cover image Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti

Anthony Grafton. Hill & Wang, $35 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-8090-9752-4

One of the great geniuses of the early Renaissance, Alberti was a master of historical architecture as well as a creator of some of his own era's lasting monuments. A noted writer and courtier, he embraced all of the activities of the 15th-century Italian ""universal man,"" including being a superb athlete. To keep up with and relate all he achieved requires a superman of a historian. Princeton history professor Grafton (Defenders of the Text; The Footnote; etc.) modestly states: ""No historian knows all of Alberti's fields of interest--or even a majority of them--at close hand."" Still, the present book is an admirably clear-headed look at Alberti's creative endeavors; it is hard to think of any other writer who might have done it better. Alberti's works like the Malatesta Temple in Rimini, the basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and San Sebastiano church in Mantua are described concisely, with a refreshing absence of tedious art historical jargon. There are especially perceptive comments on Alberti as a writer, not just of the famous treatise On the Art of Building, known to every beginning architecture student, but also of lesser-known works like the long satire, Momus. A passage in the latter work is aptly described as ""bizarrely Brechtian"" for its depiction of a screaming street beggar. Alberti's poetic fables are also highlighted for their wistful morals like, ""Do you think it's easy to work out what age has to do with ripeness?"" There are solid, historically based chapters on ""The Architect and City Planner,"" ""The Artist at Court"" and ""From New Technologies to Fine Arts."" There is also psychological detail about Alberti the man, idealized in previous descriptions such as Jakob Burckhardt's renowned study. Autobiographical writings, as Grafton shows, portray Alberti as tormented with doubts, depression, grief and fear. Despite such humanizing material, Alberti still comes across as something of a superman, if only for the vast amount he was able to achieve. This book will prove useful to anyone interested in the Italian Renaissance in architecture, literature and painting, and will win new fans for Grafton as well as his subject. lllus. not seen by PW. (Oct.)