On Painting or Della Pittura (first published 1436)

Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472)


The archetypal Renaissance man, Alberti was a painter, architect, poet, philosopher and Humanist. During his youth he studied Latin and Law and even worked for the Papacy. But it was architecture that inspired him, and living in the ruin-strewn city of Rome would spark his lifelong love of the Antique. But before taking on architecture, for what he is primarily known for, he ventured into painting. At the age of 31 he began this treatise on the art of painting, De Pictura, in which he analysed how good painting should be made and what it should look like. The three books are roughly broken down into Perspective, Composition and Colour. A Classicist through and through Alberti frequently refers to Antiquity as the ideal and to illustrate his ideas, equipped with which a painter could become a master.

Unfortunately my mind is hopeless at anything mathematical, so the first chapter didn’t completely make sense.  But just as I was congratulating myself upon finishing it I was harshly derided by Alberti, telling me ‘…the reader who does not understand at first acquaintance, will probably never grasp it however hard he tries’. Despite this I gleaned some basics about the understanding of optics required to describe the physical multidimensional world on a flat surface. For the artist a rudimental education of mathematics and geometry is essential to achieving this. A square tiled floor drawn in one-point perspective. In terms of ratio and proportion he refers to nature, as his hero Vitruvius did before him, and as Da Vinci did after him with his Vitruvian man. In another of Alberti’s books Della Famiglia (c.1432) he quotes ancient philosopher Protagoras ‘man is the mean and measure of all things’, an idea which resonates throughout his work.

The next two ‘books’ were much easier to read, relating to composition and colour. Alberti explains how outline, surface, light, and colour should be used to create a convincing reality. The eye will tell you if a composition looks right, if the light is realistic, and what colours work together just as posture and facial expression will convey emotion and narrative. These aspects are said ‘…to accord well with one another when in size, function, kind, colour and other similar respects they correspond to grace and beauty’. The theorising of ‘beauty’ is a very Renaissance thing. Alberti says of beauty ‘…the most expert have difficulty in discerning, eludes the ignorant’ (p.59). Nature should always be the source of beauty, but only if it is indeed beautiful. He states  ‘The painter who has accustomed himself to taking everything from Nature,  will so train his hand that anything he attempts will echo Nature…Let us always choose those things that are most beautiful and most worthy’ (p91.) He does not want the painter to waste time drawing haggard old crones or ugly babies. Referring to Vitruvius and beauty in architecture, for who nature was the source of order, and therefore moral exemplar. Because the architectural orders were inspired by Nature, they consequentially instil order upon society. Alberti went on to write De Re Aedificatoria (1450) in which he explained the art and science of building. Speaking of architecture De Pittura is dedicated to Alberti’s friend and fellow Renaissance man Brunelleschi. He would have shared Alberti’s pedagogic views on art and architecture, using mathematic principles and Ancient Roman ideals to create theoretically perfect works.


Despite often reading like a dry textbook I actually found this book really interesting, particularly when thinking of the Renaissance artists who would have referred to Alberti’s work to create their own. It is a manifesto, and it is clear the author has a bit of a didactic approach to creating art. But I think it is all relative; in the 1400s being an artist was a profession which required training as well as creativity. Artists relied on pleasing their patrons in order to earn money. In our world where an unmade bed is declared art it seems this is often forgotten. For carpenters, stonecutters and tailors teaching and knowledge was imperative, and so a step-by-step reference book would have been indispensable. We must understand that imagination was praised when it imitated the ancient, after all traditions were there for a reason. And this is what Alberti is getting at. Yes, there are numerous elements which are more about personal taste, and the insistence on the idealised beauty is pure Renaissance ethos. But the basics are those which (should) still hold true in today’s art.


His ideas influenced the most pioneering artists of the Renaissance, including Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and of course Da Vinci. His impact can also be accredited to the establishment of art Academies, namely the Florentine Accademia (founded 1563), at a time when guilds of craftsmen were commonplace. To read this book is to see the world through his Humanist beliefs, regarding artists as possessors of that all-important Virtù. He states that ‘Painting was honoured by our ancestors with this special distinction that, whereas all other artists were called craftsmen, the painter alone was not counted among their number’. Alberti was a rare genius and an undeniably forceful exponent of the Renaissance both in his theoretic and artistic works. The idea of Virtù, the pursuit and cultivation of knowledge, talent and moral worth is something that Alberti exudes on every page of this book.


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