Leon Battista Alberti died on 20 April 1472 in Rome. Born in 1404 in Genoa to a Florentine family living in exile, Alberti spent his youth in Venice, Padua, and Bologna, where he studied canon law. Though best known today for his theories on painting, sculpture, and architecture, Alberti had a wide range of interests, including geometry, math, literature, ethics, and other subjects. He authored numerous texts on subjects ranging from the family to linear perspective and architecture. He also served as papal secretary to Eugenius IV, allowing him to return to Florence from 1434 to 1443. Alberti moved with the papal court to Rome and served Nicholas V and Pius II.
While Alberti’s work as a writer is uncontested, his work as an artist and architect is more elusive. A number of buildings and projects in Rome, Rimini, Florence, Mantua, and Ferrara have been attributed to him, but documentary evidence has not been found to substantiate most of the attributions. As Alberti was first and foremost a humanist, it is likely that he advised patrons, but unlikely that he did much practical work, leaving design and construction to sculptors and builders like Bernardo Rossellino, Matteo de’Pasti, and Luca Fancelli.
Alberti is most famous for De pictura (On Painting) and De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building in Ten Books). The De pictura (1435), which includes a famous explanation of perspective, was written in Latin and Italian vernacular, with the Italian version dedicated to Filippo Brunelleschi and mentioning Donatello, Masaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Luca della Robbia. The De re aedificatoria was written in Latin and a first version of it was presented to pope Nicholas V in 1450. The texts played a key role in defining painting and architecture as pursuits worthy of cultured men and not only craftsmen.
For more on Alberti as theorist and practicing architect, see Paul Davies and David Hemsoll. “Alberti, Leon Battista.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
For pithy and informative summaries of Alberti’s life and work see the introductions by Martin Kemp and Joseph Rykwert to, respectively, L.B. Alberti, On Painting, trans. Cecil Grayson. London: Penguin Books, 1972 and LB. Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor. London and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.
Matteo de’Pasti, Leon Battista Alberti (obverse); bronze commemorative medal, 1454–6 (Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello); photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Design attributed to Leon Battista Alberti, S. Francesco (‘Tempio Malatestiano’), Rimini, c. 1450–60
Self-portrait, bronze, c. 1435, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Attributed to Leon Battista Alberti, but likely Bernardo Rossellino, Façade of the Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, begun c. 1453; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Design attributed to Leon Battista Alberti, but begun after his death, façade of S. Andrea, Mantua; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY