Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

Notebook, 1993-

Alberti 'On Painting' - Book Three

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].

Notes 1-25 (Book Three)


[pages 89-91]

1. Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 77.

2. Lucian, De calumnia, 5. This famous episode was known throughout antiquity. Although Alberti may have known Greek, this dialogue already existed in at least three translations prior to 1435, by Guarino Guarini of Verona, dated probably between 1406 and 1408; by Alberti's schoolmate at Padua, Filelfo, before 1428; and by Lapo di Castiglionchio around 1435. For a fuller discussion see Rudolph Altrocchi, 'The Calumny of Apelles in the Literature of the Quattrocento'. PMLA, 36 [1921], pp. 454-91. See also Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology [New York, 1939], p. 158, note 100, for an interesting discussion of Alberti's transformation of this text and its effect on subsequent art.

3. Although this is one of the earliest references to the concept of cleanliness, a new concept in the Renaissance, both the Latin text and the source of this description characterize the robes of the Graces, for symbolic reasons, as transparent rather than clean. Alberti's source, Seneca, De beneficiis, I, iii, 2-7, explains the allegory in this fashion. 'Some would have it that there is one [Grace] for bestowing a benefit, another for receiving it and a third for returning it; others hold that there are three classes of benefactors--those who earn benefits, those who return them, those who receive and return them at the same time. The sisters dance in a ring for the reason that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns nevertheless to [p. 131] the giver; the beauty of the whole is destroyed if the course is anywhere broken.'

See also Strabo, Geography, IX, ii, 40, for a similar discussion.


4. Strabo, Geography, VIII, iii, 30 [C354]. Homer is cited. Although Alberti advocates throughout this passage an exchange of ideas between poets and painters, it seems scarcely possible, in the light of the theory of panting he has been developing up to this point, that he wishes an art of illustration. Ut poesis pictura would not seem to apply to the art presented in Della pittura.

5. Quintilian., I , i, 35, refers to elements in this fashion. Alberti's aim in this passage is quite clear. The painter should advance from simple to complex just as he does in learning to write. In general terms Alberti sketches out the course of study for the painter who is either just beginning or who wishes to improve his art. The suggestion that the artist should learn the parts before attempting to depict the whole came to mean in the academies that one should spend years drawing the parts of the human body from casts before approaching the model.

The implications of this passage, however, go far beyond academic rules. By referring to 'elements of painting' Alberti seems to suggest that there is more to painting than careful study of the parts of the human body. A few years after Della pittura he composed a book which could be called a 'mathematics for painters'. In this book he redefines the geometry basic to Della pittura and then gives the painter a series of exercises in composing geometric forms. This work he titled Elements of Painting [Elementi di pittura]. The implication, then, is that geometry lies at the base of all composition; not only of the planes that make up the figures but of the whole panel as well. Such does prove to be the case in several well known paintings. Masaccio's Trinity is based on a square in which the [p. 132] crucified Christ resembles the man in the square of Vitruvius and Leonardo. This square becomes the module for 1 : 1, 1 : : 2, 2 : 3, 3 : 4 relationships which govern the composition of the fresco. At least two painters after 1436 make use of a geometric organization of the painting surface. Domenico Veneziano seems to work variations on golden section rectangles and triangles in his St. Lucy altarpiece in the Uffizi; Piero della Francesca employs a rectangle based on one to the square root of two in his Flagellation at Urbina and in the Queen of Sheba and Testing of the Cross frescoes at Arezzo. Logically such an organization follows from the early Renaissance reliance on mathematics to control the data of the visible world. It is not a difficult step from the geometry of space and the human figure to the geometry of surface composition.


6. Quintilian, XII, x, 9.

7. The Latin is more clearly stated, Nam qui graviora aprehendere et versare didicerit is facile minora poterit ex sententia [O, 231.], and is closer to Alberti's source, Cicero, De oratore, II, xvi, 69-70.

8. This is the only time the word idea appears in the treatise. Previously [p. 72] Alberti referred to 'a type of beauty', but only here to an idea of beauty. The appearance of the word may be taken to indicate that Alberti was already a Neo-platonist. If such is the case, then Alberti's model and source for many of his concepts is also a Neo-platonist, for Cicero [Orator, ii, 8-10] develops a fuller discussion of the Platonic edios and its relation to beauty.

