Awe for the Noble Things: Leon Battista Alberti and the Meaning of Classical Architecture

by Carroll William Westfall, appearing in Volume 16

Churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome that were built by adapting pagan Roman building practices served the early Christian community, and these churches continued to guide construction south of the Alps right up to the Renaissance. In the meantime, north of the Alps, bishops and princes who sought a larger role in the Church developed Gothic architecture. Not surprisingly, it never took hold south of the Alps except for a few places in northern Italy. 
In the resurgence of the papacy that began in 1417 following the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism, the Church reasserted the authority it claimed from its foundation in Rome by Saints Peter and Paul. The new buildings in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, both sacred and secular, were aggressively ancient in their form, their builders excoriating the Gothic as modern and barbarous. In 1506, to make the point that the Church was being rebuilt on its ancient foundations, the Basilica of Saint Peter that the emperor Constantine had built was torn down. During the century that followed the classical basilica we know today rose in its place.

Florence was divided into four political wards, each represented by a church. This was one of them, and the sunburst in the pediment served both as an emblem of the quarter and a symbol of the Divine Presence. Photo: Author

The reaction to the restoration in Rome of the “modo antico” in architecture was a style war that involved three combatants and lasted into the eighteenth century. One combatant was the Roman Catholic Church, which used the new, Renaissance and then baroque architecture to put before the worshipper an aggressive architectural setting with decoration, painting, and sculpture that stressed the Church as the recipient of a miraculously conferred authority in matters of doctrine and governance reaching back to its foundation by saints martyred by pagans. This architecture’s enemy was the Gothic, which quickly fell out of favor as the princes of Europe fell in line with Rome’s position. The third combatant was a kind of anti-architecture used by a loosely affiliated group of Protestants. Theirs was an anti-Catholic architecture, a spare box or perhaps a former Catholic church, Gothic or classical, whitewashed and stripped of statues, the Crucifix banished and replaced by a Bible on a wooden altar table.

Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1456; Alberti completed and transformed an older, unfinished façade with a triumphal arch suggested on the lower story, a temple front on the upper one, and a decorative, multi-colored marble portal surround. Photo: Author

The new Catholic churches were classical, but they were composed and constructed as a doctrinal statement, just as their Gothic predecessors in the North had been. Using both architecture and its enrichment with paintings and sculpture, they presented a visible sign of an invisible grace. They taught the faithful. They fortified belief. But this capacity declined during the eighteenth century, when the factual (to which empiricism had given primacy) replaced the true as the basis of belief. Gradually during the nineteenth century, as Romanticism allowed sentiment to overwhelm doctrine as the basis for belief, the Gothic, with its lofty heights, gloomy interiors, and enrichment with hard-to-see paintings, sculpture, and stained glass, came to be considered the right architecture for Christian worship among Catholics and others whose worship was liturgically based. Sentiment nourishes moods rather than thoughts and bypasses the intellect on its way to the emotions. The Gothic fed moods, with heavenly, lofty heights and a gloomy darkness that promoted concern for man’s fallen state. The building as a material, architectural entity receded from view, and people forgot that it too conveyed meaning.

John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Faith and Reason rejected sentiment in favor of philosophy. He put the admonition “Know thyself” at the center of the life of faith (FR 1.1). “The quest for meaning . . . has always compelled the human heart (FR 1.2).” “Through literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and every other work of their creative intelligence [men and women] have declared the urgency of their quest. In a special way philosophy has made this search its own” (FR 24). In wrapping the arts within the mantel of philosophy he suggested that thoughtful arts and not emotional exaltations, that reason-based artistic artifacts and not sentimental expressions, provide the nourishment for faith. The Holy Father’s argument can be extended to endorse buildings that draw from the same ancient sources and are as innovative in our day as Santa Maria Maggiore and the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome were in theirs.

Architecture was not the only thing the pagans gave the church. Saint Augustine converted pagan rhetoric into a tool for the Christian preacher. Augustine and Boethius made Plato useful, and Saint Thomas Aquinas did so with Aristotle. Constantine preceded all of them by Christianizing pagan architecture, but the conversion of pagan architectural theory to Christian uses had to wait until the fifteenth century, on the very eve of the Reformation. The Christian content that Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) gave classical architecture is the subject of what follows.

First published in 1485, Alberti’s treatise On Building Things, notwithstanding its disarming title, transformed its only predecessor, the treatise De Architectura by the Augustan architect Vitruvius (first century B.C.). Alberti’s work enjoyed early translation and wide dissemination, although over the last two centuries it has interested historians more than those who build.

