Learning from Leon Battista Alberti

When we think of Renaissance architecture, few names come to mind so fast as Alberti. His works have left a clear impression on those who have studied him. Let me introduce you to Alberti´s way of building, thinking, and navigating in the quattrocento of humanist Tuscany.

Alberti - a humanist

As a student of Gasparino Barzizza, Alberti received a humanist education with the focus on the works of Cicero. His writings were very popular in the Italy of the early fourteenth century. The piece most often referenced must be De officiis, a system of ethics which outlines what is right and useful. He discusses social obligations which are grounded in the human abilities of reason and language. In short, he advocates for each human to find the occupation in a given society that suits the individual and helps the group. It is often argued that the philosophical background of his education has played a vital role in his architecture as well. He was thus able to utilize principles learned from rhethoric and transfer them on to his buildings.

Leon Battista Alberti. Source: Municipal Library of Trento, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

His sources of inspiration

At the time, most architects in northern Italy were building in the gothic style. There were no notable theoretical teachings on which the aesthetics were grounded on.

With the rediscovery of ancient texts (namely Cicero) and the upcoming interest on studying roman ruins, a theoretical body of knowledge began to accumulate. The rinascimento – a rebirth of interest on roman culture has begun.

As a theoretical piece on architecture, the “ten books of architecture” of Vitruvius was the best-known literature on the subject at the time. It is an account of late Greek/roman architecture and played an influential role in forming the basis for Alberti´s own theoretical text: De re aedificatoria. However, Alberti made his own perspective on Vitruvius very clear: As a member of a greek school of architecture, Vitruvius wasn´t as interesting to him as the roman architecture has been. Because there were no theoretical texts of roman architecture, Alberti did his own research by studying and drawing the ancient ruins in Rome and all over Europe.

He must have known about many ancient buildings, not only the famous ones. In his text, however, he rarely mentions a particular building, but rather discusses the topic broadly and generalized on a specific building-type.

His sense for aesthetics

A key aspect to Alberti´s theoretical corpus is the harmonic balance of concinnitas. In his mind, a work of art is perfect when there is nothing to take away from it and nothing to add that could make it better. It is not important whether a given element is there, but it plays a vital role where that element is in relation to all the other. In this sense, Alberti follows the platonic idea of organic unity. This means that in an organism, the individual elements rely and depend on each other. A body will not function if you take away the heart or the mind. To circle it back to concinnitas, Alberti argues that everything nature ever produced was made with this level of unity which deeply moves us, which has the balance and beauty of concinnitas.

In the same way, Alberti argues a building will not look beautiful if a key ingredient is missing. Each element must be present where it is needed, otherwise the work will be insufficient.

Albertis works

Façade of Sant' Andrea, Mantua (Character of Renaissance Architecture)

The facade of Sant´Andrea in Mantua, by Leon Battista Alberti

When looking at Alberti´s works, it is evident that he made ample use of motifs used in roman antiquity. The facade of Sant´Andrea in Mantua testifies this vividly. The influence of the triumphal arch of Augustus is hard to ignore. This can be seen from the pilasters put on podiums and the overall proportions. Apparently, he chose only the most notable examples of antiquity as his reference because he wanted his quotation to be recognized. This shouldn´t be understood as a simple copying of a motif, but as an eloquent transfer into a different building-type which takes skill and a delicate sense of aesthetics to get it right. His quotations are therefore widely appreciated under professionals.

In detail, Alberti didn´t stick to the strict proportions outlined in his book and in Vitruvius. He made sure to add his own taste and spice to the capitals of columns, for example in the façade of Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. The volutes of an ionic capital frame the face of an angle, followed by an egg and dart moulding and lined on the bottom with a row of delicate acanthus leafs. This combination has not been seen before.


A column on the facade of Tempio Malatestiano. Source: Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The most famouse work of Alberti must be the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. He designed it to fit onto an existing structure, which brought some difficulties with it. In the lower part of the facade one can see gothic pointed arches which Alberti carefully incorporated into the round arches he laid above them. To hide the monopitch roofs, he used two giant scrolls on either side of the pediment. Like on Sant´Andrea, he also used the motif of the triumphal arch here by placing the four big green columns on podiums though in a more sensitive manner than on the former. I think it is not an overstatement to call this facade the best he has produced.

The beautiful facade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

For further study

If you are interested and would like to learn more about the buildings of Alberti, here is a list I compiled that includes all the major projects he has worked on:

 Year built:

 Building name:


 Special note:


 Tempio Malatestiano


 Envelope over an existing structure


 Palazzo Rucellai


 Superposition of Orders, see also: Colosseum,   theatre of Marcellus, etc.


 Santa Maria Novella


 Innovative solution of hiding the monopitch   roofs with scrolls (often used in Baroque)


 San Sebastiano


 Designed entirely by Alberti himself





 Piazza Pio II


 A Square for Pope Pius II

To me as a first year-student, the Renaissance always intrigued me. I have learned a lot from researching this topic and hope you have found it useful as well.

If so, consider sharing this article with your friends.

Thanks for reading and until next time,

~ Julian 

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