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Pioneer of Perspective

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Leon Battista Alberti: On Painting may have been translated before but Rocco Sinisgalli’s version of Alberti’s Italian offering sheds new light on the pioneer and his reasons for completing the text, writes Joseph Rykwert

Leon Battista Alberti must be one of the most attractive figures of the Italian Renaissance – and he was very good-looking to boot, as is obvious from his bronze self-portrait.

Although he did not commit himself to architecture until he was in his 40s, he became one of the two pioneers of the revival of the antique and wrote the first book on the ‘art of building’ since antiquity. The other pioneer was Filippo Brunelleschi, the silversmith who completed Florence’s then-unfinished cathedral with a vast dome.

‘Who would be so bigoted or envious as to deny praise to Pippo the architect, seeing such a huge structure rising into the sky, ample enough to cover all the Tuscan people with its shadow, done moreover without elaborate scaffolding or great quantities of timber – an engineering achievement, which, if I am right, was considered impossible these days as it had neither been feasible nor imaginable among the ancients.’

I quote Alberti’s dedication of the three-book – we would now say three-chapter – treatise on painting.

The first book is also the first instruction on how to work out the costruzione legittima(the geometry of perspectival space); the second deals with the composition of the narrative, which Alberti calls historia (the narrative or subject); and the third is a painters’ guide to the artist’s standing: ‘I would first of all have him be both virtuous and learned in the fair arts…’.

Alberti’s treatise quickly became one of the most popular art books of all time. English versions have existed since the 17th century – both Leonardo and Dürer had copies and commented on them. In the past 50 years there have been three English versions – the first was of little use, the second (by the late Cecil Grayson, who devoted many years to studying Alberti’s writings) was based on the Latin version, and now comes a third by Rocco Sinisgalli, who takes the Italian version as his guide. Do we need such a third version? I think yes.

The ‘received’ story was that Alberti, master of Latin prose that he was, wrote the painting book in Latin and then, as a concession to his artist friends and to make the book more generally available, translated it into Italian. Sinisgalli will have none of this.

Alberti, sharing his family’s exile, may not have been allowed back to Florence until he returned as a member of the papal court (one of whose Latin secretaries he was) but he soon proved  himself a master of Italian Tuscan, wrote a grammar of the language, and initiated a Tuscan verse competition. Perhaps that is why there is a freshness and enthusiasm about that first Italian text, done soon after his return, that the more measured and exact Latin version does not carry.

It was the Latin version, however, that was more common (10 surviving manuscripts versus three of the Italian) and later re-translated into Italian and many  other languages. Furthermore, the often-used argument that Alberti’s Italian version was done to make his book ‘more accessible’ is mistaken – Tuscan was the language of an Italian province, Latin of literate Europe.

Sinisgalli published the essential arguments in an elaborately and helpfully illustrated edition of the Italian text in Rome in 2006; it forms the basis of this much-shorter English version, bravely assaulting the bastion of English prose, which does not surrender easily. However, it is the large selection of very helpful illustrations alone, taken from the Italian publication, that would make the book worth having.

Leon Battista Alberti: On Painting – A New Translation and Critical Edition; Leon Battista Alberti, edited and translated by Rocco Sinisgalli; Cambridge University Press, 2011

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