Common Knowledge 10.2 (2004) 198-213
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How Not To Take Sides
Leon Battista Alberti—Renaissance Man?
My subject here is assertion or assertiveness—or rather, which assertions might be worth disputing and how to treat the others philosophically. Disputes become seminal because, once begun, no one knows how to stop the conception of progeny. Pursuing peace, I will take up the case of Leon Battista Alberti (c. 1404-72), the Florentine Renaissance Man. That Alberti was the predecessor of Leonardo da Vinci as Universal Man is not a subject of interesting dispute. The dispute that counts is over whether that truism means something more or other than that Alberti and Leonardo were dilettantes. The founding opponents in this dispute are Jacob Burckhardt (whose Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien of 1860 established Alberti as the prototype of the Renaissance Man) and Julius von Schlosser (whose Die Kunstliteratur of 1924 expresses discontent with Burckhardt's assessments on several counts).1 These preeminent art historians, by virtue of their contrasting opinions, opened a vast space for further scholarly intrusions, and even the most recent eruditions on Alberti mediate in the space between Burckhardt and Schlosser. [End Page 198]
As for Alberti himself: born in Genoa, he was the illegitimate son of an exiled Florentine businessman with a far-flung empire of banking and trading branches from England to remote Greek islands. As a youth, he received a classical Latin education at Padua, with advanced study of canon law at Bologna. At the age of twenty, he wrote a comedy in Latin in the manner of Lucian titled Philodoxeos that passed, it is said, as an authentic ancient theatrical piece (by Lepidus).2 From that point on, Alberti's engagement with arts and letters multiplied in literary genres and as well in painting, architecture, and building—mostly in Florence, which he was allowed to enter in 1428 when the ban on the Alberti family was lifted. By then he was an adviser experienced in the company of nobles, having secured a secretarial post as writer of briefs in the papal court. After a short stay in Bologna, he arrived in Florence as a member of the cortege of Pope Eugenius IV, who, following public demonstrations, had been expelled from Rome.3
In other words, it was from the first Alberti's aim to be a man of all talents: poet and playwright, craftsman (painter, sculptor, architect), geometer, orator, political adviser, augur, and global theoretician—the self-fulfillment of his oft-quoted maxim: "man can do all things if he will."4 His ambitions exceeded the tendency—the tendency since Brunelleschi refused to pay dues to the stone mason's guild, claiming architects were not mere craftsmen—for builders to be men of letters, skilled in geometry, versed in poetry, appreciative of music, and conversant in philosophy. Vitruvius in the first century B.C. had already underscored the need for architects to depend on many disciplines, and recommended apprenticeships in the other arts: "While the primary knowledge is of craftsmanship and technology, architects without culture cannot gain a prestige befitting their labors, while those who neglect craft and technology and put their faith in theory and literature follow a shadow, not reality. But those who have mastered all the requirements, like men equipped in full armor, soon acquire influence and success in purpose."5
On arriving in Florence, Alberti made the acquaintance of the most prominent painters and architects, and was soon sufficiently knowledgeable about studio practice to write his treatise on painting, published in 1436 and dedicated [End Page 199] to Brunelleschi (with Donatello, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, and Masaccio cited in the preface). Alberti's bow to the masters was perhaps as much to gain their support as to do them honor. His booklet on sculpture appeared many years later, in 1464. His treatise on architecture and town planning, in which he deals with architecture as a civic art and offers a theory of beauty (based on ancient Greek aesthetics as interpreted by Vitruvius), was still in progress...