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Members' Research Report Archive

Leon Battista Alberti's On Sculpture: A Study in Early Modern Science and Art

Mario Carpo, Yale University / École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris–La Villette
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, spring 2014

This bronze, oval medallion shows the profile of a man facing our left, his head and neck filling the space. He has short wavy hair and a long, pointed nose. He looks steadily into the distance to our left, and his lips are closed. His garment wraps around the back of his neck and is knotted at the base of his throat. The capital letters “L BAP” run vertically up near the edge of the medallion in the space behind his neck to our right. A symbol under his chin to our left is made up of a wing arched over a stylized eye. Light glints on the deep brown bronze surface, especially on the front of the chin, cheeks, and forehead, and in his choppy hair.

Leon Battista Alberti, Self-Portrait, c. 1435, bronze, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.125

De statua, which Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) composed in Latin at an uncertain date but close to the peak of his career, is one of the most frequently cited early modern treatises on the arts; yet, surprisingly, there is no critical edition of Alberti’s Latin text. Hubert Janitschek’s editio princeps (in Leone Battista Alberti’s kleinere kunsttheoretische Schriften [Vienna, 1877]) cited and collated four manuscripts. More recently, the eminent Renaissance scholar Cecil Grayson listed ten extant manuscripts but used and published only one (Oxford, Bodleian) as the basis of his English translation (1972); the noted Swiss art historian Oskar Bätschmann used eight manuscripts to establish his edition, itself translated into German (2000) and French (2011).

Consequently, in order to provide the first critical edition and a new English translation of Alberti’s De statua, I started a collaboration with Latin philologist Francesco Furlan, of the Centre national de recherche scientifique and Institut universitaire de France, and Peter Hicks, of the University of Bath, a linguist specializing in the translation of Renaissance art treatises. With the same team and others I recently published a critical edition and English translation of Alberti’s Descriptio urbis Romae (2007). In addition to editorial supervision and coordination, my independent contribution to the new book will be an essay on the import of De statua in the history of early modern artistic theory, mathematics, and mechanical arts and on its circulation and influence as seen through the history of its editions in print.

The technology Alberti describes in De statua is very similar to that used in his Descriptio urbis Romae, on which I have commented at length, starting with an essay first published in Italian in 1998, later included in the French edition and translation of Descriptio urbis Romae (2000) and, revised and updated, in the English edition and translation just mentioned. This interpretation of the spirit and purpose of Alberti’s media technologies is now generally accepted by the scholarly community. Alberti described a number of unusual processes and machines meant to record, transmit, and replicate identical copies of objects of all sorts, using alphabetical and number-based notational tools. In De statua, these technologies are applied to the identical (or proportionally identical; that is, scaled) three-dimensional reproduction of human bodies. Alberti emphasizes the mechanical—or, as we would say today, automatic—nature of these processes with an insistence that has baffled many of his readers, both recent and earlier. His intention, namely, the making of identical copies of an original in the absence of the same, or when the original is distant in space or time, is nonetheless stated with perfect clarity and rigor; and to achieve this end Alberti developed in De statua notational tools of unprecedented mechanical and mathematical complexity. Again, these tools need to be seen in the context of the early modern pursuit of identical reproduction—a subject of great cultural, artistic, and technological significance.

I presented some of these arguments (in preliminary, introductory form) in my CASVA colloquium and received useful feedback on that occasion. I availed myself of my remaining time in residence at CASVA to collate the recent translations of De statua, from Grayson to Collareta (1998), Spinetti (1999), and Bätschmann. Remarkably, high-resolution scans of both Cosimo Bartoli’s translation (1568) and Janitschek’s editio princeps are now freely downloadable from Google Books, and the French translation by Claudius Marcel Popelin-Cucarre (1869) can be found in an online edition on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I also investigated some early references to De statua and some hypotheses with regard to Alberti’s possible sources suggested by Bätschmann and by Ulrich Pfisterer.

Alberti, Leon Battista
Italian, 1404 - 1472
Leon Battista Alberti
c. 1435