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Published onApr 22, 2021

Leon Baptista Alberti’s literary output constitutes a complex textual landscape of dialogues, dreams, poems, letters, descriptions, psalms, fables, and allegories. Some are written in volgare, others in Latin; some are complete, others incomplete; some are written with amplificationi, others are composed under the banner of brevitas. Some works were intended for a public audience, others for familiari only. Partly because of this complexity, the more complete and polished De re aedificatoria, De pictura, and Della Famiglia have received the lion’s share of scholarly attention, although they constitute only a small segment of Alberti’s total literary output. In recent decades the investigations have broadened as scholars of the caliber of Cecil Grayson, Eugenio Garin, David Marsh, Lucia Cesarini Martinelli, Gennaro Sasso, and Giovanni Ponte have begun to chart a more even-keeled approach.

The efforts of these scholars notwithstanding, the intertextual relationships among Alberti’s works remain obscure, not only because of the hermeneutical difficulties Alberti’s writings present but also because of the persistent preconception that the so-called minor writings and the aesthetic treatises belong to two different worlds. This misconception has proved difficult to dislodge, as it has its roots in the very beginning of Alberti scholarship, stamped as it was by nineteenth-century idealism, neoclassicism, and historicist progressivism. Alberti scholarship took on this cast at the turn of the century when there appeared in quick succession Hubert Janitschek’s L. B. Alberti’s Kleinere Kunsttheoretische Schriften (1877), Paul Hoffmann’s Studien zu L. B. Alberti’s Zehn Büchern: De re aedificatoria (1883), Irene Behn’s L. B. Alberti als Kunstphilosoph (1911), Max Theurer’s translation of De re aedificatoria, Zehn Bücher über die Baukunst (1912), Willis Fleming’s Die Begründung der modernen Aesthetik und Kunstwissenschaft durch L. B. Alberti (1916), and Julius Schlosser’s “Ein Künstlerproblem der Renaissance, L. B. Alberti” (1929).

By the 1930s, Alberti scholarship was firmly entrenched in the field of art history, which pushed aside the literary or “ethical” works in an attempt to verify the thesis of a change of mental attitude from the Gothic to the classical revival, from Scholastic Aristotelianism to Ciceronian humanism, from medieval piety to Renaissance secularism, and from contemplative icon to empirical perspective. Writings of Alberti that did not fit into this pattern fell between the cracks. By the time of Rudolph Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1971), Alberti’s literary works had, for all practical purposes, been written off as irrelevant in discussions on Alberti’s aesthetics. At best, they were scanned for a few promising quotes.

Even recent Alberti scholarship, generally aware of the nineteenth-century historicist perspective, has not freed itself from the traditional approach. Heiner Mühlmann, for example, in his book L. B. Alberti: Aesthetische Theorie der Renaissance (1982), though opposed to neo-Kantian idealism, continues to view the kunsttheoretischen Schriften in isolation.1 Though he occasionally refers to Della Famiglia, De Iciarchia, and De iure, he dispenses with the rest of Alberti’s output by relegating it to a different category: studia humanitatis.2 Thus Mühlman too accepts the notion that Alberti’s humanistic or ethical writings, literary rather than theoretical in nature, have little to contribute to Alberti’s aesthetics.

Some attempts have been made to view Alberti from a broader platform. Two books come to mind: Giovanni Santinello’s L. B. Alberti: Una visione estetica del mondo e della vita (1962) and Joan Gadol’s L. B. Alberti: The Universal Man of the Renaissance (1969). Unfortunately, even here old biases remain. Assuming that Alberti’s aesthetics alone imparts historical validity to the other works, Santinello attempts to demonstrate that Alberti’s aesthetics is not localized in the treatises but is “traceable throughout the complex evolution of his thought.”3 Gadol also holds to the officially sanctioned approach. However, whereas Santinello begins with Alberti’s “tedious,” “long-winded,” and “unoriginal” ethical writings and ends with Alberti’s all-important theory of beauty,4 Gadol begins with Alberti’s theory of perspective and ends with Alberti’s “unsystematic … and unoriginal” humanist writings.5 The ethical and humanist writings are observed from the high mountain of Alberti’s supposed ideal of harmony and proto-Enlightenment rationality.

Both authors tend to forget that the separation of aesthetics and ethics is a post-Kantian one and cannot automatically be applied to Alberti’s writings especially since the terms “aesthetics” and “ethics” contain latent biases: the first is associated with such concepts as “reason,” “theory,” and “empiricism”; the second bears connotations such as “literary,” “medieval,” and “boring.”6 As I hope to show, Alberti’s so-called aesthetic treatises, in accordance with what I hold to be his late medieval frame of mind, should not be viewed apart from his so-called ethical writings, as that would seriously distort the reconstruction of Alberti’s philosophy. In fact, the working principle inherent in present Alberti scholarship—namely the strict differentiation of ethics and aesthetics—goes contrary to the innermost core of Alberti’s speculations.

