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The Return of the Giants: Reflections on Technical Mastery and Moral Jeopardy in Leon Battista Alberti's Letter to Filippo Brunelleschi

Pearson, Caspar (2020) 'The Return of the Giants: Reflections on Technical Mastery and Moral Jeopardy in Leon Battista Alberti's Letter to Filippo Brunelleschi.' Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, LXXXII (1). 113 - 141. ISSN 0075-4390

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Abstract

In 1436, Leon Battista Alberti wrote a letter to Filippo Brunelleschi, which he attached to a manuscript of his recently completed treatise on painting, De pictura. In it, Alberti lauded some of the Florentine artists of his day, singling out Brunelleschi for particular praise on account of the unprecedented engineering feat of constructing the cupola of the Florentine cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. This article undertakes a close reading of some parts of the letter, focusing especially on the link that Alberti draws between great intellects (ingegni) and giants. Exploring the cultural traditions that might have informed Alberti’s thinking—in particular, canto XXXI of Dante’s Inferno—the article considers how the giants introduce an element of moral jeopardy, significantly complicating what might otherwise appear to be a purely celebratory text. This sense of ambivalence is further explored in relation to the ‘long exile’ from which Alberti says that his family (banished from Florence for nearly three decades, until 1428) had recently returned. Similar phrases appear in Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and consideration of these poems, it is argued, might further inflect our understanding of Alberti’s words in the letter. In this way, the article investigates how Alberti employed sophisticated literary means in order to express his own feelings regarding Brunelleschian ingegno and technical mastery; feelings that were both highly nuanced and, ultimately, unsettled.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: N Fine Arts > ND Painting
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > Philosophy and Art History, School of
Depositing User: Elements
Date Deposited: 21 Jun 2019 12:47
Last Modified: 10 Mar 2021 14:15
URI: http://repository.essex.ac.uk/id/eprint/24523

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