Leon Battista Alberti's Church of Sant' Andrea

The facade of Sant' Andrea
The facade of Sant' Andrea


In the age of the Renaissance, architecture saw a pivotal change, reverting back to the classical past. Architects realized how valuable the remaining references were and began focusing on ancient Roman architecture and mimicking the style with their own slight personalization. Leon Battista Alberti was one of these architects, who relied solely on classical inspirations in designing his buildings and churches. One of his well-known churches, and his last architectural design before his death, was Sant' Andrea in Mantua, which exhibits both inside and out strong influence and imitation of classical Roman architecture. By using classical references, Alberti was able to create a church that was one of the most impressive designs seen since the classical times, in many ways rivalling its historical inspirations and setting an impressive standard for architects who followed afterward.

Leon Battista Alberti, like other Renaissance architects such as Brunelleschi, showed a great devoted interest to classical architecture as inspiration for his own architectural designs, beginning in the 1440s. He studied the ancient writings of Vitruvius, which was a guideline to many regarding the design of classical architecture. This inspired him to later write his own theoretical piece on basic architectural principles, titled The Ten Books of Architecture, where he references many of the ideas found in Vitruvius' writings yet with his own added flare as to not copy him (Murray 47). He wanted to not simply imitate but to use classical architecture as a guideline and go from there. He also had a focus, and that was his fascination with the beauty, the ornamentation and the devotion that architects of antiquity put into even the simplest of structures. In his Ten Books of Architecture, Alberti speaks of such practices and the importance of learning to replicate:

“...[the Romans] could not bear to have even their common Drains void of Beauty, and were so delighted with Magnificence and Ornament... By the Examples therefore of the Ancients, and the Precepts of great Masters, and constant Practice, a thorough Knowledge is to be gained of the Method of raising such magnificent Structures; from this Knowledge found Rules are to be drawn...” (Alberti 115).

These rules he goes on to emphasize throughout the entirety of his treatise, and when examining his architectural works - the church of Sant' Andrea, specifically in this case - we will see he had a great focus on ornament and beauty, following the Roman example with great devotion.

Also, Alberti had a focus on nature, and that anything built should follow in nature's footsteps, that “... everything is to be measured and put together with the greatest exactness of lines and angles, that the beholder's eye may have a clear and distinct view along the cornices, between the columns on the inside and without, receiving every moment fresh delight from the variety he encounters...” (Gadol 140).

This notion was derived from antiquity, so it only makes sense that Alberti believed in it religiously. As we examine his design of Sant' Andrea, we shall see that he built the church with the above two beliefs in mind, and due to such devotion to these rules he created a magnificent church that was a prime example of excellence and revival of antiquity in the early Renaissance.

Sant' Andrea in Mantua was begun just two years before Alberti died in 1472, so much had to be carried out by his assistant. The church itself was not considered to be fully finished until well into the 18th century (Murray 53). By the time of the church's design, Alberti had been studying and building classical architecture for the majority of his life, and his Ten Books of Architecture had been published and considered a valuable source for all aspiring architects. While some similarities can be found among the various churches he designed, Sant' Andrea has some unique additions that make it special and an iconic example of such devotional study in regards to antiquity.


To begin, let's look at the plan of the church. Alberti designed Sant' Andrea following the Latin cross plan with a narthex, nave, transept, choir and rounded apse. The transept is about the same width as the nave, and both indeed are rather wide, making it to be rather spacious at the crossing. The heaviness and thickness of the walls indicate to us that the church uses a stone roof. This is different and certainly more popular than the Greek cross plan that Alberti had used in creating Sant' Sebastiano, also in Mantua, which had been the first usage of that particular plan during the Renaissance period (Wittkower 12). However popular Latin cross plans were in church building, we can simply take one look at the design and see that there is something different about the plan. Alberti made Sant' Andrea oddly unique in that he did not include side aisles along the nave, rather he decided to create spaces alternating in size along the length of the nave and some in the transept, the larger of which were used as chapels (Murray 54). These spaces, when looking at the plan, are similar to that of chapels found normally in the apse end of the church, seen commonly for example, in many Gothic style cathedrals. Even so, they are different in the sense that their usage eliminates the common side aisles and ambulatory found in a great majority of churches in history, and would create an entirely different visual experience for the individual when they enter the church. Despite its oddities, it is important to note that even with such a different design, Alberti's architectural works were admired and used as inspiration, for it is known that this variant of a Latin cross plan was widely copied in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (54-55). Through designing something so unique, but not without its Roman ties, Alberti was able to create a design that paid homage to antiquity but also added his own personal touch.

