The Triumph of the City



The Early Renaissance

(Renaissance  Art Map)




In the 15th century, humanism, a new intellectual movement, broke with medieval
scholastic traditions and renewed an appreciation of language, literature, and the wonders
of the ancient world. In Italy, artists looked back to the art of Rome, while, in Flemish cities,
the sense of "renewal" was expressed in a move towards greater naturalism. The
combination of these two interpretations gave birth to modern European art.


Leon Battista Alberti



Interest in the classical world had never been very strong in the Middle Ages. However, it emerged as the driving force in the development of European culture from the middle of the 15th century, a period of revival known as the Renaissance. The recovery and imitation of ancient texts and classical sculptures led to a marked transformation of intellectual life, which encompassed the study of human relations in literature (hence the term humanism), as well as philosophy, art, and historical biography. Those engaged in the rediscovery of Latin and Greek texts, including the poets Petrarch (1304-74) and Poliziano (1454-94). were also interested in art and artists. The study of classical authors and their works, notably Pliny (ad23-79) and his Historia Naturalis, and De Architectura (before ad27) by Vitruvius, favoured an upsurge in the ideal of "rebirth". This concept of revival also found expression in the figurative arts and in architecture. It ranged from the Triumphs of Caesar, created by Mantegna Andrea  (1431-1506) for the court of the Gonzagas, who ruled Mantua for 300 years, to the design by Leon Battista Alberti (c. 1404-72) for the Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini. The link between humanist studies and the figurative arts was particularly evident in the methods used for the interpretation of art itself; these were initially borrowed from classical rhetoric: ekfrasis, an analytical and descriptive narrative system, became the basis on which humanist circles in the Po Valley judged and appreciated the delicate and fantastical art of Pisanello (c.1380-1455) and Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370-1420). Elsewhere, composition, which in the art of rhetoric was the essential element in the construction of a speech, became a principal criterion for artistic theory; this was cited by Leon Battista Alberti in his influential book De Pictura (1435), a work marking the transition from medieval attitudes to the new humanist outlook on the arts. This link with the literary world shows a desire to instil in the figurative arts a sense of social interaction and responsibility. Change was also seen in architecture, thanks partly to the architectural theory of Antonio Averlino, known as Filarete (c. 1400-69), which attempted to explain in scientific terms the component pieces of construction. The literary influences on painting and sculpture changed decisively after the last medieval book of prescriptions, dating from the late 14th century. Writings on art such as those by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Albrecht Durer  (1471-1528) now gained greater authority.



Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, decided to build a chapel as a family mausoleum in 1447. His chosen site was the convent church of San Francesco, where the Florentine artist Giotto had painted frescos in the apse during the 13th century. The complete restoration of the building was planned by Leon Battista Alberti, and executed by Matteo di Pasti of Verona. The decoration in relief was carried out by the Sienese painter Agostino di Duccio (1418-c.1481). San Francesco was transformed from a brick church into a secular "temple" (known as the Tempio Malatestiano), with a new external marble shell. The south facade recaptures the Vitruvian order with a copy of the triumphal arch of Augustus, flanked on each side by smaller, blind arches resembling Roman aqueducts. The pagan effect is created by the exquisite reliefs of Sigismondo, his wife Isotta, the Malatesta arms, cherubs, and signs of the Zodiac. The two, huge elephants that support the sarcophagus represent the Malatesta heraldic emblem. The Tempio, however, still remains unfinished. It is famous for its Crucifixion, a marvellous work possibly painted by Giotto in about 1310, as well as the fresco show ing the tyrannical Sigismondo kneeling in prayer before the patron saint, a reference to a visit made by Piero della Francesca to the temple in 1451.


Leon Battista Alberti

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born Feb. 14, 1404, Genoa
died April 25, 1472, Rome

Italian Humanist, architect, and principal initiator of Renaissance art theory. In his personality, works, and breadth of learning, he is considered the prototype of the Renaissance “universal man.”

