Saturday, March 16, 2013

Alberti & Wittkower (& Euclid)

Through an idea that lead to a web search that lead to another web search that lead to an idea, I stumbled upon Rudolph Wittkower's wonderful book, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. I wish I had found it sooner. Wittkower's ability to articulate the humanists' take on classical geometry is unparalleled and his extended discussion of the architectural symbolism of the circle is something I could read every day, aloud, like a chant. In the book's second part, Alberti's Approach to Antiquity in Architecture, Wittkower says of Alberti's first ecclesiastical architectural work, San Francesco in Rimini (aka Il Tempio Malatestiano):

To bury people under the arches of the exterior of a church was actually a mediaeval custom; examples are numerous and were well known to Alberti. The tombs planned for the façade and the side fronts of S. Francesco derive from such mediaeval models. But by placing sarcophagi with classically styled inscriptions under serene Roman arches Alberti created an impressive pantheon for heroes rather than a burial-ground with its traditional funereal associations.

If we parse Wittkower's paragraph, what he is actually saying is that the decisive difference between Alberti's first church and medieval ones is the style of lettering on the inscriptions, which effectively transform a graveyard into a pantheon. Medieval Italian churches abound with sarcophagi, or noted graves at least, under "serene Roman arches;" their choice of surface treatment differed from Alberti's but the over all architectural style is the same. The lettering on S. Francesco provides the transfigurative graphic content of the work, elevating an earthy medieval model to the reserved example of a new style.

From the standpoint of lettering history, San Francesco figures prominently in the (endless, tiring) debate over who in the Renaissance first made letters that approximated classical ones. Built as a vanity project for Sigismondo Malatesta in the 1450s and 60s, only the exterior of S. Francesco can be attributed to Alberti. Which is fine because the exterior is where all the faux classical lettering appears. The building itself, as Wittkower implies, only hints at Alberti's mature architectural vision, but the inscriptions are a clarion call for the coming generation. They place Alberti firmly in the company of Andrea Mantegna and Felice Feliciano, two other potential Adams in the creation myth of humanist lettering.

You may have guessed that I am not terribly interested in who first made classically inspired letters. History just doesn't happen that way. There is no Adam or, if there is, there is only one and he is long dead. Everything else is swept up in the zeitgeist of generational change. To suggest that the greatest architect of the Quattrocento borrowed ideas (from Vitruvius) and style (from the middle ages) but that he (or Mantegna or Feliciano for that matter) somehow produced ex nihilo the lettering of the modern age is absurd. Further, to place such emphasis on the Patient X of a revival of a millennium-old lettering style is to discount the millennium of lettering that interposed the two exemplars. To disassociate Alberti's inscriptions on San Fracnesco from medieval examples such as those on the Duomo of Salerno (1081), Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio (1150s), or San Giorgio in Velabro (first half of the 13th century) is to miss out on the true grist of creation: the friction and dialogue between generations, the revival and rejection that defines and energizes new styles.

Somehow, this relates to Euclid.