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Luca Chiavoni, Gianfranco Ferlisi, e Maria Vittoria Grassi, eds. Leon Battista Alberti e il Quattrocento. Studi in onore di Cecil Grayson e Ernst Gombrich.

Atti del convegno, Mantova, 1998. Firenze: Olschki, 2001 ("Ingenium," n. 3).

Thanks to the Centro Studi Leon Battista Alberti of Mantua with its steadfast cultural initiatives, we have now at our disposal a number of volumes devoted to the multifaceted activity of L.B. Alberti published in the new series "Ingenium" by Leo S. Olschki. Following Cecil Grayson's Studi su Leon Battista Alberti, and Luca Boschetto's Leon Battista Alberti e Firenze. Biografia, Storia e Letteratura, the volume entitled Leon Battista Alberti e il Quattrocento is the third in this prestigious sedes (and--I should mention--a fourth volume, entitled II principe architetto, has been added this year). Leon Battista Alberti e il Quattrocento offers twenty-two rich new studies on Alberti, his interpersonal relations, and the broader context of the places and times in which he lived. These essays (some in English, most in Italian) were originally presented as papers at the International Conference bearing the same title as the volume. Held in Mantua on October 29-31, 1998 to mark the bestowing of the Mantuan honorary citizenship on two great Renaissance scholars, Ernst Gombrich and the late Cecil Grayson, to both of whom the volume is dedicated.

Numerous disciplines and perspectives are represented in the essays of this publication--whose contributors are eminent scholars of literature, social and political history, philology, music, architecture and the visual arts, neuropsychology, etc. Therefore, in the authentic spirit of both the age and the figure represented in the title, this work promotes linkages and intersections among diverse scientific endeavors, as Alberto Tenenti points out at the very outset.

Writing about the central and northern part of Italy (which is where the public and private lives of so many prominent fifteenth-century figures like Alberti unfolded), Tenenti stresses the political, economic and behavioral commonalities between the two areas. Beyond and besides visible divergences, and despite the apparent divisions and subdivisions of their many centers of powers, Tenenti discusses a shared cultural substratum that makes it possible to speak of central-northern Italy as a cohesive area, a "spazio integrato."

In the article that follows, Lauro Martines presents the vicissitudes of the Florentine banker Francesco d'Altobianco Alberti, cousin and close friend of Leon Battista--a poet in exile--rich but without the necessary protection of political connections. Martines traces the adversities of this businessman and the expression of his economic failure in various poems, in particular Francesco's sonnet "Io so ch'io non so piu' ch'altri comprenda" (full text provided in the Appendix). Martines offers a close reading of his poetry, which, as a form of protest by a victim of the "tassazione partigiana e politica" in Florence, is an intriguing record of a condition that Martines aptly calls "internal exile" or "psychological exile," which historians have yet to explore.

To the interrogative title of the next article "Who Were Alberti's Mantuan Friends?," David Chambers's short answer seems to be: very few. But Chambers does engage in a detailed reconstruction of Alberti's relationships with members of the Gonzaga family: Marquis Gianfrancesco, his son Ludovico, cardinal Francesco, and even Barbara of Brandenburg (Ludovico's wife) with whom he had only few, lukewarm exchanges. While in Mantua, Chambers concludes, Alberti received no advantage, no permanent office, no honorary citizenship. The only people close to him seemed to have been the Gonzaga's seneschal, Petrus Spagnolus de Modonero, and the mathematician and astrologer Bartolomeo Manfredi (in whose company Alberti may have discussed mathematical issues, and consumed a good quantity of quail).

Guided by Massimo Miglio, we then move to Rome and focus on Alberti's Roman writings, particularly Momus, De Porcaria coniuratione, and De architectura. Elaborating on the findings of scholars such as Tafuri and Calzona about Alberti's relationship with Nicholas V, especially his polemics against that Pope's building program, and also the significance of Porcari's plot in 1453, Miglio proposes a cross examination of Alberti's texts with Manetti's biography of Pope Nicholas V. Such an enterprise is too ambitious for the scope of an article, Miglio admits, but here he offers important first observations: undetected references to Nicholas, the curial milieu and Rome emerge out of a larger geographic and temporal frame where Alberti situates the major historical and political events he so accurately and rationally is able to analyse.

G. Ponte's "Leon Battista Alberti e Genova" offers much more than a portrait of Genoa as Battista's birth place. Ponte presents the political and economic life of Genoa as the place where members of the Alberti family had established bank branches since the thirteenth century. Following the intricacies of Genoese power struggles and factional divisions, Ponte reconstructs the financial (and invariably also political) dealings of Battista's grandfather, Benedetto di Nerozzo, and of other relatives well known to the reader of La famiglia, such as Adovardo. The circulation and reception of Alberti's work in Genoa is also part of this essay, which shows how and in which writings Alberti preserved the memory of his father's and other relatives' accounts about Genoa.

As expected by a distinguished philologist (to whom we owe an impeccable edition of the texts of the Certame coronario), Lucia Bertolini explores the complexities of Alberti's linguistic formation, highlighting the presence of northern Italian elements in his vernacular writings. Elaborating on Gianfranco Folena's previous observations about Alberti's language, Bartolini pinpoints borrowings and interferences (at various linguistic levels: lexical, morphological, etc.) from northern dialects, especially the Veneto region.

"`In bene e utile della famiglia': appunti sulla precettistica albertiana del governo domestico e la sua tradizione" by Massimo Danzi shows Alberti, author of De familia, as the heir of such medieval encyclopedic works as Beauvais's Speculum doctrinale or, centuries later, Egidio Romano's De regimine. It is a long essay articulated in various sections and teaming with references to the numerous classical literary and philosophical authors echoed in Alberti's work. Danzi elaborates extensively upon the Albertian discourse on the domus, to underscore Leon Battista's new and discreet way of philosophizing with daily things, and his departure from the medieval moral modes in favor of a more technical evaluation of issues such as management of family resources or expenditures. Particularly interesting is also Danzi's suggestion that a certain attitude towards money and possessions that we encounter in Alberti's treatise on the family is traceable to Poggio.

Another rather lengthy article, subdivided in numerous sections, is Rinaldi's "`Momus christianus': altre fonti albertiane," which traces the sources of Alberti's Momus back to the Great Christian apologetic authors, especially Lactantius but also Tertullian. Anti-pagan polemics, parodies of Pagan gods, anti-idolatry motifs, denigrations of certain philosophers (Epicurus, especially), and the polemics against the simulacra and spectacula (which are part of that Christian tradition) are also found in other Albertian texts (De re aedificatoria, Apologi, Intercenales), to which Rinaldi extends his rich and meticulous inquiry.

J. Woodhouse opens his essay by discussing courtesy manuals of the Renaissance to express his disagreement with the idealist reading that has often been given of Castiglione's Cortegiano (i.e., as the reflection of Castiglione's ideal self-portrait). In Woodhouse's opinion such a reading fails to contextualize historically Castiglione's text as a product of a political and social crisis. In this sense, one can find parallelisms between Il libro del Cortegiano and Alberti's book IV of Della famiglia as to, for instance, practical advice to acquire favor. One could also compare certain passages of Castiglione's book with the pages on simulation and dissimulation in Alberti's Momus. Along with such textual correspondences, Woodhouse highlights intellectual and biographic similarities between the two authors: a certain practical outlook on social and economic advancement, significant life difficulties they both experienced, their shared aspiration to a kind of stoic imperturbability.

One should definitively appreciate Claudio Gallico's "Oralita e scrittura nella poesia e nella musica delle corti dell'Italia settentrionale," which discusses in a concise way the fervent experimentalism in poetry and music during the time under study. It is a dense and highly technical study, which would be a disservice to summarize here.

Math and architecture are the focus of an article by Lirio Volpi Ghirardini, who has been in charge of the important project of preservauon of Alberti's Sant' Andrea in Mantua. Here he deals with building concepts according to mathematical order, and--as stated in the title--"L'architettura numerabile di Leon Battista Alberti segno universale di ordine e armonia," (a study available in English as well)--he stresses the complexities of the relation between Alberti's building projects and mathematical systems.

