De Re Aedificatora

Leon Battista Alberti’s theoretical treatise on architecture, titled De Re Aedificatoria (About Buildings), was dedicated in 1452 but not published until 1485. What qualifies it as an architectural feat? It changed the understanding and practice of architecture in much of Europe and continued to influence developments there and in the New World for about 400 years. Although he was gathering the ideas for the book, Alberti (1404–1472) was not an architect but a Catholic priest.

Alberti was born in Genoa, the illegitimate child of Lorenzo, an exiled Florentine from a family of bankers. When he was about ten years old, Battista (he added “Leon” later) entered a boarding school in Padua to receive a basic classical education. Several years of legal studies at the University of Bologna led to a doctorate in church law in 1428, after which he went to Florence. He soon began writing. His first published anthology of poems, Il cavallo (The Horse) of 1431, was quickly followed by Della famiglia (About the Family)—the first of many philosophical dialogues—and La tranquillità (Composure), a collection of essays, short stories, and plays, both in 1432. By then he was employed as a secretary in the Papal Chancery in Rome and was about to undertake a lives of the saints and martyrs, written, as was fashionable, in classical Latin. Living in Rome opened Alberti’s eyes to classicism, although the city was to remain neglected for another fifteen years. In 1434 he wrote a study about urban design entitled Descriptio urbis Romae (Description of the City of Rome), in which he first explored the classical notion that beauty existed in harmony, achievable through mathematical rules.

Alberti’s future lay not in the law but in the church. Taking holy orders, he would eventually become a canon of the Metropolitan Church of Florence in 1447. Other clerical offices and their benefits followed: abbot of San Sovino, Pisa, Gangalandi Priory, Florence, and the rectory of Borgo San Lorenzo in Mugello. In 1436 he completed his first major book, written in classical Latin, that touched upon architecture: De pictura (About Painting) was an attempt to bring system to perspective and set down rules for the painter to achieve concord with cosmic harmony. An Italian translation appeared in the same year.

From about 1434 Alberti traveled through northern Italy in the retinue of Pope Eugenius IV, visiting Florence, Bologna, and Ferrara, where, in 1438, under the patronage of Marchese Leonello, he began a more careful study of classical architecture, delving into the ten-part book De Architectura, written by one Marcus Vitruvius Pollio around 20 b.c. Alberti returned to Rome six years later and extended that study among the ancient buildings. When Nicholas V succeeded to the papacy in 1447, Alberti was appointed inspector of monuments, an office he held