Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) exemplified the shift from the artisan to the learned artist creator. So writes the eminent Alberti scholar Cecil Grayson, and there are perhaps few who would disagree. But Grayson’s seemingly unremarkable assertion implies the acceptance of a single standard and content of learning, evidently in contrast to the knowledge accumulated by artisans,” in which, nevertheless, Alberti himself showed a lively interest. Clearly, Grayson’s “learning” is specifically that of humanism, of which Alberti was a leading, if sometimes ambivalent, exponent. Grayson’s brief account of epochal change (published, it should be noted, in 1972) implicitly assigns to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1440) the role of “artisan,” as the inventor of technical procedures theorized and indeed transmuted into “learning” by Alberti, an assessment by and large also conveyed in the latest monograph on the older architect.
Brunelleschi apprenticed with a goldsmith and never showed any interest in turning himself into a humanist, a career strategy followed by his contemporary, the occasional architect Lorenzo Ghiberti, as well as much later, more assiduously and famously, by Andrea Palladio. In my view, Brunelleschi’s achievement depended, even if indirectly, on a crucial late-medieval intellectual disciplinary and discursive domain—a field of learning that humanism in general opposed and ultimately destroyed. The field in question was the philosophical study of grammar, a subject of particular interest to Alberti, whose approach to the subject was, however, conducted on quite different premises. His emergence as an architect, as I will suggest, depended not only on the careful formulation of a critical position toward Brunelleschi’s architecture in general but also on the close involvement in the assessment and elaboration of a particular Brunelleschian project. Most accounts of Alberti’s career represent his direct experience of architectural planning and design as opposed to the engagement with theory and the legacy of antiquity as subsequent to the writing of his architectural treatise.
I will consider the possibility that in architecture, as in many of Alberti’s fields of interest, contemplation and action were closely linked. In Florence in 1441, the recently completed dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore loomed over a spectacle of remarkable irrelevance to the sacred values and purposes the great building had been constructed to accommodate and express. One by one, men came forward – hardly a priest among them – and before a large and attentive audience, declared verses not on the relations between humankind and a transcendent deity, but between man and man. The theme of the verses was friendship; the organizer, who himself wrote a lengthy prose meditation on the topic for the occasion, was Leon Battista Alberti. Since 1434, Alberti had been in Florence with the papal court, which he served as an official in the secretariat of Pope Eugenius IV. The pope was in Florence to preside over a council summoned to negotiate the reconciliation of the western and eastern churches, the latter motivated by the threat of Ottoman power that, in little more than a decade, would engulf Constantinople itself. The pope was lodged and the council sessions located at the great Dominican monastery and center of learning of S. Maria Novella. This was the site of the famous exchanges between senior representatives of Greek intellectual traditions and individuals in the western delegation who had risen to prominence through distinction in “the new learning” of humanism, which ideally encompassed direct and profound exposure to ancient Greek as well as Latin letters. On paper, the council ended successfully in 1439 with the proclamation in the cathedral of the union of the Latin and Greek churches, though this was never accepted by many Byzantines and was anyway soon overtaken by the Turkish advance. The advantages sought by the Florentine government in expensively hosting the council, however, were no doubt not primarily of religious nature but had to do rather with securing the inextricably entwined commercial and cultural prominence of the city. The Medicean regime went to great lengths to attract the council to Florence, an outcome requiring extensive negotiations that were entrusted to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Cosimo’s brother.
The readings in the cathedral in 1441 had an official character and were associated with Florentine and Medicean concerns for self-representation. To spur public interest, the readings were conducted as a competition with a silver laurel wreath as the prize. The event was titled “li” and a jury of professional writers, including colleagues of Alberti from the papal chancery, sat in judgment over the poems. Some authors, including Alberti himself, read works that were not entered in the competition. The judges failed to reach unanimity regarding the appropriate recipient of the laurel wreath, and some were antipathetic to the whole enterprise. In the end, they awarded the wreath to the building in which the event was held, the cathedral itself, unleashing a storm of controversy. The poems were in the Tuscan vernacular, which was not the usual language of such events, but Alberti, who was born in Genoa and raised in Venice and Padua, had a marked interest in it in the 1430s and early 1440s. Shortly after the event, he authored the first grammar of the Tuscan dialect (or of the Italian language in general), ordering and objectifying what came naturally to Florentines.
