Ancient Sources and New Experiences <

By nature, all good humans have a thirst for knowledge
Leonardo da Vinci
Codex Atlanticus, fol. 327v. Translation: Elizabeth Hughes




In the 15th century, scholars throughout Europe, especially in Italy, sought to raise knowledge of and familiarity with authors from ancient Greece and Rome to a new level. The goal of these humanists was to collect textual sources systematically from widely diverse fields of knowledge and make them accessible through commentaries, translations, and soon through printed editions as well. Encyclopedias such as those by the philologist and mathematician Giorgio Valla (ca. 1447–1499) made previously rare handwritten treatises generally available.
Florence was the first center of this movement, which was celebrated as the rebirth (Rinascita or Rinascimento in Italian, Renaissance in French) of ancient culture. The ideal of antiquity rapidly penetrated and inspired every cultural area, such as literature, architecture, and the visual arts. Parallel to this, the study of ancient traditions also promised resources for solving technical and scientific problems and tasks of contemporary life. Ancient natural scientists such as the Greek mathematicians Archimedes (ca. 287–212 BCE), Ptolemy (ca. 100–160 CE), and Euclid (ca. 300 BCE) were important authorities whose extant works formed a fixed canon. Their achievements also inspired Renaissance scholars in their own research and further observations.
Another canonical work is the Ten Books on Architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (ca. 70 BCE–ca. 15 CE). Its impact can hardly be overestimated and Leonardo da Vinci naturally owned an edition.
A contemporary counterpart are the writings of the philologist, master builder, and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472). His architectural designs, like those for the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, are considered incunabula of Renaissance architecture, while his writings on the genres of architecture, painting, and sculpture laid down the first theoretical basis for the new forms of design. The humanist Alberti was regarded by his contemporaries as a shining example of universal education. He was an inspiration for Leonardo, too, not least for the latter’s own theoretical writings on painting.


Leonardo's Berlin Library: Section 4 <

Alberti, Leon Battista. De pictura
Basel: Bartholomäus Westheimer, 1540



De pictura by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) is one of the most important sources for Leonardo’s notes on painting that were later compiled as the Libro di pittura (The Book on Painting) (Life and Legacy D ). Alberti propagated the renewal of painting on the basis of mathematics in his treatise contained
in three books. As Lucia Bertolini recently confirmed, it was first written in the Italian vernacular and then translated into Latin
by Alberti himself.



    Bätschmann, Oskar, and Christoph Schäublin, eds. 2000. Leon Battista Alberti. Das Standbild, die Malkunst, Grundlagen der Malerei. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.


    Bertolini, Lucia, ed. 2011. Leon Battista Alberti. De pictura. Redazione volgare. Edizione nazionale delle opere di Leon Battista Alberti. II, Trattatistica d’arte, 1.1. Florence: Polistampa.


    Sinisgalli, Rocco. 2006. Il nuovo “De pictura” di Leon Battista Alberti. The New “De pictura” of Leon Battista Alberti. Collana di Studi sul Rinascimento 7. Rome: Kappa.


    Vecce, Carlo, ed. 2019. Leonardo and His Books. The Library of the Universal Genius. Exhibition catalogue Museo Galileo, Florence, 6.6.–22.9.2019. Florence: Giunti, 113, no. 10.4.