Childhood and education

The society and class into which Alberti was born endowed him with the intellectual and moral tendencies he was to articulate and develop over a lifetime. He belonged to one of the wealthy merchant-banker families of Florence. At the time of his birth, the Alberti were in exile, expelled from Florence by the oligarchical government then dominated by the Albizzi family. Alberti's father, Lorenzo, was managing the family's concerns in Genoa, where Battista was born. Shortly thereafter he moved to Venice, where he raised Battista (Leo or Leon was a name adopted in later life) and his elder brother, Carlo. Both sons were illegitimate, the natural offspring of Lorenzo and a Bolognese widow, but they were to be Lorenzo's only children and his heirs. An affectionate and responsible father, Lorenzo provided his sons with a Florentine stepmother (whom he married in 1408), and he attended carefully to their education.

It was from his father that Battista received his mathematical training. The useful intellectual tools of the businessman inspired in him a lifelong love for the regular, for rational order, and a lasting delight in the practical application of mathematical principles. “Nothing pleases me so much,” Alberti was to have a figure in one of his dialogues remark, “as mathematical investigations and demonstrations, especially when I can turn them to some useful practice as Battista here did, who drew from mathematics the principles of painting [perspective] and also his amazing propositions on the moving of weights.” As in Leonardo da Vinci's case, mathematics led Alberti into several seemingly disparate fields of learning and practice. At one stroke, it resolved a diversity of problems and awakened an appreciation of the rational structure and processes of the physical world.

His early formal education was Humanistic. At the age of 10 or 11, Alberti was sent to boarding school in Padua. There he was given the classical Latin training that was to be denied to Leonardo, illegitimate son of a poor notary in a rustic village of Tuscany. The “new learning” was largely literary, and Alberti emerged from the school an accomplished Latinist and literary stylist. Relishing his skill as a classicist, he wrote a Latin comedy at the age of 20 that was acclaimed as the “discovered” work of a Roman playwright—and was still published as a Roman work in 1588 by the famous Venetian press of Aldus Manutius. But it was the content rather than the form of the classical authors that absorbed Alberti as a youth and throughout his life. As for most Humanists, the literature of ancient Rome opened up for him the vision of an urbane, secular, and rational world that seemed remarkably similar to the emerging life of the Italian cities and met its cultural needs. He brought his own emotional and intellectual tendencies to “the ancients,” but from them he drew the conceptual substance of his thought.

Alberti completed his formal education at the University of Bologna in an apparently joyless study of law. His father's death and the unexpected seizure of his legacy by certain members of thefamily brought him grief and impoverishment during his seven-yearstay at Bologna, but he persisted in his studies. After receiving his doctorate in canon law in 1428, he chose to accept a “literary” position as a secretary rather than pursue a legal career. By 1432 he was a secretary in the Papal Chancery in Rome (which supportedseveral Humanists), and he had a commission from a highly placed ecclesiastical patron to rewrite the traditional lives of the saints and martyrs in elegant “classical” Latin. From this point on, the church was to provide him with his livelihood. He took holy orders, thus receiving in addition to his stipend as a papal secretary an ecclesiastical benefice, the priory of Gangalandi in the diocese of Florence, and some years later Nicholas V conferred upon him as well the rectory of Borgo San Lorenzo in Mugello. Although he led anexemplary, and apparently a celibate, life, there is almost nothing in his subsequent career to remind one of the fact that Alberti was a churchman. His interests and activities were wholly secular and began to issue in an impressive series of Humanistic and technical writings.

Contribution to philosophy, science, and the arts

The treatise “Della famiglia” (“On the Family”), which he began in Rome in 1432, is the first of several dialogues on moral philosophy upon which his reputation as an ethical thinker and literary stylist largely rests. He wrote these dialogues in the vernacular, expressly for a broad urban public that would not be skilled in Latin: for the non litteratis simi cittadini, as he called them. Based upon classical models, chiefly Cicero and Seneca, these works brought to the day-to-day concerns of a bourgeois society the reasonable counsel of the ancients—on the fickleness of fortune, on meeting adversity and prosperity, on husbandry, on friendship and family, on education and obligation to the common good. They are didactic and derivative, yet fresh with the tone and life-style of the Quattrocento (the 1400s). In Alberti's dialogues the ethical ideals of the ancient world are made to foster a distinctively modern outlook: a morality founded upon the idea of work. Virtue has become a matter of action, not of right thinking. It arises not out of serene detachment but out of striving, labouring, producing.

