Article abstract: Alberti is identified by Renaissance historians as an archetype of the universal man. He established a leading reputation as a theorist and practitioner of the visual arts, notably in the field of architecture. As a Humanist, he was the author of numerous moral dialogues.
The prominent Albertis were known as textile merchants and bankers. In Florence they were associated with the Popular Party. Their decline began with the exile of Leon Battista Alberti’s grandfather Benedetto, who left Florence with his son Lorenzo in 1387. Leon Battista was born in Genoa, the second natural son of Lorenzo and Bianca Fieschi, widow of a prominent Genoese family. On her death from the plague in 1406, Lorenzo moved to Venice, where he joined another brother, Ricciardo, in trade, shortly thereafter marrying a Florentine woman in 1408.
Leon Battista and his brother Carlo received the best Humanist education available. At Gasparino, Barzizza’s academy in Padua, he studied with many who were to become major scholars in the world of Renaissance learning, such as Panormita and Francesco Filelfo. In 1421, Alberti went to Bologna, where he deepened his knowledge of Greek and Latin literature and began his studies of mathematics. Following the death of his father (1421) and his uncle Ricciardo a year later, the brothers were deprived of their legitimate inheritance by the machinations of their cousins, Ricciardo’s sons. A combination of grief and academic pressure led to a serious deterioration of Leon Battista’s health, in particular his eyesight. During his recuperation, he turned from the study of ancient texts to that of mathematics, an interest that profoundly affected his future researches. Alberti’s friendship in Bologna with Tommaso Parentucelli da Sarzana—the future Pope Nicholas V—led to an appointment as secretary to a cardinal of Bologna. In 1428, the Florentine ban on the Albertis was lifted. It is most likely that Leon Battista made a brief visit to the city of his father that year, or early in 1429. These years coincide with the climax of the struggle between the Albizzi faction and the Popular Party, resulting in the eventual consolidation in Florence of Medici power under Cosimo de’ Medici: Historically the Albertis had been closely allied to the Medicis.
As a papal secretary in the service of Eugenius IV, Alberti followed the pope to Florence, where he had been invited on the expulsion of the Papacy from Rome. Here he came into contact with all the major personalities responsible for the explosion of the new art and architecture of the Renaissance. In Florence, he established strong ties of friendship with the sculptor Donatello, the architects Filippo Brunelleschi, who had completed the dome of the cathedral, Michelozzo, who was to design the Palazzo Medici, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was working on the doors of the baptistery. The first fruits of this experience are the De pictura (1435; Of Painting, 1726) and De statua (possibly pre-1435; Of Sculpture, 1726), in both of which Alberti displays the fundamental principles of Renaissance art, in particular the relationship between mathematics and composition, the consequent rules of perspective, and the use of nature as a model. Alberti wrote both Latin and Italian versions of these treatises.
While the majority of his moral dialogues are in Latin, Alberti also turned to the vernacular in a conscious attempt to reach a wider audience and to restore to Tuscan the literary prestige it had enjoyed in the previous century as the result of the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio. Theogenius (c. 1440) and Della tranquillità dell’ anima (c. 1442; of peace of mind) mark moments of deep reflection in Alberti’s career: an internal debate on the relative merits of the active and contemplative life. The high point of these years came earlier, with the completion of the first three books of Alberti’s most popular work, Della famiglia (1434; The Family in Renaissance Florence, 1969). In dialogue form, he details the moral basis of the family and its role in civic life, offering to the coming generation, in spite of the reverses he himself suffered at the hands of certain relatives, the example of the contributions made by their ancestors to the...
(The entire section is 1806 words.)