various parts of the façade and the whole, and these complex interconnections are the first use of harmonic proportions in the Renaissance period. This design was carried out for Giovanni Rucellai (1403–81), for whom Alberti also prepared a scheme for the façade of the new palazzo (erected under the direction of Bernardo di Matteo Gambarelli, called Rossellino, c.1460). The Palazzo Rucellai was the first domestic Renaissance building in which each storey was defined by an Order (but owes something to Brunelleschi's Palazzo di Parte Guelfa).


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