February 18: The Most Important Invention for Architecture (ever)

2016/02/18 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1404 Leon Battista Alberti was born.

Clio and Alberti (d. 1472) go wayyyyy back, and it’s hard not to go on and on, but there is one main thing that rises to the top of a c.v. even as long as Alberti’s.  Sure he was an architect of memorable and important buildings; he was also a significant writer on a whole host of subjects.  It’s that last pursuit that is most important among his achievements for architecture: he wrote the first great book on architecture.  Yes, we know (believe me, we know) about Vitruvius.  But really.  Vitruvius is only interesting because of what other people did with him.  Saying Vitruvius is the big deal is like saying a bag of flour is a big deal, when you have a torte di mandorla sitting there in the kitchen.  The flour was important, but it’s the pastry chef who deserves the accolades.

Alberti is that chef.  With very, very little evidence to work from, either textual or physical, he explained what the Renaissance was supposed to be, and spun out architectural theory that was the first and last word for centuries.  Filarete added some engaging images and wrote a fun narrative; Francesco di Giorgio actually worked out a lot of the design problems, then Palladio and the rest served up a bunch of as-built drawings to illustrate what was largely reheated Alberti; some fussy French people had their querelle; all the wonderful Neos dove off Alberti into their own little pools of Classicism.  It wasn’t until Pugin put pen to paper in the 1840s that something really different was proposed; after him, it’s Sant’Elia, but that’s it.  These last two voiced some important and interesting and influential concerns, but even they are just the most important of their tribes which are largely formed in response to Alberti in the first place: they did not invent a tribe, as did Alberti, through his one great book.

The work in question, of course, is his De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building), written between 1443 and 1452 and published in 1485.  There’s so much to like in this book (then again, there’s just so much in this book–signore really could have used an editor).  Let’s hit just a few of the high points, starting with his assertion that Vitruvius is well nigh useless due to corrupted translations and the Roman architect’s own weird Latin.  Poppycock!  We call BS, Alberti.  If anyone could read Vitruvius in the original (as many have, since the fifteenth century), the outrageously well-educated Alberti was that guy.  His claims are an excuse (although, an awesome one to be sure, one that only really accomplished intellectuals can make–take heed, architecture majors).  I can’t understand the text, so I will now make some stuff up: a brilliant way to get around the fact that moderns could just not squeeze themselves into Vitruvius’ ideas; they needed new suits of theory.  Alberti was just the person to make the excuse, then stitch together the arguments.

Then there is his often-recited definition of beauty: “that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse.”  Unlike ornament, which is “added,” beauty is “some inherent property, to be found suffused all through the body.”  Bullseye!  Alberti’s words have huge ramifications: beauty is part of whatever makes up the building; it is not dependent on expensive materials, or lots of ornament, or the use of the building.  It’s in the arrangement, proportion and forms of a building: all it costs is thought.  And you have to ask, architects: if what you’re designing is not beautiful, what are you playing at?

Alberti was not the first smart architect in the world; there were even some really great ones walking around Florence at the same time.  Old enough to be his dad, Brunelleschi was crazy brilliant.  But he was also a grumpy old fart who kept his secrets to himself.  He built incredible things, and died with who knows how many amazing ideas still flitting around his amazing brain.  Alberti invented the idea of the architect-intellectual–not just a smarty-pants theoretician who hides thin but shaky intellectualizations behind a wispy fog of big words, but a clear thinker and good writer who managed, in the course of a few hundred pages, to strike the match that lit the longest-lasting revolution in the history of architecture.

Image: first page of De re aedificatoria (from this source)

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