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Compromised beauty JOHN McKEAN On Alberti and the Art of Building by Robert Tavernor. Yale University Press, 1998. 278 pp. £45

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What, Alberti asks, is the main object of the art of building, and the source of its dignity, charm, authority and worth? Beauty, he replies. That is, a form of sympathy and consonance of the parts within an architectural body, according to number (and proportion), plan outline, and compositional arrangement. This balance, this 'equilibrium of contraries', is the fundamental rule in nature; the quest for universal harmony. (Alberti calls it concinnitas, an untranslatable term of his own invention, on which Robert Tavernor wrote his doctorate 430 years later.)

But in the real world, then as now, as Tavernor puts it, 'the art of building was often subject to many calamities, human and physical.' Alberti's buildings are almost all powerfully incomplete or developed by others, often far from his original scheme. What has been special about Alberti for architects ever since, is the recognition that his book (translated by Tavernor and others a decade ago as On the Art of Building) 'offers a framework, linking thinking and making, with which to mitigate the corruption of the intellectual ideal' by the vagaries of the contingent world.

Tavernor's weighty new book sets out not just to leave us with Alberti's built production as these fragments of beauty, compromised or clouded by circumstance. With great care and scholarship, he searches for the works as Alberti originally intended, reconstructing them meticulously in electronic images and timber models.

So we have a fine exemplar of architectural history's old-fashioned attempt to look with penetration at the real world, through the interpretive lens of a guide secure in the documentary ideas and mind-set of the designer's era. For while at times we can feel close to this thoughtful builder, at other times we sense the immense gulf between.

Far from being reductive, Tavernor's search is allusive, provocative and largely convincing. He interrogates the material with a precision which a reader instinctively trusts. The various Palazzo Rucellai attributions, for example, are less interesting in themselves than its focusing our close study on the architecture. (This is, after all, not biography, but a study of the meanings carried by architectural forms.)

In what is surely the new authoritative study of Alberti as architect, Tavernor positions other scholars, argues his interpretations, and illustrates them clearly. This immediately raises a contrast with Franco Borsi's standard tome, now 24 years old. While each has beautifully drawn plans and facade proportions, Borsi's wonderful and hefty study is also a visual feast in a way that this new attractive and colourful book just is not.

Though throwing light on an architecture which for too long was seen as 'impregnated with the undefinable musty smell of dark temples', Tavernor seems addicted to electronic imagery which often has an astonishing sterility quite at odds with his beautifully crafted wooden models. We lack all the visceral pleasure in the awesome and austere Roman grandeur which Chris Bearman's coloured pencil drawings and Martin Charles' photographs brought to Tavernor's Masters of Building on Sant'Andrea (aj 21.5.86).

At times readers have to imagine interior spatial effects - San Sebastiano, for example, has myriad plans, sections, computer models, crypt and exterior views but barely an interior photo. Tavernor describes the spatial composition of Alberti's most perfect work, the Rucellai chapel, being destroyed in the nineteenth century; but he offers no plan or section of the church from which the chapel is now walled-off to explain that original spatial relationship.

These are little quibbles. More importantly, we are given new insights on all Alberti's work. The curious ombrellone, the vault over the entrance portico at Sant'Andrea, for example, at last makes sense to me in Tavernor's discussion of it as baldacchino, fixing the Ascension Day ceremony displaying Christ's blood, in place and time.

There is a short chapter on Urbino which seems built on very shaky ground. Alberti's relation with the Urbino duke is on record; Borsi talks of them and Piero della Francesca and their 'mutual exchange of ideas'; Tavernor offers pages of circumstantial Urbinese context. And then suddenly he suggests Alberti designed an (unbuilt) bath house in the ducal palace, going on to undermine his (thin?) case with an alternative, more implausible location. It all allows us to question again issues of attribution. That architecture is 'probably not the creation of any one individual', trite but true, is but a lame conclusion to the case for Alberti's involvement here.

As ever, the nourishment is in watching a serious critic who also designs introduce us to a great architect-thinker and his works. Here is perennial food for architects (with garnishes in asides and footnotes adding spicy touches). One anecdote offers a tiny sharp glimpse into cultural life as only a real anecdote can do: Pope Pius II, during an eight-month church Council in Mantua in 1459, desired to read Vitruvius. Ludovico Gonzaga asked Alberti to lend him his copy.

Not quite the same (even between an archbishop, deputy prime minister and Lord Rogers) in 1999.

John McKean is professor at the University of Brighton

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