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Leon Battista Alberti

On Painting

(excerpts from the translation by John R. Spencer, revised edition 1966. For complete text)

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) was a member of a wealthy Florentine banking family who had been exiled from Florence. He studied canon law at the University of Bologna. While there he apparently developed an interest in Greek and Latin texts. In 1434, Alberti returned to Florence as a member of the papal court. In 1435 he completed in Latin his groundbreaking treatise De pictura, and the next year he dedicated an Italian version of the text to Brunelleschi. He presents in this text for the first time instructions on how use single-point perspective, and it also lays the foundation for a theory of painting. It can be understood as the first formal treatise on the theory of painting in contrast to Cenino Cennini's Craftsman's Handbook, which was focused on workshop practice.

Central to Alberti's treatise is his belief in the stature of the pictorial arts. At the beginning of the second book he discusses how painting "...contains a divine force that not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive." Alberti understood that the true painter needs to be grounded in the Liberal Arts and not just trained in studio practice.

While still subject to debate, the bronze plaque above can be argued to be the first independent self-portrait of an artist. It is argued that Alberti created this self-portrait about 1436 just at the time of the completion of his treatise on painting. As a humanist, Alberti based the image on the tradition of profile portrait busts of Roman emperors that appeared on imperial coinage. Even the drapery calls to mind classical drapery style. Under his chin appears Alberti's emblem of the winged eye.


I used to marvel and at the same time to grieve that so many excellent and superior arts and sciences from our most vigorous antique past could now seem lacking and almost wholly lost. We know from [remaining] works and through references to them that they were once widespread. Painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, geometricians, rhetoricians, seers and similar noble and amazing intellects are very rarely found today and there are few to praise them. Thus I believed, as many said, that Nature, the mistress of things, had grown old and tired. She no longer produced either geniuses or giants which in her more youthful and more glorious days she had produced so marvelously and abundantly.

Since then, I have been brought back here [to Florence]--from the long exile in which we Alberti have grown old--into this our city, adorned above all others. I have come to understand that in many men, but especially in you, Filippo [Brunelleschi], and in our close friend Donato [Donatello]the sculptor and in others like Nencio [Ghiberti], Luca [Luca della Robbia]and Massaccio, there is a genius for [accomplishing] every praiseworthy thing. For this they should not be slighted in favour of anyone famous in antiquity in these arts. Therefore, I believe the power of acquiring wide fame in any art or science lies in our industry and diligence more than in the times or in the gifts of nature. It must be [p. 39] admitted that it was less difficult for the Ancients--because they had models to imitate and from which they could learn--to come to a knowledge of those supreme arts which today are most difficult for us. Our fame ought to be much greater, then, if we discover unheard-of and never-before-seen arts and sciences without teachers or without any model whatsoever. Who could ever be hard or envious enough to fail to praise Pippo the architect [Brunelleschi] on seeing here such a large structure, rising above the skies, ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people, and constructed without the aid of centering or great quantity of wood? Since this work seems impossible of execution in our time, if I judge rightly, it was probably unknown and unthought of among the Ancients. But there will be other places, Filippo, to tell of your fame, of the virtues of our Donato, and of the others who are most pleasing to me by their deeds.

As you work from day to day, you persevere in discovering things through which your extraordinary genius acquires perpetual fame. If you find the leisure, it would please me if you should look again at this my little work On Painting which I set into Tuscan for your renown. You will see three books; the first, all mathematics, concerning the roots in nature which are the source of this delightful and most noble art. The second book puts the art in the hand of the artist, distinguishing its parts and demonstrating all. The third introduces the artist to the means and the end, the ability and the desire of acquiring perfect skill and knowledge in painting. May it please you, then, to read me with diligence. if anything here seems to you to need emending, correct me. There was never a writer so learned to whom erudite friends were not useful. I in particular desire to be corrected by you in order not to be pecked at by detractors. [pp. 39-40]

Book One

To make clear my exposition in writing this brief commentary on painting, I will take first from the mathematicians those things with which my subject is concerned. When they are understood, I will enlarge on the art of painting from its first principles in nature in so far as I am able.

In all this discussion, I beg you to consider me not as a mathematician but as a painter writing of these things. Mathematicians measure with their minds alone the forms of things separated from all matter. Since we wish the object to be seen, we will use a more sensate wisdom. We will consider our aim accomplished if the reader can understand in any way this admittedly difficult subject--and, so far as I know, a subject never before treated. Therefore, I beg that my words be interpreted solely as those of a painter....

