LETTERS are of the greatest use to all those artists who enlighten them, but especially to sculptors, painters and architects, by paving a way for their inventions, while without them no one can have a perfect judgment, however great his natural ability. Who does not know that in choosing sites for buildings it is necessary to consider philosophically the severity of potential winds, the unhealthiness of the air, the smell and exhalations of impure and unhealthy waters? Who does not know that it is necessary when a work is to be begun to ascertain, unaided, by mature reflection, what to avoid and what to adopt, without being obliged to have recourse to the theories of others, which, when unilluminated by practice, are usually of little assistance. But when theory and practice are united in one person, the ideal condition is attained, because art is enriched and perfected by knowledge, the opinions and writings of learned artists having more weight and more credit than the words or works of those who have nothing more to recommend them beyond what they have produced; whether it be done well or ill. The truth of these remarks is illustrated by Leon Battista Alberti, who, having studied the Latin tongue and practised architecture, perspective and painting; has left works to which modern artists can add nothing, although numbers of them have surpassed him in practical skill. His writings possess such force that is it commonly supposed that he surpassed all those who were actually his superiors in art. Thus it is clear from experience that, with respect to fame and name, writings enjoy the greatest power and vitality, for books easily penetrate everywhere and inspire confidence if they are true and lie not.
It is no marvel, then, if the famous Leon Battista is better known by his writings than by the works of his hands. He was born in Florence 1, of the most noble family of the Alberti, spoken of elsewhere, and he endeavoured not only to explore the world and measure antiquities, but also paid much more attention to writing than to his other work, following his inclination. He was an excellent mathematician and geometrician, and wrote a Latin work on architecture in ten books, published by him in 1485. It may be read today in the translation by the Rev. M. Cosimo Bartoli, provost of S. Giovanni in Florence. He wrote three books on painting, which have been translated into Tuscan by Ludovico Domenichi. 2 He wrote a treatise on traction and on measuring elevations, the Libri della Vita Civile, and some erotic works in prose and verse, while he was the first to employ the Latin prosody for verses in the vulgar tongue, as may be seen in this letter of his:
Questa per estrema miserabile pistola mando A te che spregi miseramente noi.
Leon Battista happened to arrive in Rome 3 at the time when Nicholas V. by his manner of building had turned the city upside down, and by the offices of his close friend, Biondo da Forli, he became intimate with the Pope, who had hitherto been advised in architectural matters by Bemardo Rossellino, sculptor and architect of Florence, as will be said in the life of his brother Antonio. This man having begun to restore the Pope's palace and to do some things in S. Maria Maggiorein conformity with the Pope's wishes, always previously took the advice of Leon Battista. Thus the Pope, by following the advice of one of them and the execution of the other, carried out many useful and praise worthy things, such as the rebuilding of the ruined acqueduct of the Virgin, making the fountain on the piazza de' Trevi with the marble ornamentation which is still there, containing the arms of that pontiff and of the Roman people.
After this Leon went to Sigismondo Malatesti, lord of Rimini, and designed for him the church of S. Francesco, and especially its in arble fame, as well as anarcade of large arches on the south side and the tombs for illustrious men of the city. 4 In short, he so transformed the building that from being quite an ordinary work it became one of the most famous temples in Italy. The interior contains six fine chapels. One of them dedicated to St. Jerome is very ornate, many relics from Jerusalem being preserved there. In the same church are the tombs of Sigismondo and his wife, richly constructed of marble in the year 1450, and above one is the effigy of that lord, and in another part of the work is the portrait of Leon Battista. In the year following, 1457, in which John Gutemberg, a German, discovered the most useful art of printing books, Leon Battista likewise made a discovery for representing landscapes and for diminishing and enlarging figures by means of an instrument, all good inventions, useful to art.
It happened that when Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai wished to build the facade of S. Maria Novella in marble at his own cost, he consulted Leon Battista, his close friend, who not only gave him advice, but the design, so that he decided to execute the work as a memorial of himself. Accordingly it was begun and finished in 1477, to the general satisfaction, the whole work giving pleasure, but especially the door, upon which Leon Battista clearly bestowed more than ordinary pains. For Cosimo Rucellai he made the design of the palace which he erected in the street called La Vigua, and that of the loggia opposite. In this he formed his arches over the narrow columns on the forward face, but as he wished to continue these and not make a single arch, he found he had too much space in every direction. Accordingly he was obliged to make brackets on the inside. When he came to the vaulting of the interior he found that to give it the sixth of a half-circle would result in cramped and awkward appearance, and so he decided to form small arches from one bracket to another. This lack of judgment and design proves that practice is necessary as well as theory, because the judgment can never be perfected unless knowledge is put into practice.
