Notebook, 1993-

Alberti 'On Painting' - Notes to the Introduction

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435-36] Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1970 [First printed 1956].

I n t r o d u c t i o n [cont.]

Mathematics in Alberti's theory is a means, not an end. In Della pittura geometry and the 'maxims of mathematicians' are introduced in order to arrive more quickly and more directly at the basic problems of painting. The emphasis on mathematics in Alberti's theory is more appearance than reality. The fundamentals of the art of painting which are based on geometry occur almost exclusively in the first book where they occupy somewhat less than half of the total space devoted to the rudiments of the art. Actually the first book is only slightly longer than the others. The difficulty of the material and the great number of concepts introduced in this section seem to place the emphasis on mathematics. Alberti clearly states in his dedicatory preface to Brunelleschi that this first book is 'all mathematics, concerning the roots in nature which are the source of this . . . art'. [20] In his own terms, then, mathematics in painting is not an end in itself, but is rather the first of the means by which the painter may arrive at the aims set forth in the remainder of the work.

Alberti's most obvious contribution to the art of painting--on a mathematical level--is his exposition of the one-point perspective system which makes its first appearance in theory in this work. Based on reason and sensory data controlled by mathematics, the construction provides the artist with a means of creating apparent space in his painting. In the monocular vision proposed by Alberti the visual rays extending from the eye to the object seen to assume the form of a pyramid. A painting, in Albertian terms, should be an intersection of this pyramid equidistant to the plane seen and at an established distance from the eye. Given such an approach to vision and to the work of art, geometry based on the practice of surveying [21] Alberti analyses the processes of vision and from this analysis draws his synthesis. According to Alberti's concept of vision, the visual rays act as compasses to measure the [p. 21] height, width and depth of objects seen. Although he does not state it, the eye apparently registers these proportionate quantities automatically without the observer being aware of it. If we wish to understand rationally the data received by sight, we must employ geometry. By means of the similarity of triangles he cuts through the isosceles triangles of sight measuring height and width and the scalene triangle measuring depth to arrive at measurable quantities proportional to the quantities seen but varying with the height and distance of the observer's eye. If the apparent size of an object varies according to the height of the observer's eye above the round plane and to the distance of the eye from the object, one need only apply the corollary of this theorem to painting in order to relate the space and scale of the observer to the space and scale of the painting. By establishing arbitrarily the position the observer must take to view the painting and by relating all parts of the perspective construction to this position, the artist creates a microcosm. The space of this microcosm seems a continuation of the observer's space and its figures are related to the observer and to the space they inhabit. Certainly, mathematics is at the basis of the perspective construction, but only as a means to achieve ends expressed in Alberti's concept of istoria. At the same time the artist should use mathematics as more than just a control of space in the perspective construction. Towards the end of the first book a canon of human proportions is implied in the construction of the perspective system where one-third the height of a man--one braccio-- is taken as the module. The discussion and criticism of the Vitruvian canon in the second book stress the necessity of a human unit of measurement--the head--and of a more fully developed canon of human proportion. Although Della pittura does not present the artist with such a canon, Alberti's De statua, contains a complete system of proportion based on the foot and derived from measurements of a large number of individuals. At the same time, Alberti delves into the allied science of [p. 22] statics to present the artist with a new means for observing the actions and determining the limits of action of the human figure. This he bases partly on his observations of the human figure and on his earlier work in physics, as a part of the curriculum in philosophy. As a result Alberti is the first to consider the human body as a system of weights and levers, of balances and counter-balances. [22] This contribution, too often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, has become so much a part of the public domain that it is scarcely necessary to repeat it here. So far as Alberti is concerned, then, mathematics in this treatise can be used by the artist to control the external visual data to be employed in the painting and to control the painting itself. Still, mathematics is only a means to an end. The higher aims of painting are expressed in his concept of istoria.

The term istoria, for which no present-day verbal equivalent exists, is introduced by Alberti towards the middle of the second book; the concept of istoria dominates the whole treatise and it is developed at length in the last half of the work. Any reinterpretation of the word must be derived from the treatise itself without dependence on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century histories, storie, or 'histories' . For Alberti the term istoria was of greatest consequence--he puts it at the pinnacle of artistic development. Painting was not to impress by its size but rather by its monumentality and dramatic content. 'The greatest work of the painter is not a colossus, but an istoria. Istoria gives greater renown to the intellect than any colossus.' [23] The themes he urges are primarily derived from ancient literature, yet this is not to be merely an art of illustration. The figures are to be so ordered that their emotion will be projected to the observer. There is to be variety and richness in the painting, yet the painter must exercise self-restraint to avoid excesses. In the new art which Alberti advocates the painter must be capable of employing perspective construction for the visual, temporal, [p. 23] and spatial unity which it implies. He must be able to paint with light and shade to obtain modelling, and he must understand the effective use of colour and gesture. To control these many disparate factors the artist of necessity must be a well educated man, but if he handles them well, his art will reward him by rendering 'pleasure, good will and fame'. [24] When all the requirements of Alberti's aesthetic come together in one work of art, the soul of the beholder will be captivated and he will be elevated by his experience. The istoria advocated by the treatise, then, is directed towards the expression of a new humanist art which will be capable of incorporating the finds of the literary and theological humanists while at the same time satisfying the demands of the artistic humanist.

