Architecture / Birthdays / Italian / Look Back: Art History

The Strange and Wonderful Life of Leon Battista Alberti

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.

Facade of Santa Maria Novella (Florence), designed by Alberti  completed in 1470.

Facade of Santa Maria Novella (Florence), designed by Alberti completed in 1470.

1. Perspective

During the Middle Ages, perspective was not as important for artists as it became in the Renaissance.

15th century illustration from the Old French translation of William of Tyre's Histoire d'Outremer. Images like this one look a little strange, even though figures get smaller towards the "back." Alberti's writing would address this issue.

15th century illustration from the Old French translation of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer. Images like this one look a little strange, even though figures get smaller towards the “back.” Alberti’s writing would address this issue.

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.

One point perspective in The Last Supper.

After De Pictura: One point perspective in The Last Supper.

Artists tinkered away at it, in a way that, years later, scientists and computer programmers would work to perfect 3D imaging.

2. Cryptography

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.

The Alberti Cypher - The first mechanical code-breaking device

The Alberti Cypher – The first mechanical code-breaking device.

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.

Of course, the real mystery here was Tom Hanks' hair.

Actually, the real mystery here was Tom Hanks’ hair.

And speaking of Latin…

3. Forgery

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.

Alberti: laughing on the inside. From Della pittura e della statua, Societa Tipografica de' Classici Italiani, Milano (1804)

Alberti: laughing on the inside.
From Della pittura e della statua, Societa Tipografica de’ Classici Italiani, Milano (1804)

4. Literature

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.

The book was particularly notable for the interplay of text and image.

The book was particularly notable for the interplay of text and image.

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.

Bizarre.

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.

Hey, check out that one point perspective.

Hey, check out that one point perspective. And the other stuff that’s happening.

5. Sport

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.

Presumably while wearing this outfit as well.

Presumably while wearing this outfit as well.

What a guy.

What have you done today?

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One thought on “The Strange and Wonderful Life of Leon Battista Alberti

  1. Thanks – awesome post. I would have ‘liked’ it as well, but for some reason, my like button is stuck on ‘loading’.

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