It is said that he also made the design for the house and garden of these same Rucellaiin the via della Scala, a work of great judgment and very convenient, for beside many other things lie introduced two loggias, one facing south and another west, both very beautiful, and erected upon columns without arches. 5 This method is the true one, and was observed by the ancients, because the architraves which are laid upon the capitals of the columns make things level, whereas a square thing such as arches are, which turn, cannot rest upon a round column, without throwing the corners out; the true method of construction therefore requires that the architraves shall be placed upon the columns, and that when arches are made they should be borne by pilasters and not by columns. For the same style, Leon Battista made a chapel in S. Brancazio, 6 which is borne upon large architraves laid upon two columns and two pilasters made in the wall of the church, a difficult but safe method, so that this is one of the best works of our architect. In the middle of the chapel is a fine marble tomb of an elongated ovals form, like the sepulchre of Christ at Jerusalem, as an inscription indicates. At this same time, Ludovico Gonzago, Marquis of Mantua, wished to make the tribune and principal chapel in the Nunziata of the Servites at Florence, from designs by Leon Battista. Accordingly he pulled down an old square chapel there of no great size, painted in the old style, and made the beautiful and difficult tribune in the shape of a round temple, surrounded by nine chapels forming an arc and constructed like niches. 7 The arches of the chapel being borne by the pilasters in front, the stone ornamentation of the arches inclining towards the wall, tends to lean backward in order to meet the wall, thus turning away from the tribune. Accordingly, when the arches of the chapels are looked at from the side, they have an ugly appearance, as they fall backwards, although the measurements are correct and the method of construction difficult. Indeed, it would have been better had Leon Battista avoided this method, because, besides being awkward to carry out, it cannot be done successfully, being ugly as a whole and in the details. Thus we see that, though the great front arch is very fine when looked at from the outside at the entrance of the tribune, it is extremely ugly on the inside, because it has to be turned in conformity with the round chapel, and this gives it the appearance of falling backwards. Possibly Leon Battista would not have done this if he had possessed practical knowledge and experience in addition to his learning and theories, for any man would have avoided such difficulties, and striven rather to render the building as graceful and beautiful as possible. In other respects this work is entirely beautiful, ingenious and difficult, and the courage of Leon Battista must have been great to make the vaulting of the tribune in such a manner in that age.
Being invited to Mantua afterwards by the same Marquis Ludovico, Leon Battista made the model of the church of S. Andrea 8 and some other things for him, and on the road from Mantuato Padua some churches built in his style may be seen. 9 Salvestro Fancelli carried out the designs and models of Leon Battista. Fancelli an architect and sculptor of Florence of some ability, and executed for Leon Battista all the works which he had done in Florence with extraordinary judgment and diligence. Those at Mantua were done by one Luca, 10 a Florentine, who subsequently came to live in the city and died there. According to Filarete he left his name to the family of the Luchi, which still flourishes there. Leon Battista was not a little fortunate, therefore, in having friends who understood him, knew his methods and were willing to serve him for as architects cannot always be at their work, a faithful and loving executor is a great boon to them, as I know very well by my own experience.
In painting Leon Battista produced no great or remarkable work, his things being small without great perfection. This is not remarkable, because he paid more attention to his studies than to design. Yet he was able to show this meaning in his drawings, as we see by some sheets of his in our book, containing a drawing of the PonteS. Agnolo, and of the roof made there from his design for the loggia, as a shelter from the sun in summer and from the wind and the rain in winter. This work was given to him by Pope Nicholas V., who intended to make many similar ones all for Rome, had not death interposed. Another work of Leon Battista on the side of the pontealla Carraia at Florence, in a small chapel of Our Lady, is a small altar-slab that entails three scenes with perspectives, much better described by his pen than they were painted by his brush. In Florence also there is a portrait of himself in the house of Palla Rucellai, done with a mirror, and a picture of somewhat large figures in Chiaroscuro. He further painted a Venice in perspective, and S. Marco, but the figures were done by other masters, and this is one of his best paintings. He was a person of the most courteous and praise worthy manners, a friend of distinguished men, generous and kind to all. He lived honourably like a nobleman all his days, and after having attained a somewhat advanced age, passed quietly and contentedly to a better life, leaving an honoured name behind him.1 He was born at Venice.2 1447-55.3 In 1453.4 1447-55.5 Now Palazzo Strozzi; Alberti's authorship is denied.6 Rectius s. Pancrazio; In 1467.7 In 1476.8 Building 1472-94.9 Rectius Luca.10 The same Luca Fancelli.