Eugenio Garin has brought a fresh impetus to Alberti scholarship. Investigating Alberti’s writings with an open mind, he discovered a writer of astounding complexity. Though Garin, in the final analysis, also concedes priority to art historians, he must be credited with a breakthrough. In place of a distinction between “original” aesthetics and “derivative” ethics, he suggests a division into “rational” and “irrational,” each with its own standards of originality. In his lecture “Il pensiero di L. B. Alberti nella cultura del Rinascimento” (1972), Garin holds that the stereotyped view of Alberti as the prototypical “universal man” portrayed in the “rational” works stands in conflict with the tantalizing, ambiguous language, the shifting tactics of expression, and the labyrinthine world of “ferments, solicitations, strengths, rebellions, survivals, heritages and memories” of the “irrational” works.7 Garin points out that Alberti not only was a “disquieting writer … unforeseeable and bizarre” but that he opened up vistas on a world so disturbing that readers of his own time were unprepared to understand him.8 Thus Garin turns the tables not only on those who neglect to take the literary works seriously but also on those who think of Alberti as a proto-Enlightenment idealist; he seems to see Alberti as a type of pre-modern irrationalist of Nietzschean dimension who has experienced the depths of “metaphysical anxiety.”9

Although Garin attempts to redress the imbalances in Alberti scholarship—discovering in the process a “fantastic insanity” in Alberti’s thought—he does not challenge the art historians’ time-honored prerogatives. The treatises are still “rational … constructed classically in architectural equilibrium.”10 Garin does not explore whether Alberti’s rationality stands in any type of dialectical relationship with the alleged irrational spirit that he discovered.

Garin’s ideas eventually led to a consensus that Alberti wrote with a split personality, a “divided consciousness,” as it has recently been phrased.11 Lorenzo Begliomini, for example, claims that Alberti has “two faces,” one “civic” (rational), epitomized by De re aedificatoria, the other “jocular” (irrational), as seen in Momus.12 The terms “serious” and “not serious” have, of course, a certain legitimacy, as Alberti himself on occasion uses the terms “serious” and “ridiculous” to describe some of his writings.13 Momus, a work that would fit into the category of ridiculous, is, however, by no means to be taken lightly. A penetrating social satire, it reveals more about Alberti’s ideas on art and society than the serious De re aedificatoria. Dualities may indeed exist, but they have yet to be defined according to intrinsic criteria.

A further roadblock to a comprehensive understanding of Alberti’s speculations is the artificial compartmentalization of his works along convenient lines of academic fields of specialization. Art historians study De pictura and the rules of perspective, literary historians his plays and dialogues; philologists dwell on Alberti’s classical learning, while social historians concentrate on Della Famiglia. While no doubt much can be gained from disciplinary studies, the all-important context in this case remains unexamined. For example, Della Famiglia has long been regarded as revealing Alberti’s thoughts on the family. Yet Alberti’s views on the subject are incomplete without a consideration of Theogenius, a work that has been consigned to virtual oblivion, even though it was written immediately after Della Famiglia and deals with some of the same issues. Both Della Famiglia and Theogenius were published in A. Bonucci’s Opere volgari of 1843–49, but only Della Famiglia was held to represent the Albertian view on family and society. Polarities, where they seem to emerge in Alberti’s writings, should call not for division but for a rallying of disciplines and for a larger rather than narrower point of view, at least until their nature is understood.

There are no indications that Alberti emphasized one work over another. Rather, each work, regardless of its genre, assumed a specific, quasi-experimental role within the larger framework of his conceptual edifice. As I will seek to prove in this study, Alberti organized his entire oeuvre around a central scheme that cannot be reconstituted by studying any single work in isolation. To make progress in the search for the crucial and determinative elements of Alberti’s thought, we have to include such writings as Philodoxeus (Lover of Glory, 1424), De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies, 1429), Intercoenales (Table Talk, ca. 1429), Vita S. Potiti (1433), De iure (1437), Commentarium Philodoxeos Fabule (1434), Vita anonyma (1438), Theogenius (The Origin of the Gods, ca. 1440), Canis (1441), Profugiorum ab aerumna (Refuge from Mental Anguish, 1442–43), Momus (1450), and De Iciarchia (On the Prince, 1468).

When read together Alberti’s works yield information as to his ideas on the relationship between writer and society, on the assimilation of textual material, and ultimately on his own definition of humanism. Some writings deal with these topics more specifically than others, but all are in some way affected by it, in theory or in practice, directly or implicitly. Alberti’s literary theory, however, cannot be separated from his aesthetic theory—it is directly related to and in fact determines his aesthetics.

