Author(s) Alberti, Leon Battista
Title De re ædificatoria...
Imprint Florence, N. di Lorenzo, 1485
Localisation Paris, Ensba, 20 A 4
Subject Architecture, Treatise
Transcribed version of the text


     Leon Battista Alberti wrote De re aedificatoria in the middle of the 15th century. The terminus post quem for the beginning of the writing is traditionally set in 1443, the date at which the humanist left Florence to go back to Rome. During his stay in the Eternal City he apparently favored the study of architecture and Latin prose over that of the common language and figurative arts. Krautheimer (1963, p. 49) expressed the hypothesis that in 1440, sollicited by Lionello d'Este, he might have undertaken a translation of Vitruvius and abandoned it quickly, all of which could have had an influence on his decision to write a treatise on architecture. As for the terminus ante quem of the end of the work, it can be dated 1452 thanks to Biondo Flavio's indications. He was a colleague of Alberti's and defined him as the author of the most elegant book on the art of building. Two more indicators allow us to put the date at 1542: a passage of the Ludi rerum mathematicarum, a brief work devoted to mathematics by Alberti himself, dedicated to Meliaduso d'Este who died in 1452, and finally Matteo Palmieri who also wrote in 1452, "Leon Battista Alberti, uomo di ingegno acuto e penetrante e bene istruito nelle arti e scienze presentò al pontefice (Niccolò V) i suoi eruditissimi libri sull’architettura" (quoted by Borsi 1986, p. 26).
The De re aedificatoria was conceived of and written in Latin, deliberately deprived of illustrations which, according to Alberti himself, were "extraneous to the project" (res ab instituto aliena, ed. Orlando Portoghesi, p. 177). To these ten books Alberti apparently intended to add four others, devoted to ship construction, to arithmetic and geometry, to the public revenue department and anything that had to do with architecture. According to P. Portoghesi (1966, p. XII), the first five books were apparently written between 1443 and 1445, the five others between 1447 and 1452. As for the editio princeps, it was the wish of the heir and nephew of the author, Bernardo d’Antonio di Ricciardo degli Alberti, that it be drafted in Florence. It was printed at the presses of Niccolò di Lorenzo Alamanni December 29, 1485, with a letter by the humanist Angelo Poliziano by way of an introduction and in the conclusion a composition in Latin verse by a certain Battista Siculo, about whom nothing else is known (Boschetto 2000, pp. 64, 125 et 174 ; Böninger 2007, pp. 611-630).
If Poliziano's brief letter can be believed, Leon Battista Alberti apparently intended to publish his work himself, dedicating it to Lorenzo de Medici. Bernardo Alberti, going by the books of the De re aedificatoria, corrected and amended to perfection by his uncle (propemodum emendatos perpolitosque) apparently drafted the text of the ten books (descriptos eos ex Archetypis atque in volumen redactos) with the aim of promoting the printed edition dedicated to Lorenzo. The hypothesis according to which Poliziano took charge of collating the diverse manuscripts and correcting the proofs has not been proved. During the summer of 1485, while the book was being printed, the German printer Niccolò di Lorenzo went bankrupt, and the publication was brought to term by a certain Lorenzo Tinghi who did not continue as a bookseller.
One of the manuscripts used by the typographers working first for Niccolò di Lorenzò, then for Lorenzo Tinghi, has been recognized in the codex Laurenziano Plut. 89 sup. 113. The fact that this codex was prepared fairly badly, with several people intervening, conveys very well the problems that were created when Niccolò stopped his activity at the end of 1485 and when another printer consequently took up the work (Fiaschi 2001, pp. 267-284). Adolfo Tura (2002, pp. 16-23) recently discovered that the De re aedificatoria was printed with a new set of movable type. The Latin text of this 1485 edition was reprinted in Paris in 1512 under the care of Geoffroy Tory at the printing shop of Berthold Rembolt. The texts of the ten books were divided into chapters for the first time. From then on the treatise was published in various languages, keeping the subdivision into chapters.
It is impossible to deal with all the subjects and arguments developed in the ten books of the De re aedificatoria since they are so varied and historically important. Thus I will limit myself to the question of sources and to a synthetic description of the treatise's structure and to the general themes characterizing the different parts making up the treatise, as well as a brief development of Alberti's global conception of architecture.
Since the De re aedificatoria is the first modern attempt to systematize architecture, a comparison with Vitruvius' De Architectura is inevitable. Much has been written on the subject. Let us recall simply that Alberti gives proof several times that he knows and appreciates the antique treatise- the only explicit criticism, at the beginning of Book VI, concerns Vitruvius' language and terminology. According to Alberti, Vitruvius seems to want to speak Greek to the Latins and Latin to the Greeks so that one can't understand anything "ut non intelligamus" (Krautheimer 1963). The De re aedificatoria intends not only to update the work, but also to go deeper and to put the internal logic of antique architecture to a critical test. In doing so, Alberti takes a characteristic attitude, more independent than that of his successors in the first half of the Cinquecento, who were to have a more orthodox concept of the Vitruvian doctrine. Alberti's work is a humanist treatise devoted to architecture, very densely erudite. Each page is proof of a deep knowledge of philosophical, scientific and historical texts, but he is also just as well acquainted with poetry, literature and rhetoric. The book quotes no less than fifty classical authors (Caye/Choay 2005, pp. 41-44) ; but the implicit references are also numerous, in particular to authors of the Middle Ages (Zubov 1958). In addition, Alberti takes advantage of a very rich personal experience, a direct knowledge not only of the ruins of antiquity but also of contemporary architecture and of techniques of masonry and construction.
