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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary / auto/biographical

Biographical and
Autobiographical Writings

Leon Battista Alberti

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To purchase Biographical and Autobiographical Writings

Title: Biographical and Autobiographical Writings
Author: Leon Battista Alberti
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (1428-44) (Eng. 2023)
Length: 294 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: Biographical and Autobiographical Writings - US
Biographical and Autobiographical Writings - UK
Biographical and Autobiographical Writings - Canada
Avantages et inconvénients des lettres - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • This volume collects:
    • De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literature)
    • Vita Sancti Potiti (The Life of St. Potitus)
    • Canis (My Dog)
    • Vita (My Life)
    • Musca (The Fly)
  • These pieces were written between 1431 and 1444
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Martin McLaughlin
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Latin text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very enjoyable selection/collection of Alberti's work

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Biographical and Autobiographical Writings collects five less well-known works by Leon Battista Alberti, with translator Martin McLaughlin suggesting in his Introduction that:

     These five Latin works, written over a space of fifteen years, provide an insight into a crucial phase of Alberti's growth as a writer, as he gradually finds his own voice in these biographical and autobiographical writings.
       While the selection may not, at first sight, appear strictly autobiographical, as McLaughlin points out: "Even when writing about a dog or a fly, Alberti is always writing about himself".

       The first of the pieces is the most substantial, covering almost half the volume, as Alberti writes at length 'On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literature' -- with an emphasis on the disadvantages. Yes, "literati are in everyone's judgment second to none", admired for their knowledge and their devotion to learning -- but then that seems to also be a reflection of what they're giving up, as Alberti notes that the disadvantages of a life devoted to literature are considerable.
       Foremost, for Alberti, is the fact that he finds it's nearly impossible to make any money pursuing literature: "Now let us see how literature can help one achieve wealth", he begins one section -- only to quickly point out that, basically, it can only be done in the rarest circumstances. As he notes, if his argument holds -- and it does -- then one can safely conclude: "that whoever dedicates themselves to the labors of scholarship, hoping to become rich, is clearly not very prudent". Helpfully, too, he makes clear the dangers of a family letting a son pursue such a career, noting that: "the family's fortune will sooner be exhausted in supporting his studies before the young man will progress so far in literature that he will be able to support himself from literary income".
       Alberti is tough on love -- a dedicated scholar, he warns that it is a dangerous distraction, and admits: "I would want literary scholars to be totally removed" from its delights:
Vires labefactare, mores depravare, ingenia hominum pervertere, animum curis conficere, mentem erroribus obruere, ad insaniam redigere: hec quidem amoris munera et dotes sunt.

[It whittles away our strength, depraves our morals, perverts our intellects, destroys our minds with cares, oppresses our brains with errors, and drives us to insanity: these are the gifts and rewards of love.]
       Alberti warns about marriage, too:
volo esse in litteratos non solum nihil durus, sed etiam non usquequaque mitis, ut velim cupidos litteratos fastidio uxorum carere

[I do not want to be harsh, but nor do I wish to be so easygoing that I would like covetous literary scholars to be without the annoyance of a wife.]
       He points out that one problem literary scholars face in finding a wife is that basic one of not being likely to make any money in their careers, making them poor candidates for a good match. His solution ?
Capiat igitur litteratus viduam aliquam vetulam a qua minus quam a ceteris mulieribus aspernabitur

[So let the literature student acquire some elderly widow by whom he will be less despised than by other wives.]
       He sees some opportunity for some financial gain for those practicing in three literature-adjacent professions -- notaries, lawyers, and doctors -- but on the whole makes clear that the field does not offer much of a future, beyond possibly the opportunity of being held in high regard. He also says he's often heard 'serious and learned men' claim that: "if they had their time over again [...] they would think it preferable to choose any other kind of life than to return to literary study". And yet he's devoted to it -- already explaining at the outset that:
ego autem, qui me totum tradidi litteris, ceteris posthabitis rebus, omnia posse libentius debeo quam diem aliquam nihil aut lectitando aut commentando preterire.

[while I, having set aside all other pursuits and given myself over entirely to literary study, would gladly do anything else rather than let a day go by without reading or writing something.]
       On the one hand, then, he can conclude:
Sit igitur quantum ad rem nos parce, sed tamen vere, demonstravimus: multos labores, nullas voluptates, multas impensas, minima lucra, multas difficultates, multa discrimina, perexiguam auctoritatem in litteris comparari.

[Let it be agreed that we have set out the case sparingly but truthfully: the study of letters involves much labor, no pleasure, much expense, minimum profit, many difficulties and dangers and very little prestige.]
       Yet Alberti -- who after all, has devoted his life to this seemingly hopeless enterprise -- also points out that it has quite a few things going for it, albeit with satisfactions that are mostly of the more personal sort.
       There's not much sugar-coating to 'On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literature', but it's an amusing example of the historical complaints about what good the study of literature, and the liberal arts generally, might be, with many of the arguments still heard in the present-day. Alberti might have argued more for the advantages, but even as one-sided as it is, it's an entertaining, solid work.

