- Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance
Anthony Grafton's well-researched and extensively annotated biography of Leon Battista Alberti is a superb book. Reading through this engaging publication, I was particularly impressed with [End Page 163] Grafton's ability to effectively breathe life into Alberti as a human being, and simultaneously to place Alberti's achievements in the context of his culture. Having been born out of wedlock in 1404, created some measure of complication for Alberti within the structure of his society. Grafton exposes this and examines how the social difficulties were abated due to his father's commitment to providing him with a quality education. Building on this fine educational foundation, Alberti went on to achieve recognition in a number of fields. When examining the various trajectories, Grafton acquaints the reader with Alberti's role in building the Italian Renaissance in art, architecture and engineering. We come to better understand how this historical figure made manifest his desire to fuse distinct cultures and occupations. In addition, Grafton not only analyzes Alberti's work as a humanistic writer, but he also speaks in great detail about how Alberti's training in rhetoric influenced his theories in other areas. As a result, we come to see why Alberti defined creativity as "not making something completely new but as reusing a classic idea or theme in a novel way." Finally, Grafton's evaluation of Alberti's extensive use of rhetorical techniques and facility in applying them in other domains is useful today.
The author's deft balancing of perspectives in this biography is at its strongest when he examines Alberti's talent with words and the degree to which this facility was tied to his later success. By 1432 Alberti's literary accomplishments led him to become a secretary in the Papal Chancery. His ongoing employment in the service of the Church insured him the income he needed to pursue his many interests. Grafton's review of these pursuits, including his balanced approach to the theoretical and applied components of Alberti's work, is also well done. Equally noteworthy is Grafton's excellent summary of where his analysis of Alberti fits in relation to earlier scholarship. The author reminds the reader that contemporary discussions continue to see Alberti through the lens of Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Burckhardt established Alberti's reputation as the quintessential Renaissance Man, claiming that no less a figure than Leonardo da Vinci was merely a second to Alberti when he wrote: "Leonardo da Vinci was to Alberti as the finisher to the beginner, as the master to the dilettante" (p. 107). Grafton, to his credit, grounds Burckhardt's exuberance without diminishing Burckhardt's (or Alberti's) achievements. Exposing more of Alberti's human struggles, while still recognizing his far-reaching influence, is perhaps Grafton's most significant contribution.
A close second is Grafton's discussion of emendation. Before reading this study I did not realize the importance of this practice to Alberti's work. Briefly, emendation, a process of circulating texts among other scholars for correction, was a common practice in Alberti's time. While occasionally described by classical Latin writers, it was the humanist writers that worked with Alberti who turned this approach into an art form. Alberti, in particular, was among those who saw emendation as a stage in composing a work as well as a specialized service the learned could offer to others. The author conveys the degree to which Alberti valued the collaborative nature of this practice and how he used emendation in conjunction with his work in rhetoric. More fascinating is seeing how he adapted the technique when moving from rhetoric to art, architecture and engineering. Even his theory of perspective was open to emendation, as becomes clear in Grafton's excellent description of the two versions of On Painting that Alberti published. The Italian version was dedicated to Filippo Brunelleschi with a request...