In late-medieval Florence, as noted by Paul Gehl, all grammatical training was part of the process of latinization. This involved not only the acquisition of Italian but also bilingualism, as well as access to professional and intellectual domains that were only available to those who could easily use the vernacular. Alberti’s grammar displays the regularity of the vernacular first language and its susceptibility to analysis in the same way as Latin. Its thrust, therefore, is more a matter of polemics than pedagogy, raising the prospect of a relatively unified culture centered in Florence and ideally defined by the topography of language use rather than by socially and economically determined access to exclusive forms and sites of instruction. However, Alberti’s grammar also challenged the monopoly of the existing educational regime in the provision of grammatical training, with all the moral associations that Gehl has brought into focus. Not only linguistic usage or rationality, but also significant cultural patterns and institutional interests were ultimately at stake. In the existing structures of Latin instruction, grammatical study provided the foundation and led to the teaching of composition. In his engagement with the vernacular, Alberti reversed this sequence. His grammar, written around 1443, chronologically followed the Certame and other projects intended to advance the cause of literary expression in the vernacular. The Certame, moreover, raised to the level of spectacle, as some called it, a debate that had previously been confined to literary exchanges.
The protagonists of these debates were two of the greatest exponents of early fifteenth-century humanism: Leonardo Bruni, who became the chancellor of Florence in 1441, and Flavio Biondo. The argument between Biondo and Bruni began as a debate, which was already a kind of spectacle in Florence in 1435. It essentially revolved around the status of Italian as a language of culture in its own right. Bruni believed that Italian was and always had been a degraded form of Latin, derived from the language of the streets of ancient Italy. For both Biondo and Alberti, on the other hand, Italian had succeeded Latin as the language of all social classes. It had developed in response to historical change, especially under the impact of the Germanic languages spoken by various invaders in the turbulent centuries following the collapse of the Roman imperial order. Even after the flowering of vernacular literature in fourteenth-century Florence, however, Tuscan still seemed in need of refinement to Alberti and those who shared his views. The almost obsessive polishing that Alberti gave to his vernacular works of the 1430s, his Italian version of the celebrated treatise “On Painting,” and the three books “On the Family” to which his work “On Friendship,” written for the spectacle, was appended as a fourth book, forms part of an attempt to develop an appropriately elegant, flexible, and, needless to say, latinate literary language.
Indeed, the certame itself indicates that the binary distinction of Latin and the vernacular obscured the range of stylistic idioms and models available to those concerned with literary expression in their native language. It is possible that the certame jurors were more willing to recognize this diversity than Alberti, with his commitment to a unitary linguistic regime, at least in the context of writing. Alberti’s favored entry in the competition was almost certainly that of his friend and fellow papal bureaucrat Leonardo Dati, whose attempt to write Italian hexameters broke brusquely with local traditions of vernacular versification, which were upheld by most other competitors. The jurors were not impressed. Alberti’s response is known from a highly polemical anonymous text known as the Protests in which the author, certainly Alberti himself, represents the jurors’ decision as aroused by envy and as a scornful riposte to the organizer. Many scholars have rashly taken Alberti at his word, assuming that the blow of the failed certame was enough to drive Alberti to a mood of weak pessimism and, a little later, to a return to Latin as his literary language of choice. The central themes of the Protests appear in other of Alberti’s writings, however, suggesting a concern not so much to represent a given state of affairs as to focus attention on general forces affecting human conduct. The author of the Protests represents envy as the major force in play, and indeed Alberti proceeded to select envy as the theme of a second certame, which, however, never took place, though Dati and others wrote pieces for it. A more compelling reason to read the Protests skeptically, however, is that it gives the highly implausible impression that only Alberti and the jurors had significant roles to play on this occasion. Whatever Alberti’s reaction, it is surely far more likely that the award was first of all an act of flattery to the people of Florence and, in particular, the leading citizen who financed the event and, we may suppose, saw to it that the cathedral was made available.
This is Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, the elder son of the effective ruler of Florence since 1434. Piero played a key role, along with his younger brother, in the cultural policies of the Medici. Recent studies have emphasized and documented their involvement. The larger strategic purpose of their involvement in the events of 1441 is undeniable, while the projected topic of the second canto, envy, was a particular concern of Piero’s father, Cosimo. The commission offered Piero, though still young (he was born in 1416), a timely and conspicuous stage on which to display himself as a patron of culture. Two events of 1441 had greatly affected both the landing of the Medici in the city and Piero’s potential personal role. The victory of Anghiari suppressed major external and internal threats to the Medicean regime, and Piero’s uncle, Lorenzo, younger brother and close partner of Cosimo de’ Medici, died, leaving a clear opportunity and even need for the members of the younger generation to establish themselves in the political and cultural affairs of the city. The commission at this time of formal portraits of Piero and his brother was accomplished in part to emphasize their new status.