Next let us move on to the facade of Sant' Andrea, which is bursting with style not seen since antiquity. One look at the facade and we are clearly reminded of ancient Roman architecture we may have seen before, for example, the large, deep-set triumphal arch of the entryway. In Rudolph Wittkower's article on Alberti's approach to antiquity, we see a convincing picture showing the remarkable similarity of the facade compared to that of the Arch of Trajan in Ancona (4). It is very possible that Alberti could have used the arch as inspiration for this facade, given the likeness of the two structures. They both have the large arch in the centre, with four pilasters, two on either side in the Corinthian style. “The result of this is to give a form which consists of a small opening at ground level between two pilasters, followed by a large round-headed opening, and then a repetition of the smaller form” (Murray 55). We will see later on that this style is imitated within the interior of S. Andrea in a different manner, that being the alternating spaces in the design we mentioned previously in discussing the plan.

Alberti's decision to use a triumphal arch speaks to the importance in which he viewed church buildings, commemorating that the revival of Roman architectural influences should be celebrated, and of course, the elaborate decoration and ornamentation of all structures. The facade focuses on geometrical shapes, the rectangular side doors, the rounded arch windows, the horizontal linear divisions, and the triangular pediment. Aside from a strong resemblance to a triumphant arch, it also bears resemblance to a temple. The entire facade of S. Andrea is an homage to the past, with its many ornaments and characteristics of antiquities long before its time.

Which brings us to discuss the interior of Sant' Andrea. The lack of side aisles, despite what one may assume, did not take away from the size and grandeur of the interior. Normally seen in churches, the facade tended to be larger than the rest of the church, giving it an appearance of being bigger than it actually was, coinciding with the meaning of the actual term. However, in S. Andrea, the facade is smaller than that of the church, which is unusual, and gives visitors quite a surprise when they walk in. The church boasts an enormous barrel vault over the nave with rounded arches, with a coiffured ceiling that reminds us of such structures like the Roman Pantheon. The width of the barrel vault spans over seventy feet, which made it the largest and heaviest created since antiquity. We can gather from this that not only did Alberti want to revive and derive inspiration from buildings of antiquity, but he also was interested in rivalling them, and he certainly did so impressively, with his own personal twist that deviated from known Roman architecture, which was the above mentioned alternating spaces. Murray's piece on S. Andrea says specifically of the barrel vaulting: “...Alberti used the prototype provided by such Roman buildings as the Baths of Diocletian or the Basilica of Constantine, in which enormous abutments carried the weight of the vaulting, but at the same time could be hollowed out to form openings at right angles to the main axes.” (54). These openings that are mentioned are the alternating chapel spaces that allow the interior to appear so unique.

Following with his aforementioned fascination and study of ornamentation, we can see from the interior that he spared no expense on lavish decoration. Coiffered ceilings, sculpture on the walls and pilasters, large paintings, a large dome on the crossing letting in a vast amount of light to the otherwise fairly dark interior. Windows are few and a far in-between, mainly found on the facade and at the apse, due to the massive weight of the barrel vaulting. Geometrical shapes, like on the facade, are everywhere. In Gadol's book, Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early Renaissance, this is said in regards to the interior:

“... Arches, rectangles, and circles, too, appear and reappear in a complex variety of sizes and positions. Rectangular doorways are set in the arched walls of the interior, and high above the doors, circular windows 'respond' to the great circle of the dome and single, circular window that dominates the entrance wall.” (Gadol 138).

This, no doubt, required careful planning on Alberti's behalf, and succeeds in appearing beautifully simple yet complex at the very same time, and succeeds in achieving both beautiful decoration, design and what Alberti sought for, “... a triumphant intelligible harmony which binds a manifold of relations in a perfect whole...” (Gadol 139-140). Reviewing the interior, it is safe to say that Alberti achieved doing just that. He made the design unique but inserted references to ancient Roman architecture everywhere within, and focused on decorating it lavishly.

We can see clearly now the great devotion that Leon Battista Alberti put into studying and replicating the architectural designs of antiquity, and how he implemented various designs, specifically in the ways of ornamentation and beauty when designing and building the church of Sant' Andrea in Mantua. The church contains many classical attributes, derived from ancient structures such as triumphant arches, temples, and Roman baths. The combination of his own personalization, such as the alternating spaces both outside and inside in the design of the church was a creative gamble that came to be an inspiration for those architects who came after him, using his design of the church specifically as a reference for hundreds of years afterward. Alberti succeeded in aiding the revival of the attributes of classical architecture through his study of the works of Vitruvius, the writing of his own treatise The Ten Books of Architecture and through his own designs and structures. Sant' Andrea was a great example of a Renaissance church, for Alberti succeeded in creating a structure that looked, both inside and out, like it was straight from antiquity.

Sources:

1. Alberti, Leon Battista, Cosimo Bartoli, and Giacomo Leoni. The Ten Books of Architecture: The 1755 Leoni Edition. New York: Dover Publications, 1986. Print.

2. Gadol, Joan. Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1969. Print.

3. Murray, Peter. "3 - Alberti." The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Schocken, 1964. 45-56. Print.

4. Wittkower, Rudolf. "Alberti's Approach to Antiquity in Architecture." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4.1/2 (1940): 1-18. JSTOR. Web.

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