Alberti revised Vitruvius’s understanding of the architect. Both treatise writers considered the use of the intellect to be fundamental, but the pagan architect’s intellect does not act toward a moral end. Both pagan and Christian architect seek fame and honor, but the former does so only through the achievements of the patron he serves, as the moon shines only from the sun’s light. Fame and honor comes to Alberti’s architect from building beautiful buildings that contribute to the order and beauty of cities.

Alberti’s comments about a simple altar can be seen in this one built and decorated with an altarpiece in Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito in Florence built during his lifetime. Photo: Author

Alberti’s architect is a citizen engaged in civic affairs, using his energies to promote justice of which, as Alberti explains, “piety is the single most important part . . . , and who would deny that justice is in itself a divine gift.” The city’s beauty depends upon the architect’s works. The city’s beauty makes its justice visible (VI, i, 191). “[A] well-maintained and well-adorned temple [i.e., church] is obviously the greatest and most important ornament of a city”(VII, iii, 194):

There is no doubt that a temple that delights the mind wonderfully, captivates it with grace and admiration, will greatly encourage piety…I wish the temple so beautiful that nothing more decorous could ever be devised; I would deck it out in every part so that anyone who entered it would start with awe for his admiration at all the noble things, and could scarcely restrain himself from exclaiming that what he saw was a place undoubtedly worthy of God. (VII, iii, 194)

Alberti is clear: architecture conveys content. This is not the first thing about a building that comes to mind in the present-day world. Architecture is immersed in modernism, religion no longer resides within an established church, and there is no systematic understanding of the role that the content of architecture can serve in nurturing religious faith. These circumstances do not, however, invalidate Alberti’s thoughts about the content of architectural forms. He still provides the best guide to how a church building can assist in the admonition to “Know thyself.” Alberti built his ideas on traditions and learning reaching back to Saint Augustine. That Church Father argued that beauty makes love visible. The beauty resides in the meaning of things, and it is through things heard and seen that we come to know truths about God that are matters of faith rather than merely of knowledge.

The Jewish prohibition of graven images and the theology signaled by the opening of Saint John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the word [Vulgate, verbum; Greek, logos])” had invested the word with primacy over the image as a means of conveying significant and symbolic content. Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1141) found equal stature for images, laying the foundations for investing Gothic buildings with symbolic content.

A symbol is a visible thing that embodies and makes present that which is immaterial and invisible, generally something that is multivalent, ambiguous or mysterious, ungraspable in its totality, and not reducible to a sign or translatable into another form of representation. For example, a cruciform church plan uses the sign of the cross (only fictively present in the church) to point to the Passion (invisible in the material church) and thus, like the Passion, is a symbol of the true promise of the gift of grace available through the Church. A symbol may also be less explicitly factual, as, for example, when the symbolic content of a church building is explained by, but is not a substitute for, the theology of the Church as the Body of Christ and as a symbol of the city of God, or when its meaning is in qualities such as its proportionality and light.

The nave of Alberti’s Sant’ Andrea in Mantua is articulated by triumphal arches. Photo: Thomas Stroka

The humanists in Alberti’s circle transformed these ideas. As Charles Trinkaus explained, they constructed a theory in which “[e]ither words or things can represent or constitute substance, quality and action either in speech or in actuality.” This transformation allowed a substantive, material thing such as a building to make immaterial qualities visible and nonetheless retain its claim to attention for its very materiality. A beautiful building was both a building and a symbol of God’s love, and the building’s physical beauty could be enjoyed because it conveyed that immaterial beauty.

A basilical church based on Alberti’s description from Cosimo Bartoli’s Italian translation of De Re Aedificatoria in 1550. Image: Public Domain

A building, unlike a painting, must convey its meaning without reference to other visible things. Its content must be embodied in forms unique to architecture, and these are quite limited. We might put architecture’s content in four aspects of a building, using a church as our example:

The first aspect is a church’s plan, which can be in the form of a cross, or be basilical, which reinforces the sacramental worship of a congregation and invokes the prototype of (i.e., serves as a sign of; signifies) Solomon’s Temple, or it can be centralized, with its emphasis on the veneration and contemplation of the central element, usually the altar, and thereby symbolize the unity and proportionality of God’s order and the unity of God and man within the Church. It can also, as has been common since the Renaissance, be a composite of these plan types. The second aspect are the various forms used for interior and exterior façades. A triumphal arch symbolizes the triumph of life over death through Grace; a temple front signifies the triumph of Christianity over the pagan world in which Christ became incarnate. The third aspect is the building’s three-dimensional configuration, although this is less common, as when a basilical volume with an array of towers or a centralized building with a grouping of five domes symbolizes the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The fourth aspect is that these three preceding methods have their counterparts in other media (for example, in a painting showing a triumphal arch or in ornament that images the Heavenly City). But this fourth belongs to architecture alone. It resides in the building’s abstract visual elements, making available a building’s immaterial content by using particular, perceptible proportions, geometries, and quantities of building components. Saint Thomas acknowledged these when he defined beauty as residing in integrity, proportionality, and luminosity, but he did not extend these ideas into a discussion of the qualities of buildings as material constructions. Alberti, with full knowledge of Saint Thomas’ trilogy, did. 
In Alberti’s treatise the beauty of buildings is a central theme. His definition is well known: beauty resides in

a reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse. It is a great and holy matter, all our resources of skill and ingenuity will be taxed in achieving it; and rarely is it granted even to Nature herself, to produce anything that is entirely complete and perfect in every respect. (VI, ii, 156)

Later on he presents beauty as the result of the steps the architect must follow to produce it:

Beauty is a form of sympathy and consonance of the parts within a body, according to definite number, outline, and collocation, as dictated by concinnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule in nature. This is the main object of the art of building, and the source of her dignity, charm, authority, and worth. (IX, v, 302)

And one more thing is called for, namely, the ornament that makes the beauty visible. In his first definition of beauty he had explained that ornament

may be defined as a form of auxiliary light and complement to beauty. From this it follows, I believe, that beauty is some inherent property, to be found suffused all through the body of that which may be called beautiful; whereas ornament, rather than being inherent, has the character of something attached or additional. (VI, ii, E156)

In his second definition of beauty, ornament, and beauty’s doppelganger concinnitas take on the enlarged role of giving a building its appeal: “The eyes are by their nature greedy for beauty and concinnitas, and are particularly fastidious and critical in this matter.” In works that are deficient, “it is impossible to explain what it is that offends us, apart from the one fact that we have no means of satiating our excessive desire to gaze at the beautiful. In view of all this,” he continues directly, “surely it is our duty to strive with all enthusiasm, application, and diligence to make what we build as ornate as possible, especially those buildings which everyone would want to be dignified. Within this group lie public works, and in particular sacred ones: since no man would allow them to be naked of ornament” (IX, viii, 312). Alberti is clear: no beauty, no ornament; no ornament, no beauty. Ornament makes beauty visible; beauty provides scaffolding for ornament, which is an inherent part of architectural form.

The exterior of the apse of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi, begun in 1506, shows Evangelists in the capitals, this one with Ox volutes symbolizing Saint Luke, and wheat and grapes from the Chalice. Photo: Author

In listing and explaining number, outline, collocation, and concinnitas, Alberti laid out a systematic program for an architect to follow. Number refers to the quantity of things to be included in a building, although the quantities were not lacking in significance, as has become the case in the present-day, where factuality of empiricism often holds sway. Outline refers to the bounding of material by geometric limits. It makes designing congruent with numerical reasoning, and it makes available to perception the lineamenta that the architect manipulated when designing. Lineamenta were fundamental to his procedure. He defined them as “the precise and correct outline, conceived in the mind, made up of lines and angles, and perfected in the learned intellect and imagination” (I, i, 7). Lineamenta as outline allow number to become perceptible as proportions: “The very same numbers that cause sounds to have that concinnitas, pleasing to the ears, can also fill the eyes and mind with wondrous delight.”

Outline has an additional task. It binds material with proportions to wring from nature the actual material, physical elements, or what he had called the weights the architect moves and joins when massing bodies: outline makes proportions and dimensions visible. The proportions reside in lineamenta, which are subject to the mind’s discipline and reasoning. In using dimensions based on proportions to define the outlines that bound the material, a person can reason about the symbolic presence in the building of both transcendent and immanent order.

Next comes collocation, or the composing of elements. To achieve proper collocation the architect “relies to a large extent on the judgment nature instilled in the minds of men” (IX, vii, 309-10). That judgment resides in concinnitas, which Alberti had called “the absolute and fundamental rule of nature” (IX, v, 303). Vitruvius, Alberti’s pagan predecessor, had entrusted the final authority for a building’s appearance to its decorum, or its role in making visible the city’s social and political order. So did Alberti, although with added importance. Decorum becomes embodied in concinnitas because concinnitas is a concordance between transcendental truth and its presence in the actual facts of the material world and in the activities of men living in political communities. Decorum, i.e., concinnitas, dictates the place of each building within the hierarchy of buildings in a city, a hierarchy in which sacred is superior to profane, and public is superior to private, a hierarchy that encompasses all the buildings of the city and that the concinnitas of the design of each building makes visible. The visibility occurs principally in the ornament, which allows the beauty to be seen.