It would be well to add to the above statements the opinion of philosophers who affirm that if the sky, the stars, the sea, mountains and all bodies should become--should God [this is the only direct reference to God in the treatise]so will --reduced by half, nothing would appear to be diminished in any part to us. All knowledge of large, small; long, short; high, low; broad, narrow; clear, dark; light and shadow and every similar attribute is obtained by comparison. Because they can be, but are not necessarily, conjoined with objects, philosophers are accustomed to call them accidents. Virgil says [p. 54] that Aeneas stood head and shoulders above other men, but placed next to Polyphemus he seemed a dwarf. Nisus and Euryalus were most handsome, but compared to Ganymede who was abducted by the Gods, they would probably have seemed most ugly. Among the Spanish many young girls appear fair who among the Germans would seem dusky and dark. Ivory and silver are white; placed next to the swan or the snow they would seem pallid. For this reason things appear most splendid in painting where there is good proportion of white and black similar to that which is in the objects--from the lighted to the shadowed.

Thus all things are known by comparison. For comparison contains within itself a power which immediately demonstrates in objects which is more, less or equal. From which it is said that a thing is large when it is greater than something small and largest when it is greater than something large; bright when it is brighter than shadow, brilliant when it is brighter than something bright. This is best done with well-known things.

Since man is the thing best known to man, perhaps as Protagoras, by saying that man is the mode and measure of all things, meant that all the accidents of things are known through comparison to the accidents of man. In what I say here, I am trying to make it understood that no matter how well small bodies are painted in the picture they will appear large and small by comparison with whatever man is painted there. It seems to me that the antique painter, Timantes, understood this force of comparison, for in painting a small panel of a gigantic sleeping Cyclops he put there several satyrs who were measuring the giant's thumb; by comparison with them the sleeper seemed immense. [Pliny, Natural History, XXXV,xxxvi, 74]

Up to this point we have talked about what pertains to the power of sight and to the cross-section. Since it is not enough for the painter to know what the cross-section is, but since he should also know how to make it, we will treat of that. Here alone, leaving aside other things, I will tell what I do when I paint. [p. 55] First of all about where I draw. I inscribe a quadrangle of right angles, as large as I wish, which is considered to be an open window through which I see what I want to paint. Here I determine as it pleases me the size of the men in my picture. I divide the length of this man in three parts. These parts to me are proportional to that measurement called a braccio, for, in measuring the average man it is seen that he is about three braccia. [the Florentine braccia is slightly less than 23"] With these braccia I divide the base line of the rectangle into as many parts as it will receive. To me this base line of the quadrangle is proportional to the nearest transverse and equidistant quantity seen on the pavement. Then, within this quadrangle, where it seems best to me, I make a point which occupies that place where the central ray strikes. For this it is called the centric point. This point is properly placed when it is no higher from the base line of the guadrangle than the height of the man that I have to paint there. Thus both the beholder and the painted things he sees will appear to be on the same plane.... [See web page entitled Putting God into Perspective]

We have talked, as much as seems necessary, of triangles, pyramids, the cross-section. I usually explain these things to [p. 58] my friends with certain prolix geometric demonstrations which in this commentary it seemed to me better to omit for the sake of brevity., Here I have related only the basic instructions of the art, and by instructions I mean that which will give the untrained painter the first fundamentals of how to paint well. These instructions are of such a nature that [any painter] who really understands them well both by his intellect and by his comprehension of the definition of painting will realize how useful they are. Never let it be supposed that anyone can be a good painter if he does not clearly understand what he is attempting to do. He draws the bow in vain who has nowhere to point the arrow.

I hope the reader will agree that the best artist can only be one who has learned to understand the outline of the plane and all its qualities. On the contrary, anyone who has not been most diligent in understanding what we have said up to this point will never be a good artist. Therefore, these intersections and planes are necessary things. There remains to teach the painter how to follow with his hand what he has learned with his mind.

Book Two

Because this [process of] learning may perhaps appear a fatiguing thing to young people, I ought to prove here that painting is not unworthy of consuming all our time and study.

Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, [Cicero, De amicitia, vii,23] but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. Plutarch says that Cassander, one of the captains of Alexander, trembled through all his body because he saw a portrait of his King [Plutarch, The Life of Alexander, LXXIV,4]. Agesilaos, the Lacedaemonian, never permitted anyone to paint him or to represent him in sculpture; his own form so displeased him that he avoided being known by those who would come after him. [Plutarch, Life of Agesilaos, II,2] Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting. Some think that painting shaped the gods who were adored by the nations. It certainly was their greatest gift to mortals, for painting is most useful to that piety which joins us to the gods and keeps our souls full of religion. They say that Phidias made in Aulis a god Jove so beautiful that it considerably strengthened the religion then current.