This ethic of achievement, which corresponds to the social reality ofhis youth, found ready acceptance in the urban society of central and northern Italy in which Alberti moved after 1434. Travelling with the papal court of Eugenius IV to Florence (the ban of exile against his family was lifted with the restoration of Medici influence), Bologna, and Ferrara, Alberti made several congenial and fruitful contacts. The writings, both the Latin and vernacular ones, that he dedicated to his new associates are imbued with his characteristic notions of work, practice, and productive activity; andhe took upon himself in turn the technical and practical problems that were absorbing his friends and patrons. In Florence his close associations with the sculptor Donatello and the architect Brunelleschi led to one of his major achievements: the systematization of the painter's perspective. The book On Painting, which he wrote in 1435, set forth for the first time the rules for drawing a picture of a three-dimensional scene upon the two-dimensional plane of a panel or wall. It had an immediate and profound effect upon Italian painting and relief work, giving rise to the correct, ample, geometrically ordered space of the perspectival Renaissance style. Later perspectival theorists, such as the painter Piero della Francesca and Leonardo, elaborated upon Alberti's work, but his principles remain as basic to the projective science of perspective as Euclid's do to plane geometry.

His friendship with the Florentine cosmographer Paolo Toscanelli was of comparable practical and scientific importance. It was Toscanelli who provided Columbus with the map that guided him on his first voyage. Alberti seems to have collaborated with him in astronomy rather than geography, but the two sciences were closely bound at the time (and bound to perspective) by the conceptions and methods of geometric mapping rediscovered in the writings of the ancient astronomer and geographer Ptolemy. Alberti's distinctive contribution to this current of thought took theform of a small treatise on geography, the first work of its kind sinceantiquity. It sets forth the rules for surveying and mapping a land area, in this case the city of Rome, and it was probably as influentialas his earlier treatise on painting. Although it is difficult to trace thehistorical connections, the methods of surveying and mapping and the instruments described by Alberti are precisely those that wereresponsible for the new scientific accuracy of the depictions of towns and land areas that date from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

At the Este court in Ferrara, where Alberti was first made a welcome guest in 1438, the Marchese Leonello encouraged (and commissioned) him to direct his talents toward another field of endeavour: architecture. Alberti's earliest effort at reviving classical forms of building still stands in Ferrara, a miniature triumphal arch that supports an equestrian statue of Leonello's father. Leonello inspired a great Humanistic undertaking as well as a mode of artistic practice on Alberti's part by urging him to restore the classic text of Vitruvius, architect and architectural theorist of the age of the Roman emperor Augustus. With customarythoroughness, Alberti embarked upon a study of the architectural and engineering practices of antiquity that he continued when he returned to Rome in 1443 with the papal court. By the time Nicholas V became pope in 1447, Alberti was knowledgeable enough to become the Pope's architectural adviser. The collaboration between Alberti and Nicholas V gave rise to the first grandiose building projects of Renaissance Rome, initiating among other works the reconstruction of St. Peter's and the Vatican Palace. As the Este prince was now dead, it was to Nicholas V that Alberti dedicated in 1452 the monumental theoretical result of his long study of Vitruvius. This was his De re aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture ), not a restored text of Vitruvius but a wholly new work, that won him his reputation as the “Florentine Vitruvius.” It became a bible of Renaissance architecture, for it incorporated and made advances upon the engineering knowledge of antiquity, and itgrounded the stylistic principles of classical art in a fully developedaesthetic theory of proportionality and harmony.

