Archaeologist and painter, musician and scientist, and moreover fascinated by mathematics—to call Leon Battista Alberti multi-talented would be an understatement. Particularlj since the Genoese Alberti also found time to dedicate himself to architecture, and thus definitively secure his reputation as a Renaissance “universal man.”
Alberti approached architecture in a roundabout way. At first he made an intensive study of the buildings of classical antiquity, above all as they were still to be admired in Rome, and at the same time read with enthusiasm the writings of classical architects. Spurred on by their works, Alberti also wrote atreatise on architectural theory, De re aedificatoria. But his knowledge of classical buildings was reflected not only on paper: the palaces and churches designed by him also clearly mirror this deep adr ration.
Symmetry and Proportion
Alberti’s first large commission came from the Rucellai, a wealthy Florentine family of merchants; he was to design their spacious residence on the central Via dellaVigna. Alberti drew up the plans and the Rossellino workshop carried out the execution. The facade of the palace alone showed the architect to be a fan of the classical style: he adorned the house with an order of columns similar to those of the Colosseum in Rome. But in doing this he did not use rounded columns, but flat wall columns know as pilasters for the vertical emphasis. At the same time, he stressed the horizontal lines by placing cornices between the stories. In this way, the facade of the mansion appears clearly structured, and the impression is achieved of symmetry and fine proportions.
The High Art of the Facade
It was not only Giovanni Rucellai who had confidence in Alberti’s talents. Not far from his city mansion, the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella was awaiting completion. The Gothic structure was already nearly finished, and even the foundation of the facade had already been begun when the clients commissioned Alberti to complete it. He therefore had to incorporate his knowledge of classical temple architecture into the existing fabric.
Thus Gothic pointed arches stand under niches and portals in the lower zone, and above them are superimposed round arches. Sweeping volutes lead from the broad substructure to the sharp gable, forms from the Gothic and Renaissance styles combine harmoniously, and everything glows in white and green stone. It was on Alberti, who remained unmarried all his life, that the choice of the ruler of Rimini fell when he planned to erect a memorial to his wife.
Sigis-mondo Pandolfo Malatesta commissioned a tomb for himself and his family, conceived, in disregard of Christian traditions, as a pagan temple. He himself and his Isotta were to be buried there, and instead of symbols of the cross, it was decorated with the entwined letters S and I in abundance, Alberti admittedly did not concern himself with the adornment of the interior, but once again designed the facade. In the Tempio Malatestiano too the architect did not conceal his preference for classical forms: the central part of the frontage for example goes back to the closely related triumphal arch of the Roman Emperor Augustus.