Leon Battrsta Alberti (1404-1472) exempli tie!, the shift Irom the artisan to the learned artist creator.’ So writes the eminent Alberti scholar Cecil Grayson, and there are perhaps few who would disagree.1 But Grayson’s seemingly unremarkable assertion implies the acceptance of a single standard and content ot learning, evidently in contrast to the knowledge accumulated by ‘artisans,” in which, nevcithcless, Alberti himself showed a lively interest.1 Clearly, Grayson’s ”learning” is specifically that of humanism, of which Albeiti was a leading, if sometimes ambivalent, exponent Grayson’s brief account of epochal c hange (published, it should be noted, in 19721 implicitly assigns to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1440) the role of “artisan,” as inventor of technical procedures theorized indeed transmuted into ‘learning” by Alberti, an assessment bv and large also conveyed in the latest monograph on the older architect. Indeed.
Brunelleschi apprenticed with a goldsmith and never si towed any interest in turning himself into a humanist a careenenham ing strategy followed by his ontemorary, the cx с asional ate bites 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 m general opposed and ultimately destroyed. The field in question was the philosophical study of grammar, a subiect of particular interest to Alberti, whose jpproach to the subject was, however, conduc ted on quite different premises and whose 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 Rrunelleschian project. Most accounts of Alberti’s career represent his direct experience of architectural planning and design as rposcd to the engagement with theory and the legacy of antiquity as subsequent to the writing of his architectural treatise.
” l will consider the possibility that in architecture. as in many of Alberti’s fields of interest, contemplation and action were dosely linked.’ In Florence 1441, the recently completed dome ol the cathedra! 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 audienc e dec laimed verges, 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.8 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.9 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’ ot humanism, which ideally encompassed direct and profound exposure to ancient Greek us well as Latin letters On paper, the council ended successfully in 1439 with Use proclamation in the cathedral ot the union of the Latin ami Gieek churches, though this was never accepted In many Byzantines and was anyway soon overtaken by the Turkish advam e. Tlie advantages sought by the Florentine government in expensively hosting the council, however, were no doutst 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, Cosimos brother.
The readings in the cathedral in 1441. therefore, hud something of an official character und were certainly associated with Florentine and Medicean concerns with both external and internal self-representation No douht to spur public interest, the readings were conducted as a competition; the prize was a silver laurel wreath that presumably, in the long tradition of poetic coronations, was to crown the victor. Accordingly, trie event itself bore the title .li A jury of some of the most qualified professional writers of the dav meinbeis of the papal chancery, colleagues of Alberti sat in judgment over the poems declaimed before them, though some authors (including Alberti himself j read works that were not entered in the competition for the wreath. The judges failed to reach unanimity regarding the appropriate recipient of the laurel wreath and some seem to hove been antipathetic to the whole enterprise.In the rtxl they awarded the wreath to the building in whir h the even! was held, the i alhedi.il itself, thereby unleashing a storm of controversy It was not the content but the medium of the read in the cathedral in t44i that engendered vehemently opposed views. Thev were neither in Latin nor m Greek, but in the Tuscan vernacular Alberti’s marked interest in this in the 1430s and early 1440s. however, was to a degree that of a self-conscious cultural outsider, born in Genoa and raised m Venico and Padua.” Indeed, shortly after the cvrtome he authored the first grammar of the Tuscan dialect lor of the Italian language in general), ordering and objectifying what came naturally to Florentines.
In late-medieval Florence, as Paul Gehl has noted, all grammatical training was part ot the process of latini ation. involving the acquisition just of I alin, liut also of bilingualism, not to sjseak of access to professional, and intellectual domains losed to ihisve with facility only in the vernacular.” Alberti’s grammar displays the regularity of tle vernacular first language and its susceptibility to analysis in the same wav 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 ot language use rather than by the socially and economically determined access to exclusive forms and sites of instruction. But Alberti’s grammar also challenged the monopoly ot the existing educational regime in the provision ot grammatical training with all the moral associations that Gehl has brought into focus. Not only linguist usage or ational but also signifir ant 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 certjme and other projects intended to advance the cause of literary expression in the vernacular. The ccrtamc. moreover, raised to the level of spectacle las some called it a debate that had previously been confined to literary exchanges.
“The protagonists ot these had been, however, two of the greatest exponents of early fifteenth century humanism, Leonardo Brum—in 1441. the chancellor of Flncetue and Flavio Biondo.’ The urgunsent Ietween Biondo and Bruni had liegun as a debate—already a kind of cetlame in Florence in 1435. II turner! essentially on the status of Italian as a language of culture in its own right. Bruni hetd that Italian was and always had lieen a degraded form of Latin and was 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 Kid developed in response to historical change, but especially under the impact of the Germanic languages spoken by various invaders in the turbulent centuries following the collapse of Roman imperial order. Even after the flowering of vernacular literature in fourteenth-century Florence, however, Tuscan still seemed in need of refinement to Alfierti and those who shared his views. The almost oltsessive polishing 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” no which his work “On Friendship.” written for the certame, was appended as a fourth book), forms part of an attempt to develop an appropriately elegant, flexible, and needless to say latinate literary language.
Ie Indeed, the ccrtame itself indicates that the binary distinction ot Latin and the vernacular obscured the range of stylistic idioms and models available to those concerned with literary expression in their native language (much the same was also true, of course, of writing in Latin), It is possible that the certame jurors were more willing to recognize this diversity than Alherti, with his commitment—expressly slated in the preface to 1хюк three of the .1 Fjuniglia -to a unitary linguistic regime, at least in the context of writing.19 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.10 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 lurv’s 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 ccrtame was enough to drive Allierti to a mood of Weak pessimism and. a little later, to a return to Latin as his literary language of choice. The central themes ol the Pmtvtta 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 ot the Protesta represents envy as the major force in play, and indeed Alberti proceeded to select envy as the theme ot a second ccrtame. which however never took place, though Dati and others wrote pieces for it. A more compelling reason to read the Pmtcsta skeptically, however, is that it gives the highly implausible impression that only Alberti and the jurors had significant roles to plav on this occasion.M Whatever Alberti’s reaction, it is surely far mote likely that the award was first of all an act of flattery to the people of Florence and, in particular, the leading c itizen who financed the event and, we may suppose, saw to it that tin cathedral was made available.
This was Piero di Cosimo dc’ Medici, elder son of the effective ruler of Florence since 1434. Piero’s key role, along with his younger brother, in the cultural policies of the Medici has been emphasized and documented in many recent studies. Ihere can be no doubt of the larger strategic purpose of he involvement in the events of 1441, while the projected topic of the second ccrtame, envy, was a particular concern of Piero’s father. Cosimo. The ccrtamc cororurto ottered Piero, though sfill young ‘be was horn in 1416). a timely and conspicuous stage on which to display himself as a patron ot culture. Two events of 144(1 had greatly affected both the landing of the Medici in the city and Piero’s potential personal role I he victory ot Anghiari suppressed major external .is well av internal threats to the Medicean №gime;uand Piero’s unc le I oreno, younger brother ar*d с lose partner of Сos. i mo rie Medic i, died, leaving a c lear oportuntty and even need for the members of the younger generation to establish themselves in the political and cultural affairs of the city.26 The commission at this time of formal portraits of Piero and his brother was sorely accomplished in part to emphasize their new status.