Leon Battista Alberti: a Renaissance Personality

Sir Kenneth Clark discovers echoes of both ancient and modern in a true Renaissance man.

Many readers of that masterpiece of learning and compression, Jacob Burckhardt’s Renaissance, must have stopped to re-read the passage in which he describes Leon Battista Alberti, the perfect universal man of the early fifteenth century. “In all by which praise was won,” he writes,

“Leon Battista was, from his childhood, the first. Of his various gymnastic feats and exercises we read with astonishment how, with his feet together, he could spring over a man’s head; how, in the cathedral, he threw a coin in the air till it was heard to ring against the distant roof; how the wildest horses trembled under him. In three things he desired to appear fauldess to others, in walking, in riding and in speaking. And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets of their craft... . That which others created he. welcomed joyfully, and held every human achievement which followed the laws of beauty for something almost divine.”

Burckhardt goes on to describe his skill as a painter, and his literary works, and ends with the following unforgettable passage.

“At the sight of noble trees and waving fields of corn he shed tears: handsome and dignified old men he honoured as ‘delights of nature’ and could never look at them enough—and more than once, when he was ill, the sight of a beautiful landscape cured him.”

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email digital@historytoday.com.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week