The genius of Alberti

By Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

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.

Santa'Andrea's Church (1472) by Leon Battista AlbertiMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Sant'Andrea's Church

The new church of Sant'Andrea was built on 12 June 1472 and replaced the old abbey affiliated to the Benedictine monastery. The church, which housed the relic of the Precious Blood of Christ, was seized by the Gonzagas following a shrewd political campaign that culminated in Ludovico's son, Cardinal Francesco, being nominated archpriest. Luca Fancelli took up Leon Battista Alberti's challenge, starting with the façade and erecting at least two thirds of the interior by 1494. The church was ultimately completed in 1702, while Juvarra's cupola was added in 1758.The Gonzagas wished to establish a new focal point for the city, shifting the everyday centre from Piazza Sordello to modern-day Piazza Mantegna.

Santa'Andrea's Church (1472) by Leon Battista AlbertiMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

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.

Santa'Andrea's Church (1472) by Leon Battista AlbertiMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

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.

Sant'Andrea's Capital (1480) by Luca FancelliMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Capitals from Sant'Andrea's Facade

This is the first in a series of four capitals from the smaller pilasters of the triumphal arch of the exterior of the Basilica of Sant'Andrea, on which Luca Fancelli commenced building works in 1472 following Leon Battista Alberti's design. All four are kept in the Mantua City Museum.The wide design of the capital, with prominent lateral volutes and a flourishing basket of acanthus leaves in the middle, is considered unique in the architecture style of the period and refers to the vogue for the classical and the antiquarian that characterised production by Alberti and Mantegna. The same structure can be seen on another work by Mantegna: the Altarpiece of San Zeno in Verona.

Sant'Andrea's Capital (1480) by Luca FancelliMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

The potent acanthus leaves combine with the depiction of a strange face, which has been transformed into a mask-like figure with the passing of time. His long ears suggest a similarity with some kind of restless spirit of flora.

Sant'Andrea's Capital (1480) by Luca FancelliMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

The acanthus leaf adornment is slightly different for each capital, illustrating how a variety of forms was already a guiding principle during the Renaissance.

Sant'Andrea's Capital (1480) by Luca FancelliMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Here, the head carved alongside the greenery appears to show a thin moustache, which are probably leaves that morph into the figure's physiognomy.

Leon Battista Alberti's Letter (1460) by Leon Battista AlbertiMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Letter of Leon Battista Alberti

This letter, sent by Alberti to Ludovico Gonzaga on 27 February 1460, testifies to the start of a relationship that had in fact been inspired by the architect's participation in the 1459 Diet of Mantua convened by Pope Pius II. Alberti writes that he is ready to carry out the Marquis's bidding. He also writes that, because of his poor health, he has decided to spend some time in Cavriana, where Ludovico had a palace that has since disappeared. Finally, in the most important detail from the letter, he announces that he has completed the designs for San Sebastiano, San Lorenzo and the loggia for a monument to Virgil: "They are done, I believe that they will not disappoint you".

Leon Battista Alberti's Letter (1470) by Leon Battista AlbertiMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Letter of 1472

This is the famous letter that Alberti sent to Ludovico Gonzaga to discuss the project of the Basilica of Sant'Andrea. Here is the full text: "Most illustrious master, After it was recommended to me, Luca tagiapi has shown me a letter from Your Lordship concerning the title the tower, etc.; for now I am minded to act upon these letters, we shall reflect on it again. Moreover, today I have been led to understood that Your Lordship and Your Lordship's citizens have discussed building here at Sant'Andrea, and that the main intention was to construct a large space where many people might be so congregated as to see the Blood of Christ. I have seen Manetti's model and it pleased me, but it seems ill-suited to your intention; I have pondered it and devised the following plan, which I hereby send to you. This will be more capacious, more enduring, more worthy and more joyous; and will cost less. This form of church is named after the old Etruscan Temple. If it should please your Lordship, I will find a way of displaying it in proportion. I entrust myself to Your Lordship".In addition to the courteous competition with another Florentine architect, the letter contains the famous phrase: "This will be more capacious, more enduring, more worthy and more joyous; and will cost much less" What is more, Alberti relates how he has completed and sent a sketch which, should it please the Marquis, will be built in the right proportion. 

Luca Fancelli's Letter (1472) by Luca FancelliMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Letter of Luca Fancelli

This letter sent by Fancelli to the Marquis of Mantua was sent just two days after the death of Leon Battista Alberti. In fact, although the design for Sant'Andrea was all Alberti's work, it was Fancelli, who had completed many other works in Mantua and who clearly enjoyed Ludovico's full confidence, who was entrusted with embarking on construction. The letter refers to a design by Mantegna and works on a sewer in the Rovere district of the city, which the engineer and architect was in the process of completing. Since the design has never been located, the full meaning of the text remains unclear. In any case, the letter illustrates the very close ties and familiarity between Fancelli and the Lord of Mantua.

Credits: Story

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:
Sebastiano Sali

Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images:
Giovanni Pasetti

Foto di / Photo by:
Gian Maria Pontiroli

Redazione / Editors:
Erica Beccalossi
Sara Crimella
Carlotta Depalmas
Veronica Zirelli

Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to:
Veronica Ghizzi
Paola Somenzi

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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