The twelfth study in this volume is by John Onians who explores the connection between environment, neuropsychology and style. Alberti witnessed the significant transformation of Italian culture in the early fifteenth century and became interested in finding underlying principles, the general roles governing artistic behaviour. In this process he made observations which led to great insight into human responses to the environment, more specifically to anticipations of what today is known as neuropsychology, a science that investigates the connections between visual preferences and neural stimulations. Alberti's references to differential perception, his understanding of human proclivities--as Onians very well points out--does not mean that he knows of or refers to the operations of the brain, but he certainly seems to be aware that there is a "biological imperative independent of teaching and upbringing" behind human visual preferences and responses to the environment. Onians's essay goes even beyond numerous Albertian loci, and intriguingly extends his discussion to the larger Florentine scene, to Venice (where, for example, one would immediately notice a preference for glass objects, a taste for shimmering colors, as a result of the exposure to light reflected off the water), and to Verona and Mantua, where clouds and mists, as the author suggests, influenced the architectural style of the town, and Mantegna's various frescoes. In the concluding passages of this witty and fascinating article on the neuropsychological basis of artistic style, Onians offers an understanding of the principles of neural development and the perceptual habits or the behaviours with which such development is associated. Here we are provided, among other things, with convincing explanations for why linear perspective first emerged in Renaissance Florence.

While stressing the humanist character of Alberti's Della pictura, Charles Hope takes issue with many of the claims made so far: one example, that this text had many readers, since there is no evidence of wide circulation and only a few manuscripts survive today. Hope also critiques the claim that the De pictura was the first text to advocate ideas pivotal in the fifteenth century, especially the ideas assumed to be new on the basis of two terms which Alberti used frequently: historia and compositio. These, Hope writes, were neither a new coinage nor established terms but they are used in a new way by Alberti. Hope shows how most assumptions stemmed from a fragmented study of the book because scholars failed to look at De pictura asa whole; in other words, a sort of dismemberment of the text--with consideration given to book II independently of its continuity with book I and its ties with book III--generated widespread misconceptions about the text's actual contribution to the field, its intents and its intended readers. Hope convincingly argues that Alberti's primary purpose in writing De pictura was not to provide practical guidance to painters. (Why, for example, would Alberti want to "explain" the mechanisms of perspective when the contemporary artistic community had been aware of the importance of perspective for a decade?) Rather, Hope concludes, De pictura was meant for a non-professional audience (the account of perspective offered in Book I is indeed a basic one), and its main aim was to offer principles and criteria by which to encourage humanist readers to express opinions about or better judge paintings. Books II and III discuss circumscription, composition, reception of light and other evaluative elements and criteria so that a sophisticated but lay audience could aptly articulate their ideas about contemporary art. De pictura was first and foremost directed to humanists.

We return to Mantua with Evelyn Welch's article, which focuses on the Gonzaga's thrift and bargaining strategies, and their reliance on larger trading centres for specialized, highly valuable goods (cloth-of-gold, silk etc.). An interesting series of business orders, shopping strategies and bargaining deals (all often carried out by Mantuan ambassadors) is brought to light in these pages, which show also the high status reached by Milan as a commercial center with its silk industry, cloth-of-gold manufacturers, and armourers. Welch traces all the important events in the 1460s and 1470s in Milanese history that affected the duchy mercantile life and its exchanges with Gonzaga, who always looked outside Mantua for the best luxury goods (despite their desire to support the expansion of their local economy). In this sense, Welch concludes, the Gonzaga "were the antithesis of Alberti's self-reliant family enterprise," yet they had bargaining strategies and acted as competitive shoppers, settling for the best price available on the peninsula's various markets.

