Monday, March 28, 2016



Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was a writer and architect in the 15th century who knew many of the major artists by name and who influenced many of them by his treatises on Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture (Della Pittura 1435, De Re Aedificatoria 1452, and De Statua 1462.) The introductory paragraph to his Italian Treatise on Painting dedicates the volume to Filippo Brunelleschi and lists four other artists: Donato (Donatello), Nencio (Lorenzo Ghiberti), Luca (Della Robbia), and Masaccio. He calls each of them either by first name or by nickname. This familiarity or intimacy implies to the reader that these men are his Florentine family since he was illegitimate and his own family had been exiled until they returned to Florence in 1428:
"Ma poi che io dal lungo essilio in quale siamo noi Alberti invecchiati, qui fui in questa nostra sopra l'altre ornatissima patria ridutto, compresi in molti ma prima in te, Filippo, e in quel nostro amicissimo Donato scultore e in quegli altri Nencio e Luca e Masaccio, essere a ogni lodata cosa ingegno da non posporli a qual si sia stato antiquo e famoso in queste arti" 
"But then, since I have returned from that long exile in which we Alberti have long grown old, to a
homeland that is more decorated than others, I have understood in many but most of all in you, FILIPPO, and in that closest friend of ours, DONATO the sculptor and in those other friends, NENCIO and LUCA and MASACCIO, that every praiseworthy artistic thing has been superseded from what was understood to be ancient and famous in our arts."(trans. mine)

He understands and is able to convey in writing the innovations which have taken place in Florence in architecture, painting, and sculpture just in the years 1400-1435.  Brunelleschi's Dome was nearly completed, Donatello was working on the Cantoria with Luca, Ghiberti was starting on the second set of Baptistery panels, and Masaccio had finished the Brancacci Chapel.
             How important for him, then, to contribute to the excitement of this artistic revolution. In 1470 he designs a major Florentine church facade, two years before the end of his life. He creates the facade of Santa Maria Novella (1470.) It is rightly called the FIRST RENAISSANCE CHURCH FACADE in Western art history.
Since Alberti had taken holy orders and served several popes in Rome before making this facade, it is tempting to find in it the influence of ancient Roman architecture. Certainly the rounded arches he would have seen in the Colosseum

and the pediment in buildings like the Pantheon and the Temple of Fortuna Virilis:

 The Corinthian capitals are used in the Pantheon, too, next to rounded niches.
And the marble facing for temples he could have viewed on what remained of Augustus' Temple of
Mars Ultor.

But Alberti, it seems to me, was looking much closer to home for his architectural influences and much closer in time than to ancient Roman buildings.

The most important model for his facade is up on the hill above Florence in the 11th century Romanesque church facade of San Miniato al Monte (1060-62.)

How many elements are the same in both churches!  
1)  Both are built as though two temple fronts, one set on top and inside of the other:

San Miniato, 1060-62,yellow inside green               Santa Maria Novella, 1470, blue inside purple
2) Both use green and white inlay marble for decorative effects and both have engaged (attached to the wall) green marble Corinthian columns:

San Miniato green and white marble                        Santa Maria Novella, green and white marble

3) Both use rounded arches in the lower level as visual support for the upper level.

One variation: in Santa Maria Novella the arches on the very lowest level are pointed, remnants from the parts of the Gothic facade and Gothic funerary niches that Alberti had to incorporate into his structure.

 San Miniato has no such incorporation since its facade is produced before the Gothic era.
4) Both utilize roundels in their design:
San Miniato                                                                        Santa Maria Novella

5) Both have references to Christ in the decoration. In San Miniato a cross is inscribed in the inlay
and Christ appears in the central mosaic blessing Mary, his mother, and the local martyr, San Miniato:
In Alberti's church the reference is found in the child's face inscribed in the sun inlay at the top of the pediment and in the cross at the top of the church:
These references make clear that these are not pagan temples of worship but Christian since Christ is known as the light of the world.

BUT THERE IS ONE MAJOR DIFFERENCE that sets Alberti's church apart from the Romanesque model and marks it as a RENAISSANCE building. Whereas the patron or patrons who paid for the facade of San Miniato remain anonymous, Alberti proudly announces his patron's name on the facade of this temple and ADVERTISES his BUSINESS! How is that possible on a Christian church facade?
The Latin inscription running along the architrave between pilasters and pediment reads as follows:

Latin on the facade: JOHANES ORICELLARIUS PAV F                   AN    SAL       MCCCCLXX
FULL LATIN:         Johannes Oricellarius              Paulus Filius        Anno Salvator MCCCCLXX

TRANSLATION: GIOVANNI RUCELLAI        SON Of PAOLO  in the year of our LORD 1470

Santa Maria Novella was Giovanni Rucellai's parish church and he had hired Alberti in 1446 to
produce a facade for his own private palace in Florence around the corner and down the street:

On his palace facade he had inserted the symbol of the spinnaker sail, the sign that his shipping business was prosperous because his ships were fast.


The same symbol is placed on the Loggia next to the palace, also designed by Alberti. In the Loggia the spinnaker is alternated with rings with shoots of feathers, symbols of the Medici (Rucellai's son  married Lorenzo the Magnificent's sister in 1461 and the Loggia was used for the celebration.)   

The spinnaker sail with its ropes is repeated over and over again on the facade of Santa Maria Novella, to remind us of the greatness of the patron and to remind us how the facade was paid for:

And, as if that weren't enough self-glorification, the Medici rings with feathers are repeated as well
in the inner band of the central entrance archway in green and white inlay and in white bas-relief below:

While Alberti may have chosen Florentine Romanesque architecture in the Baptistery and San Miniato to adorn his patron's facade, his Latin inscription with its reference to Giovanni Rucellai
has its precedence in the Latin inscription set out by Hadrian on the facade of the Pantheon in Rome (125 A.D.).

Hadrian's inscription reads: "Marcus Agrippa made this in the third year of his consulship," a bit of an architectural joke since there had been a previous temple on the site built by Marcus Agrippa but the building on which the inscription stands is designed by the emperor Hadrian himself.
Alberti's Rucellai is not fooling anyone in his own name's inclusion in the Latin of his parish church.

He wants us to remember whose son he is, what year he paid for the church facade and what enabled him to afford to pay for it:
Alberti's name is not mentioned, but he gives his own creativity a whirl in the wonderful daisy-wheel
inlay decorations that form the smooth transition between the two temples:
He knows how blessed he is to have a patron of such means and a place of such great location to advertise!

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