On a more concrete level, the content of the istoria is fairly well indicated by Alberti in the course of his treatise. It is to be built around antique themes with human gestures to portray and project the emotions of the actors. No doubt Alberti's education and his desire to impress the prospective patron account in large measure for his emphasis on antiquity. On the other hand, Christian themes and iconography had been developed and stabilized by medieval art. There was no necessity for Alberti to reiterate such general knowledge in his brief treatise. Themes from antiquity in painting were new and almost unheard of in the opening years of the fifteenth century. Alberti was introducing his contemporaries to a body of knowledge which was as new and interesting to them as it was to him. The fact that Greco-Roman mythology was not immediately adopted by artists is not because Alberti went unheeded but rather because the awareness of something other than Christian subjects did not seep down through society and create a demand for 'antique illustration' until somewhat later. Of the myriad antique incidents which he certainly must have known and could have chosen Alberti left aside all the lachrymose and erotic. He was interested only in truly virile emotions. He sought out examples with an inherent stoic [p. 24] firmness--such as the Death of Meleager, the Immolation of Iphigenia, and the Calumny of Apelles.

The elemental emotions of such compositions can only be projected by equally simple gestures. Alberti pauses here to describe the appearance of a sad or angry person. By his choice of vocabulary he makes it difficult for the reader to overlook the psychological effect of observable external manifestations of the emotions on the beholder. This early analysis of the expression of the 'passions' is not included solely for the amusement of the patron or the edification of the painter. Giotto, the only non-antique painter named in the whole treatise, enters because in his Navicella in Rome 'eleven disciples [are portrayed], all moved by fear at seeing one of their companions passing over the water. Each one expresses with his face and gesture a clear indication of a disturbed soul in such a way that there are different movements and positions in each one.' [25] It is for this reason that Alberti encourages the painter to make a study of gestures and the emotions they portray, for only thus--by externals--can we know the workings of the soul. Like Cicero's orator, the painter will evoke the desired emotion in the spectator by a conscious use of gesture. In a passage reminiscent of Horace, [26] yet which goes beyond Horace, Alberti states his position. 'The istoria will move the soul of the beholder when each man painted there clearly shows the movement of his own soul. It happens in nature that nothing more than herself is found capable of things like herself; we weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing, and grieve with the grieving.' [27] This well worn concept is presented for the first time to the world of European arts and letters: emotions of the soul may be expressed by the body. Important as this step may be in the history of art, Alberti intends it only as a reinforcement of his main objective, the definition of affective humanist painting or istoria.

Because he is dealing with simple elemental emotions Alberti insists that the figures in the painting must exhibit [p. 25] above all else 'dignità et verecundia'. Even though it may be against absolute veracity, a painter is allowed to conceal artistically the lack of an eye in a king who would otherwise lack dignity. [28] Truth or verisimilitude must go with dignity, for each sort of person has his own sort of dignity which would be destroyed if we were to portray 'Venus or Minerva in the rough wool cloak of a soldier; it would be the same to dress Mars or Jove in the clothes of a woman'. [29] If, however, the painter feels the dignity limits the emotions transmitted by the figures, Alberti suggests the use of a 'commentator'. 'In an istoria I like to see someone who admonishes and points out to us what is happening there; or beckons with his hand to see; or menaces with an angry face and with flashing eyes, so that no one should come near; or shows some danger or marvellous thing there; or invites us to weep or to laugh together with them. Thus whatever the painted persons do among themselves or with the beholder, all is pointed towards ornamenting or teaching the istoria' .[30] Here again the basic emotions of anger, fear, grief are stressed, but with an essential and important concept added. Not only is the perspective construction to form a spatial link between the painting and the observer, but the commentator is to establish the emotional link. The image of man in the microcosm is in contact with man in the reality of the macrocosm.

