An advocate of humanism and a forerunner of Leonardo da Vinci, the Genoese born Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) was a multi-talented Renaissance man, one whose thirst for knowledge was only surpassed by his desire for more.
One of the most brilliant figures of his day, he noted ‘…we should therefore consult beauty as one of the main and principal requisites in any thing which we have a mind should please others’.
A skilled musician, a painter, poet, philosopher and architect – a shining star in the firmament that was Italy during the fifteenth century, Alberti enjoyed a humanist education at Venice and Padua.
He studied law in Bologna, and more than often, entrusted the construction of his buildings to others, preferring to participate in a directive capacity when he worked at Florence in Tuscany from 1428.
His landmark publication De Re Aedificatoria, On the Art of Building, stimulated great interest in antique Roman architecture and classical ideals.
A master builder and theoretician, he modernized the facade of Santa Maria Novella at Florence spectacularly using the volute (spiral scroll on an Ionic capital) as a new element. It acted as a harmonious junction between the various levels on the building’s new facade.
His ideas for resolving a building, that had begun as a Gothic structure, onto which he introduced the new preferred Romanesque forms, were copied all over the western world. He laid down ‘rules to be observed’ explaining practical details, such as why the roofs of temples ought to be arched or how large and of what kind of stone walls ought to be built.
He was inspired by the recently found treatise of first century Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius, the only such work to have survived from antiquity.
He was familiar with the latest advances in mathematics, engineering and aesthetic theory of his time and his designs are among the best examples of the pure classical style, displaying great beauty, dignity and elegance characteristics he most admired.
He said ‘… that which delights us in things that are either beautiful or finely adorned, must proceed either from the contrivance and invention of the mind, or the hand of the artificer, or from somewhat derived immediately from nature itself’.
Throughout the fifteenth century in Italy literacy and learning for the nobleman and his immediate family became increasingly important. Loyalty to family, ancient house, estates and the security of an established lineage were held up for inspection. Feudal society was being replaced by an all new modern corporate system.
Social dynamism was disrupting traditional systems of privilege by rank and humanist thinking promoted the idea that if ‘man’ had faith in himself, he would recognize the true value of history, would learn to honour men of the past, and, in turn learn to honour himself.
The rejection of the Gothic style in Italy corresponded with the expansion of newly espoused humanist ideals in the period now known as the Renaissance. The subsequent rediscovery of ancient texts changed perceptions about the pagan past. They also informed a new found ability to produce perspective in architecture and art.
In the old hill towns of Tuscany was Florence, which became a great centre for architectural achievement and artistic endeavour. In Italy at this time women decreed fashion trends, such as dying their hair blonde, conforming to a taste for luxurious display with stupendous textiles and sensational jewels.
They also worked hard to cultivate their minds.
In the panorama of the Italian Renaissance the goddess Venus stood for sexual love ruling the season of spring and presiding over nature’s fecundity.
Her many love affairs gave her a particular appeal to the humanist courts of Italy and gradually she shed the hostile overtones of the Middle Ages when she had only been associated with lust.
She spread happiness before her and became an allegory of power over celestial and earthly love.
Polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), painters Raphael Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) and Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510) became not only imitators of nature, but also creators of new things.
Their women were not only naturally beautiful but also exuded grace.
On the other hand the nude Venuses of Titian (ca.1488 – 1576) or Giorgione (ca. 1477 – 1510) were all ample beauties anchored firmly in earthly reality and mindful of the labour required for childbearing.
During Alberti’s time the bedchamber, or camera, was the nucleus of an Italian Renaissance house. It could remain private because there were other rooms of a more public nature set between it and the entrance from the street or courtyard.
The great Letteriera was the standard form of bed. It was a massive piece of furniture and dominated the room with carved decoration, superb inlay, paintwork and gilding.
It was usually surrounded by a cluster of benches of flat topped chests, which were arranged around its flanks with its head against the wall projecting out into the room.
This type of bed reigned supreme in Italian bed-chambers for the best part of two centuries. What distinguished it from simple beds was a tall headboard, usually capped by a massive cornice that projected forward providing a deep shelf on which objects could be placed.
Alberti advised bedchambers for winter and summer for those of princely wealth and stated that it ‘was not fit that a great man should be worse lodged than a swallow or a crane’. Husbands and wives normally had separate bed chambers and Alberti explained ‘
‘not only that the wife either when she lies in or in case of any other indisposition may not be troublesome to her husband; and that in summer time; either of them may lie alone or whenever they think fit.
Main bedchambers were almost always on the first floor and used as a reception room for favoured friends. It was never too large as it didn’t give a comfortable feeling and was far too difficult to heat in winter.
The anticamera, was a room associated with, and adjacent to, the bedchamber. Alberti had included one at the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence and by the mid sixteenth century they were common to most houses.
They were especially used for dining intimately.
Architects placed themselves at the head of a more or less structured hierarchy of designers during the Italian Renaissance (c1420 – 1600).
They would work out general concepts and then design the principal features, farming out a great deal of less important work to their team of assistants.
Most interiors of importance were the result of combined creativity by a handful of masters of various trades, fully conversant with the decorative language of their time. During this period, few architects were sufficiently powerful to determine a completely integrated scheme of decoration.
A tradition of unity of style and colour did not as yet exist, as it was still waiting to be invented and we could say that harmonious and colourful forms remain the keys to the painted decorations used in interiors during the Renaissance.
