The genius of the Florentine architects
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Façade Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
Leone Battista Alberti
(by John Samuel, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons)
(by Txllxt CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Leone Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404, the son of Lorenzo Alberti, who came from a wealthy family of Florentine merchants and bankers banished from the Tuscan city in 1388 for political reasons, and Bianca Fieschi, of a distinguished Genoese lineage.

He studied in Venice and Padua, then in Bologna canon law, cultivating an interest in other disciplines such as music, painting, sculpture, mathematics, and literature. From a young age, he devoted himself to literary activity, e.g. in Bologna, and he wrote a comedy in Latin, a mythological novel, and a series of dialogues in the vernacular (De Familia, Theogenius, Profugiorum ab ærumna libri, Cena familiaris, De iciarchia). After his father’s death (1421), he encountered some difficulties with relatives who did not want to recognise his hereditary rights or encourage his studies. As a result, he devoted himself mainly to scientific, astronomical and mathematical studies, although it seems that he graduated in canon law (1428); little is known about his later years; perhaps he travelled to France and northern Europe in the entourage of Cardinal Albergati.

In 1431 he became secretary to the patriarch of Grado and regent of the papal chancery Biagio Molin. He thus entered the humanistic milieu of the curia of Pope Eugene IV, who favoured him. He helped him become titular of the parish church of San Martino a Gangalandi in Lastra a Signa, near Florence, ending his financial straits. He lived mainly in Rome but moved to Ferrara, Bologna, Venice, Florence, Mantua, Rimini and Naples. Between 1434 – 1443 he lived primarily in Florence and Ferrara, following the papal curia, in order to participate in the Ecumenical Council (1438-39) that was supposed to favour rapprochement between the Latin church and the Eastern Christian churches. During this period, Alberti tried to insert himself into the intellectual and artistic environment of the city. Presumably, in these years, he wrote the treatise De pictura (1435-36), in which artistic discipline is understood not only as a manual technique but also as intellectual and cultural research dedicated to Brunelleschi. He also mentions Donatello, Masaccio, and Della Robbia.

Around 1443, following Pope Eugene IV, he left Florence but continued to have intense relations with the city because of the construction sites of his projects. Back in Rome, he resumed his work in the curia as an apostolic abbreviator. In Rome, he cultivated his own architectural interests, which led him to pursue the study of the ruins of classical Rome, as shown in his work Descriptio Urbis Romae (1450), in which, for the first time in history, he successfully reconstructed the topography of ancient Rome. His archaeological interests also led him to attempt the recovery of Roman ships sunk in Lake Nemi.

Around 1450 Alberti began to become more actively involved in architecture, with numerous projects to be executed outside Rome, in Florence, Rimini and Mantua, thus becoming the leading figure of Renaissance architecture. In Florence, he worked mainly as an architect for Giovanni Rucellai, a wealthy merchant and patron. Attributed to him in Florence are Palazzo Rucellai, and the Loggia Rucellai in front of it. Together form a kind of small square celebrating the lineage, which is recognised as one of the earliest Renaissance urban interventions, the facade of Santa Maria Novella, and the temple of the Holy Sepulchre in the church of San Pancrazio.

As for his style, in his more mature works, we can see his adherence to the classical model; from ancient monuments, he takes an impressiveness that departs from the style of Brunelleschi and anticipates Bramante.


On Rucellai’s commission, he also designed the completion of the façade of the basilica of Santa Maria Novella, which remained unfinished in 1365 at the first order of small arches, characterised by alternating bands of white and green marble, according to centuries-old Florentine tradition. Work began around 1457. There was the problem of integrating, in a general and classical design, the new interventions with the existing elements of the previous period: at the bottom were the present framed by pointed arches and the side portals, also pointed arches, while in the upper part the rose window was already open, albeit bare of any decoration. Alberti inserted a portal of classical proportions in the centre of the lower facade, framed by half-columns, in which he inserted red marble incrustations to break up the two-colour scheme. To finish the lower fascia, he placed a series of round arches at the conclusion of the pilasters. Since the upper part of the facade was set back from the base, he inserted a dividing band with marble inlays bearing a theory of sails puffed up in the wind, the personal insignia of Giovanni Rucellai; the upper level, marked by a second-order of pilasters that have no correspondence in the lower one, supports a triangular tympanum. On the sides, two double volutes connect the lower, broader order to the taller, narrower upper order, giving the facade an upward motion in keeping with its proportions; they do not mask as has often been mistakenly said the side slopes, which are lower, as can be seen when observing the facade from the rear side. The composition with marble tarsia incrustations inspired by Florentine Romanesque, necessary in this case to harmonise the new parts to the already built, remained a constant in Alberti’s Florentine works.


1. The Fish Lodge

2. The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

3. Giotto’s Bell tower

4. Façade Basilica of Santa Maria Novella

5. Sacristy of the basilica of Santo Spirito