However, if the artist does not exercise great care, it is possible for him to fall into monotony or repetition. For this reason Alberti advocates 'variety' and 'copiousness'. [31] He demands richness and variety in the colour cords which the painter is to use, [32] and expects the same variety of human poses and movements. [33] A good painting, he says, will include all ages of man and both sexes as well as animals of all sorts. [34] It might seem that Alberti is here advocating the horror vacui of some late medieval painting. He quickly corrects any misinterpretation we may make of his remarks. Lest any painter should go to extremes in this particular area, Alberti admonishes: 'I blame those painters who, where they wish to appear copious, leave nothing vacant. It is not composition but dissolute confusion which they disseminate. There the istoria does not appear to aim to do something worthy but rather to be in tumult.' [35] As an antidote to this 'dissolute confusion' he suggests that 'solitude in painting' may be pleasing to some. In the Latin text Varro's statement that no more than nine guests should be invited to a banquet is applied to painting, where nine to ten persons are enough to transmit the istoria. In the Italian text this passage is omitted, for no fixed number can actually be set for the personages of an istoria. The painter, then, is left without the precise rules of the academies, and must choose for himself the proper number of figures needed to make his point without offending by crowding or by barren emptiness.

Alberti has not presented the painter with a rigid set of formulae which he can follow blindly, but has rather put the responsibility for the final outcome of the work of art where it should be--in the hands of the artist. The artist could well ask why he should put himself to so much trouble making decisions and trying to hold himself to some elusive mean. Alberti's answer would probably have been that the final result will be well worth the artist's pains. In words addressed as much to the patron as to the artist he answers, 'The istoria which merits both praise and admiration will be so agreeably and pleasantly attractive that it will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and will move his soul.' [36]

This art will not only please the beholder but also touch him. It is to be effective, making a direct link between itself and the beholder. At the same time, it is to affect both educated and uneducated. Unlike many theorists from the sixteenth century to our day Alberti does not believe that art is addressed primarily to an elite; it is to reach all levels of society by the universality of its appeal. Such an art, of necessity, is not to be reserved for the bedroom of a merchant prince or petty tyrant but is to [p. 27] be made public where all can see it. Like the city republic which he defines as the common property of all citizens, [37] this art is to be the patrimony of all men. It will make the painter's contemporaries 'judge him another god and will give him perpetual fame'; it will give the dead life, 'aid religion', and by its example raise the humane level of all men. At the same time it is a profoundly humanist art capable of expressing and of satisfying the intellectual aims and ambitions of both the princely patron and the artist.

Perhaps it was the humanist nature of the art Alberti was advocating which led him in 1435 to write a treatise dedicated to the humanist patron Gianfrancesco Gonzaga of Mantua. He followed this Latin version almost immediately in 1436 with an Italian translation dedicated to artists. Although the Italian version bears no formal dedication as such, Brunelleschi is addressed and named before his colleagues Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Ghiberti and Masaccio. The dual dedication of Della pictura is too frequently overlooked. It is, in fact, quite difficult to understand the peculiar bias of the text and its subsequent history without an awareness of this dedication to patron and to painter. The education and interests of patron and painter were understandably different. Alberti, cognizant of this fact, altered his text accordingly. The patron could appreciate the ciceronian bias and contemporary turn of Alberti's thought. He would be much more interested than the painter in literary and philosophical allusions lacking in the Italian text, but found in subsequent translations based on the Latin version. The artist, on the other hand, might expect to acquire new methods of composing a painting, and would be interested in antique precedents for his art. As spokesman for the 'new art' Alberti had to convince both groups. This he did by following a logic which moves from the simple to the more complex, from the general to the specific. He pauses to sum up what has been treated and interjects 'divertimenti' to pique the [p. 28] interest of the reader. He admits the difficulty of his material but exhorts one to go on for the rewards will be great. This approach, though far from new, was still effective. The novelty of his theories is minimized by relating them to antique practice and to established contemporary artists. He explains the difficult aspects of his theory in simple terms. The consequences of the first premise are developed logically, and, finally, the art resulting from the theory is made desirable.

In the dedications Alberti's aim in writing Della pittura becomes manifest. In addressing the patron he is already indicating the death of the guild system. This 'new art' which he advocates is not to be dependent upon a medieval system for its commissions. Its existence requires a wealthy and educated lay patron. On the other hand he would raise the painter from the level of a craftsman and make him an independent artist. Already the ascendancy of mind over hand is exhibiting itself in painting. Alberti's artist is characterized by his intellect, yet his art is one which must exist in matter. The dichotomy between theory and practice found in the sixteenth century theories of Dolce, Vasari and Pino has no place in Della Pittura. Alberti's treatise is first of all a work of the fifteenth century both in its aims and in its means. Yet it rises above its own time by expressing concepts that open the modern era and give direction to the future development of painting.

The appearance of Della pittura must have caused a great stir in artistic circles in Florence in 1436. Based as it is on the work of the avant-garde artists of the moment and on Alberti's growing reputation as a humanist thinker, the treatise must have carried considerable weight. Although no documents are known which prove the acceptance of Alberti's theory by painters of the fifteenth century, investigation of the internal data of Florentine painting of this period indicates a clear relation to the body of the treatise.

Since Masaccio was already dead when Della pittura was [p. 29] being written, and since a part of the art advocated in the treatise is based on his work, we need only be concerned with the effect of the document on painters after 1436. The influence of the theory in Florence and its dissemination throughout Italy are much too complex a subject to be more than outlined here.

In Florence the aims and means of Della pittura were adopted almost immediately. Two works of art, both of 1439, clearly document the impact of the treatise on what could be called 'the moment of acceptance'. Although nothing remains of Domenico Veneziano's frescoes for Sant'Egidio but an orthogonal and a part of a leg, it is clear from Vasari's description and the extant fragment that Alberti's influence was particularly strong here. Of great importance is Fra Angelico's so-called 1439 altarpiece and its predella [commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici for the high altar of San Marco; now in Museo S. Marco, Florence; predella in Munich, Paris, Dublin, and Florence]. One has only to compare this altarpiece with the Cortona polyptych ['Virgin and Child enthroned between Saints John the Evangelist, John the Baptist, Mark and Mary Magdalen' at S. Domenico, Cortona] to see the effect of the treatise on the Dominican monk. Far from being a retardataire and mystic artist, Fra Angelico adopts Alberti's concepts of space and of istoria in his S. Marco altarpiece. One-point perspective is used; the figures are interrelated by pose and gesture, while a 'commentator' establishes the emotive link with the observer. Rather than looking back, Fra Angelico is here pointing the way to the future and the sacra conversazione.

Although they belong to the same historical moment, Paolo Uccello and Fra Filippo Lippi are omitted from this discussion, because the impact of Della pittura an their art is a more complex subject. Close analysis of Uccello's extant work indicates that he did not employ an accurate one-point perspective until the 'Profanation of the Host' predella at Urbino. Fra Filippo's sporadic acceptance of the aesthetic, as [p. 30] in the lower register at Prato, followed by its rejection, as in his Madonnas, merits more detailed treatment.

The widest acceptance of the art advocated by Alberti seems to appear in the decade following the publication of Della pittura. During this period his theories made their way in one form or another into practically all the painting produced in Florence.

Towards mid-century a 'moment of modification' begins to appear. At this time a group of younger painters headed by Piero della Francesca altered 'Albertian painting' to obtain a greater monumentality and freedom in locating their figures in space. Gastagno and Domenico Veneziano move away from Della pittura towards more personal solutions. However, this group never breaks completely with Alberti, for Piero's frescoes at Arezzo are probably the finest illustration of Alberti's colour chords. The period of 1460-80 could be characterized as a 'moment of rejection'. Both Pollaiuolo and Boticelli move away from Masaccio and the style of painting built on his art towards a greater interest in surface pattern and mobility of line rather than space and monumentality. By 1480, however, there arose a new desire to seek a means of ordering the composition of a painting. Leonardo's 'Adoration of the Magi' of 1481 with its attendant drawings most clearly illustrates this almost academic return to the concepts of the art of an earlier period. Ultimately this revival leads to a synthesis--expressed in Raphael's 'School of Athens'--of the spatial control from the 'moment of acceptance' and the freedom of figure disposition from the 'moment of rejection'.

Della pittura is by no means the complete answer to the often complex and confusing questions posed by Quattrocento Florentine painting. However, the old categories of 'romantic' and 'realist' have not been of great value in an attempt to understand this epochal period of art. I would stress the notion that the theory contained in Della pittura is best studied as a 'control'--as in a scientific experiment--for a clearer analysis of a most [p. 31] complex period of development. The theory has its roots in Quattrocento practice. As a theory it gives expression and codification to the dimly felt and unexpressed concepts of this practice. The aims suggested and the problems posed by the treatise give a new direction to painting. As a control, it is capable of embracing both the 'romantic' Fra Angelico and the 'realist' Piero della Francesca. Taken as a document of the fifteenth century, apart from the academic theory and practices that grew out of it, Della pittura is capable of bringing us closer to the vitality of Quattrocento painting as it appeared to the patrons and painters of the time. [p. 32]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].