The first modern architect
Alberti was an extraordinarily accomplished individual, but I doubt he would have claimed for himself the epithet 'master builder'. His contemporaries admired and referred to him as a poet, orator, painter, sculptor, mathematician, surveyor, antiquarian and engineer - but never as master builder.
The subtitle is a curious opening glitch in Anthony Grafton's otherwise excellent book - especially as Grafton makes the strong argument that Alberti's approach to building differed from the masters of the preceding era. In other words, he was principally an intellectual turned architect.
Grafton's title inadvertently opens an old sore. Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century painter, architect and historian, was adamant in his Lives of the Artists that Alberti broke with tradition. While admiring some of his buildings, he condemned Alberti for having mastered the theoretical and not the practical side of building.And Vasari was perpetuating a common prejudice - still prevalent today - that an intellectual cannot be an effective architect, that too much theory gets in the way of practice.
Vasari's preferred role model was Brunelleschi, a highly persuasive and ingenious craftsman, who worked as a goldsmith before building the dome of Florence Cathedral. But Brunelleschi, for all his brilliance, is a transitional figure, as obsessively secretive about his inventions as the Gothic master masons, and he recorded nothing in writing.
Grafton offers a more fulsome and balanced image of Alberti in his book, pulling together Alberti's wide-ranging scholarship with great authority, lucidly synthesising the vast quantity of Alberti-related studies.
Grafton makes the case for Alberti as unique in his time, a university-educated intellectual who wished to transform society by changing the mind-set of his contemporaries through bold architectural designs that reinterpreted the past; though these appeared shockingly new to his contemporaries.
Alberti's strength as an architect lay in his ability to convince influential leaders in society that architecture was a cultural activity worthy of their patronage.He was applauded for his treatise On the Art of Building, which established his reputation among successive architects and provided the datum for all subsequent books on architecture.
He lived a privileged, cultured life of contemplation, secure as a cleric and papal scribe, and as a welcomed guest in princely courts.
Inevitably, with this lifestyle, he was largely aloof from the day-to-day activities of the building site. He neither had the time to devote to overseeing the construction of his designs, nor probably the inclination. It was unnecessary for him to be otherwise. He conceived of buildings in his mind, and through precise drawings and wooden models produced instructions for the master builders to follow in his absence on site.Alberti's intellectual detachment leads Grafton to conclude that he was the first modern architect.
Grafton is surely correct in this conclusion. Through his exacting definition of the art of building, and the articulation of this design and building process, Alberti laid the foundations for the development of architecture as a deliberate conceptualisation of the cultural and spiritual concerns of the age.
While it was essential to Alberti that the architect knows the qualities and properties of the materials to be manipulated and combined, his approach meant that the physical manifestation of the architect's conception can be left to others, whose skills are manual rather than intellectual.
Grafton's portrait of Alberti is a joy to read.
His approach is rigorous and scholarly, yet he writes with a detailed concern for social context and interaction that brings the distant past alive. It seems that little has changed in our dealings with one another, which makes this book essential reading for those who have consigned Alberti to an irrelevant past.
Robert Tavernor is Professor of Architecture at Bath and author of On Alberti and the Art of Building (Yale University Press). The drawing of Sant'Andrea, Mantua (above), is by him