During the final 20 years of his life, Alberti carried out his architectural ideas in several outstanding buildings. The facades of Sta. Maria Novella and the Palazzo Rucellai, both executed in Florence for the merchant Giovanni Rucellai, are noted for their proportionality, their perfect sense of measure. They are worthy successors to the art of Brunelleschi, initiator of the Florentine Quattrocento style of architecture. Other buildings look forward to the 16th century, particularly to Donato Bramante, the architect of St. Peter's. The classical severity of Alberti's Tempio Malatestiano,commissioned by Sigismondo Malatesta, the ruler of Rimini, and thenew sense of volume and amplitude of the majestic Church of San Andrea, which he designed for Ludovico Gonzaga, the Humanist Marquess of Mantua, announce the fullness of the High Renaissance style. Alberti was not only the foremost theorist of Renaissance architecture: he had become one of its great practitioners as well.

Architecture preoccupied him during the 1450s and 1460s, and he traveled a great deal to the various cities and courts of RenaissanceItaly, but Rome and Florence remained his intellectual homes, and he continued to cultivate the interests they had always stimulated. In Rome, where republican life was precluded by the papal government, he was absorbed by technical and scientific matters. His response to certain problems entertained by members of the Papal Chancery led to two highly original works in this category. One is a grammar book, the first Italian grammar, by which he sought to demonstrate that the Tuscan vernacular was as “regular” a language as Latin and hence worthy of literary use. The other is a pioneer work in cryptography: it contains the first known frequency table and the first polyalphabetic system of coding by means of what seems to be Alberti's invention, the cipher wheel. Although he had been dismissed from the Papal Chancery in 1464 because ofthe retrenchment ordered by Pope Paul II, Alberti undertook this study, of obvious importance to the papacy, at the request of a friend who stayed on as a papal secretary.

In all his projects, Alberti employed his intellectual gifts in some “useful” work—useful to the artistic, cultivated, and courtly circles in which he moved, including painters and builders, mapmakers and astronomers, Humanists, princes, and popes. In all of his work, his versatility remained bound to the social outlook that characterized the “civic Humanism” of Florence.

It is fitting that his final and finest dialogue should be set in Florence and be written in the clear Tuscan prose he had helped to regularize and refine. Although the republicanism of Florence was now eclipsed, and Alberti now moved as a familiar in the circle of the princely Lorenzo de' Medici, De iciar chia (“On the Man of Excellence and Ruler of His Family”) represents in full flower the public-spirited Humanism of the earlier bourgeois age to which he belonged. Alberti is its chief protagonist, and no more appropriate figure is conceivable. For this dialogue, more than any other, celebrates the union of theory and practice that Florentine Humanism had attained and the ethic of achievement and public service that he himself had come to exemplify. De iciarchia was completed just a few years before his death. He died “content and tranquil,” according to the 16th-century biography by Giorgio Vasari.


Alberti was in the vanguard of the cultural life of early Renaissance Italy. He has been admired for his many-sided nature, as has Leonardo da Vinci, who followed him by half a century and resembles him in this respect. Yet in Alberti's case, unity as much as versatility typifies the man and his accomplishments. Leonardo's genius carried him further than Alberti: he saw more and saw more deeply. But Leonardo's vision has a “modern,” fragmentary character, whereas Alberti attained a completeness in thought and life that fulfilled the Renaissance ideals of measure and harmony. His intellectual and artistic pursuits were all of a piece, and he struck a unique balance between theory and practice, realizing this dominant aspiration of his age at the very moment social and political events had begun to cause it to fade.

Joan Kelly-Gadol




Leon Battista Alberti
c. 1435


Giorgio Vasari



Life of Leon Battista Alberti

Florentine architect, 1404 - 1472

Alberti devoted himself to the study of Latin and the practice of architecture, perspective, and painting, and he left to posterity a number of books which he wrote himself. Now none of our modern craftsmen has known how to write about these subjects, and so even though very many of them have done better work than Alberti, such has been the influence of his writings on the pens and speech of scholarly men that he is commonly believed to be superior to those who were, in fact, superior to him.




