Articles About Art - Leon Battista Alberti's Concept of Historia
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Leon Battista Alberti's Concept of Historia
Alberti calls the historia a painter's greatest work. To him, the laudable historia was that work "which holds the eye of the learned and unlearned spectator for a long while, with a sense of pleasure and emotion ..." . Thus the spectator should be emotionally moved and intellectually enriched by the historia. Alberti puts forward several proposals concerning the enhancement of the spectator's eye and mind. He divides the historia into parts, or bodies which consist of members. These in turn consist of surfaces. The spatial construction for the arrangement of these parts is the central perspective.
According to Alberti, one sees objects in terms of surfaces which should be presented in a way
that creates grace and beauty. For example, the illuminated parts of a face should be gradually
and harmoniously graded in order to blend into the shadows. Members should also be positioned
harmoniously and should harmonise in size, dimensions, function, type and colour. Proportions
should be copied from nature and not be the personal inventions of the artist. Each member should fulfil its appropriate function; for instance, in portraying a corpse each detail of each members should suggest deadness.
The composition of bodies should be such that all those included in a composition conform in size and function with the object of the action. Thus, it would be inappropriate to depict male figures that are equally far away from the viewer as differing in size.
The historia should contain a variety and multiplicity of bodies and colour variations, for this pleases the mind. Once again the painter should take great care to include different character types, movements, clothing and gestures. However, the resultant pictorial richness must be controlled and graceful - never overdone. Obscenity and the repetition of gestures must be avoided at all costs.
If the historia conveys the inner feelings of the represented persons by portraying their body movements, it will move the observer to empathy. In addition the painting should contain a figure which captures the viewers' attention, for instance by looking or gesturing directly at them. All the actions performed by the people in the historia should be meaningful both in relation to each other and in relation to the observer. Thus, it is vital that the spectator should become involved with the portrayed scene.
Stationary objects should also conform to the general theme and motion of the painting. For instance, if one looks at the clothing of figures, these should accentuate all bodily movements. In the portrayal of a windy scene, clothing will naturally move in a certain direction.
Alberti concludes the second volume of his book with recommendations on the use of colour. Again, variety is important. The painter is specifically warned against the use of black and white, which should only be used when objects are depicted in relief. Light colours may be put to good use in emphasising dark colours and vice versa. Gold leaf may only be used in highly exceptional circumstances, even when small ornaments are depicted.
Historia painters were professional visualisers of biblical stories, but their inner visualisations had to correspond with those of the general public. As a rule, painters did not make detailed portrayals of places or people, as this would have interfered with the viewers' private visualisations. Alberti's recommendation on the creation of ideal types accords with this idea.
Proportion, colour, perspective, variety and appropriateness of behaviour and depiction were
not theologically neutral qualities. This opinion was already expressed in an early sixteenth
century document by Rimbertinus. He indicated three ways of improving moral vision: better proportions and clearer colour which promote the creation of greater beauty; greater keenness of vision, including the ability to discriminate between form and colour; and finally an endless variety of objects and viewing angles. Alberti's ideas on the creation of a historia concur with Rimbertinus's ideas about the moral education of the viewer.
Perspective can be seen as a visual metaphor for a figure's spiritual state. Before the introduction of linear perspective, artists used to represent that which they saw by means of structures from different viewing angles. Alberti's notions about a single viewing angle therefore also have a moral connotation of an unbroken line of vision on the world.
The search for order can be seen in Alberti's limitation of the number of figures portrayed, his prescription of harmoniously lighted surfaces, members which harmonise with each other, function, colour, appropriate postures and the composition of figures and objects that harmonise both with each other and more particularly with the geometrically organised space of the painting.
But one should keep in mind that Alberti never refers to God. His views appear to be directed to a kind of didactic morality, the purpose of which is to move the viewer to reflect on spiritual values. While the painter's main objective appears to be to please the viewers, his underlying objective should be that of instruction and education. He also adopts certain Ciceronian concepts, but adapts these considerably in order to render them applicable to painting. One example of the transformation from rhetoric to painting is Alberti's suggestion that the painter should use several models in order to create a more acceptable whole. Both the orator and the painter must organise parts into a "harmonious whole which effectively achieves the aim ..." . In the case of both these arts, the position and placement of the parts
af a work or discourse are determined by the total composition - and that is determined when the
.vork is planned.
Both Alberti and Cicero are concerned with appropriateness of representation and method of representation, or of discourse and delivery. The painter, for instance, should arrange surfaces, members, bodies, movement and the composition as a whole in such a way that it conveys an
mage of decorum (Italian: decoro), so that the eye is not offended by the representation of gender, age or the behaviour of the figures involved in the narrative presentation.
Both rhetoric and painting establish an empathic bond between the work of art and the audience through the use of gestures. Alberti tries to emphasise this reaction by means of the figure who looks from the painting at the viewer, and especially by using the central perspective vhich draws the observer spatially into the representation.
In Alberti's presentation of vision, the artist becomes "the model for the observer and making a picture becomes a model for seeing an image ...". Optical "facts" are used to explain the representational process and put it on a more "scientific", that is mathematical, foundation. Alberti's statements about the geometrical framework can be tested. The observation of any detail in a historia is always preceded by conscious experience of a spatial field which is observed from a specific viewing angle. Objectivity, therefore, is determined in terms of the position of the viewer. One could speculate that a viewer would probably fall under the spell of the illusion of the Albertinian ideal world because he was convinced that central perspective was scientifically reliable method of representation, which also appeared to obey the laws of nature. After all, the cardinal objective of perspectivist construction was to construct a painting in such a way that the viewer experienced the spatial depiction as a unified and self-contained pictorial
representation. Alberti never claimed that the world inside the frame of the painting is a true mirror image of the world outside the frame. Within the frame, there is order of a kind which addresses the moral sensibility of the viewer, an order which does not exist in the outside world.
Most probably Alberti's theoretical ideas were not immediately accepted outside the closed circle of fifteenth century humanists. They did impress Cristoforo Landino, a critic and humanist, who brought the key concepts in Della pittura to his friends' attention. Thus, Veneziano may well have been familiar with it, since the presentation in the St Lucia Madonna relates readily to Alberti's theoretical views. But it can also be related to many other Quattrocentro paintings, although painters diverge from Alberti's ideas about the ideal historia to a lesser or greater degree.