Though Alberti’s thoughts are in many respects sui generis, as will be shown, his thoughts are closer to mystic humanism than has hitherto been suspected, and this despite his oft cited proto-scientific bent and alleged lack of interest in theological matters. This pietistic wing, epitomized by Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) and Marcilio Ficino (1433–99), revived the medieval tradition that stressed the importance of the sanctified individual and the operation of grace.14 In a hopelessly corrupt society secular remedies were seen as inadequate; the purification of society could only be accomplished by the immediate revelation of the divine plan in the lives of a few chosen individuals serving as exempla. By way of contrast, the secular wing, with which Alberti has normally been identified, believed that the power of the human intellect could bring about improvement largely through institutional reform and individual will. A close reading of his writings can only lead to the conclusion that Alberti’s position within the spectrum of the humanist movement lies closer to the former than the latter.

Alberti may tend toward a pietistic interpretation of humanism, but his thoughts do not fit into even that category any too neatly. Pietistic humanism derived ultimately from the Platonic conception of the self-sufficient and purely rational being that, cleansed of the barnacles of passions and free from contingent, temporal limitations on its power, could open itself to God’s grace.15 If Alberti in certain instances seems to argue along these lines in his definition of humanism, it was ultimately to demonstrate the ironies inherent in such a view. Irony, of course, is totally anathemic to any kind of pietism. One could summarize that Alberti, though he rejects secular resolutions to social problems, does not become a spokesman for pietistic solutions either. The purpose of this book, therefore, is to move beyond the static image of Alberti as the paradigm of a particular point of view and see him as a thinker of merit and as a critic of the intellectual and cultural world around him.

Like other humanists, Alberti advanced his argument by means of a cumbersome apparatus of both classical and medieval provenance. This, combined with the frequent use of exempla, makes textual analysis delicate and complex, especially since repartee in terms of suitable exempla was often a veritable parlor game. In one instance, an Albertian interlocutor likens himself to a mythological figure throwing into the discourse “pieces of gold, gems and other precious things” so as to better make an escape from his student’s critical eye.16 That does not mean that exempla should be ignored, but that their theoretical underpinnings may lie elsewhere. In Intercoenales, with a glint of irony in his eyes, Alberti provides us with a list of some of the “almost infinite number” of writers he has studied: “Ennius, Caecilius, Licinius, Atilius, Trabea, Lucceius, Turpilius, Gallus, Naevius, Lucretius … Accius, Nigidius, Caecilium, Caecina, Cassius, Lucilius, Laberius, Afranius, Pacuvius, Sulpicius, Hortensius, Cotta, Fabius, Cato, Piso, Fannius, Vennonius, Clodius, Caelius, Macer … Pomponius Atticus, Varro,” and, of course, Cicero.17 Alberti’s classicism, however, was a “secondary light,” to use a term from his aesthetics, important but not necessarily primary. In his Veiled Sayings Alberti admits—and it can be easily verified—that “I won’t deny that I invented some of these sayings in my leisure, and improvised others as I spoke.”18 Obviously, we must look beyond the classical gestures to the meaning. What one discovers is not only a complex world of survivals and revivals, but also a rather startling neo-medieval critique of humanism. The medievalisms in Alberti, far from “unfortunate,” are employed purposefully and, self-consciously contrived, intended to throw contemporary values in doubt.

Though Alberti worked in the curia and was a priest, he was no naive religioso. Nevertheless, he derived much of his imagery from biblical and ecclesiastical sources. As we shall see, Alberti brings in theological themes not out of piety or convention but as ironic tropes to be shifted, reversed, altered, or lifted out of context. Doctrines such as that of the two planks, the two cities, sub specie aeternitatis, and personae mixtae, to mention only a few, taken out of context become powerful ready-made theoretical propositions and are indeed the very foundation on which Alberti’s theory of humanism is constructed.

Dipping his hand into the ecclesiastical till again and again, Alberti employs the material almost in a way that today we would call interdisciplinary in order to enrich, legitimize, and develop his own worldview. Of course, the classical and medieval both serve Alberti’s strategy, but as the classical side of Alberti has been elaborated—and quite unilaterally so—I see it as my task to bring the medieval aspects of his thoughts also to light, particularly as they are an indispensable factor in his theory of aesthetics.

My main purpose however, is to follow Alberti’s own development and to lay bare the internal consistencies of his thought. In order to arrange the complex material of Alberti’s writings and make internal relationships clear, I have divided my discussion into three parts that overlap on occasion. The first part deals with the method Alberti employs to develop his cultural theories, a method based on a system of autobiographically tinged interlocutors that assume specific functions in a cosmological scenario; the second part deals with his theory of a fateful arch-aesthetic, and the third part investigates Alberti’s views on the function of a belated humanism in the fundamentally flawed aesthetic world.

19. For humanist reaction to the past, let it suffice to mention: Theodor E. Mommsen, “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages,’” Speculum 17 (1942): 226–42; and Herbert Weisinger, “The Renaissance Theory of the Reaction Against the Middle Ages as a Cause of the Renaissance,” Speculum 20 (1945): 461–67.


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