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Old February 25th, 2006, 03:52 PM   #1
Kunst um der Kunst willen
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Ideal City’s Last Secret Revealed

Ideal City’s Last Secret Revealed
Beneath Piero della Francesca’s painting is a drawing by Leon Battista Alberti.



For centuries, The Ideal City, has been revered almost as holy writ by those who nurture love and respect for the golden rules of architecture and town planning. Now, it has been revealed that the large panel was drawn in detail, and perhaps coloured, by Leon Battista Alberti, the architect, man of letters and philosopher who in the mid-fifteenth century effected a fundamental transformation in the arts.Previously, it was believed that the panel, which hangs in the National Gallery of the Marche at Urbino, was painted by Piero della Francesca, or Luciano Laurana, or Francesco di Giorgio Martini, or even by Botticelli, employing the usual method of painting over a drawing made by the artist himself prior to starting work with his brush. The artist would then have added the light, the shade and the azure that depict the peace, balance and rhythm of the piazza.
But no.Thirty X-rays and reflectographs of the work were taken by a team led by Maurizio Seracini, the scientist who has unveiled many of art’s hidden secrets, including some in works by Leonardo and Michelangelo. Thanks to Seracini’s team, scholars can now confirm that the artist was working to a precise pattern of lines, points and spaces, in other words a full-blown figurative drawing traced by a master who was well aware of the work’s final impact. It seems that the man who made the careful drawing may also have had a hand in colouring the work.
The conclusion of the scientific investigation, which began many years ago during a Piero della Francesca exhibition at Urbino, has now enabled Gabriele Morolli, professor of the history of architecture at Florence, to state that The Ideal City is in fact by Leon Battista Alberti. The erudite, austere, hard-working master had at that time already left the mark of his genius on many Italian cities. At Florence, Alberti had designed the façade of Santa Maria Novella, a true benchmark of classicism, and around 1450 in Nicholas V’s Rome, he had given new impetus to the search for classical equilibrium in architecture and town planning.
“The buildings depicted on the panel”, says Professor Morolli, “are not merely faithful reproductions of architecture described in Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria. They also refer to well-known buildings designed by the master, such as Santa Maria Novella or Palazzo Rucellai. It could be that the finished drawing was coloured by others, but Alberti himself may well have added the final touches,k for he was extremely interested in the subject”. Other versions of The Ideal City at Baltimore and Berlin confirm the presence of Alberti’s buildings among the preferred subjects.
Leon Battista Alberti’s activities in Urbino have been analysed on several occasions in order, among other reasons, to assess the possibility that he influenced directly or indirectly Luciano Laurana’s design for the celebrated Palazzo Ducale. What is certain is that Federico da Montefeltro had in his library, along with Vitruvius, a manuscript copy of De Re Aedificatoria, going so far as to write, “I and Battista were united by the greatest familiarity and friendship”. Professor Morolli is not the only one to claim that work on The Ideal City is reflected in the actual history of Urbino, not just in scientific and cultural studies.
The professor’s surprising announcement came on the eve of the opening of the major Alberti exhibition he is curating with Cristina Acidini and other scholars at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. The exhibition concludes the series of events in Italy dedicated to Alberti on the sexcentenary of his birth.

Wanda Lattes

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