Progression of Art
While Alberti's impact on the art world was recognized in his own lifetime, he chose to memorialise his own image before he reached the full heights of his fame. This might account for this relatively modest (in size) medallion that measures just a little over seven by five inches. It stands, nevertheless, as an important "first" in the Italian master's impressive oeuvre.
Alberti's oval relief acknowledges the legacy of classical culture in its close resemblance to a cameo. Impressively detailed, however, historian Anthony Grafton describes how the piece "shows its maker with all the energy of early middle age, with a powerful profile and strongly marked, determined eyes and mouth". He is, Grafton continues, "Classically dressed [and] clearly makes a claim to high social and intellectual status". Most historians have been drawn to presence of the Alberti emblem that takes the form of a winged eye (that accompanies "L. BAP": his first initial and the first three letters of his second name). Ancient Egyptian civilization fascinated many humanists and, as the Washington National Gallery of Art observes, Alberti's emblem was probably intended to "refer to the all-seeing eye of God, to the primacy of the eye for human inquiry, and even to Egyptian hieroglyphics".
While Alberti was remembered for many things, perhaps most notably his writings and his building designs, this piece offers abundant proof of Alberti's skill as an artist and his admiration for the ages of antiquity. In describing the impact of this piece, for instance, Grafton states, "it is, in many ways, a remarkable artistic achievement: the first free-standing self-portrait by a Renaissance artist, the first to clothe the artist as a Roman, and an image far more individual than many portraits by the advanced artists of the time". It also provided a model for future medallions and, as Grafton adds, "clearly anticipated, and may have served as a source for, the portrait medals of princes and scholars that two professional artists he knew well, Pisanello and Matteo de'Pasti, would produce in the 1440s and 1450s".
Bronze - Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Alberti received the commission to design the Tempio Malatestiano from nobleman Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta who intended it to serve as a mausoleum and testament to his love for his future wife, Isotta degli Atti. Alberti did not have to start the project from scratch, however, and instead redesigned the exterior of an existing 13th century Gothic church. His new façade, featured what would become a trademark for Alberti's architectural works: the revival of the Roman arch. As historian Joan Gadol describes, "the three arches of the main story of its façade and the arch of its (incomplete) upper story are arranged like the three doorways and rose window of the typical Gothic façade, marking on the walled exterior of the church the interior relation of nave to aisles. But the form of the arches Alberti so disposed is that of the rounded triumphal arch; and the relation of aisles to nave, and of main story to upper one, which the classical arch expresses is reinforced by his use of the Corinthian column and architrave".
This is the first church design Alberti created. A great achievement, according to Gadol, "the building established Alberti as a major architect, a worthy successor of his friend, Brunelleschi [and] making Alberti the mediator between the quattrocento [fourteenth century] master and the architecture of the High Renaissance". In this work, Alberti began his quest to define what Renaissance architecture should be; a quest he would memorialize in print two years later in his publication De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building). This structure provides the first architectural example of how mathematics and art were inextricable bound to his thinking. The famous Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari called the building a "stunning achievement" and commented that Alberti's facade represented such "fine workmanship" it had transformed the original edifice into "one of the most famous churches in Italy".
A private residence, Alberti designed this home for his friend and patron, the renowned merchant, Giovanni Rucellai. Visually engaging, it is composed of three tiers which decrease in height as one's gaze moves upward. Alberti distinguished himself from his contemporaries in his reliance on antiquity for inspiration; using Roman inspired arches around and columns positioned on either side of the windows and doorways of the building.
These Roman elements - the star of Alberti's façade - make a quite deliberate reference to the importance of antiquity in Renaissance art and design. However, while the arches and columns were often structural necessities in Roman days, here Alberti's inclusion of these elements are essentially decorative. In designing a palazzo in this way, Gadol states that Alberti "humanized and civilized this harsh, militant genre to a remarkable degree. Using flat masonry planes with bevelled edges, Alberti smoothed out the rugged rustication of the Florentine palace". Alberti's fresh take on exteriors would begin to be incorporated in other palazzo façade designs. For Gadol, there is no purpose beyond the ornamental, but "in this aesthetic sense, however, they serve a genuinely architectonic purpose, for the orders make a proportionally articulated whole out of the building's façade". It was for Gadol, "Alberti's most graceful work [that] belongs nowhere else in the world but in Florence".
Santa Maria Novella
A beautifully detailed and ornate structure, Alberti's façade of the Florentine Santa Maria Novella church is a visualization of his definition of ecclesiastical design, and one for which he again drew on the past. According to Gadol, "the formal relations among what would seem to be the jarring elements of three different styles, Romanesque, Gothic, and classical, produce Alberti's unmistakable kind of unity [...] By adding the four great Corinthian half-columns to the lower story, and four stripped pilasters to the upper, Alberti broke up the wall of the façade into the distinct areas which he then related rhythmically to each other". Gadol also remarked on the "horizontal demarcation" which was carried out "by the broad attic between the two stories, and by the entablatures that run above the columns of the main story and pilasters of the upper one". For Gadol, moreover, "The pediment is the final horizontal touch" since it "lifts the upper story, and it creates the impression of the three matching imaginary squares of the front: the two 'squares' into which the main story can be divided, and the 'square' of the upper story between the two decorative scrolls [and with] all these areas defined, the proportional rhythm of the entire façade could come to life".
