Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) is a key figure in the history of Western art. But among the important things he did for art, there is a smattering of the fabricated, mysterious and bizarre that you may not have heard. So let’s celebrate Alberti’s 609th birthday today by taking a look at a couple of his artistic contributions as well as some of the strange and wonderful stuff he did.
During the Middle Ages, perspective was not as important for artists as it became in the Renaissance.
With his book De Pictura, Alberti became the first man to publish a serious work on the importance of mathematical perspective in art, as we generally understand it today. Through the use of this perspective, he argued, the artist could capture what was real and beautiful about the natural world.
Essentially, this was the modern, Western birth of linear, one point perspective. At the time it was a big theoretical innovation.
Artists tinkered away at it, in a way that, years later, scientists and computer programmers would work to perfect 3D imaging.
When I type up this blog post and put it online, it squishes through the interwebs until it gets to your screen and you can enjoy reading it. But there’s a magic wall preventing you from getting on my page, changing everything and reading my emails. That’s how I understand it, anyway. Alberti’s understanding, were he alive today, would have been somewhat more nuanced.
In part, this is because he was the inventor of one of the first polyalphabetic cyphers – or codes.
Now, most of it is too complicated to go into. But in Alberti’s code, we can see the most basic seeds of encryption we now encounter every day. It’s a basic code in the same way that binary language or Pig Latin is today.
And speaking of Latin…
If there was such thing as a Renaissance nerd, Alberti pretty much fit the bill. But as “geek chic” was roughly five and a half centuries down the line, he had to get his kicks somewhere else.
Forging a play in Latin, for instance.
The play, Philodoxus, was a sort of social protest to show that people of any socio-cultural origin could achieve a lot if they applied themselves to their studies. One of his earliest works, it addressed the nature of beauty, art and study.
And he passed it off as an authentic Roman play. Published under the name “Lepidus Comicus,” it was originally published as a work of high Classical comedy, and — for a while — retained that status.
Now it gets weird. One of the most shadowy assertions about Alberti is that he was in some way involved with the creation and publication of Hyperotomachia Poliphili. This little book, though beautiful, is mostly mysterious. Written in a largely made up language that combines Latin, Greek and from time to time made-up Egyptian hieroglyphics, the book is a sort of pseudo-sexual fantasy dream narrative.
Even in its day, the book’s weird, twisting syntax would have been almost impossible to decipher (yes, even with a polyalphabetic cipher), and the beautiful images that support it are almost as peculiar.
It includes, for example, a passage, accompanied by a series of illustrations, in which Cupid has two women who refuse the effect of his arrow to draw his carriage. Then he cuts them to pieces and leaves them to be eaten by wild animals.
The Hyperotomachi (made up word, by the way) really merits its own blog post. For now, it’s worth noting that Alberti is sometimes believed to have been involved either in the production of the woodcut illustrations or the text itself.
Just to top it off, here’s a little excerpt from Alberti’s possibly autobiographical – though perhaps simply fanciful – narrative:
[He] excelled in all bodily exercises; could, with feet tied, leap over a standing man; could in the great cathedral, throw a coin far up to ring against the vault; amused himself by taming wild horses and climbing mountains.
What a guy.
What have you done today?