Alberti exclaimed that the “well-maintained and well-adorned temple [i.e., church] is obviously the greatest and most important ornament of a city” (VII, iii, 194). Its beauty can move a person to exclaim, “[W]hat he saw was a place undoubtedly worthy of God” (VII, iii, 194). Every aspect of the church’s beauty was to conspire to that end. Nothing within it should “divert the mind away from religious meditation toward sensual attraction and pleasure” (VII, x, 220). The church fulfilled its high office by presenting significant and symbolic content. At one level this content is available in what the church holds or contains, particularly the altar. The divine matters, Alberti states, are most intensely present in the sacrifice of the Mass. He advised restoring its architectural setting: the “sacrificial altar is to be set up so as to give it the greatest dignity: the ideal position, surely, is before the tribunal.”

Church of San Sebastiano in Mantua, begun by Leon Battista Alberti. Photo: Thomas Stroka

The beauty of the building itself also symbolizes God’s love. Alberti’s treatise provides the first explanation of how to make this beauty visible in specifically architectural qualities. The purely architectural components, which allow a building to imitate nature, constitute the fourth of the four aspects of a building that convey content mentioned earlier (after the plan configuration; the forms of interior and exterior façades; and the three-dimensional configuration). Joining them is the treatment of the light, a long-standing symbolic element and constituent of beauty, which receives little explicit treatment in the treatise, the usual fate of things too well known to need explanation and obviously related to the Thomistic trilogy that described beauty.

Alberti’s method of design knowingly and rationally connects the building to the transcendental truth and its visible beauty immanent in the things God and men make within the material world. These transcendental qualities are present in the proportions that reveal the harmonies God used when He created the universe and provide Alberti with the proportions he uses when building. They can also be discovered in the form and figure of man, in Noah’s Ark, and in the very fabric of God’s universe. They furnish the beauty that places the building within the continuum that has nature at one extreme and culture at the other. These beautiful things, be they buildings, columnar orders, or whole cities, occupy the highest rank among created things. As concrete, material parts of the world we live in, they are visible forms of God’s invisible love. As symbols of that love they reach directly into man’s reason and soul:

[W]hen the mind is reached by way of sight or sound, or any other means, concinnitas is instantly recognized. It is our nature to desire the best, and to cling to it with pleasure. Neither in the whole body nor in its parts does concinnitas flourish as much as it does in Nature herself; thus I might call it the spouse of the soul and of reason. (IX, v, 815)

Alberti’s understanding of beauty is intimately connected to the anthropomorphic analogy. Alberti’s references to this staple in architectural theory are few, but its role is profound. Like his fellow humanists, he saw man as an active agent using his energy to serve the good, as a person whose actions are motivated by virtù, that is, by his capacity to allow his will to do the good to direct his actions in the world. This is perhaps the fullest meaning of the analogy sanctioned by Genesis 1:26 that tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. The similitude for Alberti is lodged less in the image and more profoundly in the likeness to God as creator of a universe accessible through inspection and reason and a world available as a stage for his actions.

The most visible sign of the anthropomorphic analogy has always been the group of columnar orders. Alberti declares that these ornament the temple, the same building that ornaments the city, the city that provides the well-ordered arena wherein men exercise their virtù. The linkages between the beauty extant in these three different scales of man-made things (orders, temple, city) are more fundamental than their mere formal qualities reveal. Alberti’s profound anthropomorphism arises from the judgments made about the reasons of things as these can be known in the intellect wherein lies the analogy between beauty and justice, an analogy that beauty makes visible. For he who has eyes that see, architecture opens the way for justice to enter the public square and piety to enter the soul of the faithful.

In this life virtue as an active direction of the will joins truth as a quality that unites man with God. In the city of man that is built in accord with what Alberti offers in his architectural treatise, the reason of nature permits the architect to investigate nature (including the acts of men acting in nature) and become equipped to produce buildings. Central to those activities is the ability to perceive and apply concinnitas, which Alberti had called the “spouse and soul of reason” and had described as the linkage between nature as the source and the art of architecture as the application of the law embedded in nature. This bridge between man and created things that consists of reason and concinnitas seems very much to be for the architect what Saint Thomas said synderesis is for the individual, namely, “the law of our mind, because it is a habit containing the precepts of the natural law, which are the first principles of human actions.”

Alberti was the first to immerse architecture based on the classical tradition in philosophy and reason and make it useful to serve the Christinanity. He and his colleagues took as a given that a building should be beautiful and therefore a partner with the good and the true. Like the good and the true, the qualities that make a building beautiful are accessible to reason, which opens to the inquiring mind the route to knowledge of the source of beauty, God himself. What better basis than this can there be in our own day and age for architecture to respond to John Paul II’s admonition, “Know thyself”?