Notebook, 1993-

Alberti 'On Painting' - Book One - Notes 48-52

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 7-47 (Book One)

[pages 43-59]

7. p[er] questo useremo quanto dicono piu grassa minerva [MI, 120v.]. All the Latin manuscripts contained the same phrase: pinquiore idcirco uti aiunt minerva scribendo utemur [O, Ir.]. All further references to the Latin manuscripts will be to O which is taken as the best reading. Compare, Cicero, De amicita, v. 19. 'Agamus igitur pingui, ut aiunt, Minerva.' Alberti's copy of this work is still preserved in the Bibliotheca San Marco, Venice. See also Introduction, pp. 18-20.

8. Solo studia il pictore fingiere quello si vede [MI, 120v.]. The Latin varies the statement slightly to give it a more philosophic turn: Nam ea solum imitari studet pictor quae sub luce videantur [O, IV.]. For the painter attempts only to imitate that which is seen in light. [Italics mine.]

9. Mallé's reading, al seno, [p. 56] is apparently due to a misreading of the marginal notation at this point. The text reads segnio. A carat indicates the marginal al [iter], seno. My reading is borne out by all other manuscripts: P, IV, facto segno: O, IV., facto sinu.

10. superficie. Hereafter translated as plane.

11. orlo: rim, edge, outline, border. After this translated as outline. [p. 100]

Alberti is already using his concept of la più grassa Minerva. He is concerned primarily with form in matter. At the same time he is interested in the visible and in the external aspects of the visible. The alternative meaning of la più grassa Minerva is also operative in his popularization of humanist knowledge which he is now making available to artists without encumbering them with technical terms.

In content Alberti follows his source quite closely, although he reverses the logic to begin with the smallest and simplest part, building up to the more complex. His position is identical with that of the stoics as stated by Diogenes Laertius.

'Body is defined by Apollodorus in the Physics as that which is extended in three dimensions, length, breadth, and depth. This is also called solid body. But surface is the extremity of a solid body, or that which has length and breadth only without depth.... Surface exists not only in our thought but also in reality .... A line is the extremity of a surface or length without breadth, or that which has length alone. A point is the extremity of a line, the smallest possible mark or dot.' [Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, VII, 135. Hereafter cited as Diogenes Laertius.]

By accepting the stoic definition of the creation of solid bodies, Alberti rejects the Aristotelian refutation of that doctrine which was generally accepted in the early fifteenth century. [See Aristotle, De caelo et mundo, III, I, 299a2, where the stoic belief is criticized and Pseudo-Aristotle [accepted as Aristotle until modern times], De lineis insecabilibus, where it is proved that since a point has no extension a series of points cannot form a line.] Alberti also avoids the definitions and terms accepted and used by his contemporary mathematicians. In the slightly later Elementi di pittura he clearly demonstrates that he knows these terms, but at this point he prefers to employ more usual words or terms of his own invention. This does not cause undue difficulty until he comes to the concept [p. 101] of orlo. As a geometrician he knows that a line can have only the dimension of length, although it is still capable of separating one area from another. As a painter he knows that such a line is created from matter and as such has three dimensions. He states later in his work [p. 28] that the painter's line must be almost invisible. Because of this difficulty which he encounters in attempting to find a term to express this concept, the concept itself becomes clearer for us. In the Latin original of Della pittura he calls this line ambitus [circumference], ora [edge or boundary], and fimbria [see Macrobius, In somnium Scipionis, I, v-vi]. In Elementi di pittura he is satisfied with lembo [edge or border] and with the Latin discrimen [a separation].

This search for the right shade of meaning does not indicate solely a literateur's desire for perfection. The concepts of point, line, plane and outline, with their implication of drawing, become the basis of the artistic practice advocated in Book Two [pp. 81-3]. They are fundamental to obtaining relief in painting.

12. l'andare. Use of the verbal noun implies motion.

13. buccia: skin, rind, shell.