The extent to which painting contributes to the most honorable delights of the soul and to the dignified beauty of things can be clearly seen not only from other things but [p. 63] especially from this: you can conceive of almost nothing so precious which is not made far richer and much more beautiful by association with painting. Ivory, gems and similar expensive things become more precious when worked by the hand of the painter. Gold worked by the art of painting outweighs an equal amount of unworked gold. If figures were made by the hand of Phidias or Praxiteles from lead itself--the lowest of metals--they would be valued more highly than silver. The painter, Zeuxis, began to give away his things because, as he said, they could not be bought. [Pliny, XXV, xxxvi,62] He did not think it possible to come to a just price which would be satisfactory to the painter, for in painting animals he set himself up almost as a god.

Therefore, painting contains within itself this virtue that any master painter who sees his works adored will feel himself considered another god. Who can doubt that painting is the master art or at least not a small ornament of things? The architect, if I am not mistaken, takes from the painter architraves, bases, capitals, columns, fa├žades and other similar things. All the smiths, sculptors, shops and guilds are governed by the rules and art of the painter. It is scarcely possible to find any superior art which is not concerned with painting. so that whatever beauty is found can be said to be born of painting. Moreover, painting was given the highest honour by our ancestors. For, although almost all other artists were called craftsmen, the painter alone was not considered in that category. For this reason, I say among my friends that Narcissus who was changed into a flower, according to the poets, was the inventor of panting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain?

Quintilian said that the ancient painters used to circumscribe shadows cast by the sun, and from this our art has grown. [Quintilian, De institutione oratoriae, X, ii, 7] There are those who say that a certain Philocles, an Egyptian, and a Cleantes were among the first inventors of this art. The Egyptians affirm that painting was in use among them a good [p. 64] 6000 years before it was carried into Greece. [Pliny, XXXV, v, 15-16] They say that painting was brought to us from Greece after the victory of Marcellus over Sicily. [Plutarch, Life of Marcellus, XXI] But we are not interested in knowing who was the inventor of the art or the first painter, since we are not telling stories like Pliny. We are, however, building anew an art of painting about which nothing, as I see it, has been written in this age. They say the Euphranor of Isthmus [Pliny, XXXV, xl, 128] wrote something about measure and about colours, that Antigonos and Xenocrates [Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 68] exchanged something in their letters about painting, and that Apelles [Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 111] wrote to Pelleus about painting. Diogenes Laertius recounts that Demetrius made commentaries on painting. Since all the other arts were recommended in letters by our great men, and since painting was not neglected by our Latin writers, I believe that our ancient Tuscan [ancestors] were already most expert masters in painting.

Trismegistus, an ancient writer, judged that painting and sculpture were born at the same time as religion, [Lactantius, De divinis institutionibus, 2, 10, 3-15 is the probable source] for thus he answered Aesclepius: mankind portrays the gods in his own image from his memories of nature and his own origins. Who can here deny that in all things public and private, profane and religious, painting has taken all the most honourable parts to itself so that nothing has ever been so esteemed by mortals?

The incredible esteem in which painted panels have been held has been recorded. Aristides the Theban [Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 100, and VII, xxxviii, 126]sold a single picture for one hundred talents. They say that Rhodes was not burned by King Demetrius for fear that a painting of Protogenes' should perish. [Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 105] It could be said that the city of Rhodes was ransomed from the enemy by a single painting. Pliny collected many other such things in which you can see that good painters have always been greatly honoured by all. The most noble citizens, philosophers and quite a few kings not only enjoyed painted things but also painted with their own hands. Lucius Manilius, Roman citizen, and Fabius, a most noble man, were painters. Turpilius, a Roman Knight, painted at Verona. Sitedius, praetor and proconsul, acquired renown as a [p. 65] painter. Pacuvius, tragic poet and nephew of the poet Ennius, painted Hercules in the Roman forum. Socrates, Plato, Metrodorus, Pyrrho were connoisseurs of painting. The emperors Nero, Valentinian, and Alexander Severus were most devoted to painting. It would be too long, however, to recount here how many princes and kings were pleased by painting. Nor does it seem necessary to me to recount all the throng of ancient painters. Their number is seen in the fact that 360 statues, part on horseback and part in chariots, were completed in four hundred days for Demetrius Phalerius, son of Phanostratus. [Pliny, XXXV, vii, 23] In a land in which there was such a great number of sculptors, can you believe that painters were lacking? I am certain that both these arts are related and nurtured by the same genius, painting with sculpture. But I always give higher rank to the genius of the painter because he works with more difficult things.

