Renaissance Quarterly 60.1 (2007) 165-167

Reviewed by
Timothy Kircher
Guilford College
Roberto Cardini, Lucia Bertolini, and Mariangela Regoliosi, eds. Leon Battista Alberti: La biblioteca di un umanista. Florence: Mandragora/Maschietto Editore, 2006. 552 pp. index. illus. bibl. €65. ISBN: 88–7461–084–X.
Cristina Acidini and Gabriele Morolli, eds. L'uomo del Rinascimento: Leon Battista Alberti e le arti a Firenze tra ragione e bellezza. Florence: Mandragora/Maschietto Editore, 2006. 478 pp. index. illus. bibl. €50. ISBN: 88–7461–085–8.

These catalogues represent exhibits commemorating the fourth centenary of Alberti's birth. They celebrate Alberti's achievements from different perspectives: La biblioteca di un umanista examines the literary, Alberti e le arti a Firenze the artistic significance of Alberti's oeuvre.

The first volume proposes two definitions of the term library that indicate its scope. The first is the "material" library that Alberti may have actually possessed, and the editors note that he defined a library in the De re aedificatoria to include not only books, but also scientific instruments. The second is the "real" library indicated by the sources that Alberti referenced in his writings (18). This second definition opens the field for the philological orientation that the editors, especially Roberto Cardini, have promoted for many years. Including the introduction, the volume contains nineteen scholarly essays, six of them by Cardini, within the parameters of these definitions. The next section of the volume contains reproductions of autograph documents and of other manuscripts, many of them in full color. The final portion, perhaps most valuable for the student of the humanist, classifies different authors used by Alberti and indexes the authors' works to his individual writings.

The essays ably address the variety of the catalogue's likely readers, from interested viewer to Alberti scholar. Cardini discusses Alberti's conception of libraries and books. His additional essays include the first pages of his 1990 study Mosaici, along with provocative entries on the Apologues, Alberti's use of astrology-astronomy, and the presence of Propertius in his poetry. Paolo Benigni traces the enigmatic outlines of the humanist's life. Caterina Tristano looks at Alberti's authorial interventions with an eye to his script. Donatella Coppini examines the case of his rewriting of his Musca, a Lucianic encomium of the fly. Lucia Bertolini provides a detailed list of those who copied or possessed codices of Alberti's works, and also an important essay on the development of Alberti's Greek citations. Another editor, Mariana Regoliosi, offers incisive cases of Alberti's reuse of Latin authors, together with a treatment of the relation between literary and experiential learning in his work. Stefano G. Casu reviews, with helpful illustrations, the scientific instruments described in his mathematical experiments, and is followed by Andrea Cantile on Alberti's science of urban topography. Ida Mastrorosa shows his exploitation of classical and medieval scientific treatises, revealing the depth of Alberti's reading. Sandro de Maria studies Alberti's relation to contemporary antiquarianism, and Giovanni Rossi assesses his juridical learning. [End Page 165]

The volume's philological depth provides a fascinating if narrow view into Alberti's learning: we may ask, citing Alberti's motto, "What then" ("quid tum")? The actual historical significance of the erudition is often unclear. Cardini speaks of a "second humanism" (35), a term that alludes to a practical, secular nature of Alberti's intentions and addresses his "polyhedrality" (19) involving scientific as well as literary pursuits. But Cardini's effort to distinguish the humanist from the religious, contemplative Petrarch seems questionable, not only because this Petrarch is two-dimensional, indeed contradicted, for example, by the lay reformer one reads about in the pages of Riccardo Fubini. This editorial approach to understanding Alberti is also fundamentally verbal and book-loving, according to the measure of otium more than of negotium. More could be said about other contexts, for example, political, social, cultural, and ecclesiastical. With regard to Alberti's reading, the treatment of medieval authors is slight, as Regoliosi admits, and there are but few references to both biblical sources, a focus of Christine Smith's research, and to contemporary humanists aside from Bruni. Nonetheless the volume is an excellent reference, stimulating to read and beautifully illustrated.

In the more recent exhibition volume, Alberti e le arti a Firenze, scholars face an opposite problem. Instead of striving to identify the sources of Alberti's writings, they must try to identify Alberti as a source of artistic developments. This leads to more speculative, if equally rewarding, ventures. The articles in this volume are shorter and more numerous: forty-six in total, with ten by Morolli and six by Acidini. Given the preponderance of Morolli's contribution — over sixty of her writings are cited in the bibliography — the catalogue focuses more on architecture than on painting, sculpture, or other arts. I translate the general sections: "Alberti and the Family"; "The Ancient Orient (Greeks and Hebrews)"; "Between the Rucellai and the Medici"; "The Florence of Alberti (City and Territory)"; "The Treatises in the Course of Time"; "Alberti and the Sciences"; and "City: Future and Ancient." Each section is further divided into more specialized inquiries with supporting annotated illustrations.

Acidini opens the volume by examining Alberti's influence on contemporary (Filippo Lippi) and later artists (Verrocchio and Leonardo); she suggests Alberti as the architect for Verrocchio's subterranean tomb-pilaster of Cosimo the Elder in San Lorenzo. In a number of her essays Morolli, like Cardini, advances the thesis that Florence experienced a "'second' humanism" (141) through Alberti, but now within the realm of architecture, in which the Roman imitations of Brunelleschi no longer sufficed. Around midcentury Alberti spearheaded a revival of "ancient magnificence" (245), a confluence of Greek, Byzantine, biblical (Solomonic), and paleo-Christian style. Morolli traces these elements in Florence and its environs, from Santissima Annunziata to the Torre del Marzocco in Livorno. In his sculptural reliefs Donatello became an advocate for the new aesthetic. An impetus for this shift was the 1439 union of the Latin and Greek churches realized in the city. Eugenius IV and his court, including Alberti, had found residence in Santa Maria Novella since 1434, and the papacy was striving to overcome the aftershocks of its own schism. [End Page 166]

Other highlights of the catalogue include essays by Paolo Massalin on the history of the Alberti family, by Ferruccio Canali on the facade of S. Maria Novella and the changing plans for S. Annunziata, by Lucia Bertolini on the classical Greek precedents for Alberti's 1441 Certame coronario, and by Stefano G. Casu on Albertian themes in Renaissance painting. In addition, the early twentieth-century aquarelle drawings on Alberti's church architecture by Josef Frank, reproduced here, are noteworthy for their beauty and historical information.

Since the documentary evidence is scanty for Alberti's engagement in Florentine architectural projects, most of the authors' interpretations rely on intelligent deduction. More skeptical readers may question their forensic methods and conclusions. Morelli in particular assumes the De re aedificatoria as the dominant subtext for determining Alberti's influence: other factors, sources, and even causal relationships between work and text could receive more emphasis. The De pictura/Della pittura and the debate over the role of poetics and rhetoric in Alberti's aesthetic have been treated elsewhere more thoroughly. Yet even if the arguments are not always convincing, they deepen our appreciation for this vital thinker and artist.

Both volumes contain complete bibliographies. The Cardini catalogue also includes helpful indexes of cited documents, copyists, owners of manuscripts, Alberti's works, and the catalogue plates. The reproductions are of fine quality. The editors of both volumes might have afforded more attention to consistency in citing common editions of Alberti's works or in the translation of Latin quotations. These minor problems are easily outweighed by the contributions made by these catalogues to Alberti studies and to our understanding of Quattrocento culture in general.