14. Alberti is clearly referring to fluted columns common in antiquity but rare during the Middle Ages.

15. Dosso: back.

16. This Latin variant is lacking in all the Italian manuscripts. Nam ipsi iidem radii inter oculum atque visam superficiem intenti suapte vi ac mira quadam subtilitate pernicissime congruunt aera corporaque huiusmodi rara et lucida penetrantes quoad aliquod densum et opacum offendant quo in loco cuspide ferientes et vestigio hereant. Verum non minima fuit apud priscos disceptatio a superficie an ab oculo ipsi radii erumpant quae disceptatio sane difficilis atque apud nos admodum inutilis pretereatur [O, fol. 2v.].

17. Free translation. E noi qui immaginiamo i razzi quasi ess[er]e fili sottilissimi, da uno capo quasi come una mappa molto strettissimi legati dentro all'occhio ove siede il senso che vede et quivi, quasi come troncho di tutti razzi, quel nodo extenda dritissimi et sotillissimi suoi virgulti per sino alla opposita sup[er]ficie [MI, 121r.].

18. Alberti never makes clear his own position on the nature of sight. Frequently his statements in this text are contradictory. His reference to bodies which depart from the object for the eye would seem to make him an atomist, yet in the paragraph above he clearly states that the eye extends its rays to the plane seen. Of this much we can be sure: Alberti is aware of the more obvious properties of light. He knows that it travels in a straight line, that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of refraction, and that light carries colour from the objects it strikes. Whether the eye emits or receives rays, it is the organ of perception.

His most fruitful innovation in the theory of vision is introduced at this point. Until Alberti's time vision was said to take the form of a cone. The stoic statement of this doctrine, derived from Euclid, bears certain similarities to Alberti. 'They [the stoics] hold that we see when the light between the visual organ and the object stretches in the form of a cone: . . . The apex of the cone in the air is at the eye, the base at the object seen. Thus the thing seen is reported to us by the medium of the air stretching out towards it, as if by a stick' [Diogenes Laertius, VII, 157]. The theory of conic vision led in practice to the axial perspective of the Romans and Giotto. By substituting the pyramid for a cone Alberti made the one-point perspective system possible, for in pyramidal vision the size of the object seen varies as the height of the observer's eye and the distance to the object. Although he was physiologically incorrect, Alberti made it possible to represent objects on a plane surface with greater apparent exactitude.

19. The Latin continues here: neque hoc loco disputandum est utrum in ipsa iunctura interioris nervi visus ut aiunt quiescat an in superficie oculi quasi in speculo animato imagines figurentur. Sed ne [p. 103] anima quidem oculorum ad visendum hoc loco munera referenda sunt. Satis enim erit his commentariis succincte quae ad rem pernecessaria sint demonstrasse [O, 3v.].

20. In the Latin Alberti is more conscientious about using his 'fatter Minerva' than in the Italian. The Latin, eam nos n'ost'ra minerva describamus [O, 3v.], is replaced in the Italian by, noi la descriviamo a nostro modo [MI, 121v.].

21. et quando sia grande vedilo che . . .

22. The Latin contains a philosophical discussion of colour omitted from the Italian text. Missam faciamus illam philosophorum disceptationem qua primi ortus colorum investigantur. Nam quid iuvat pictorem novisse quonam pacto ex rari et densi aut ex calidi et sicci frigidi humidique permixtione color extet. Neque tamen eos philosophantes aspernor qui de coloribus ita disputant ut species colorum esse numero septem statuant album atque nigrum duo colorum extrema. Unum quidem inter medium. Tum inter quodque extremum atque ipsum medium binos quod alter plus altero de extremo sapiat quasi de limite ambigentes collocant. Pictorem sane novise sat est qui sint colores et quibus in pictura modis hisdem utendum sit. Nolim a peritioribus redarqui qui dum philosophos sectantur duos tantum esse in rerum natura integros colores asserunt album et nigrum caeteros autem omnes ex duorum permixtione istorum oriri. Ego quidem ut pictor de coloribus ita sentio. Permixtionibus colorum alios oriri colores pene infinitos [O, 4v. and 5r.].

Cf. Aristotle, De coloribus, 791a, as a possible source for the concept that all colours come from a mixing of white and black.

