Book Review: “Leon Battista Alberti: The Chameleon’s Eye” — Not Your Classic Renaissance Man

By Peter Walsh

This splendid biography of Leon Battista Alberti, beautifully produced, with a rich selection of well-placed and well-reproduced illustrations, vividly portrays one of the most complex and fascinating figures in a complex and fascinating time, one whose preoccupations are entirely relevant today.

Leon Battista Alberti: The Chameleon’s Eye by Caspar Pearson. Reaktion Books, 304 pages, 50 color plates, 18 halftones. $25

The great Swiss historian of the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, called him the “universal man,” the very model of the confident, multitalented, Renaissance individual. But Leon Battista Alberti has never been set up beside Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo in the popular imagination. Those who have taken an undergraduate survey of the Italian 15th century may recall him, perhaps a bit dimly, as a Florentine architect who, along with Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, helped shape a new, classicizing building style. A few may remember that he wrote an important treatise on painting, De pictura (On Painting), and another on architecture, De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building). But the study of most of Alberti’s career has remained mostly the realm of specialists, who have debated, in decade after decade, the true extent of his accomplishments. Popular Renaissance heroes like Galileo, Leonardo, and Giordano Bruno clashed with religious and temporal authorities over their radical new ideas. Alberti spent his entire career in the service of the Catholic Church as part of the papal Curia. One of his duties was drafting papal bulls.

Caspar Pearson’s new biography, Leon Battista Alberti: The Chameleon’s Eye, is written to be an introduction to its subject, part of a broadly ranging series of Renaissance Lives. Pearson focuses on areas debated among Alberti specialists, particularly Alberti’s many and varied books and the sides of his personality that tend to contradict Burckhardt’s assessment. Unlike the classic Renaissance Man, Pearson’s Alberti seems surprisingly modern: beset with self-doubt, disappointments, and conflicts with his prominent family, and pessimistic about whether human beings could make sense out of life and the universe.

Battista Alberti was born in 1404 in Genoa. His father, Lorenzo, had been exiled from his native Florence in 1401, along with all Alberti males over the age of 16. Since settling in Florence in the early 13th century, the ambitious family had gradually accumulated vast wealth, from careers in law, from cloth importing and manufacturing, and eventually with an international banking network, divided into multiple commercial businesses and companies all controlled by family members. Florence’s complicated factions and politics gradually put the politically active family on the wrong side of the prevailing powers, assisted by the family’s too ostentatious spending on, among other things, city festivals. There were a series of banishments, fines, and restrictions, including the 1401 mass exile. Some Alberti men were even threatened with death by bounty hunters if they came too close to their native city. Still, the Alberti relocated to centers of their businesses around Italy and Europe while its Florence investments continued to prosper.

Battista and his brother Carlo were both illegitimate, born to a woman not yet definitively identified by scholars. Lorenzo later married the daughter of another Florentine exile and died in 1421, when Battista was just 17. He left no legitimate children. Under Lorenzo’s will, the brothers were each left generous cash legacies but were specifically prohibited from inheriting Alberti family property or participating in any family business. The legacies were never paid; Battista spent decades in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce–style litigation that was only resolved a few years before his death, when he was granted most of his grandfather’s sprawling palazzo in Florence and some other properties elsewhere in Italy. This was, of course, exactly what Lorenzo had tried to prevent. Compounding the insult, the relatives Lorenzo had designated to take over his businesses promptly ran them into the ground. The acrimonious legal messes that followed were ruinous. The Alberti family never recovered.

Nevertheless, Battista remained loyal to at least some of his family, keeping close and even cordial relations with some of them. They did not exactly reciprocate. Dyed in the wool men of commerce, his family mocked his devotion to learning and his humanist ambitions. They complained about the cost of his education. Battista wrote three volumes of his treatise De familia (On the Family) specifically for his relatives, writing in common Tuscan rather than scholarly Latin, to help those who were “ignorant” of the classical language. The gesture did not go down well. In his autobiography, composed in the third person, Battista wrote “he took it ill that among all the Alberti, amply endowed with leisure, scarcely one deigned even to peruse the titles, at the very time that these books were in demand among foreign nations. He could not help being angry when he discovered that some among his relatives openly scoffed at the whole work and at the author as inept.”

Caspar Pearson. Photo: The Warburg Institute

The Alberti family were readmitted to Florence in 1428, the same year Battista began his career in Rome at the curia. In 1434, he returned to Florence when his boss, Pope Eugene IV, fled there to escape an uprising in Rome. The “homecoming” to an ancestral city where he had never really lived was mixed. In the midst of the artistic flourishing of the city, Pearson writes, Alberti “was already sharply critical of many aspects of its culture and society, and he would wrestle for his entire life with feelings of alienation and estrangement regarding his patria. In that sense, he remained always an exile.” On the other hand, Battista was also “aware that a long Tuscan tradition connected exile with the making of literary meaning. The most prominent exponents of this practice were Dante and Petrarch, writers who not only mined exile for its poetic potential but associated it strongly with the very condition of authorship, finding in banishment — both real and imagined — the kind of distancing upon which an authorial identity could be fashioned.”

