The First Printed Architectural Treatise

Alberti, Leon Battista (1404-1472)

De re aedificatoria.

Florence: Nicolaus Laurentii, Alamanus, 29 December 1485


Chancery Folio: 28 x 20.8 cm. 204 unnumbered lvs. Complete. Collation: a-d8, e6, f-o8, p6 q-z, &8, )8, rum8. In signature a, a1 is unsigned and a2-4 are signed ai, aii, aiii. (a1r is blank, a1v is the dedication to Lorenzo de’Medici. The text begins on leaf a2r). Colophon on leaf 203v, verses to the reader by “Baptista siculus,” and register on leaf 204).

FIRST EDITION, second issue, the colophon reading “quarto kalendas” as per the British Museum Catalogue.

“The last quire and the inmost sheet of quire 1 are printed with Nerlius 110R, the page-contents being the same as the original issue.” (BMC VI, 631). A large, fresh copy with broad margins. Bound in 19th c. calf, expertly rebacked to style, boards framed by decorative gold tooling. This copy is in very fine condition with insignificant blemishes: recto of first leaf and verso of final leaf lightly soiled and foxed, inoffensive marginal soiling to first few leaves, intermittent marginal foxing (heavier on a few leaves), a few instances of mild marginal finger-soiling, and a few very tiny, pin-prick wormholes in the white margin of the last few leaves. This copy also has occasional contemporary marginal annotations (see below). Provenance: William Stirling Maxwell (1818-1878), art historian, politician, bibliophile, and art collector. His collection of important books in the arts of design (including architecture) formed one of the four major scholarly pillars of his book collection. This book has Stirling’s arms stamped in blind on the boards, his armorial bookplate, and a second bookplate “Arts of Design”, for his library at Keir House.


The contemporary annotations, while sporadic and few, give an indication of the interests of a Renaissance reader. The first few leaves are annotated by at least 1, though possibly 2 readers, marking primarily where general definitions occur in the text, “partitio quid sit”, “tectum quid sit”, “Apertio quid sit”, etc. but also taking note of several historical points. The contributions by this (or these) particular readers stop before the end of the first signature. 

By contrast, the marginal notes in the rest of the volume, still in each instance just one or two words but written in a neat, practiced hand, indicate a close reading of the text. The annotator marks passages on prisons (leaf l7r), baths (lvs. n1r, u8r-v) and private houses, in particular Alberti’s description of the country villa (“villa herilis”), the conceptual blue-print for what was to become the Renaissance villa (leaf m1r). The chapter that receives the closest examination by our reader is Alberti’s discussion of churches and temples (“templa”), with particular attention paid to intercolumniations (lvs. p6v-q1r) and the proportions of columns (lvs. q2v-q3r). He also makes note of Alberti’s discussion of numbers (lvs. y1v-y2r) and “miraculous waters” (leaf z7r).

The reader also notes a bit of practical advice: the use of “ligna cocta”, willow wood soaked in water and sun dried, when lighting fires in homes to reduce sparking and smoke. One passage, where Alberti explains the lessons the Greek architects drew from the Assyrians and Egyptians, warrants a manicule and underscoring. In the underscored passage Alberti writes, “They began by examining the works of the Assyrians and the Egyptians, from which they realized that in such matters the artists’ skill attracted more praise than the wealth of the king… The Greeks therefore decided that it was their part to surpass through ingenuity those whose wealth they could not rival.” (f. o8v.) 

Alberti’s “De Re Aedificatoria”:

This is the first edition of the first printed architecture book (preceding the first edition of Vitruvius by at least a year) and the first modern treatise on the subject. Alberti’s ‘De Re Aedificatoria’ is an epochal book, its influence on architecture incalculable.

A remarkable intellect, Leon Battista Alberti was a man of letters, an advocate of the Italian language, an accomplished humanist and linguist, a mathematician, and above all an art theorist and architect. He was the first to have set out the governing principles of architecture, painting, and sculpture within an overall worldview. His building projects created a new architectural language, a bold synthesis of antiquity and modernity. Architecture was, in Alberti's eyes, the quintessential art, the one that best contributes to the public interest, the highest form of good.

Alberti began his treatise in 1443. The completed work was dedicated to Pope Nicholas V in 1452 (although Alberti might have continued polishing the work up until his death 1472.) The first printed edition (Florence, 1485) was edited by Alberti’s nephew Bernardo and dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, whom Alberti had shown around Rome, and who had the fascicules read aloud to him as they came off the press. The absence of illustrations was in keeping with Alberti’s belief that illustrations were extraneous to the project (“res ab instituto aliena”). 

“Alberti takes up a broad and substantial range of subjects that together constitute the discipline of architecture. The design and siting of buildings and details of building such as columns, windows, and staircases are taken up in book 1. In book 2, he deals with construction materials such as wood, stone, brick, sand, lime, and plaster. Book 3 examines the principles of construction, book 4 is focused on public buildings, book 5 is about private buildings and civic public buildings, book 6 about ancient buildings and their decoration, and book 7 about the construction of churches. In book 8, Alberti focuses on the decoration of streets, tombs, and public spaces, and in book 9 he is concerned with the decoration of houses and the erudition required of the architect to accomplish this task. Book 10 deals with hydraulic engineering and water management and with the restoration of buildings.

