Learning from the City-States? Leon Battista Alberti and the London Riots


The Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge, Vittore Carpaccio, 1465

by Caspar Pearson

This summer has seen English cities engulfed by the worst rioting since the early 1980s. Such was their ferocity that the riots quite eclipsed the troubles of News International, Anders Breivik’s horrific massacre, and the last days of Colonel Gaddafi in the British press. What began as a demonstration following the fatal shooting by police of a black man in north London swiftly grew into something very different. Looting and arson spread across the capital and then northwards to Birmingham and Manchester. TV footage showed young men of all races fighting police for control of the streets and often, seeming to win. Running from one store to the next, and breaching security shutters with surprising ease, it appeared the rioters had no cause other than the accumulation of consumer goods. Sneakers and electrical equipment were among the prime targets but everything from clothing to chocolate was taken. In Birmingham, three British Asian men were killed, run down by a car as they stood on the sidewalk protecting local businesses. In west London, a man died after he was attacked on the street. TV pundits speculated that we would soon witness curfews and the deployment of the army.

As the footage of burning cars and buildings looped without interruption, many asked themselves how such an event was possible. Some Londoners, who had viewed their city as a supreme example of the richness and vivacity of urban life, began to think again. Who were these people with no sense of a social contract? What had produced them? Were they simply criminals, bent on enriching themselves by any means? Were they animated by a nihilistic rage born of social exclusion and disenfranchisement? Photographs of pristine bookstores, left untouched among the devastation, were employed to demonstrate the purely mercenary quality of what had occurred. Some felt they had witnessed a catastrophic failure of societal structures. The prime minister, elected on a promise to fix “broken Britain,” now declared that parts of society were not just broken but “sick.”

In the following days and weeks, as courts sat through the night and handed down heavy sentences, the ‘remedy’ to England’s sickness was much debated. Some commentators demanded that police should in future employ water cannon and baton rounds, tactics hitherto confined to Northern Ireland. Restrictions on social networks were mooted, amid protests that such a move would cause the government to resemble the kind of dictatorships whose passing it had recently celebrated. Some argued for an end to cuts in public spending and action to address inequality. Others still looked at London’s topography and wondered whether its irregular patchwork of rich and poor and its juxtaposition of spacious, period residences with grim, concrete housing estates was not a recipe for disaster. On the internet, there was speculation that some people simply could not be lived with and should be removed from the city: taken outside, offshore even.

An Orange phone shop targeted by looters, next to a Waterstones bookshopthat was left untouched. Photograph by Roy Pinnock

Amidst all of this commentary, one national newspaper published an article suggesting that the solution might be found in Italy. Beneath a photograph of Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Cross, the author observed that the Italian Renaissance provided examples of a rich array of urban experience from which much could be learned. Some cities, like Florence, had been turbulent but others, such as Venice – revealed in Carpaccio’s painting as an exquisite city on a human scale – achieved a remarkable stability.

This tendency to regard the Italian Renaissance as a model for urban development, which naturally takes a rather selective look at the historical record, has a long pedigree. The Renaissance, it is felt, witnessed the flowering of numerous cities where beauty was paramount and where the urban and the urbane coincided; qualities that still impress themselves on holidaymakers today. Simultaneously, it is sometimes argued, the period witnessed the birth of a new body of urban theory in which the city became an object of conscious reflection. Burckhardt declared that, in the Renaissance, the state was treated as a work of art and the same might be said of the city (which was to some degree coextensive with the state).

The architect and scholar Leon Batista Alberti (1404-72) is a figure of great importance in this scheme. His architectural treatise, De re aedificatoria, was the first to be written since the age of Augustus. It addresses the art of building in its totality and has been described as the first treatise on urbanism proper. As an architect, Alberti participated in the urban renewal of several cities, designing some of the canonical buildings of the Italian Renaissance. Described by Burckhardt as uomo universale, Alberti’s own extraordinary intellectual range has sometimes seemed to exemplify the vitality of the city-states themselves.

Following this tradition, there is a temptation to view Alberti primarily as a celebrator of the city but this is not the case. He returns to the subject of the urban world time and again in his writings – not only in the architectural treatise but also in his vernacular, moral dialogues and Latin works of all kinds. In every case, the city poses a problem. The fragility of the urban order, the realization of which came as such a shock to Londoners this summer, was ever at the forefront of his mind. Only a little beneath the surface, and sometimes above it, Alberti saw destructive forces ready to unleash their potential. For this reason, we do not find him describing ideal cities or crafting panegyric to those that existed but grappling instead with the most pressing kind of urban problems; searching for ways in which cities might be improved and sometimes speculating as to their ultimate viability.

Alberti must rank among the most educated men of his times, a skilled writer who referenced an extraordinary array of ancient sources in his works. Antique literature offered some strong affirmations of the value of urban life but also highlighted the city’s volatility and liability to destruction; a subject that is central to much epic poetry, for example. Biblical narrative also lingers on the ruination of cities, and theologians such as Augustine viewed the settlements that man built as ephemeral entities whose existence was necessitated by the Fall. These traditions bear strongly on Alberti’s thinking but his views are colored equally forcefully by his own, firsthand observation of the city-states. At the root of Alberti’s preoccupations relating to cities lies an anxiety regarding man himself, a being who is capable of cultivating the liberal arts and attaining virtù but who is also subject to unreason and immoderate desire. Man is a divided creature whose failure to achieve reconciliation with himself exposes him and his works to the vicissitudes of fortune.

