Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Humanism and the Urban World

Humanism and the Urban World: Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City

Caspar Pearson
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Humanism and the Urban World
    Book Description:

    In Humanism and the Urban World, Caspar Pearson offers a profoundly revisionist account of Leon Battista Alberti’s approach to the urban environment as exemplified in the extensive theoretical treatise De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building in Ten Books), brought mostly to completion in the 1450s, as well as in his larger body of written work. Past scholars have generally characterized the Italian Renaissance architect and theorist as an enthusiast of the city who envisioned it as a rational, Renaissance ideal. Pearson argues, however, that Alberti’s approach to urbanism was far more complex—that he was even “essentially hostile” to the city at times. Rather than proposing the “ideal” city, Pearson maintains, Alberti presented a variety of possible cities, each one different from another. This book explores the ways in which Alberti sought to remedy urban problems, tracing key themes that manifest in De re aedificatoria. Chapters address Alberti’s consideration of the city’s possible destruction and the city’s capacity to provide order despite its intrinsic instability; his assessment of a variety of political solutions to that instability; his affinity for the countryside and discussions of the virtues of the active versus the contemplative life; and his theories of aesthetics and beauty, in particular the belief that beauty may affect the soul of an enemy and thus preserve buildings from attack.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05549-7
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-23)

    “Everyone relies on the city,” wrote Leon Battista Alberti, “and all the public services that it contains.”¹ This statement, delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner, indicates the exceptional importance of cities in the society in which Alberti lived. His world was an urban one. He was born in Genoa, knew Venice as a child, was educated in Padua and Bologna, and subsequently lived and worked in Rome, Florence, Mantua, Rimini, and Ferrara. Fifteenth-century Italy, divided into a patchwork of city-states, boasted what was arguably the most developed urban society in Europe at the time. Moreover, Italy offered a wide variety...

    (pp. 24-55)

    It is a commonplace of historical writing that cities, and the civilizations they support, will be subject to periods of rise and fall. Long before the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics, human intuition suspected that anything that is composed of parts must eventually break up, and cities are perhaps the most complicated assemblages that mankind has created. Throughout history, cities constantly appear to pass in and out of being—expanding, contracting, undergoing destruction and reconstruction. Each city holds within itself not only the possibility (some might say inevitability) of its final destruction but also that of its total transformation,...

    (pp. 56-85)

    In the first chapters of Book V ofDe re aedificatoria, Alberti engages most thoroughly with the city as a concept in its own right. However, the discussion is not framed as an examination of the city per se, nor as a comparison between different kinds of cities, although that is in effect what it becomes. Rather, in full accordance with the structural logic of the treatise, Alberti begins Book V, titled “On the Works of Individuals,” by discussing “what is necessary or desirable in the case of individuals.” Working from the premise that different people require different kinds...

    (pp. 86-105)

    In the previous chapter, we saw Alberti consider stern architectural intervention in the city, physically preventing the populace from rising up against its masters. This discussion may be connected to a critique of the policies of Nicholas V in Rome. Yet there is also a modern and calculated aspect to Alberti’s discussion, something approaching a science of power, insofar as it ostensibly claims a kind of dispassionate objectivity. Burroughs is right when he asserts that the divided city is not in fact an ideal city or a feasible project. As has been said, Alberti does not at any stage describe...

    (pp. 106-142)

    Alberti, in a number of works, characterizes the country and the city as binary opposites. Not only is each the antithesis of the other, but one is often judged to be superior—namely, the country. It is a fact that has every appearance of being thoroughly banal. Such sentiments were already common currency in antique literature. The opposition between town and country, urban and rural, is a literary trope, a familiar topos, among the most common of commonplaces. As such, it is connected more to literature than to the realities of rural life or to town-country relations; when it is...

    (pp. 143-155)

    As we have seen, in theVilla, rural property is viewed exclusively in terms of productivity. In theDella famiglia, Giannozzo conceives of the farm in a similar way. However, he also repeatedly talks of the enjoyment and pleasure that he would gain from working the fields and even tells Adovardo that should his farm not be highly profitable, it would still be worth owning for pleasure. The tone is no longer the somber and admonitory one of Hesiod but is rather that of the Roman writers Cato, Varro, and Columella. A statement from one of Varro’s characters seems to...

    (pp. 156-187)

    Beauty was a topic of crucial importance to Alberti. Indeed, it was so important that he devoted almost the entire second half of his architectural treatise to the subject (or rather to both beauty and ornament, which he considered to be separate but related entities). Mindful of Vitruvius’s stipulation that all buildings should be “built with due reference to durability, convenience and grace” (firmitas,utilitas, andvenustas),¹ Alberti addressed the first two in Books I to V of his treatise. In the first chapter of Book VI, having reiterated his methodology and attacked Vitruvius’s confused terminology, he signals...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 188-196)

    At the heart of Alberti’s writings, there is, as we have seen, a tension surrounding the issues of fame, glory, fate,fortuna, andvirtù. Equally pressing, if not so explicitly articulated, is the issue of truth and the failure of appearance and reality to fully coincide. It is perhaps for this reason that Alberti sometimes has recourse to bizarre and visionary imagery. One senses a genuine attempt to get under the skin of things. The disturbing tale in which Charon describes a strange version of the Fall of Man is an example of precisely this kind of writing. Here, the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 197-244)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-260)
  14. Index
    (pp. 261-268)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-269)