However, let us return to our work. Certainly the number of sculptors and painters was great in those times when princes and plebeians, learned and unlearned enjoyed painting, and when painted panels and portraits, considered the choicest booty from the provinces, were set up in the theatre. Finally L. Paulus Aemilius [Pliny, XXXV, xl, 135] and not a few other Roman citizens taught their sons painting along with the fine arts and the art of living piously and well. This excellent custom was frequently observed among the Greeks who, because they wished their sons to be well educated, taught them painting along with geometry and music. It was also an honour among women to know how to paint. Martia, daughter of Varro, is praised by the writers because she knew how to paint. Painting had such reputation and honour among the Greeks that laws and edicts were passed forbidding slaves to learn painting. It was certainly well that they did this, for the art of painting has always been most worthy of liberal minds and noble souls. [Pliny, XXXV, xl, 147]

As for me, I certainly consider a great appreciation of painting to be the best indication of a most perfect mind, even though it happens that this art is pleasing to the uneducated as [p. 66] well as to the educated. It occurs rarely in any other art that what delights the experienced also moves the inexperienced. In the same way you will find that many greatly desire to be well versed in painting. Nature herself seems to delight in painting, for in the cut faces of marble she often paints centaurs and faces of bearded and curly headed kings. It is said, moreover, that in a gem from Pyrrhus all nine Muses, each with her symbol, are be found clearly painted by nature. [Pliny, XXXVII, i, 3] Add to this that in no other art does it happen that both the experienced and the inexperienced of every age apply themselves so voluntarily to the learning and exercising of it. Allow me to speak of myself here. Whenever I turn to painting for my recreation, which I frequently do when I am tired of more pressing affairs, I apply myself to it with so much pleasure that I am surprised that three or four hours have passed. Thus this art gives pleasure and praise to whoever is skilled in it; riches and perpetual fame to one who is master of it. Since these things are so, since painting is the best and most ancient ornament of things, worthy of free men, pleasing to learned and unlearned, I greatly encourage our studious youth to exert themselves as much as possible in painting.

Therefore, I recommend that he who is devoted to painting should learn this art. The first great care of one who seeks to obtain eminence in painting is to acquire the fame and renown of the ancients. It is useful to remember that avarice is always the enemy of virtue. Rarely can anyone given to acquisition of wealth acquire renown. I have seen many in the first flower of learning suddenly sink to money-making. As a result they acquire neither riches nor praise. However, if they had increased their talent with study, they would have easily soared into great renown. Then they would have acquired much riches and pleasure.

Enough has been said of this up to here. Let us return to our subject. Painting is divided into three parts; these divisions we have taken from nature. [p. 67]

Since painting strives to represent things seen, let us note in what way things are seen. First, in seeing a thing, we say it occupies a place. Here the painter, in describing this space, will say this, his guiding an outline with a line, is circumscription.

Then, looking at it again, we understand that several planes of the observed body belong together, and here the painter drawing them in their places will say that he is making a composition.

Finally, we determine more clearly the colours and qualities of the planes. Since every difference in them is born from light, we can properly call their representation the reception of light.

Therefore, painting is composed of circumscription, composition and reception of light. In the following we shall treat of them most briefly.

First we will treat of circumscription. Circumscription describes the turning of the outline in the painting. It is said that Parrhasius, the painter who talked with Socrates in Xenophon, was most expert in this and had examined these lines carefully. I say that in this circumscription one ought to take great pains to make these lines so fine that they can scarcely be seen. The painter Apelles used to practice this and to compete with Protogenes. [Quintilian, XII, x,5 and Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 67-8] Because circumscription is nothing but the drawing of the outline, which when done with too apparent a line does not indicate a margin of the plane but a neat cleavage, I should desire that only the movement of the outline be inscribed. To this, I insist, one must devote a great amount of practice. No composition and no reception of light can be praised where there is not also a good circumscription--that is, a good drawing--which is most pleasant in itself. Here is a good aid for whoever wishes to make use of it. Nothing can be found, so I think, which is more useful than that veil which among my friends I call an intersection. It is a thin veil, finely woven, dyed whatever colour pleases you and with larger threads [marking out] as many parallels as you prefer.