Alberti deals with architecture as an overall human science, which, tending to man as a separate individual as well as a member of the community, takes care to consciously fit him into an area in order to contribute to his happiness. Architecture was born at the same time as man, developed in parallel fashion to the human society that it continues to organize, protect and structure. The architect is the guardian of profound knowledge and his work is the product of an intellect related to nature by means of materials, with the history of an area through the choice of the places and environments in which one must build and on account of the constructive typology with the social organization.
The work can be divided into three parts. In the first, Books I, II and III, Lineamenta, materia et opus deal with architecture as projective disegno, and with construction understood from the point of view of materials and implementation. Books IV and V, Universorum opus, singulorum opus, treat the typology of the edifices; the next four books, Ornamentum, sacrorum ornamentum, publici profani ornamentum, are devoted to the aesthetic definition of architecture. Lastly, Book X, Operum instauratio, concerns resoration.
The concept of disegno, understood as an intellectual instrument for the projectualisation of architecture, represents one of the main theoretical innovations of the De re aedificatoria. Nevertheless, and this is well known, the definition of such a concept poses a problem, since in Alberti's system, the disegno is part of the body itself. Alberti writes, "Nam aedificium quidem corpus quoddam esse animadvertimus, quod lineamentis veluti alia corpora constare et materia. Quorum alterum istic ab ingenio produceretur, alterum a natura susciteretur. Huic mentem cogitationemque, huic alteri parationem selectionemque adhibendam" (Orlandi-Portoghesi, p. 15 ; French trans. Caye/Choay, p. 51). A contemporary reader can legitimately wonder how a body can have lineamenta. The idea that the body in itself can be considered as "a design" comes from the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter. Refer to this passage of Aristotle's Physics: "Obviously physical bodies contain surfaces and volumes, lines and points, and these are the subject-matter of mathematics" (Eng. trans. Hardie/Gaye, 1930) (II, 2, 1). This text is taken from a development devoted to the form and matter of objects produced by nature and by art, in which Aristotle explains that any object, natural or produced by man, can be studied either from the physical point of view- the matter- or from the mathematical point of view- the form. He goes on, "If we look at the ancients, physics would to be concerned with the matter. (It was only very slightly that Empedocles and Democritus touched on the forms and the essence.) But if on the other hand art imitates nature, and it is the part of the same discipline to know the form and the matter up to a point (e.g. the doctor has a knowledge of health and also of bile and phlegm, in which health is realized, and the builder both of the form of the house and of the matter, namely that it is bricks and beams, and so forth): if this is so, it would be the part of physics also to know nature in both its senses" (Eng. trans. Hardie/Gaye) (II, 2, 10-11).
It appears rather obvious in reading these texts that in the prologue of his treatise, the humanist Leon Battista Alberti is working with Aristotelian concepts, even if it is not in the present state of studies to specify the exact source of his ideas (Zoubov 1958). The other passage gives perhaps an even clearer account of the Aristotelian inspiration of the Albertian concept of architecture, " The arts, therefore, which govern the matter and have knowledge are two, namely the art which uses the product and the art which directs the production of it. That is why the using art also is in a sense directive; but it differs in that it knows the form, whereas the art which is directive as being concerned with production knows the matter" (Eng. trans. Hardie-Gaye) (II, 2, 13). It is very useful to compare this text to the famous definition of the architect: "Sed ante quam ultra progredior explicandum mihi censeo quemnam haberi velim architectum. Non enim tignarium adducam fabrumquem tu summis caeterarum disciplinarum viris compares: fabri enim manus architecto est. Architectum ego hunc fore constituam, qui certa admirabileque ratione et via et tum mente animoque diffinire tum et opere absolvere didicerit" (Orlandi Portoghesi, p. 2). Here Alberti makes the distinction between competence regarding form and competence regarding matter, which covers that distinguishing the architect from the carpenter- and in this passage, one will also have noticed the reference to Cicero's Brutus (73, 257), a well-known text by the humanist abbreviator of the Roman curia.
Above all, Alberti defines architecture as an activity of the mind and soul, and the architect is so to speak a physicist like Aristotle, who thinks about the shapes of bodies considered as abstract elements defined by points, lines and surfaces, and who, as a builder, chooses materials according to the shape that the building will take. This is all perfectly consistent with the Greek philosopher's writings: "Again, matter is a relative term: to each form there corresponds a special matter (Eng. trans. Hardie/Gaye) (II, 2, 14). The humanist demands that the architect have two capabilities: that he be an intellectual insofar as he creates the project, and practical insofar as he chooses the materials according to the form. The idea according that architecture would have a "competence regarding form", conceived by means of lineamenta, in other words points, lines and surfaces, would be put into theory and operation in the institution of the Accademie del Disegno, first in Florence and immediately after in Rome, with major consequences not only for architects, but also for all artists and for the history of art in general.