Leon Battista Alberti
Malatesta Temple
c. 1450


Malatesta Temple

Tempio Malatestiano (interior)

"Leon Battista happened to arrive in Rome during the pontificate of Nicholas V, who was turning the city upside down with his building projects, and he was befriended by his holiness. Using [the architect] Bernardo Rossellini to carry out the ideas supplied by Alberti, the Pope went ahead with many useful and commendable projects." I-210

"Subsequently, Alberti went to serve Sigismondo Malatesta, ruler of Rimini, for whom he designed the church of San Francesco, notably its marble facade, as well as the arcade of large arches facing the south and containing the sarcophagi for illustrious citizens." I-210

"Such was the quality of Alberti's work that it ranks without question as one of the foremost churches in Italy. It has six very lovely chapels, the one dedicated to St James being extremely ornate and containing many relics which originally came from Jerusalem." I-210

"Then in 1457, the year when the German Johann Gutenberg discovered his very useful method for printing books, Alberti similarly discovered a way of tracing natural perspectives and effecting the diminution of figures, as well as a method of reproducing small objects on a large scale; these were very ingenious and fascinating discoveries, of great value for the purposes of art." I-210


Leon Battista Alberti
Santa Maria Novella


Santa Maria Novella (door)

"In Leon Battista's time, meanwhile, Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai wished to build in marble, at his own expense, the principal facade of Santa Maria Novella; he consulted Alberti, who was a close friend of his, and, receiving not only advice but a model as well, Rucellai finally determined to have the work done as a memorial for himself." I-210

"So a start was made, and the facade was finished in 1477, to the great satisfaction of the people who were especially delighted with the door; and so it is clear that Alberti took exceptional trouble over this project." I-210

Palazzo Rucellai, Florence

"For Cosimo Rucellai, Alberti designed the palace which was being built in the street called La Vigna and also the loggia which is opposite the palace."


Rucellai loggia

"In this loggia he turned the arches over the closely spaced columns in the facade and also over the corbels, in order to have a series of arches on the outside and to follow the same pattern internally."



Rucellai Chapel, San Pancrazio

"For the Rucellai family Alberti also made a chapel in San Pancrazio which rests on great architraves supported by two columns and two pilasters piercing the wall of the church below...In the middle of the chapel is a marble tomb of an elongated oval shape and resembling , as is written on it, the sepulchre of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem."

Church of SS Annunziata, Florence

"About this time Ludovico Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, determined that he would have the tribune of the principal chapel of the Servite church of the Annunziata in Florence built after Alberti's plans and model...This [was] a very ingenious and difficult structure, taking the form of a circular temple with a ring of nine chapels which opened off like niches." I-212


Sant'Andrea, Mantua

"Ludovico then brought Alberti to Mantua itself, where he made for him a model for the church of Sant'Andrea and several other things."





born c. 1400, Florence?
died c. 1469, Rome

original name Antonio Di Pietro Averlino, or Averulino architect, sculptor, and writer, who is chiefly important for his Trattato d 'architettura (“Treatise on Architecture”), which described plans for an ideal Renaissance city.

Filarete is thought to have been trained under Lorenzo Ghiberti in Florence. From 1433 to 1445 he was employed by Pope Eugenius IV to execute the bronze central doors of Old St. Peter's in Rome (installed in the new St. Peter's in 1619). By comparison with the contemporary bronze doors of Ghiberti and Donatello in Florence, Filarete's door is less accomplished in composition and technique but is important for its hieratic classicizing style. The first Renaissance monument of a specifically Roman type, it influenced the work of Isaia da Pisa and later Roman sculptors of the 15th century. In 1448 he returned to Florence, entering in 1451 the service of Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan. In Milan he was active principally as an architect and designed the Ospedale Maggiore (1457–65, finished in the 18th century), among the first Renaissance buildings in Lombardy.

Between 1460 and 1464 he wrote his famed Trattato. Inspired by Leon Battista Alberti's treatise De re aedificatoria, Filarete's work describes a model city called Sforzinda. Among the projects he envisioned for this ideal Renaissance city was the tower of Vice and Virtue—a 10-story structure with a brothel on the first floor and an astronomical observatory on the 10th. An English translationby John R. Spencer was published in two volumes in 1965.

The name Filarete, probably assumed during his Milanese period, was derived from the Greek meaning “lover of virtue.”



Un paysan a la charrue





Bronze door
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican

Bronze door (detail)
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican




Bronze door (detail)
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican



Bronze door (detail)
Martyrdom of St Peter
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican






Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden


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