Alberti would not have shared in Londoners’ surprise at the events of this summer. In one of his dialogues, a character warns against the belief that all men are good and it often seems that he considers the bulk of humanity to be guided by irrational impulses. Men in cities, it is asserted in several of his works, are more prone than others to unreason. Often, they actively despise learning – a charge also leveled by some in London who were inclined to find significance in the looters’ disdain for bookshops. Alberti sometimes suggests that urban life may cause men to take on the natures and manners of ferocious, wild animals. As he sees it, this certainly applies to the lower orders, who must anyway, by necessity, be the enemies of the rich. It seems to have been Alberti’s view that wealth existed in finite quantity. The poor, therefore, may only become wealthier through the impoverishment of the rich and, since the poor make up by far the majority of humanity, the rich must exist in a condition of constant siege.

In view of this, it is unsurprising that Alberti considers how one might take radical, authoritarian measures to suppress the threat of the poor. The issue of class topography is given substantial attention and Alberti speculates about the merits of living alongside the lower orders, considering whether it is desirable for the wealthy to separate themselves from the rest of the population and, if so, how it might be achieved. However, it is not simply the poor from whom one might want to seek refuge. Immoral men of all classes are to be avoided and in one dialogue a character expresses the wish that glutinous and drunken youths might be removed from the city altogether and confined to some deserted island. One of the main vices to infect the lower classes – the desire for innovation and change in the social order – is in fact seen by Alberti as equally prevalent among the upper echelons. Wealthy and vainglorious citizens seek to change the constitutions of states, exult themselves, expropriate public goods, undermine institutions and erode ancient civic freedoms.

On this basis, as has been brilliantly argued by scholars including Manfredo Tafuri, Christine Smith, Joseph F. O’Connor and Stefano Borsi, Alberti engaged in a dissimulated but penetrating critique of the policies of his employer, Pope Nicholas V. A close observer of Nicholas’s pontificate, and the renovatio of the city of Rome that went along with it, Alberti was motivated to reflect on the nature of tyrannical government and its architectural expression. Once considered to have been the architectural brain behind Nicholas’s program, many scholars have come to see Alberti as at best uneasy about the pope’s schemes. Certainly, he condemns buildings that are immoderate in size or ornament and that serve the purpose of vanity above all else. On the other hand, he proposes, in the De re aedificatoria, a different form of architecture and he considers the idea that true architectural beauty might have a restraining influence on the violence of man.

It is the exploration of issues such as these that causes Alberti to confront questions that have not lost their relevance: how might buildings and cities resist the destructive onslaught of time and nature? Is it possible to develop secure defenses against external enemies? How should the city be governed and what should be the character of the ruler? Are state violence and coercion legitimate or effective means to bring about order? Is it possible to exert control without the appearance of tyranny? Can one live in the city without damage to one’s health? Is it better to live in the country than the city? Does the plan of a city bear upon the likelihood of it falling into civil strife? What is the role of environment in determining behavior and what value should be placed on architectural beauty?

Alberti’s responses to these questions are of course consistent with fifteenth rather than twentieth-century cultural and intellectual norms, and the modern reader will often feel out of sympathy with him. Nevertheless, his speculations highlight issues and attitudes that remain at the heart of debates on urbanism. Alberti emerges from his discussions as both an enthusiast of the city and a perceptive observer of its problematic nature. Indeed, we might speculate that for Alberti, a Florentine born in exile, the notion of the city was inherently problematic in a way that it would not have been for those who were born and raised within their own patria. Italy did offer a diverse range of urban experiences, as the British newspaper columnist observed, and exiles had occasion to pay particularly close attention to them. In his treatise on the family, where members of the Alberti clan are the main speakers in the dialogue, Alberti has his protagonists discuss how one might choose a city in which to live in foreign lands. Weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of each one, the nature of cities is presented to the reader as a complex thing that might vary greatly from one place to the next.

By the time that he wrote the Della famiglia, the Alberti family had been readmitted to Florence. Alberti himself had embarked on a successful career at the Curia in Rome and had cause to spend extensive periods of time in his homeland to the north. As a young man, he had complained that serious scholars had to forego all manner of pleasures, among which one of the greatest was “to wander through cities and regions: to gaze upon temples, theaters, fortifications and all sorts of buildings, to walk in places which, by nature and by human labor and design, have been made beautiful, welcoming and secure.” [1] Nonetheless, across the course of a lifetime devoted to scholarship, Alberti found occasion to visit many of the cities of Italy and to gaze upon all manner of constructions. Often he found them a source of inspiration, as is evidenced by his fulsome praise of Florentine artists and Brunelleschi’s vast cathedral dome. But if Alberti found inspiration in the city-states, he also found anxiety.


[1} Leon Battista Alberti, The Use and Abuse of Books. Translated with an introduction by Renée Neu Watkins. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1999, p. 20.

About the Author:

Caspar Pearson is a lecturer at the University of Essex, specialising in the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. He is the author of Humanism and the Urban World: Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City.