Pearson writes in a clear, elegant prose with a subtle sense of ironic humor. He keeps to his pledge to write for nonspecialists. He (or his editors) conveniently define even fairly common terms like “basilica” and “nave.” His narrative is not chronological, however, and, particularly for readers not familiar with the period, his concise chronology at the end of the book will be useful.

Pearson’s surveys of Alberti’s literary works — complex, numerous, and on a wide variety of subjects — are masterful. Among them are a series of books, begun while he was still a student of law. The Profugiorum ab erumna libri III, is a dialogue in which the speakers “consider how best to avoid the anxieties and doubts that constantly assail the human mind.” Battista’s book on painting, De pictura, Pearson calls a “radical” project that attempted “to foster an entirely new kind of meeting between theory and practice.” The volume may have been the first book to describe the Renaissance system of perspective, a true paradigm shift that influenced all Western art to follow. Pearson claims that a work of satirical fiction, Momus, “is perhaps Alberti’s greatest literary achievement. Indeed, it must rank among the most significant works of fiction to have emerged from the entire Italian Renaissance.” De re aedificatoria, the book on architecture, defines “the architect” in idealized form, coming close to the modern idea of the profession. In Ex ludis rerum mathematicarum (The Mathematical Games), Alberti devises a method by which the entire map of a city (he uses Rome as his example) can be expressed in a table of mathematical measurements between landmarks. Through this bewildering diversity, Pearson traces the ambiguities, layers of meaning, and subtexts Alberti always wove into his works. “I remember the style of Battista Alberti,” wrote Battista’s friend, the writer Cristoforo Landino, after Battista’s death, “who like a new chameleon always assumes the colors of what he writes about.”

The Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. Scholars have attributed or partly attributed the design of the facade to Alberti. Photo: WikiCommon

When Pearson turns to Alberti’s architectural work — the part of his career best remembered by nonspecialists — he faces other challenges. Since the collapse of the Roman Empire, architecture had been an intergenerational process, typically involving the collaboration of a host of patrons, master-builders, designers, and engineers over many decades, often with many shifts in design and style along the way. Alberti insisted that “buildings should be made quickly, on the basis of precise plans from which there should be no deviation,” a radical change from past practice and closer to the modern, auteur idea of architectural practice.

Scholarship on Alberti’s architectural career is hampered by a lack of reliable records and much academic debate; again, Pearson summarizes with great skill and economy. With no direct experience or training in building, Alberti seems to have begun his new career relatively late and out of nowhere, mostly based on an enthusiasm for the profession. For all his attributed buildings, Alberti’s role is not completely clear, or even if he had a role. His travels with the Pope evidently led to useful connections with local rulers who later became his patrons. As identified by scholars, his distinctive architectural style combined ideas he found in Roman ruins and local decorative traditions with passages of stunning originality.

Portrait of Leon Battista Alberti.

As often as not, Renaissance patrons concentrated on updating medieval buildings into the new classical styles without actually tearing them down. This could mean wrapping an old Gothic building with a new exterior or completing a partially finished facade in a more up-to-date approach. The earliest design for which Alberti’s involvement is clearly documented is the so-called Tempio Malatestiano (Malatesta Temple) in Rimini, undertaken for Sigismondo Malatesta, a condottiere or mercenary commander, who become the lord of Rimini at the age of 17. It was an ambitious project to update the large Gothic basilica of San Francisco. Alberti’s solution was to wrap the older building entirely in a “new exoskeleton and skin” in a design richly influenced by Roman monuments and ornamented with colored stones taken from late Roman buildings in nearby Ravenna. Unfortunately, Sigismondo fell spectacularly afoul of Pope Pius II and died a prisoner in Rome. His Tempio and its planned dome were never completed.

Construction on Alberti’s last documented building, Sant’Andrea in Mantua, did not begin until two months after his death in 1472, in Rome. Once again, exactly what Alberti designed for Ludovico Gonzaga, Margrave of Mantua, is not entirely clear, although the design is probably the best known and most studied of Alberti’s career. Alberti portrayed his design to its patron as “Etruscan” rather than “Roman.” Pearson describes the facade as “strange and original” and the elaborate projecting entrance portico as “an extraordinary creation,” “deeply arresting,” comparing the dramatic effect to Islamic buildings such as the Taj Mahal.

Pearson’s book is beautifully produced, with a rich selection of well-placed and well-reproduced illustrations. It exceeds its goal of “introduction” to vividly portray one of the most complex and fascinating figures in a complex and fascinating time, one whose preoccupations are entirely relevant today. He sees his subject as conscious, even amidst the optimism of the Italian Renaissance, of “the breakdown of every ideal order, and of the inevitable dissolution and fragmentation of things.” Man, Alberti wrote in his Last Testament, “like a flower, vanishes and dissolves and flees like a shadow, and never continues in the same state.”

Peter Walsh has worked as a staff member or consultant to such museums as the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Boston Athenaeum. He has published in American and European newspapers, journals, and in scholarly anthologies and has lectured at MIT, in New York, Milan, London, Los Angeles and many other venues. In recent years, he began a career as an actor and has since worked on more than 100 projects, including theater, national television, and award-winning films. He is completing a novel set in the 1960s.

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