Leon Battista Alberti is the symbol of Humanism, and the façade of the Church of Sant'Andrea in Mantua is his masterpiece. Born in Genoa to an important Florentine family, which was in exile at the time, he studied law, mathematics and geometry. He would soon bestride every field of the arts and also became a writer, with "On Painting" one of his standout works. An interpreter of the words of the apostles, he also examined ancient monuments and drew up a treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria. As the first modern architect, he designed works for some prestigious clients, often without taking part in the construction himself. His portfolio includes: the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, the exterior of the Church of Santa Maria Novella and the Chapel of San Pancrazio in Florence, buildings in Mantua and the Rotonda della Santissima Annunziata, which was sponsored by Gonzaga but erected in Florence. He was a prolific writer on a range of subjects such as grammar, philosophy and ethics. He was also a musician and mathematician.
In Alberti, Ludovico Gonzaga found his perfect architect. Working from the principles of antiquity, he drew up a comprehensively Renaissance and, what is more, a totally unique design. More casual visitors can wonder at its forms, which, following restorations in 2016, have now emerged from the damage that was inflicted over centuries. Although the surface is decorated quite far back and imitated with 15th century details, the brilliance of the creation is quite astounding. Some of the fundamental highlights of the building include: the double arch (one opening onto the vestibule and one surmounting the tympanum, which may have been part of a larger tympanum), the tympanum itself, which is evidently inspired by Greek and Roman prototypes but that is not in thrall to the typically Humanist quest for perfect equilibrium, the other arches of the exterior, framed by triumphal semi-columns, the fluted pilasters that support the main arch and that work in harmony with the trabeation, which runs horizontally along the exterior and ventures into the fornix, the reddish clay outlines and cherubs, and the magnificent portal, engraved with leaves, flowers and small figures.
As would happen to Giulio Romano in a completely different era, the understanding of the various details deviated - a trait quite typical of Alberti's genius. They were, nonetheless, united in a higher equilibrium, which would be transformed into a more modern approach to building from references to antiquity.
It should be noted that the late Gothic bell tower, which was begun in 1413, constituted an objective limit in the construction of the new church. The tower was not knocked down, but was to some extent incorporated into the general plan of the new vision for the city.
Are the current structures in line with Alberti's plans or are they the result of compromises made during construction? It is difficult to provide a conclusive answer to this question. It is also interesting to note how much the overall appearance of this vast basilica, situated within a small piazza, can be attributed to the artistic climate in Mantua at the time, then dominated by the teaching of Andrea Mantegna. Finally, it should be stressed that the exterior was once completely coloured, as can be witnessed from the fresco fragments that are still visible on a small section on the right-hand side. The impact of the colours must have been quite powerful: this we can deduce from tests conducted on residual pigments from the exterior and on a painting from the second half of the 18th century, which shows the church according to its original design.
Ideato e promosso da / Founded and Promoted by:
Mattia Palazzi (Sindaco del Comune di Mantova)
con Lorenza Baroncelli (Assessore alla rigenerazione urbana e del territorio, marketing urbano, progetti e relazioni internazionali del Comune di Mantova )
Coordinamento Scientifico / Scientific Coordinator:
Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images:
Foto di / Photo by:
Gian Maria Pontiroli
Redazione / Editors:
Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to: