Notebook, 1993-

Alberti 'On Painting' - Notes to the Introduction

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435-36] Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1970 [First printed 1956].

I n t r o d u c t i o n

Leon Battista Alberti's Della pittura is the first modern treatise on the theory of painting. Although it appeared at a moment-1435-36-when the old and the new order in art were still existing side by side in Florence, it broke with the Middle Ages and pointed the way to the modern era. While Cennino Cennini's almost contemporary Libro dell' arte summed up preceding medieval practice, Della pittura prepared the way for the art, the artist, and the patron of the Renaissance. As a result the art of painting was given a new direction which made a return to the Middle Ages all but impossible. The practice of painting both within and outside Florence fell rapidly under the influence of concepts advanced in the treatise. Alberti's own Italian translation from his Latin original probably entered the shops as something of an 'inspirational handbook' and became so popular that it was read out of existence. By the sixteenth century the Italian version was unknown, [1] while today there are only two extant Italian manuscripts compared to six in Latin. Although the art Alberti advocates is based on training acquired under a master and apprentice system, it gives the artist and his art the means of breaking away from such a system to attain the individualism familiar since the High Renaissance. In this respect Della pittura is intimately bound up with the moment which produced it, a period of [p. 11] transition in Florentine art when the new was slowly making its way against the old. Alberti's overstatements and his sharp criticism of former practice reflect the tensions of his time, yet he never loses his assurance of final victory or his optimism for the future.

As art theory Della pittura became one of the chief sources for later treatises on the art of painting. In the fifteenth century Filarete, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo drew from it many of the concepts which appear in their writing. From the editio princeps published in Basle in 1540 to the present time the work has gone through more translations and re-editions than Alberti's De re aedificatoria and only slightly fewer than his more generally popular Della famiglia. At each appearance of the text it has been taken up by art theorists of the moment and woven into their own concepts of the art of painting. The Basle edition in Latin was followed in 1547 by Lodovico Domenichi's Italian translation published in Venice. Vasari's emphasis on theory in the prefaces of his Lives reflects this reawakened interest in the treatise. The DuFresne translation of 1651 in Paris became the basis for much of Félibien's Entretiens in which Alberti is evoked as an 'authority' for French academic practice. Della pittura was not made generally available in England until Leoni brought out four English translations between 1726 and 1755; their effect on Hogarth, Reynolds and the Royal Academy is quite clear.

Perhaps the academies were too strongly attracted to Alberti's treatise. Certainly their interpretation of it has damaged its current reputation. Academic painters from the late sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries were searching for a rational art which allowed no place for fantasy. In such an art the solid virtues of diligence and application advocated by Alberti take on greater importance than the bravura of genius. The academics saw in Della pittura the means to fill their needs. In their hands Alberti's suggestions become rigid rules; his concepts of reason, verisimilitude, and dignity are exaggerated out of proportion. Unfortunately, many critics still regard Della pittura as the source of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century academic practice. Alberti's suggestions of drawing from sculpture do not necessarily refer to plaster casts of the antique, nor can his concept of istoria be limited strictly to narrative or historical painting. Della pittura must first be considered as a document of and for the art of fifteenth-century Florence, without the accretions of succeeding centuries.

The surprise which Alberti expresses in his Italian dedication at seeing the new Florence on his return 'from the long exile in which we Alberti have grown old into this our city adorned above all others' [2] is only partly literary. Although he may have briefly visited Florence late in 1428 when the ban against the Alberti was partially raised, this statement is the first indication of his return to the city of his forbears. Beginning in 1387 with the exile of Leon Batista's grandfather, Benedetto, the head of the Alberti family, the Albizzi faction had succeeded by 1412 in expelling all but one Alberti from Florence. Leon Battista's father, Lorenzo, was banished from the city in 1401. Like other members of the family he transferred his activities to a city with an important branch of the Alberti banks. In Genoa a noble Bolognese widow bore him two sons, Carlo in 1403 and Battista in 1404. Lorenzo's childless marriage in 1408 to a Florentine woman has caused confusion as to the place and date of Alberti's birth until the recent discovery of a document which identifies his mother and the year of his birth. [3] By 1410 Lorenzo Alberti was established in Venice and Padua, and the young Battista was probably entered in the school of the humanist Gasparino Barzizza at Padua. In 1421 he had already enrolled in canon and civil law at the University of Bologna. Perhaps by 1424-5 new interests led him to the study of philosophy and the natural sciences. Although the decade preceding Alberti's appointment as abbreviatore apostolico in 1431 is probably the least documented [p. 13] period in his life, the nature of these formative years can be deduced from his writings. The increasing frequency of references to Greek and Roman authors, together with essays and a play based on Roman models, indicate his rapid assimilation of the newly discovered literature of antiquity. It is characteristic of Alberti that he was not merely a receptacle for knowledge. As his mind opened under the influence of the literature of the past, he felt a need to incorporate his own thinking with that of the ancients in the form of essays and letters. Alberti was apparently not so stimulated by his travels as he was by study and writing. References to the lime used in mortar in France and Bruges [4] are the only indications that he may have accompanied Cardinal Nicholas Albergati on the peace mission of 1431 that attempted to end the Hundred Years War. By 1434 Alberti's literary and philosophical knowledge probably compared well with that of any young humanist. His artistic knowledge may have been limited to a reasonable understanding of the art of northern Italy, an acquaintance with the art of France and the Low Countries, and a lively interest in Roman antiquity aroused by his attachment to the Curia in Rome from 1431. With such a background Alberti could not fail to be astounded on entering Florence with the suite of Pope Eugene IV in 1434. Brunelleschi was just closing the dome of the Cathedral, while the Sagrestia Vecchia of S. Lorenzo was finished and the nave of the church probably was well under construction. Donatello had completed much of his sculpture for the faŁade of the cathedral and the niches of Or San Michele and had begun work on his Cantoria. Ghiberti's first doors for the Baptistry were already in place and the second doors were in progress. Both Masaccio and Nanni di Banco were dead but their works were still fresh and new in Florence. Alberti had stepped into an artistic revolution. Its powerful and instantaneous impact is felt throughout Della pittura and lingers on in the much later De re aedificatoria. [5] Alberti's enthusiasm and his optimism for the accomplishments [p. 14] of the new age continued throughout his life. His energies were rarely directed towards uncovering new knowledge for a restricted group of fellow humanists, but rather towards making the knowledge acquired by the humanists available to a wider audience. In the ameliorative sense of the word, he was a popularizer. Della pittura partakes of this tendency in Alberti's work. His aim in this treatise is one of making the new humanist art of Florence understandable and desirable for a larger group of artists and patrons. Like many of his other works, Della pittura is not based solely on citations drawn from antique texts. Greek and Roman authors are used to give variety to the subject matter and to establish precedents for the suggestions advanced. The real basis for all of Alberti's writings lies in practice. Della pittura is built on the means, the aims and the results of the art of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. At the same time Alberti was not wholly ignorant of the actual problems confronting the artist. Although we would perhaps call him a dilettante today, there is evidence that he painted, made drawings, sculpture and perhaps engravings. [6] His well-known treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria, is partly based on Vitruvius and other antique texts and partly on his own experience in building. Alberti's architecture need not be discussed here, yet his approach to theory and practice is as typical in the treatise on architecture as it is in any of his other works on the arts. The same approach characterized his writings in other fields. Although he died a celibate, he felt qualified by his knowledge of literary sources and by his participation in the closely knit gens to write a treatise on the governing of the family. This interest in a wide variety of subjects--from painting to the duties of a pontiff--and his competence in handling them support Burckhardt's characterization of Alberti as the first universal genius. [7]

Although Alberti was certainly not the only man in Florence capable of writing a treatise on the new art of painting, he was [p. 15] probably better equipped for the task than any other humanist of the time. He had the interest in art which many of his literary friends lacked, and a control of words which no artist of that moment could equal. The literary and philosophical baggage he brought to his task was essential for giving utterance to the principles governing this new art and for convincing both patrons and painter that it was an art worth adopting.

Alberti's academic training was not particularly unusual among humanists. At Barzizza's school he was introduced to a body of learning based on the medieval curriculum and on newly discovered antique manuscripts. At the University of Bologna he heightened his critical and synthetic faculties. In Della pittura he is well prepared to argue the case for the new art with a crisp Ciceronian logic, illustrated with citations from ancient authors and demonstrated with mathematical proofs. Yet these are only the means employed in the composition of the first modern treatise on the theory of painting; the philosophic bases on which Alberti's thesis rests are no less important.

It would be an exaggeration to dignify Alberti with the title of philosopher; certainly he had no system. Although he probably drifted towards the systemized thought of the Florentine Neo-platonic academy, his relation to this group has been greatly exaggerated by Cristoforo Landino. At the time of the composition of Della pittura it is difficult to assign Alberti's thought to any philosophic niche. The influence of the anti-Aristotelian atmosphere at the University of Padua undoubtedly extended to Barzizza's school, where the young Alberti would have acquired a negative view towards Aristotle and the Christianized Aristotle of St. Thomas. The Nominalism of William of Ockham had spread into Italy and was so well established that Nicholas of Cusa, educated in the Ockhamite houses of the Rhine valley, could find a congenial atmosphere at the University of Padua. Della pittura certainly reflects the Nominalist approach to knowledge and its acquisition. At the [p. 16] same time the influence of Cicero extends beyond the rhetoric and organization of the treatise. It seems quite probable that Alberti's thought at the time of the composition of Della pittura --as well as the contemporary Della famiglia and Della tranquillità dell' animo --could be characterized as a Christianized Ciceronian stoicism. From Cicero he drew a method of analysis and synthesis, with man and his rational processes at its centre. The logic of Ciceronian rhetoric is applied to nature and to art with results that lead Alberti to a buoyant optimism reflected in almost every page of Della pittura.

Alberti's thought in this treatise and his other writings of the same period can be briefly summarized. Knowledge comes first from sensory perceptions. These perceptions are compared with each other and related to man in order to derive general conclusions. The conclusions are tested and made applicable by means of mathematics. Alberti is completely self-assured and confident of his method. In his own examination of knowledge, man becomes the point of departure and the centre of the investigation. Because man's knowledge is based on sensory data Alberti is concerned with visual appearances. Hence his preoccupation with the extreme limits of things, with the concept of orlo or outline, and with the superficie or plane defined as the 'certain external part of a body which is known not by its depth but only by its length and breadth and by its quality.' [8] Solid bodies are frequently referred to as having a skin. [9] It is for this reason that Alberti is concerned with the play of light and shade across the surface of an object, for thus the object is known.

Once the sensory observations are made conclusions must be drawn. In Alberti's epistemology this would be done on a comparative basis, for 'comparision contains within itself a power which immediately demonstrates in objects which is more, less or equal'. [10] De statua includes a canon of proportions arrived at by this very means. In the same way all Alberti's findings are ultimately related to man, who is the standard by which we know. 'Perhaps Protagoras, by saying that man is [p. 17] the mode and measure of all things, meant that all the accidents of things are known through comparison to the accidents of man.' [11] This is not a system based on a priori absolutes; it is rather a flexible knowledge which depends upon the point of view.

Although the treatise may appear at first glance to rest on rather unstable grounds, Alberti reassures the reader and buttresses his theory with the logic of mathematics. For Alberti and many of his contemporaries Nature, defined as all that outside the individual and of which he is also a part, is homogenous and amorphous. If Nature is homogenous, the whole is knowable from its observable part. Since man, nature, and mathematics are all parts of the same whole, man has only to use mathematics to understand and to control nature. This is nowhere more clearly evidenced than in Alberti's perspective construction. Here mathematics, although based first on the relative and unknowable man, is used to construct and to control the space which man is to inhabit both as actor and observer.

The essence of Alberti's aesthetics, as well as its relations to his thought, can perhaps be best apprehended through an investigation of three topics basic in the treatise; his approach to visible reality, la più grassa Minerva, his use of the mathematical sciences as a means of controlling this reality, mathematica, and the means and aim of humanist painting, istoria.

La più grassa Minerva
The application of Alberti's epistemology to observable reality and to painting becomes his striking term: la più grassa Minerva. As a term it contains two levels of meaning. The first, derived from Cicero, refers to a more popular sort of knowledge or the propagandizing nature of the treatise. [12] Considered out of context the term is practically meaningless, except on the level of Cicero, but the whole phrase, taken with what we already know of Alberti's thought, elucidates his completely new approach to the art of painting. He says mathematicians examine the form of things separated from matter, but 'since we wish the object to be seen, we will use a more sensate wisdom'. [13] His interest, then, is in form not separated from matter and in form as it is visible. This implies matter which, in turn, must be located in space and light to be visible. Ultimately all this will refer back to its basis in man by whom these things are known.

There can be no doubt that Alberti is deeply concerned with vision and visibility throughout Della pittura. He states clearly the aim of his investigation: 'No one would deny that the painter has nothing to do with things that are not visible The painter is concerned solely with representing what can be seen.' [14] He defines the point as a figure which cannot be divided into parts; a figure is anything located on a surface so the eye can see it. [15] This definition puts the emphasis on vision while denying the strictly mathematical definition which he retains later in the Elementi di pittura. 'They say a point is that which cannot be divided into parts.' [16] The superficie, in the same way, is considered primarily as a visible quantity without reference to the matter which lies beneath it. The whole perspective construction is based on monocular vision and is approached by an analysis of vision in which Alberti examines the way bodies seem to change their appearance. Light, though not visible itself, is essential to the whole problem, for the philosophers say that nothing can be seen which is not illuminated and coloured.' [17]

A concern with this matter which natural light makes visible pervades the whole of Della pittura, rather than the abstractions and geometry that have been called the ruling factors of Alberti's aesthetic. He has a feeling for the materials of the artist--the washes of the underpaint, the pigments of the painting, the gold and jewels of the frame--that could only have come from a man so interested in the problems posed by matter [p. 19] that he has investigated them personally. The value of the material is separated from the artistic value of the object; 'If figures were made by the hand of Phidias or Praxiteles from lead itself--the lowest of metals--they would be valued more highly than silver.' [18] Yet beyond the matter of his painting the painter must be concerned with the matter of the observable world which exists in space and light. He must find a means of controlling the matter of the macrocosm if he is to represent it in his microcosm.

A large portion of the treatise, especially in Books I and II, is devoted to an investigation of this problem. Early in the first book Alberti briefly shows the painter the method to use for his own personal analysis of observable light phenomena: 'We see green fronds lose their greenness little by little until they finally become pale. Similarly, it is not unusual to see a whitish vapour in the air around the horizon which fades out little by little [as one looks towards the zenith]. We see some roses which are quite purple, others are like the cheeks of young girls, others ivory.' [19] This is the fist and empirical approach to matter in space and light, but the painter must represent that which he sees with a different matter and with simulated rather than real lights.

In Book I Alberti 'puts the art in the hand of the artist'. and shows him how to represent light and shade in the underpainting. When the local colour of the object is applied over the underpaint, it will appear to be seen under light with deeper colours in the shadows gradually fading out as they approach the highlights. This matter, however, exists in space, and for this reason Alberti presents the painter with his mathematical derived perspective construction to control and to locate matter in space. By using a reticulated net the painter can locate objects in space and not their reference to each other in planar terms. These observations transferred to the perspective construction will relocate the objects in an apparent space. [p. 20]




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