Leon Battista Alberti (Italian: [leˈom batˈtista alˈbɛrti]; February 14, 1404 – April 25, 1472)
He was an Italian Renaissance humanist author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, and cryptographer; he epitomized the Renaissance Man. Although he is often characterized exclusively as an architect, as James Beck has observed, “to single out one of Leon Battista’s ‘fields’ over others as somehow functionally independent and self-sufficient is of no help at all to any effort to characterize Alberti’s extensive explorations in the fine arts.” Although Alberti is known mostly for being an artist, he was also a mathematician of many sorts and made great advances to this field during the 15th century.
His accomplishments included:
- Alberti was the creator of a theory called “historia”. In his treatise De pictura (1435) he explains the theory of the accumulation of people, animals, and buildings, which create harmony amongst each other, and “hold the eye of the learned and unlearned spectator for a long while with a certain sense of pleasure and emotion”. De pictura (“On Painting”) contained the first scientific study of perspective. An Italian translation of De pictura (Della pittura) was published in 1436, one year after the original Latin version and addressed Filippo Brunelleschi in the preface. The Latin version had been dedicated to Alberti’s humanist patron, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga of Mantua. He also wrote works on [sculpture], De Statua.
- Alberti used his artistic treatises to propound a new humanistic theory of art. He drew on his contacts with early Quattrocento artists such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Ghiberti to provide a practical handbook for the renaissance artist.
- Alberti wrote an influential work on architecture, De Re Aedificatoria, which by the 16th century had been translated into Italian (by Cosimo Bartoli), French, Spanish, and English. An English translation was by Giacomo Leoni in the early 18th century. Newer translations are now available.
- Whilst Alberti’s treatises on painting and architecture have been hailed as the founding texts of a new form of art, breaking from the Gothic past, it is impossible to know the extent of their practical impact within his lifetime. His praise of the Calumny of Apelles led to several attempts to emulate it, including paintings by Botticelli and Signorelli. His stylistic ideals have been put into practice in the works of Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, and Fra Angelico. But how far Alberti was responsible for these innovations and how far he was simply articulating the trends of the artistic movement, with which his practical experience had made him familiar, is impossible to ascertain.
- He was so skilled in Latin verse that a comedy he wrote in his twentieth year, entitled Philodoxius, would later deceive the younger Aldus Manutius, who edited and published it as the genuine work of ‘Lepidus Comicus’.
- He has been credited with being the author, or alternatively the designer of the woodcut illustrations, of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a strange fantasy novel.
- Apart from his treatises on the arts, Alberti also wrote: Philodoxus (“Lover of Glory”, 1424), De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (“On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies”, 1429), Intercoenales (“Table Talk”, c. 1429), Della famiglia (“On the Family”, begun 1432) Vita S. Potiti (“Life of St. Potitus”, 1433), De iure (On Law, 1437), Theogenius (“The Origin of the Gods”, c. 1440), Profugorium ab aerumna (“Refuge from Mental Anguish”,), Momus (1450) and De Iciarchia (“On the Prince”, 1468). These and other works were translated and printed in Venice by the humanist Cosimo Bartoli in 1586.
- Alberti was an accomplished cryptographer by the standard of his day, and invented the first polyalphabetic cipher, which is now known as the Alberti cipher, and machine-assisted encryption using his Cipher Disk. The polyalphabetic cipher was, at least in principle, for it was not properly used for several hundred years, the most significant advance in cryptography since before Julius Caesar’s time. Cryptography historian David Kahn titles him the “Father of Western Cryptography”, pointing to three significant advances in the field which can be attributed to Alberti: “the earliest Western exposition of cryptanalysis, the invention of polyalphabetic substitution, and the invention of enciphered code.”David Kahn (1967). The codebreakers: the story of secret writing. New York: MacMillan.
- According to Alberti himself, in a short autobiography written c. 1438 in Latin and in the third person, (many but not all scholars consider this work to be an autobiography) he was capable of “standing with his feet together, and springing over a man’s head.” The autobiography survives thanks to an 18th-century transcription by Antonio Muratori. Alberti also claimed that he “excelled in all bodily exercises; could, with feet tied, leap over a standing man; could in the great cathedral, throw a coin far up to ring against the vault; amused himself by taming wild horses and climbing mountains.” Needless to say, many in the Renaissance promoted themselves in various ways and Alberti’s eagerness to promote his skills should be understood, to some extent, within that framework. (This advice should be followed in reading the above information, some of which originates in this so-called autobiography.)
- Alberti claimed in his “autobiography” to be an accomplished musician and organist, but there is no hard evidence to support this claim. In fact, musical posers were not uncommon in his day (see the lyrics to the song Musica Son, by Francesco Landini, for complaints to this effect.) He held the appointment of canon in the metropolitan church of Florence, and thus – perhaps – had the leisure to devote himself to this art, but this is only speculation. Vasari also agreed with this.
- He was also interested in the drawing of maps and worked with the astronomer, astrologer, and cartographer Paolo Toscanelli.
- In terms of Aesthetics Alberti is one of the first defining the work of art as imitation of nature, exactly as a selection of its most beautiful parts: “So let’s take from nature what we are going to paint, and from nature, we choose the most beautiful and worthy things”
This is one of many of Leonardo da’ Vinci’s contemporaries discussed within the pages of Universal Man: Da’ Vinci’ Soul reborn written by a descendant of Leon Battista Alberti, Richard Aliberti a modern sculptor prominent in the North End of Boston.
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