“Alberti had a greater knowledge of buildings and ruins of Rome than his Florentine predecessors in the city, just as his knowledge of Latin and Greek was greater than that of any other Florentine artist… [However,] his true guide is not antiquity but a reasoned examination of the inheritance of ancient Rome, according to the principle that the unity of a building is essential for its beauty since its faults are often due to additions extraneous to its original conception. Richard Krautheimer (1961) and Arnaldo Bruschi (1992) concur that Alberti's pursuit of varietas tends toward an enlargement and a reinvention of ancient types, rather than a slavish use of specific types illustrated by Vitruvius…

“Alberti's definition of beauty in architecture is mathematical and rational, based on the harmonious correspondence between all the parts. He is the first to isolate the architectural drawing as the abstract representation of a building and as a beautiful artifact in itself, since it contains the architectural idea or concept. His three categories of architectural beauty as interpreted by Wittkower (1952) -number, proportion, and location- are implicit in the architectural design. He wants these parts to be accommodated through compositional rules and intuitive aesthetic sense, so that nothing can be added or taken away except for the worse. This concept of concinnitas, extensively argued in recent studies of Alberti's theory, is the core of his aesthetic construct. Unlike painting, architecture does not have models in nature, and therefore architectural form is entirely the creation of the human intellect. This autonomy endows architecture with a superiority over the figurative visual arts. Analogous to music in its abstract character, architecture can exalt, responding to aesthetic needs without imitation of the real.

“In addition to the inherent beauty brought about through the concept of concinnitas, buildings can be further enhanced by ornament, which Alberti conceptualizes as a "brightener" added to the essential beauty achieved through abstract composition. Alberti does not directly confront the contradiction between this supplemental definition and the principle that "nothing can be added," but he insists that the ornamental scheme be decorous and compatible with the dignity of the building. Alberti admires large, carefully worked construction materials, but cautions against excessive sumptuousness, favoring grandeur achieved through proportions. The most distinguished ornaments are those achieved through human craft rather than mere precious materials; relatively sober materials like glass, stucco, mosaic, and paint are transformed by the work of the artist.

“Since buildings cannot be modified during and after construction, Alberti urges prudence, careful planning, and foresight. He wants architects to reexamine a design many times, so that, before building, the project is allowed to "age and cool.” This should be followed by equally deliberate execution, since every detail is equally important at the construction stage and mistakes cannot be rectified later; the faults of the finished building will be more visible than its beauties. This foresight and ability to plan require a certain architectural education based on the mastering of mathematics and painting, the two subjects essential for architectural practice. His requirements are thus less demanding than Vitruvius' stipulation that the architect have a thorough liberal education. Nonetheless, Alberti's literary approach leads to a reconceptualization of the work of the architect as a cultivated and creative designer practicing the art closest to man.” (Millard Catalogue)

The Ideal Renaissance Church:

“Discussing extensively the form and decoration of the sacred building in his eighth book, Alberti provides the first description in the Renaissance of the ideal church, which Rudolf Wittkower (1952) has persuasively referred to as the centrally planned church. Exalting architecture as the mirror of creation and symbol of universal harmony, superior to all the other arts, Alberti proposes the temple-church as its centerpiece. (Although Alberti refers to the gods in plural form, this is to be considered merely a formal expression of classicizing Christianity [Golzio 1953].) He discusses the origin of the basilica in Roman tribunals, suggests the circular form as the most perfect, and urges that the ennobling portico with temple front be adopted for its facade. Alberti's centrally planned church was best interpreted by Leonardo in his numerous sketches. Alberti prescribes interesting decorations for the interior of the church: the ornaments should be splendid though not sensuous, historical frescoes should be used for the portico, while the best decoration of the interior ought to be sculptures of marble rather than precious metals, which would draw the greed of onlookers. Inscriptions should exhort to justice, modesty, and virtue, while a geometrical pavement would enhance the educational content of the building. According to Alberti, the noblest ceiling decoration is coffering, borrowed from the Pantheon; alternatively, the dome could be painted to resemble the heavens. Only the sky should be visible through the highly placed and small windows, helping the worshipers in focusing their prayers.

Architecture and Social Welfare:

“Alberti's typological analysis of buildings seems permeated by considerations of social welfare. He wants schools to be centrally located, but introverted so as to promote tranquility. His gardens are meant to have restful lawns and water “surprises." For hospitals he suggests smaller rooms, rather than the long wards then in use, and separation of the poor from the sick, further separating the contagious from the noninfectious. In a society that humiliated its criminals, punishing them with execrable living conditions, he wants prisons not to offend humanity. He discusses other large structures required for public well-being, such as granaries, salt warehouses, arsenals, and markets. 

City Planning:

“Although Alberti's focus is on buildings, he also considers the overall appearance of the city. This too ought to be circular, with a freestanding church at its center in an open public square, with the theater and the prince’s palace nearby. The rational premises for city planning include the placement of foreigners in their own neighborhoods, the decorous housing of the citizens, the centrality of the luxury trades, and the marginalization of the noxious crafts. He recognized both vertical and horizontal divisions, that is, separation by rank and division by neighborhoods, each of which would house the entire social range. Large cities should have wide, straight streets, while smaller towns should have curving, irregular streets to mask their diminutive size. (The latter provision, in Mancini's view, has been all too detrimentally applied in many Italian towns.) Paved, flanked by porticoes and buildings of even height, and adorned by piazzas and loggias at their crossings, Alberti's streets offered extraordinary urban amenities."(Millard)

The First Printed Architectural Book:

Alberti’s book is held to be the first printed architectural treatise. The first edition of Vitruvius, while undated, is believed to have been printed between 1486 and August 1487 (See ISTC iv00306000).

BMC, VI, 630; BSB-Ink A-125; Cicognara, 370; Fowler, 3; Goff, A-215; GW, 579; HC, 419; Millard Italian 4; PMM, 28