Leon Battista Alberti and the Conversion of Pagan Architecture

by Eugene Johnson, appearing in Volume 39

Façade and south flank of Alberti's San Francesco, Rimini. Photo: wikimedia.org/Flying Russian 

Leon Battista Alberti made the pagan architecture of Greece and Rome safe for Christian churches. He was the first to revive accurately entire building types of the architecture of antiquity, particularly the temple front of the Greeks and the triumphal arch and vaulted basilica of the Romans.

Building typology fascinated him. The last chapters of his treatise on architecture, de re aedificatoria, the first serious treatise on architecture since antiquity, is in good part organized around the histories, uses, and formal properties of specific kinds of Greek and Roman buildings. Alberti, who traveled neither to Greece nor to Greek sites on Italian soil, had no first-hand experience of the buildings of that civilization. But he studied the ruins of Roman structures intensely.

He also knew the treatise of the Roman architect Vitruvius, de architectura, intimately. The only ancient text on architecture to come down to us (there once were many more), Vitruvius’s became Alberti’s guide to understanding the ruins of the past. Like any student more “intelligent” than his teacher from an older generation, Alberti did not hesitate to question what Vitruvius taught him.

A Humanist Polymath

Alberti came to architecture not through the normal process of apprenticing to a practicing builder, but through the intellectual path of Renaissance humanism. A polymath, he devoted himself to the study of a variety of human endeavors and institutions.

He wrote a treatise on family life, for instance (della famiglia), although in his early years he had little normal experience of that crucial aspect of Italian culture. He was the illegitimate offspring of an exiled Florentine nobleman, first educated at a school in Padua and then at the great university of Bologna, where he studied law. At Padua he learned Latin so well that he passed off a comedy he wrote as a genuine Roman play. This ability to ape the ancients transferred into his design of buildings.

After the exile of the Alberti family had been lifted in Florence, Leon Battista visited that city in the 1430s, to be embraced by members of the large Alberti family and to be greeted by the earliest works of art of what we call the Renaissance: the paintings of Masaccio, the sculptures of Ghiberti and Donatello, and the architecture of Brunelleschi. In response to this work, he did what he knew how to do: composed treatises that explained each art. He appears to have taken up painting and sculpture on his own, in order to understand them better.

A profile portrait relief of his head, now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., is generally held to be a self-portrait; there is documentary evidence that he made such an object. The National Gallery relief suggests he became a skilled sculptor. His brief treatise on sculpture, de statua, focuses in good part on the mechanics of how to translate the human body into a three-dimensional work of art.

Painting, the subject of the far more extensive della pittura, was dedicated in the Italian version to Brunelleschi, who, like most of his fellow artists, could not read the Latin version. In della pittura Alberti explained in clear prose how to construct one-point perspective according to the system that Brunelleschi had first worked out a decade or so earlier.

Finally, in the 1440s, he composed de re aedificatoria, dedicated in 1450 to Pope Nicholas V, who was engaged in elaborate plans to rebuild the papal church of San Pietro in Vaticano as well as the surrounding area of Rome known as the Borgo. Written in Latin, the treatise was intended for the powerful, well-educated patrons whom Alberti hoped to educate in the art of building.

The Designs of the Ancients

At this point in his life, in his forties, he made his living as a papal scribe. His noble birth, his remarkable intelligence, and his vast knowledge made him a notable addition to Nicholas’s court, as well as a sought-out companion to the Italian rulers whose desire to build Alberti hoped to direct in the best directions.

De re aedificatoria is far from a doctrinaire exposition of the rules of ancient architecture, as Alberti had come to understand them through his study of ruins and Vitruvius. His mind was much too flexible and subtle to dictate rigid imitations of ancient architectural forms. Instead, he urged his contemporaries to base their new designs on the methods, forms, and types of the ancients. He stressed their use of sets of proportions for each of the ancient orders.

The only instance of a pedantic stance that Alberti took in the entire treatise was to enjoin his copyists to write out the numerical ratios he gave for the orders. He feared that numbers written in Roman numerals could too easily be mistaken in the act of copying them. Albert’s treatise was not printed until 1487, a year before Vitruvius’ work received the then same up-to-date ability to circulate widely. In the buildings he designed, he created visual “teaching aids” that demonstrated how the advice in his treatise might be realized.

Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini

At the time that Alberti was laboring on de re aedificatoria in the 1440s, he began to receive invitations from important figures in Italy to design new buildings on his own. The first of these was Sigismondo Malatesta, lord of Rimini. A cruel but successful warlord, and a self-indulgent sensualist, Sigismondo was also a man of immense culture at whose court knowledge of the works of both ancient Greek and Roman writers was cherished.

