until 1455. De Re Aedificatoria, written in classical Latin and structured in ten parts like Vitruvius’s De Architectura, was completed in 1452. Vitruvius’s book was its principal source and model, but Alberti also drew upon Plato, Pythagoras, and the Christian fathers; his own archeological studies; and, importantly, the consensus of contemporary architectural thought. Vitruvius had summarized the architectural practice of his day; Alberti went further to lay down universal rules.

As Italian society and fashions changed, from around 1420 the mason-architect had begun to be displaced, first by the artist-architect and then the courtier-artist-architect. With training in neither building nor art, Alberti wrote a book about the art of building that completed the metamorphosis of the architect into a dilettante-scholar; that made “design distinct from matter,” as he put it, and turned the art of architecture into an academic pursuit in which creativity and design skill could be honed to perfection simply by obeying a set of rules. Intuition was replaced with measurable absolutes. It gave architectural design a thoroughly developed theory of harmony and proportion and made it simple—at least in theory. According to some sources, the last Latin edition was a folio version in Bologna, of 1782. Translations and many derivative works found their way through western Europe.

Book I of De Re Aedificatoria defined design, set down the criteria for good architecture (convenience, stability, and delight), and discussed the basis of composition and proportion. Book II dealt with matters of professional practice and building materials. Book III addressed practical building construction. Book IV covered many aspects of civic design, and Book V dealt with plans for various building types. The next book explored the esthetic dimension of architecture, defining beauty as “a harmony of all the parts in whatsoever subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for the worse.” It also included a section on mechanical and technical details. Alberti’s strong attachment to antiquity was revealed in Books VII and VIII, that took up the subjects of ornament in religious buildings and Roman urban design, respectively. In Book IX the axiomatic principle underlying Renaissance architecture was restated: that beauty is an innate property of things, achieved by following cosmic rules. Then there was an assortment of chapters about mostly practical issues. Book X descended to the pragmatic: water supply, engineering, repairing cracks, and even how to get rid of fleas.

Alberti applied his theories in only a few buildings, mostly unfinished renovations or extensions. They included the facades of the Church of San Francesco (otherwise known as Tempio Malatestiano) of 1450, in Rimini; the facades of the Palazzo Rucellai (1446–1451) and Santa Maria Novella (1458–1471), both in Florence; and San Sebastiano (1459) and Sant’Andrea (1470–1472), both in Mantua. His biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote in 1550, “His writings possess such force that it is commonly supposed that he surpassed all those who were actually his superiors in art” and added, “He was a person of the most courteous and praiseworthy manners … generous and kind to all.”

Further reading

Alberti, Leon Battista. 1988. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Borsi, Franco. 1989. Leon Battista Alberti: The Complete Works. New York: Electra/Rizzoli.

Vasari, Giorgio. 1991. Selections from the Lives of the Artists. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

De Stijl

Founded in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1916, the group known as De Stijl was Europe’s most important theoretical movement in art and architecture until the mid-1920s, when leadership passed to Germany.

In 1916 the architect J. J. P. Oud met the critic and painter Theo van Doesburg and soon introduced him to another young architect, Jan Wils. First forming De Sphinx artist’s club in Leiden, the three founded, with the railwayman-philosopher Anthony Kok and the painters Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck, and expatriate Hungarian Vilmos Huszár, the group known as De Stijl. Others joined them: the fiery Communist Robert van ’t Hoff and the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (both in 1917); the furniture