Alberti designed this structure for his patron, the merchant Giovanni Rucellai, and was his first major project since the 1452 publication of his seminal treatise on building, De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building). Only his second church façade, one can see how far he had come in perfecting his vision from his design for the Tempio Malatestiano six years earlier. Unlike the previous work, however, here Alberti allowed himself to pay tribute to the great works of antiquity beyond the arches and columns by focusing on ornament and design elements on the church's exterior.
The critic Flavia De Marco writes that Alberti's "ideal execution of buildings is based on the concept of concinnitas - a harmony regulator among the ancient and omnipresent basis in nature [...] The lower part showed a 14th century realization that Alberti had to harmonize with the new fifteenth schemes. The result is an eternal partnership between ancient and modern; local materials, the Carrara marble, and some original and naturalistic ornaments; everything rigorously studied according to the mathematical proportions so that, even today, we remain still in awe in front of such majesty, elegance and creativity".
Alberti's design for the façade of the church of San Sebastiano is less ornate than some of his earlier ecclesiastical designs. Still, it displays many characteristics of his style including decorative columns, a beautiful overall structural symmetry and rounded arches above the doorways that repeat at the top of the structure's pediment. Alberti received the commission for this church from one of his last great patrons, Ludovico Gonzaga. According to historian Anthony Grafton, "by the 1470s, Alberti enjoyed a unique status in Ludovico's eyes [and his] patron defended his architect against all critics".
While Alberti did not oversee any aspect of the building of his structures - De Marco referred to him in fact as a "Ghost Architect" who "Probably due to his intellectual character [...] had never set a foot on the yards of his projects [and followed] the work remotely through precise correspondence exchanged with the chosen foreman" - he nevertheless demonstrated a strong engineering vision in his plans and often had to make changes as problems arose. As Grafton explains, "in rearing San Sebastiano in Mantua, he found that water rose through the walls by capillary action from the ground under the church, permeating the structure with so much dampness that he had to alter his original plan radically, inserting a crypt with windows to allow air to circulate and help the building dry out".
While the church's façade is its most striking feature, the rest of Alberti's plans for the church were not implemented. Work on the project slowed over the course of several years (after construction began in 1460) and Alberti died before it was finished (leaving others to work on the interior design). San Sebastiano pre-empts Alberti's second commission for Gonzaga, the design for the Church of Sant'Andrea (1472), the latter coming much closer to a complete Alberti project.
The smallest of Alberti's architectural works, this tomb was commissioned by his patron Giovanni Rucellai. Located in what was the church of San Pancrazio in Florence (now the Museo Marino Marini). The Roman Anglican website describes how the tomb, "is a scale reproduction of the [Church of the] Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, except obviously for the exterior decoration which is an interpretation on earlier Florentine Medieval and Classical styles [...] Alberti modernized and revalued these themes [...] The upper part is decorated with fleur-de-lys shaped merlons, the theme is in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Annunciation to whom the Chapel was originally dedicated".
Alberti was not deterred by the challenge of having never seen the church on which the tomb was to be modelled. According to Grafton, "Alberti presumably drew on pilgrims' reports and drawings when he laid the building out and equipped it with its curious, off-center canopy. But the larger design he followed for the façade of the little structure [...] was his own choice, not dictated by neighboring buildings or required by the function of his own new construction". The author Annelise Ream, adds that "Alberti believed it was important to use ratio as a way to express cosmic harmony through the proportions and design of a structure [and here] the marble designs upon its exterior, are carefully planned according to these theories. The designs of the 30 marble inlaid squares that adorn the exterior walls [...] reference organic symbols such as leaves of laurel and oak, as well as geometric forms such as the eight and six-pointed star. The center square panel of each wall features designs that represent the emblems of the families related to the Rucellai, notably the Medici".
Church of Sant'Andrea
Alberti received the commission to design the Church of Sant'Andrea from his patron Lodovico Gonzaga, the ruler of the Italian city of Mantua. Characteristically, the star of Alberti's design was the Roman-inspired arch which dominates the church's entranceway. In a design of perfect symmetry, as Gadol explains, "on either side of the triumphal arch of the façade, a rectangular bay is set between two giant pilasters. The pilasters run to the height of the arch and carry the simple entablature of the façade. Inside the height of the wall of the nave up to its entablature corresponds exactly to this measure. And on both sides of the nave, the three broad, arched chapels are flanked by narrower, rectangular areas which hold smaller chapels within them".
This work has the distinction of being Alberti's final architectural design. And perhaps it is because of the fact that he was working on this building near the end of his life, that he chose to focus so intently on achieving a sense of harmony in the structure - both inside and out. A beautiful final humanist statement, Gadol states, "all these echoing forms and ratios, sounded as the dominant motifs of this beautiful church and recapitulated in each of its minor developments, create exactly the effect that Alberti sought: a lucid impression of unity in diversity, a 'triumphant,' intelligible harmony which binds a manifold of relations in a perfect whole". The Church of Sant'Andrea confirmed Alberti's own statement: "as the members of the body correspond to each other so one part should respond to another in a building, whence we say that great edifices require great members".