Like almost all princes of his day, he sought to memorialize himself and his family in a grand work of architecture. He chose to focus his efforts on the fourteenth-century church of San Francesco in Rimini. At first he planned simply to enlarge and remodel a chapel at the northwest corner of the nave as a Malatesta funerary chapel. At an unknown date, after Alberti entered the picture, his architectural ambitions grew. (Other Alberti patrons would experience a similar expansion in their desires to build.)

The medieval church would be enclosed by a completely new exterior designed by Alberti, as if to enshrine it in a giant reliquary. The medieval interior would be totally renovated under the direction of the sculptors Agostino di Duccio and Matteo de Pasti. Alberti, who always seems to have been happy to save old buildings where possible, would work his magic outside, where he was less constrained by the earlier structure.

For the center of his new façade, he designed a close imitation of the Roman Arch of Augustus, still standing just a few blocks away from the church. This bold move was, as far as we know, the first instance in which the details of a specific pagan building were rather accurately adapted for a Christian structure.

Arch of Augustus, Rimini, AD 14

Because of their physical proximity, the two could easily be compared. Apparently, Alberti did not want to hide the origin of his new design. The Roman structure consists of a single round-arched opening flanked by two engaged, fluted Corinthian half-columns that support an entablature. Tucked into the angles created by the columns and entablature are two roundels.

All of these elements reappear in Alberti’s design, which omits the pediment over the arch and raises the height of the socle (a short block plinth used as the base of a pedestal, sculpture, or column) from which the flanking columns rise. Changes in the design are made for clear reasons. A version of the pediment reappears over Alberti’s portal to emphasize it, and the taller socle, with a lower string course roughly at human height gives the façade human scale.

To either side of the central bay Alberti added round-arched niches, flanked by two more engaged columns, so that the entire façade can be read as three single triumphal arches joined into one triple arcade. Slightly lower than the central arch, the side niches were to contain the sarophagi of Sigismondo and his mistress-later-wife, Isotta degli Atti, each of whom would receive an individual triumphal memorial. The niches were later walled up for structural reasons and the respective sarcophagi placed inside.

A Christian Purpose

Alberti gave these pagan forms Christian purpose. In Christian terms, triumph signifies not a military victory, but rather the victory of the devout Christian over sin and death. The tombs were intended to do precisely that.

The façade, however, serves more than one purpose, or carries more than one meaning, as is almost always the case with Alberti’s designs. It also points the way to a new way of designing buildings by reviving ancient principles to create a new architecture that strives even to surpass the achievements of antiquity. In de re aedifictoria, Alberti expressed this precise hope. His façade hardly takes a back seat to Augustus’s arch.

He used the Roman prototype as the basis for a far more complex Christian architectural ensemble that simultaneously secured the preservation of the medieval interior, now renovated in the new style of the early quattrocento. He was even able to contrast that kind of “modern” architecture with what he intended to become the far newer, all’antica standard for architectural design.

The width of Alberti’s facade covered not only the width of the church interior but also the thickness of his new side walls, erected at a modest distance from the old exterior. These side walls continue the height of the façade socle, on which Alberti erected heavy stone piers that support a series of seven round arches that open a path for light to reach the Gothic windows of the old interior.

Under each arch on the south side of the church rests the sarcophagus of a learned humanist who graced Sigismondo’s court, a testimonial to his enthusiasm for learning and his patronage of their work. Each arch with its sarcophagus echoes in a minor key the triumphal sarcophagi of the ruler and his eventual wife that would have been on the façade.

On the south side, the arcade is introduced by an inscription, written in Greek (here presented in a condensed translation) that points to the importance of the study of Greek culture at Sigismondo’s court:


And so the building is a monument to military victory as well as a monument to the Malatesta family. The Latin inscription on the frieze that runs across the façade, written in Roman capitals in imitation of the inscription on the frieze of the temple front of the porch of the Pantheon in Rome, gives the dedication of the building and the putative date of its erection:


The Building Alberti Wanted

Alberti’s design was never completed. Sigismondo’s fortunes declined, and he so enraged Pius II that the pope publicly condemned him in a ceremony that has been referred to as a “canonization” to hell.

Medal of San Francesco, Rimini, by Matteo de Pasti, 1450s. Photo: wikimedia.org/Saliko

There is tantalizing evidence of what Alberti may have comtemplated for a finished building. A well-known medal by Matteo de Pasti shows the façade of the church largely as it stands, but with the tombs of Sigismondo and Isotta still in place in the side bays. Above the central columns rises another round arched opening, flanked by pilasters and bearing curvilinear ornament on the crown of the arch. To either side are walls with curving tops that presumably would have hidden the roofs over the side chapels.

