On Alberti's "Sign": Vision and Composition in Quattrocento Painting

By Greenstein, Jack M. | The Art Bulletin, December 1997 | Go to article overview

On Alberti's "Sign": Vision and Composition in Quattrocento Painting


Greenstein, Jack M., The Art Bulletin


Research for this paper was begun in 1992-93 at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, where I benefited from discussions with Nicole Beriou, Glen Bowerstock, Giles Constable, Oleg Grabar, Thomas Head, Irving and Marilyn Lavin, and Philip Sohm. Its central thesis was presented in a brief lecture at Northwestern University in December 1994, and a draft was written at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995. The argument was much improved by the insightful comments of Luce Giard, who read a draft of the manuscript, and of David Summers, who served as a referee for the Art Bulletin. I am especially grateful to Nancy Troy, the previous editor-in-chief, and to John Paoletti, the current editor-in-chief, for their encouragement and suggestions.

Historians of art have long regarded composition as a major achievement of Renaissance painting. In making this assessment, they are echoing the views of Leon Battista Alberti, whose commentary On Painting offers the first critical appreciation of composition in pictorial art. Written in Latin in 1435, On Painting was translated into Italian in 1436 and reissued in a definitive Latin edition around 1440.1 Scholars treat Alberti's famous account of one-point perspective construction as the key to, and reason behind, the commentary.2 But this account is only a small part of a work whose prime purpose is to demonstrate that painting is a liberal art when its practice conforms with three rules (rationes) or underlying logical principles. This paper argues that these rules locate the kind of painting that Alberti admires most within a philosophical tradition according sight a central role in human cognition.

For Alberti, composition is the second and most important rule of art. Composition follows "circumscription," the rule for drawing outlines, and precedes "the reception of light," the rule for applying colored pigment. Circumscription and coloring are common topics in ancient, Byzantine, and medieval art literature; composition is not. Before Alberti, it was seldom (if ever) discussed in connection with painting, and he devotes more attention to it than to any other topic.3 As his definition makes clear, composition produces the painter's "greatest work":

Composition is the rule of painting by which the parts are brought together to form a pictorial work. The greatest work of painting is not a colossus, but historia. For the praise of ingenuity is greater in historia, than in a colossus. The parts of a historia are bodies, part of the body is a member, part of a member is a surface. Thus the prime parts of the work are surfaces, because from them come members, from the members come the bodies, and from those comes the historia, indeed the ultimate and absolute work of painting.4

In Giotto and the Orators, Michael Baxandall shows that the four-level model of artistic organization that Alberti calls composition was familiar to every Renaissance student of rhetoric.5 Rhetoricians described a period-a sentence consisting of three, four, or more clauses-as an arrangement of words to form phrases, phrases to form clauses, and clauses to form the complete sentence. Baxandall argues that the style of sentences was a matter of controversy in the 1430s for Latin authors of neoclassical training. Humanist teachers like Guarino da Verona (1374-1460) promoted a style of Latin prose that emulated Greek ekphratic literature. They admired the abundance, diversity, and splendor of descriptions that enumerated the vivid details of scenes put before the reader's eyes in loose series of appositive phrases, clauses, and simple sentences. Humanist rhetoricians like George of Trebizond (1396-1486), on the other hand, criticized Latin ekphratic prose as weak and dissolute. They favored the dignity, gravity, decorum, and restraint of a more composed style in which descriptions are organized into lengthy, well-rounded periods with clearly delimited phrases and clauses. Baxandall maintains that Alberti applied George of Trebizond's critical standards for composed and dissolute prose to painting. …

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