Still from the movie Artemisia demonstrating the veil.

This veil I place between the eye and the thing seen, so the visual pyramid [p. 68] penetrates through the thinness of the veil. This veil can be of great use to you. Firstly, it always presents to you the same unchanged plane. Where you have placed certain limits, you quickly find the true cuspid of the pyramid. This would certainly be difficult without the intersection. You know how impossible it is to imitate a thing which does not continue to present the same appearance, for it is easier to copy painting than sculpture. You know that as the distance and the position of the centre are changed, the thing you see seems greatly altered. Therefore the veil will be, as I said, very useful to you, since it is always the same thing in the process of seeing. Secondly, you will easily be able to constitute the limits of the outline and of the planes. Here in this parallel you will see the forehead, in that the nose, in another the cheeks, in this lower one the chin and all outstanding features in their place. On panels or on walls, divided into similar parallels, you will be able to put everything in its place. Finally, the veil will greatly aid you in learning how to paint when you see in it round objects and objects in relief. By these things you will be able to test with experience and judgment how very useful our veil can be to you....

In every istoria variety is always pleasant. A painting in which there are bodies in many dissimilar poses is always especially pleasing. There some stand erect, planted on one foot, and show all the face with the hand high and the fingers joyous. In others the face is turned, the arms folded and the feet joined. And thus to each one is given his own action and flection of members; some are seated, others on one knee, others lying. If it is allowed here, there ought to be some nude and others part nude and part clothed in the painting; but always make use of shame and modesty. The parts of the body ugly to see and in the same way others which give little pleasure should be covered with draperies, with a few fronds or the hand. The ancients [Apelles] painted the portrait of Antigonos only from the part of the face where the eye was not lacking. [Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 90 and Quintilian, II, xiii,12] It is said that Pericles' head was long and ugly, for this reason he--unlike others--was portrayed by painters and sculptors wearing a helmet. [Plutarch,Life of Pericles, III, 2] Plutarch says that when the ancient painters depicted [p. 76] the kings, if there were some flaw in them which they did not wish to leave unnoticed, they 'corrected' it as much as they could while still keeping a likeness.

Thus I desire, as I have said, that modesty and truth should be used in every istoria . For this reason be careful not to repeat the same gesture or pose. The istoria will move the soul of the beholder when each man painted there clearly shows the movement of his own soul. It happens in nature that nothing more than herself is found capable of things like herself; [Cicero, De amicitia, xiv, 50] we weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing, and grieve with the grieving. These movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body. Care and thought weigh so heavily that a sad person stands with his forces and feelings as if dulled, holding himself feebly and tiredly on his pallid and poorly sustained members. In the melancholy the forehead is wrinkled, the head drooping, all members fall as if tired and neglected. In the angry, because anger incites the soul, the eyes are swollen with ire and the face and all the members are burned with colour, fury adds so much boldness there. In gay and happy men the movements are free and with certain pleasing inflections. They praise Euphranor since he executed the face and expression of Alexander Paris in which you could recognize him as the judge of the goddesses, the lover of Helen and the slayer of Achilles. There is also great praise for the painter Demon, since in his picture you could easily see [Paris to be] angry, unjust, inconstant, and at the same time placable, given to clemency and mercy, proud, humble and ferocious. They say that Aristides the Theban, equal to Apelles, understood these movements very well. [Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 96-100] They will certainly be understood by us when we come to know them through study and diligence.

Thus all the movements of the body should be closely observed by the painter. These he may well learn from nature, even though it is difficult to imitate the many movements of the soul. Who would ever believe who has not tried it how difficult it is to attempt to paint a laughing face only to have it [p. 77] elude you so that you make it more weeping than happy? Who could ever without the greatest study express faces in which mouth, chin, eyes, cheeks, forehead and eyebrows all were in harmony with laughter or weeping. For this reason it is best to learn them from nature and always to do these things very rapidly, letting the observer think he sees more than he actually sees....