Marco Collareta's "Rileggendo il De statua dell'Alberti" stresses the importance of the role this work has in the history of artistic theories. As a matter of fact, in this work Alberti elaborated on his conception of sculpture. He departed from his former views of sculpture as belonging to the field of applied drawing, that is to say, as part of painting, into a new consideration of the statue as a building with a human shape. Thus sculpture appeared as a synthesis between the principle of imitation, which ruled in painting, and the building principle governing architecture. If the painter stands higher thanks to the historia that he tells us visually, the sculptor, on the other hand, gains more dignity than he was credited for previously, because of the technical competence he shares with the architect.

The following four essays deal with Alberti's architectural contributions: Christoph Luitpold Frommel discusses Alberti's description of what a temple should be, his statements about the typological difference between a temple and a basilica, and his innovative ways of reproducing a centralized temple where (as in the Church of S. Sebastiano in Mantua) we see a unique, for the fifteenth century, example of sharp separation between the portico and the cella.

Pointing out that Alberti occupied so distinctive a place among the architects of his time, Francesco Paolo Fiore invites us to a reading of Alberti's work and influence as related, on the one hand, to the pre-eminence his clients accorded to him, and on the other hand, to the pre-eminence that Alberti himself ascribed to the architect. Taking into account the disparate range of Alberti's reflections on architecture (including Profugiorum ab aerumna libri, Theogenius, Momus, besides the obvious specialized treatises De re aedificatoria and De pictura), Fiore tackles the complex subject of what Alberti saw as the social and moral purposes of the architect whose technical competence is both a source of exaltation, social utility or civilizing mission, and awareness of its limits, despite the great merits and luster of both the clients and the artist.

Arturo Calzona's article on the tempio malatestiano, based on newly found archival material, helps to reconstruct a series of networks and exchanges connected with the intricacies of the three supposed stages of the realization of the Malatestiano. Such stages reflect different ideological positions as to the re-appropriation of ancient models. Calzona discusses the chronology of the changes the Malatestiano underwent (especially in the decoration and architecture of its chapels), and the work of Piero della Francesca and other artists in Rimini before Alberti's intervention.

Although the relationship between Bramante's and Alberti's architectural creations has been well studied before, Arnaldo Bruschi, in his contribution to this volume, has the merit of deepening our appreciation of echoes, references and, more generally, the Albertian lesson in Bramante's work. Bruschi meticulously details his comparison between the two artists' production, and, going beyond technical and theoretical pendants, he also points out interesting parallels in Alberti's and Bramante's human behaviors. Indeed both of them refused to be relegated to the role of designing and building, and chose to be part of a larger world, one of refined intellectual, poetic and literary pursuits.

We have also an essay on Nicholas of Cusa and Alberti written by Kurt Flasch who, using arguments different from the ones earlier presented by Cassirer, shows that a close relationship, or, rather, a fruitful exchange between the German philosopher and Alberti is more than plausible after 1450 (especially between 1450 and 1458). Indeed, in these years, Flasch argues, Cusano becomes more interested in aesthetic issues, in painting and perspective, in optics and the question of the subjectivity of vision. Flasch points to Nicholas' De staticis experimentis as a work fundamental to our understanding of the relationship between Alberti and Cusanus, also because his texts point to various concerns and references to ancient sources shared by both.

Through Mantegna and Momus, the interlocutors in Battista Fiera's dialogue De iusticia pingenda, Rodolfo Signorini introduces us into the world of Renaissance artists' consultations with philosophers or theologians, and their disputes over iconographic issues, such as that of the representation of an allegorical figure, namely Justice. Beyond the obvious connections with Alberti, suggested by the names of the speakers, Signorini discusses Lucian echoes in the dialogue of this Mantuan doctor-humanist who lived between 1461 and 1540, providing also a critical edition and the first Italian translation of this interesting text.

Finally an essay by Luca Boschetto adds much to our previous knowledge of Alberti's experience in Florence and its territory. Boschetto's painstaking archival research discloses Alberti's daily cares, economic concerns, administrative business, and also his contact with middle and lower classes, a world quite different from the one portrayed in his Famiglia or encountered in humanist circles. Leon Battista Alberti e il Quattrocento is a volume that brings good news not only to the growing number of Albertisti, but also to all those interested in the Renaissance in general and the rich variety of its expressions.
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Author:Frank, Maria Esposito
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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