Alberti's concept of beauty is never clear. His best known definition of beauty [De re Aedificatoria, VI, ii] as such a harmonious whole that nothing can be added, taken away or changed without destroying it was not formulated until much later in life. Interestingly enough this definition in the treatise on architecture is followed almost immediately by a reference to Cicero as 'that student of the beautiful.' In Della pittura [p. 133] Alberti's position is ambiguous. His reference to Zeuxis may indicate that we are to search out the residue of the Ideal beauty in numerous examples in order to come to a better understanding of the true Idea. Since his citation is drawn from Cicero, it seems more likely that Alberti is here continuing the concept expressed earlier of knowledge derived from comparision.


9. Cicero, De inventione, II, i, 1-3. Cicero seems preferable as a source to Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 64.

10. Cicero, De oratore, I, xxxiii, 149-50, says the same thing about the beginning orator.

11. Pliny, XXXIV, xviii, 47, where Zenodrous is cited as copying cups by Calamis

12. The normal medieval shop practice as reported by Cennino Cennini [Libro dell-arte, pp. 14-15] required the apprentice painter to copy the work of one master in order to acquire skill in painting. Alberti rejects this practice because it teaches to copy but not to compose. He prefers the artist to learn from nature, the source of all knowledge, rather than from a master. In the words of Leonardo, 'he who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar' [R. 490. See also R. 484-5]. The suggestion of drawing from sculpture is valuable in itself. The necessary distillation of the essentials in the human figure accomplished by the sculptor will greatly simplify the task of the beginner. Unfortunately, Alberti could not know the excesses of academic practice which were to derive from this suggestion.

13. Sia questo argomento acto quanto veggiamo che quasi in ogni hetà sono stati alcuni mediocri sculptori ma truovi quasi niuno pictore non in tutto di riderlo et disadatto [MI, 135r.]. This phrase is followed in the Latin by in brief, study to be a painter or a sculptor [O, 24v.].

14. Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 109, refers to Nichomachus as a rapid painter. Since the passage on Nichomachus follows a [p. 134] discussion of Aesclepiodoros it is possible that Alberti either misread or had a copy with a lapsus at this point.

15. The Italian omits and Zeuxis was superior to many others in the painting of the bodies of women [O, 24v.].

16. Nicias: Pliny, XXXV, x1, 130. Heraclides: Pliny, XXXV, x1, 135. Serapion: Pliny, XXXV, xxxvii, 113. Dionysios: Pliny, loc. cit. Alexander: possibly a misinterpretation of Pliny, XXXV, x1, 132. Aurelius: Pliny, XXXV, xxxvii, 119. Phidias: unknown to me. Euphranor: Pliny, XXXV, 128.

17. The translation is here based essentially on the Latin: Modulosque in cartis conijcientes tum totam historiam tum singulas eiusdem historie partes comentabimur [O, 24v.].

18. Alberti's meaning in this passage is not wholly clear. A difficult concept is further complicated by Vulgar Latin forms of words used in a restricted sense by lawyers. Similar passages in De re aedificatoria [VIII, ix] and in Della tranquillità dell'animo [Bonucci ed., I, 93] demonstrate the importance of this concept for Alberti and aid the translation of the present text.

The Latin reads: Quove id certius teneamus modulos in paralellos dividere iuvabit ut in publico opere cuncta veluti ex privatis commentariis ducta suis sedibus collocentur [O, 24v.]. 'In order that we may have a more certain idea [of it], it will help to divide the modules into parallels in order that in the public work everything may be ordered in its proper place as though drawn from private notebooks.' The thought of a literary man who draws quotations from works in his library in order to recast them into a new literary whole is obvious in this passage. The artist is to do the same. He will take from his drawings as the literateur takes from his notes to construct a new and original whole.

The practice of squaring a drawing which is to be transferred to a larger painting can be seen in the Uccello drawing of Sir John Hawkwood in the Uffizi and on the surface of Masaccio's Trinity in Santa Maria Novella.


19. Plutarch, De liberis educandis, 7. [p. 135]

20. decimaggine, for which I have found no suitable translation. I use instead the Latin sed vitanda est [O, 25r.].

21. Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 80.

22. Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 84.

23. There are only three known fifteenth-century portraits of Alberti, and none of these occurs in painting. The Matteo de' Pasti medal, the self-portrait plaque and the Vatican ink drawing cited above. It is possible that unrecognized portraits of Alberti do exist, or that they may have existed and are now lost. The phrasing of the sentence seems to suggest that Alberti expected his portrait to appear in the near future.

24. This sentence is derived from the Latin [O, 25v.] which is more in keeping with the context of the remainder of the passage than is the weaker and more confused Italian. Noi pero ci reputeremo ad volupta primi avere presa questa palma, d'avere ardito commendare alle lettere queste arte sottilissima et nobilissima [MI, 136r. and 136v.].

25. Cicero, De Brute, xviii, 71. [pp. 131-136]




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