Leon Battista Alberti: Writer and Humanist by Martin McLaughlin - review by Alexander Lee

Alexander Lee

Architect, Philosopher & Horse Tamer

Leon Battista Alberti: Writer and Humanist


Princeton University Press 400pp £30

For Jacob Burckhardt, Leon Battista Alberti was the original ‘Renaissance man’. He seemed to excel at everything. He could jump over a man’s head from a standing start and ride even the wildest horses. He taught himself music, mastered physics and mathematics, and lived in such intense communion with nature that the sight of ‘waving cornfields’ could move him to tears. He befriended people from all walks of life, from scholars and artisans right down to cobblers. He was even credited with the gift of prophecy. Yet above all, he was an artistic prodigy. He made ‘architectural history’ with his buildings, while his treatises on art were ‘landmarks and authorities of the first order’. 

More than 160 years after the publication of Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, his portrait continues to shape how we think about Alberti today. Yet as Martin McLaughlin points out in this striking new study, it is nevertheless an incomplete – and in some ways, even misleading – representation. Precisely because of the emphasis Burckhardt placed on Alberti’s versatility and artistic achievements, he argues, it is often forgotten that Alberti was also a prolific writer of literature. Indeed, even now, ‘many of his literary works remain unread’. It is McLaughlin’s goal to rescue him from this obscurity. Focusing on ten of Alberti’s most significant works, McLaughlin endeavours to recast him as a pivotal figure in the history of Italian humanism and a writer of quite exceptional sophistication. 

In a very real sense, literature was in Alberti’s blood. The illegitimate son of an exiled Florentine merchant, he was born in Genoa and spent much of his youth in Venice. After completing his schooling, he enrolled to study canon and civil law in Bologna – a tried and

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