Among Renaissance architects, Leon Batista Alberti was perhaps the most visionary authority on urban context and city planning.
Though he was not an urban planner in the modern sense, he had a keen understanding of the city as an integrated, organic whole, and his designs and writings reveal his view that cities should be well-ordered and buildings should integrate themselves smoothly into that overall fabric. In this regard, he was well ahead of his time and anticipated the ideas of urban context that exist today.
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Despite his visionary skill and prowess at architecture, Alberti (1404-72) was actually not a professional architect and seems never to have actually even supervised the construction of any of his works. He was a polymath, or “Renaissance man” – cultured, well-educated, and well-versed in various academic fields, from art and religion to science and mathematics.
According to art historians Ludwig Heydenreich and Wolfgang Lotz, Alberti “remained to the end the adviser who laid down the general lines and occasionally gave instruction for details . . . but he never set one stone on another.” Biographer Anthony Grafton’s description is even more to the point – “an impresario of society and space.”
Indeed, Alberti lacked the practical building experience most contemporary architects had, mainly because he was trained to advise and administer rather than actually build. Born illegitimate but privileged in Genoa, he was well-educated as a youth and in 1428 took both a degree in canon law and orders in the Catholic Church.
For much of the remainder of his life, Alberti served as an administrator and advisor to the popes, most notably Nicholas V, a friend from youth, who hired him to consult on major building projects in Rome. Though mostly a career church administrator, Alberti pursued a wide array of intellectual interests and “presented himself as a master of all the rational arts of living upon which his contemporaries set great store.”
In accordance with the Renaissance’s reverence for ancient Greek and Roman models, Alberti drew heavily from antiquity – not merely for decoration (which he believed should be used sparingly and tastefully, not simply for the sake of decoration alone), but for proportion and, more importantly, placement within a given physical and historical context.
For example, in one of his first major works, the church of San Francesco at Rimini (whose renovation and redesign he supervised around 1450), Alberti used exterior motifs drawn from the area’s ancient monuments, varying these to suit the building itself and thus let it reflect the local architectural, cultural, and political contexts.
The church’s façade uses simple forms and a scale suited to the buildings around it, because, says Heydenreich, no single person’s vision would dominate that setting: “[It] was the product of a collaboration between patron, adviser, and working architects. . . . ‘Local styles’ of this kind occasionally appear, but only where the political structure of the region favours them. . . .” In this sense, he heralded the post-modernists of the late twentieth century, who believe in urban fabric and context rather simply in designing buildings with no relationship to their surroundings.
Alberti’s works in Florence between 1455 and 1470 demonstrate, in Heydenreich’s words, “[how] deeply the traditional forces in a city can influence the idiom of an architect.” There, his church of Santa Maria Novello draws heavily from local Tuscan styles and fuses them with a large Roman scale (as mandated by the Pope), making a distinctive building that fits with its prominent neighboring structures.
(Though he used local elements freely, Alberti rarely directly imitated other buildings; when he borrowed forms or elements, he tended to fuse them with those on nearby structures.) Also, and perhaps more importantly, it embraces a unity of design, both within itself and in relation to the buildings around it, so that it does not appear incongruous or artificially imposed on its immediate context.
Alberti also aimed to site buildings according to surveys he conducted, in keeping with his mathematical and cartographic skills. Using a measuring disk he created, his survey of Rome (conducted around 1444, when he first entered architecture) “allowed him to establish the radial coordinates of Rome’s main churches and the towers on the city walls and to plot those in plan.”
 L Heydenreich & W Lotz, Architecture in Italy, 1400 to 1600, Penguin, London, 1974, p. 27.
 A Grafton, Leon Batista Alberti, Hill & Wang, New York, 2000, p. 263.
 Grafton, p. 21.
 Heydenreich & Lotz, p. 32.
 Heydenreich & Lotz, p. 33.
 R Tavernor, On Alberti and the art of building, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998, p. 13.
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