The use of textiles was twofold. Florentine interiors betrayed their ecclesiastical origins with sumptuous fabrics and tapestries used sparingly and, always in such a way that they could be rolled up and moved to a different location with their highly mobile, noble households.
Even more important was the use of textiles to communicate status by the way various social groups were dressed. Some people were permitted to wear brocades and others coloured silks and embroidered fabrics,
The various Italian city-states had a history of competitive textile production dating back to the twelfth century in Sicily. However, it was during the Renaissance period that the cities of Florence, Genoa and Venice emerged as important centres of silk production becoming market leaders in Europe.
Italian manufacturers drew heavily on their trading relationships with ports in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Imported fabrics from China, Persia and especially the Ottoman Empire were widely copied and interpreted. The result was that the products of the best Italian workshops became indistinguishable from, and in some instances even surpassed Eastern originals.
The hundred years from 1430 until 1530 is generally recognized as the high point in the production of Italian textiles. Brocaded silks, cut and looped pile velvets and ‘cloths of gold’ were worn by prominent churchmen.
They were often decorated additionally with precious and semi-precious stones and metals and produced in professional workshops, using the most advanced technology known in the world at that time.
All the textiles produced during the Italian Renaissance were characterized by realistically observed detail, clear and firm lines, and the highest possible quality.
Wealthy Italians, indeed most wealthy Europeans including the French, patronized the Florentine and Venetian industries almost exclusively until the seventeenth century, when fashions changed and the focus shifted to the industry in Europe and England.
In Italy scholars studying ancient texts discovered the ideal garden of antiquity had been a union of architecture and horticulture. This brought about an overpowering desire to promote the study of classical antiquity spread gradually through the city states of Florence, Rome and Venice, discharging them from what they considered was the darkness of medieval days into the new sunlight of learning.
They looked to their own haphazard gardens and decided to imitate the ancients, uniting houses and gardens in a whole composition. Gone was the separate entity or the garden from medieval times that existed visually unrelated to its adjoining house, villa or castle. A unity of structural elements became the great Italian contribution to the art of garden design
Alberti’s observations of the remains of ancient Roman gardens, a synthesis of designs from Persia and Arabia as well as Greece and Rome, meant that he gained practical ideas on geometry and proportion. He joined the recurring debate of the ideal life; between bustling activity in town and peaceful contemplation in the countryside, between urbs and rus.
It was rus that appealed to Alberti, not just for its fresh air and birdsong, but also for the tranquility and the ordered pattern of villa life. His inspiration came from many and varied literary sources, calling heavily on the ancient writings of the Greek Philosophers Plato and Aristotle, as well as Roman commentator Pliny the Younger.
A garden for him was a place where family and friends could think, play music, relax and be happy. A place where one could live like the shepherds in Arcadia, the idealized pastoral world of the Ancient Greeks. From Alberti onward, architects searched through documents and ruins to identify the features of Roman buildings and gardens so they could recreate them with authenticity.
He wrote about the country gentleman and his country house; we should build in the middle of an open Champain (gently undulating country) under the shelter of some hill, where there is plenty of water and pleasant prospects, and in the healthiest part of a healthy country.
Let there be open places for walking, swimming and other diversions, court-yards, grass plots and porticoes (loggias) where the old men may chat together in the kindly warmth of the sun in winter and where the family man may divert themselves and enjoy the shade in summer. He proposed a villa should be on rising ground…. looking outward to the countryside. ‘Nor should there be any want of pleasant landskips, flowery meads, (a medieval feature he admired and wished to retain) open Champains shady groves or limpid brooks or clear streams and lakes. Let all things smile and seem to welcome guests.
The gardens of Tuscany from this time reflected the domestic scale of most villas, a feature that distinguishes them from those in the Roman sphere of influence, which were overwhelmingly grand.
Alberti’s own garden was bonded to his villa by means of a ground plan that echoed the ground plan of the villa, with a central axis and a layout of straight lines, circles and semi-circles. Trees were to be planted in avenues, evenly spaced, and box trimmed into elaborate shapes. Order was paramount.
He proposed vine clad pergolas for shady walks with marble columns and Corinthian capitals. Within this controlled layout plan rare plants and specimens for medicinal use would be planted. The amusement of his guests with an element of artifice was important. Nature and the rural life could be improved with some sophisticated additions.
Statuary, both solemn and comic, had its place ‘Nor am I displeased with the placing of ridiculous Statues in Gardens, provided they have nothing in them obscene’ said Alberti. His favourite feature was a grotto….purpose built as a cool retreat…he even described how a newly constructed grotto could be aged instantly by pouring green wax onto the stone, imitating the mossy slime of years of accumulation.
‘I was extremely pleased with an artificial grotto which I have seen of this sort, with a clear spring of water falling from it. The walls were composed of various sorts of sea shells, lying roughly together, some reversed, some with their mouths outwards, their colours being so artfully blended as to form a very beautiful variety’
During the rebirth of humanism in Italy the creative frenzy infected not only artists, architects and scholars, but also the rich educated rulers of the city states of Italy. Wealthy Italian nobles began to turn their fortified castles into pleasure palaces, laying out new ornamental gardens and collecting plants.
They followed Leon Battista Alberti’s suggestions and chose the region most commodious for building taking into account the climate, the air, the sun, and the winds that affect the air. They also took note of his designs appreciating their values, their rules and, his good advice competing openly in all matters pertaining to the progress of the arts
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2018