Humanism and the Urban World: Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City, Caspar Pearson

“Everyone relies on the city,” wrote Leon Battista Alberti, “and all the public services that it contains.” This statement, delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner, indicates the exceptional importance of cities in the society in which Alberti lived. His world was an urban one. He was born in Genoa, grew up in Venice, was educated in Padua and Bologna, and subsequently lived and worked in Rome, Florence, Mantua, Rimini, and Ferrara. Fifteenth-century Italy, divided into a patchwork of city-states, boasted what was arguably the most developed urban society in Europe at the time. Moreover, Italy offered a wide variety of urban experiences, with cities of radically different sizes, architectural styles, and climates, located in areas with highly diverse geographical and environmental features.

Alberti would have known merchant cities such as Florence, courtly ones like Urbino, maritime ones such as Naples and Venice, and, of course, Rome itself, the urbs, city of the church, with the international crowd of clerics, administrators, and diplomats that it attracted. Furthermore, power within the city-states was exercised in a variety of ways. Dukedoms, nominal republics, and marches rubbed shoulders with kingdoms and straightforward tyrannies. The everyday world of Alberti and his contemporaries was thus deeply engaged with the problems of cities and the peculiarities of urban life: defensive walls, water provision, sewage, drainage, public health, order, policing and crime, thoroughfares, streets and services, relations between neighbors, the search for privacy, and the beauty and impressiveness of buildings. It was a world permeated by government, administration, and law, a place where notaries prospered. It was also a world in which the practicalities of power, the figure of the leader, and competing forms of governance were keenly felt issues and where political strategies were often implemented with remarkable ruthlessness.

In the elite humanist circles in which Alberti moved, a renewed interest in the ancient past had led to a reexamination, and often exultation, of the urban society of antiquity. Ancient texts described a sophisticated urban milieu, while across Italy the ruins of Roman civilization bore enigmatic witness to the great cities of the past and suggested standards for future attainment. It was against this background that Alberti, a humanist scholar and practicing architect, wrote his treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria. Completed in at least some form by 1452, it was the first architectural treatise to be written since ancient times—since, that is, the treatise of the Augustan architect Vitruvius. Yet Alberti’s text is much more than an elaboration or commentary on Vitruvius’s treatise. Rather, a combination of extraordinary learning, practical experience, and theoretical rigor results in a strikingly rich and original work that Alberti’s contemporaries regarded as an outstanding achievement of Latin prose.

The Treatise

Alberti’s treatise is, of course, very much concerned with the city. That is not to say that Alberti offers a specific model and tells the reader how it must be constructed in every detail. He describes no fantasy city, such as the Sforzinda that was later imagined by the Florentine architect Filarete, and none of the ten books of his architectural treatise is devoted to the city as an entity in its own right. Rather, Alberti produced a text that aims to systematically embrace the art of building in its totality.

Basing his divisions on the Vitruvian triad, Alberti devoted the first half of his treatise to the elements of firmitas (stability) and utilitas (usefulness). Thus, he discusses lineamenta (lines and angles, although this is hardly an adequate translation) in Book I, materials in Book II, and construction in Book III. Books IV and V focus on building types, discussing public works and the works of individuals, respectively. The greater part of the treatise’s second half concerns the final element in the Vitruvian triad: venustas, or, in Alberti’s terms, pulchritudo (beauty) and ornamentum (ornament). Book VI deals with ornament in a general sense, Book VII with ornament to sacred buildings, Book VIII with ornament to public secular buildings, and Book IX with ornament to private buildings. Finally, Book X is taken up with building restoration, prevention of damage, and a lengthy section on water.

It is only in the course of this discussion that the city is considered, as and when it impinges on Alberti’s argument. When Alberti does speak of the city, he does not, as it were, always speak of the same one, for the many urban situations that he discusses do not belong to a single “ideal” city that he advocates. Rather, each is bound up with the phase of the argument at which it appears. Indeed, were he writing about a single ideal city, Alberti’s proposals would sometimes appear contradictory. He discusses tyrannies, kingdoms, and republics, cities where the people

Source: Humanism and the Urban World: Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City, Caspar Pearson


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