In a letter to Matteo de Pasti of November, 1454, Alberti included a tiny sketch that described the volute (a spiral, scroll-like ornament) he subsequently intended to place on the now slanted tops of the side roofs that are actually in place. How the interior would have been roofed is not clear, although Alberti appears to have been in favor of a wooden barrel vault supported on his new side arcades.

The medal shows, behind the façade, a hemispherical dome that Alberti planned to raise over a large rotunda at the east end of the church. No other evidence for the rotunda has come down to us, and so we can only conjecture what it might have looked like, or what purpose it might have served. A memorial to the entire Malatesta family?

There may be a connection to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which boasted a rotunda that rose over what is believed to be the tomb of Christ. The church in Rimini, dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francesco), was operated by members of the Franciscan order, who were given the noble charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A possible connection has been suggested.

What is crystal clear from the medal, however, is that Alberti intended to build in Rimini a new version of the Pantheon of the Roman emperor Hadrian, with its hemispherical dome. That pagan temple had been converted to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs by Pope Boniface IV in 609, and as such it remains. I am not aware that Alberti knew the date of its conversion, but the fact that it had been converted to Christian purposes could hardly have escaped Messer Battista, who had studied the Pantheon assiduously.

Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Façade of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Photo: wikimedia.org/Jebulon

With the façade of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Alberti designed his second façade based on pagan prototypes. The patron in this case was a very wealthy Florentine merchant, Giovanni Rucellai, whose palace and tomb Alberti also designed. The Gothic Dominican church, begun in the 1270s, had an incomplete façade that consisted of a lower register of wall tombs surmounted by a blind arcade of round arches springing from attenuated pilasters. This lower level featured a typically Tuscan decorative revetment of green and white marble.

As was his wont, Alberti chose to preserve what was already there and complete it with sympathetic additions. These consisted of four tall, green marble Corinthian columns, two flanking the central portal and the other two placed next to green and white striped piers that he used to anchor each corner.

These columns and piers support a frieze decorated with billowing white sails (a Rucellai emblem) set against a green ground. Above the frieze a wide horizontal attic stretches across the entire façade. The square plaques in the attic help to obscure the fact that the existing rose window in the upper half of the façade does not quite line up with the center of the portal below it. Alberti‘s lower level becomes a horizontally stretched triumphal arch, not entirely unlike the one he had already designed for San Francesco in Rimini.

Above his new lower story, Alberti erected the most innovative parts of his design: a four-pilaster ancient temple front, capped by a pediment, that frames the medieval rose window. This temple front is flanked by two triangular elements, capped with curving volutes, that hide the side roofs.

This temple front is the first truly accurate replica of that ancient pagan form applied to a Christian church. As such, it became the prototype for many a later church façade. The volutes, the first such elements actually erected on a church façade, offered an equally important precedent for Christian architecture. The new design claimed the most typical design of pagan religious structures for Christianity, stressing the triumph of the Christian faith over the misguided religions that had preceded it.

Giovanni Rucellai’s adherence to that faith is celebrated in the inscription in the frieze under the pediment, which tells us in Roman capitals, again like those on the façade of the Pantheon, that Giovanni Rucellai, son of Paolo, built it in 1470. (The façade was actually completed a few years later.)

Again a major source for Alberti was a prominent, easily comparable local monument, the twelfth-century upper level of the façade of San Miniato al Monte, overlooking the city center from a hillside south of the Arno. Alberti did not hesitate to “correct” San Miniato, even though it was said to have been his favorite Florentine church.

San Miniato al Monte, Florence, detail of upper story. Photo: wikimedia.org/Xosema

The upper story of San Miniato is clearly based on ancient temple fronts, but it ignores their structural logic. The architrave above the four fluted plasters does not sit flatly on them, as it does at Santa Maria Novella. Rather, the architrave, split into two separate parts, bends down to meet the pilaster capitals in a way that transforms a rational expression of weight (horizontal) and support (vertical) into frames for side panels.

Alberti made classical sense similarly of the San Miniato pediment, whose raking cornice is lifted up by two small caryatids one would never have found in such a position in antiquity.

There is one clear parallel between the two, however. Like the upper story at Santa Maria Novella, that at San Miniato can be inscribed in the perfect form of a square defined by the cornice on which the temple fronts rest, the sides of the walls, and the peaks of the pediments.

Part II, devoted to Sant' Andrea in Mantua, will appear in the next issue.