Pietro Roccasecca (Accademia di Belle Arti, Rome) – 2009

Critical bibliography

All the incunabula of the IGI (Indice enerale degli incunaboli delle Biblioteche d’Italia) are compiled in the data base ISTC (Incunabola Short Title Catalogue) of the British Library. The worldwide locations of the De re aedificatoria are found there as well as the relevant bibliography (ISTC Number: ia 00215000).

L. B. Alberti, L’Architettura [De re aedificatoria], translated from the latin by G. Orlandi, introduction and notes by P. Portoghesi, Milan, Il Polifilo, 1966.

L. B. Alberti, L’art d’édifier, translated from the latin, presented and commented by P. Caye and F. Choay, Paris, Seuil, 2004.

L. Böninger, "Leon Battista Alberti in tipografia. Le stampe del Quattrocento", R. Cardini & M. Regoliosi (ed.), Leon Battista Alberti Umanista e Scrittore. Filologia, esegesi, tradizione, Florence, Polistampa, 2007, 2, pp. 611-630.

F. Borsi, Leon Battista Alberti. Opera completa, Milan, Electa, 1986 (1st ed. : Milan, 1973).

L. Boschetto, Leon Battista Alberti e Firenze, Biografia, Storia, Letteratura, Florence, Olschki, 2000.

M. Carpo, L’architettura dell’età della stampa: oralità, scrittura, libro stampato e riproduzione meccanica dell’immagine nella storia delle teorie architettoniche, Milan, Jaca Book, 1998.

S. Fiaschi, "Una copia di tipografia finora sconosciuta : il laurenziano Plut. 89 sup. 113 e l’editio princeps del De re aedificatoria", Rinascimento, 2, 41, 2001, pp. 267-284.

C. Grayson, "The composition of L. B. Alberti’s Decem Libri De Re Aedificatoria", Münchner Jahrbuch der Bildenden Kunst, Dritte Folge, 11, 1960, pp. 152-161.

R. Krautheimer, "Alberti and Vitruvius", The Renaissance and Mannerism, Studies in Western Art, Acts of the Twentieth International Congress of the History of Art, New York September 7-12, 1961, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1963, 2, pp. 42 – 52, in part. p. 49.

G. Orlandi, "Le prime fasi nella diffusione del trattato architettonico albertiano", J. Rykvert & A. Engel (ed.), Leon Battista Alberti, Milan/Ivrea, Electa/Olivetti, 1994, pp. 96-105.

F. Salvi, "Edizioni, versioni e illustrazioni del De re Aedificatoria. Nota sulla fortuna del trattato albertiano", G. Morolli & M. Guzzon (ed.), Leon Battista Alberti : i nomi e le figure. Ordini, templi e fabbriche civili: immagini e architetture dai libri VII e VIII del De re aedificatoria, Florence, Alinea, 1994.

A. Tura, "Saggio su alcuni selezionati problemi di bibliografia fiorentina", A. Tura (ed.), Edizioni fiorentine del Quattrocento e del primo Cinquecento in Trivulziana, Milan, Comune di Milano, 2001, pp. 9-65.

V. P. Zubov, "Léon Battista Alberti et les auteurs du Moyen-Âge", Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies, 4, 1958, pp. 245 -266.