Because there are some who pass all reason in these movements I should like to recount here some things about pose and movement which I have collected from nature. From this we shall clearly understand that they should be used with moderation. Remember how man in all his poses uses the entire body to support the head, heaviest member of all. When he is resting on one foot, this foot always stands perpendicularly under the head like the base of a column, and almost always in one who stands erect the face is turned in the same direction as the feet. I have noted that the movements of the head are almost always such that certain parts of the body have to sustain it as with levers, so great is its weight. Better, a member which corresponds to the weight of the head is stretched out in an opposing part like an arm of a balance. We see that when a weight is held in an extended arm with the feet together like the needle of a balance, all the other parts of the body will displace to counterbalance the weight. I have noticed that in raising the head no one turns his face higher than he would in looking at the zenith; horizontally no one can turn his face past a point where the chin touches the shoulder; the waist is never twisted so much that the point of the shoulder is perpendicular above the navel. The movements of the legs and of the arms are very free in order not to hamper other 'honest' parts of the body. I see in nature that the hands are almost never raised above the [p. 79] head, nor the elbow over the shoulder, nor the foot above the knee, nor between one foot and the other is there more space than that of one foot. Remember that when a hand is extended upward that same side of the body even to the feet follows it so that the heel itself is raised off the pavement.

Book Three

Since there are other useful things which will make a painter such that he can attain to perfect fame, we should not omit them in this commentary. We will treat of them most briefly. I say the function of the painter is this: to describe with lines and to tint with colour on whatever panel or wall is given him similar observed planes of any body so that at a certain distance and in a certain position from the centre they appear in relief, seem to have mass and to be lifelike. The aim of painting: to give pleasure, good will and fame to the painter more than riches. If painters will follow this, their painting will hold the eyes and the soul of the observer. We have stated above how they could do this in the passages on composition and the reception of light. However, I would be delighted if the painter, in order to remember all these things well, should be a good man and learned in liberal arts. Everyone knows how much more the goodness of a man is worth than all his industry or art in acquiring the benevolence of the citizens. No one doubts that the good will of many is a great help to the artist in acquiring both fame and wealth. It often happens that the rich, moved more by amiability than by love of the arts, reward first one who is modest and good, leaving behind another [p. 89] painter perhaps better in art but not so good in his habits. Therefore the painter ought to acquire many good habits--principally humanity and affability. He will thus have a firm aid against poverty in good will, the greatest aid in learning his art well.

It would please me if the painter were as learned as possible in all the liberal arts, but first of all I desire that he know geometry. I am pleased by the maxims of Pamphilos, [Pliny, XXXV, xxxvi, 77] the ancient and virtuous painter from whom the young nobles began to learn to paint. He thought that no painter could paint well who did not know much geometry. Our instruction in which all the perfect absolute art of painting is explained will be easily understood by a geometrician, but one who is ignorant in geometry will not understand these or any other rules of painting. Therefore, I assert that it is necessary for the painter to learn geometry.

For their own enjoyment artists should associate with poets and orators who have many embellishments in common with painters and who have a broad knowledge of many things whose greatest praise consists in the invention. A beautiful invention has such force, as will be seen, that even without painting it is pleasing in itself alone. Invention is praised when one reads the description of Calumny which Lucian recounts was painted by Apelles. [Lucian De calumnia, 5] I do not think it alien to our subject. I will narrate it here in order to point out to painters where they ought to be most aware and careful in their inventions. In this painting there was a man with very large ears. Near him, on either side, stood two women, one called Ignorance, the other Suspicion. Farther, on the other side, came Calumny, a woman who appeared most beautiful but seemed too rafty in the face. In her right hand she held a lighted torch, with the other hand she dragged by the hair a young man who held up his arms to heaven. There was also a man, pale, ugly, all filthy and with an iniquitous aspect, who could be compared to one who has [p. 90] become thin and feverish with long fatigues on the fields of battle; he was the guide of Calumny and was called Hatred. And there were two other women, serving women of Calumy who arranged her ornaments and robes. They were called Envy and Fraud. Behind these was Penitence, a woman dressed in funeral robes, who stood as if completely dejected. Behind her followed a young girl, shameful and modest, called Truth. If this story pleased as it was being told, think how much pleasure and delight there must have been in seeing it painted by the hand of Apelles....

Botticelli, Calumny of Apelles, 1485.

Alberti's reference to Lucian's description of the lost painting by Apelles entitled The Calumny of Apelles created a challenge for Renaissance painters likw Botticelli to create their own versions of the subject based on the Lucian description.


Therefore I advise that each painter should make himself familiar with poets, rhetoricians and others equally well learned in letters. They will give new inventions or at least aid in beautifully composing the istoria through which the painter will surely acquire much praise and renown in his painting. Phidias, more famous than other painters, confessed that he had learned from Homer, the poet, how to paint Jove with much divine majesty. Thus we who are more eager to learn than to acquire wealth will learn from our poets more and more things useful to painting.