23. The source of this unusual treatment of colour is unknown to me at the present time. Pliny [Historia naturalis, XXXV, xxxii, 50, hereafter cited as Pliny] refers to white, yellow, red and black as the four colours used by Appeles and other painters of antiquity. The identification of these four colours with the elements is surprisingly medieval, yet Alberti may be only making his apostolic bow to tradition. [p. 104]

This omission of yellow from the basic colours of the painter's palette is most striking since Alberti clearly refers to yellow as a part of his colour chords [pp. 84-5, see the end of Book Two]. Filarete, who follows Alberti closely in his chapters on drawing, corrects the omission of yellow. The importance of this colour in both Trecento and Quattrocento painting is so obvious that one wonders how Alberti could have overlooked it. The key may perhaps be found in his vocabulary. When he speaks of the colour chords, yellow is rendered as croceo rather than the more ordinary giallo. This suggests saffron as the source of his yellow rather than the unstable and sometimes poisonous mineral sources described by Cennino. [Cennino Cennini, Il libro dell'arte, D. V. Thompson, translator and editor, New Haven, 1932-3, pp. 27-30. See also D. V. Thompson, Materials of Medieval Painting, New Haven, 1936, pp. 174-89.] Because experienced painters frequently encountered difficulties with yellow, Alberti may have seen fit to omit it from his palette.

In all probability Alberti was not too interested in these colours as such for he immediately turns his attention to the results of their mixing and to the observation of colour in nature. Later [pp. 84-5] they are combined as part of the colour chords.

24. gienere and spetie. Genera and species here to be taken in the biological sense.

25. In Leoni's translation this passage is rendered as the cheeks of the Virgin. It can only refer to young girls; the Italian reads fanciulle, the Latin virgineas.

26. quell'altra bella stella Venere. Omitted in P. The Latin renders this passage as lucifera stella, the morning star [O, 5v.].

27. The miracles of painting [miracoli della pittura] are here related to reflection, while on p. 56 of this text Alberti refers to them again in connection with placing the picture at a definite distance from the eye for the constructed space to [p. 105] function properly. Sir Kenneth Clark [Leon Battista Alberti on Painting, London, 1944, pp. 2-3] has taken this to mean that Alberti used a camera obscura a full century before its invention by Della porta. This scarcely seems possible when Alberti's statements are related to Brunelleschi's experiments in perspective, reported by Manetti, and to Alberti's experiments reported in the anonymous Life. According to Manetti, Brunelleschi painted a small panel about 12 inches square [one half braccio] of the Baptistry in Florence. The observer looked through a hole from the back of the panel, placed at what we now call the vanishing point, into a mirror held at arm's length. Thus both viewing point and distance were established. Alberti may be referring to this sort of 'miracle'. It is equally possible from the reference made in the anonymous Life [Rerum it. scrip., Muratori, ed., XXV, cols. 299C through 300A] that Alberti had already consructed a sort of 'peep-show' in Rome before he came to Florence. This Latin Life records that 'he produced unheard-of works from this art of painting and unbelievable to those who saw them. These works he displayed in a small closed box through a tiny hole. You saw there high mountains, vast landscapes, the broad moving sea and at the same time such a long vista of distant regions that the sense of the beholder failed.' The demonstrations can only be construed with difficulty to mean a camera obscura, for the anonymous biographer continues 'both learned and unlearned alike swore that these were thing of nature, not painted'. Apparently Alberti's 'demonstration' was similar to Brunelleschi's little panel, set in a box so the beholder was forced to look at it from the one point the construction demanded. It is not surprising that the 'sense of the beholder failed' when this small box suddenly extended to include 'distant vistas'.

28. gravida: pregnant.

29. proportioni et agiugnimenti della superficiie [MI, 122v.]. Cf. Latin: ubi optime superficies discrimina et proportiones notarit [O, 5v. and 6r.].

30. dalla natura. Cf. Latin: natura duce.

31. Alberti shifts from plane to solid geometry and back again with a calm and ease which may be baffling for the modern reader. He is here defining his terms. Equidistant planes or lines are those whose axis is at right angles to the observer's line of sight, and therefore parallel with the plane of the picture. In this translation equidistant will be reserved for solid geometry and the more familiar parallel used for plane geometry. Collinear planes and lines are those parallel to the line of sight but perpendicular to the picture plane. Such lines and planes are commonly called orthogonal today, that is, at right angles to the picture plane. Though parallel, they seem to meet as do the classic railroad tracks in elementary drawing books.

See also note 34, Book One.

32. Today an allusion to the proof of the similarity of triangles would accomplish the same results as Alberti's painful attempts to make this concept understandable for his fifteenth-century reader.

33. Aulus Gellius, Noctium atticarum, I, i, 1-3, who in turn refers to Plutarch's work on Hercules where Pythagoras is cited as the source for the size of Hercules. Hereafter cited as Aulus Gellius.

34. [NOTE: See Plate 1 (filed in the folder: Visuals) for visual representation of A, B, C, D.]

Most of the difficulties of this passage are due to language. The terms equidistant and collinear have already been established in the Albertian vocabulary. Equidistant quantities are not altered but represented proportionately on the cross-section. [See A below.] Collinear quantities are parallel to the line of sight. Thus only their front plane, if they have thickness, appears in the intersection. [B] The term equidistant as it is used in speaking of non-equidistant quantities refers to quantities which are neither parallel nor at right angles to the line of [p. 107] sight but somewhere in between. [C] As their axis becomes more nearly parallel to the line of sight the less is seen. [D] the converse holds true. [C] Alberti prepared the reader for this demonstration early in Book One [see note 18].

35. qualità. Lapsus for quantità. Cf. Latin quantitatibus [O, 7r.].

36. With the exception of the Laus Deo this is the only time God is mentioned. Even so, it is used here in a colloquial expression--cosi volendo Iddio, --while in the Latin it is even further removed from the Deity--superis ita volentibus [O, 7v.].

37. Aeneid, III, 655-8; IX, 177-448.

38. Appresso de l'Ispani molte fanciulle paiano biancose et brune [MI, 124r.].

MI indicates the lapsus after biancose with a small cross. P [p. 108] contains the correct reading: E apresso agli spani multi fanciulle paiono bianchissime da appresso a germani sarebbono fusce e brune [P, 8v.]. This is corroborated by the Latin: Apud hispanos plereq[ue] virgines candide putantur que apud germanos fusce et atri coloris haberentur [O, 7v.].

39. Mallé corrects Janitschek's misreading of Pythagoras. Protagoras is found in all texts.

Aberti probably derived this statement from Diogenes Laertius, IX, 51. It also appears in Plato's Theataetus, 152A.

40. Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 74.

41. Latin: . . . which to me is an open window from which the istoria is seen [O, 8v.].

42. The Florentine braccio was slightly less than 23 inches. In the Latin text the emphasis is put on the braccio as a unit of measurement derived from man. The measurement is not abstract but related to man in reality and in the painting. Alberti differs from Vitruvius [De architectura, III, i, 2] who says that man is four cubits tall.

43. et em[m]i questa linea medesima p[ro]p[or]tionale aquella ultima quantita quale p[ri]ma mi si trav[er]so inanzi [MI, 124v.]: and to me this same line [is] proportional to that last quantity which first cut across before me. This difficult passage becomes clearer and more meaningful in the Latin: ac mihi quidem hec ipsa iacens quadranguli linea est proximiori transverse et aeq[ue]distanti in pavimento vise quantitati proportionalis [O, 8v.]: to me this same line of the quadrangle is proportional to the nearest [or most recently mentioned] transverse and equidistant quantity seen on the pavement.

Thus the base line of the quadrangle, or painting, is directly proportional to the nearest transversal of the area seen. See note 48 for the importance of this passage.

44. This concept of observer and observed seeming to be on the same plane is most important for Alberti's aesthetic. By this means actual and represented space are seemingly one, and the [p. 109] observer's identification of himself with the painting is heightened. With the addition of the effective means of painting in Book Two the link between observer and observed is forged, creating Alberti's istoria. See now [1966] my 'Ut rhetorica pictura,' Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XX, 26-44.

45. Quali segniate linee amme dimostrino in che m[od]o quasi p[er] in infinito ciascuna transversa quantita segua alterandosi [MI, 124v.]. Segua is probably a lapsus for sub aspectu. I have accepted the latter reading since it appears in all Latin texts [O, 8v.].

46. I.e. exceeding b two parts. Alberti apparently refers to shop practice by which the recession of transversals could be approximated by reducing the distance between the first and second transversals by one third in order to locate the third transversal. A blank space is left in both O and OF, while NC renders it superbi partiens, altered by another hand to read sub sesquatens.

47. diametro.




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