       In 'The Life of St. Potitus' Alberti tries his hand at the popular exercise of recounting the life of a Christian saint, commissioned to do so by one of his first patrons in the early 1430s. If not well-known -- McLaughlin calls Potitus an: "obscure second-century saint" -- the story of his short life, or at least his death, is certainly spectacular, and Alberti milks it nicely.
       Born during the reign of Emperor Antoninus, Potitus was the only son of the well-to-do Hylas, he caused his loving father many worries because instead of following the pagan gods even at a young age Potitus embraced "this new religious cult" -- Christianity !
       What's a father to do when one's kid is: "seized by this new insanity" ? Well, Hylas tries everything, but Potitus -- otherwise such a paragon, "endowed with an almost divine genius and good looks" ('ingenio et forma pene divina preditus') -- was an unwavering true believer. Dad is worried for the kid -- and for himself, because the authorities would likely find him equally guilty if they become aware of Potitus' outrageous beliefs.
       Potitus hopes he can save and convince dad as well, but, as soon as he can, flees into the wild, away from all this corrupted civilization:
Etenim pulchrius intra feras belluas versari arbitrabatur quam intra crudeles, nefarios immanesque homines, quorum nulla pene urbs non refertissima est.

[He felt it was better to live among wild animals than amid cruel, wicked and inhuman people, since hardly any city was not crammed full of such men.]
       Curing a woman from leprosy -- by getting her to see and convert to the true faith ... -- he gains quite the reputation: "Erat adolescens in ore, in oculis omni populo" ('The young man was on everyone's tongue and in the eyes of the whole populace'), coming also to the attention of Antoninus. When Potitus is able to even drive the devil out of Antoninus' daughter -- by getting her to see the (Christian) light, of course -- the emperor is put in a difficult position, since he sees Christianity as a great threat and can't let his followers be convinced that it is the one, true way (or even just a viable alternative). He tries to undermine Potitus, but everything he does goes spectacularly wrong -- beginning with when he takes Potitus to the local temple, as: "Nam se introeunte omnia deorum simulacra putrefacta et in pulverem collapsa sunt" ('For as the young man entered, all the statues of the gods crumbled and collapsed into dust').
       It all culminates in Antoninus deciding the only thing left to do is put the teen to death (using a hastily approved law as cover) -- and, unfortunately, trying to make a big spectacle out of it, with a huge audience. It does turn into a spectacle -- of the comic-horrific sort, which Alberti indulges in for all it's worth. So, for example, after a bit of torture and mutilation, Potitus is to be fed to the wild beasts -- but they just peacefully lie down around him. Antoninus next orders his executioners to mutilate him and feed him to the dogs, but in their zeal "they actually wounded each other, whereas the young man remained untouched". He's fried in boiling oil and has molten lead poured over him, and then speared "from his head to his thigh". Yet Potitus keeps preaching the good word. They even cut out his tongue -- and that still won't shut him up. (Eventually -- but not before he has had his good say -- he is decapitated, and that seems to finally be the end of the story.)
       It's all wonderfully ridiculous, and Alberti tells it well -- focusing on the action, rather than whatever it is that Potitus blathers on about. As such, while still conveying the proper Christian message (Christianity good; paganism bad) Alberti manages the neat trick of not coming across as preachy -- and provides a good action-story as well.

       'My Dog' is a funeral oration -- presented half as jest, but also seriously enough to be a touching encomium for a beloved pet. Alberti makes the case that his dog is as deserving of such a tribute as many a person -- especially since he was such a good and devoted friend and companion to him. Quite a bit here is tongue in cheek, but Alberti also makes it -- for the most part -- genuine enough for it to be taken seriously.
       He can be overly playful -- beginning with his claim:
     Describam igitur breviter vitam et mores Canis mei, ut qui legerint neque prolixitate orationis in fastidium incidant, neque nos nimium curiosos et exactos laudatores fuisse iudicent

     [I will now describe my dog's life and character briefly so that my readers will not become annoyed with the prolixity of my oration, nor will they judge me to have been too curious and punctilious in my eulogy]
       In fact, he is not brief -- and, indeed, takes a while to even just get to the point, i.e. the dog, first giving a rather long history of his admirable ancestors. Eventually, he comes to a point where he claims that, 'for the sake of brevity', he'll not mention this or that example or detail -- even as he then does, again and again (e.g. "I will also pass over in silence the dog who stood beside a Roman citizen who had been killed in the civil war: that dog fought against the enemies of the prostrate man with such strength that, although they were armed, they were not able to cut off the man's head until they had first killed the dog").
       Finally, he does get around to his dog, and to the eulogy proper, describing all the dog's admirable qualities -- much as one might a person's.
       Nicely put is how:
     Nam eo fuit quidem singulari et divino ingenio preditus, ut liberales quidem apud me artes ingenuis canibus dignas, inextimabili quadam discendi celeritate, omnes parilis etatis studiosos paucis diebus exsuperans, integre edidicerit.

     [For he was so endowed with a unique and almost divine genius that in my company he surpassed all other learners of his age in the incredible speed with which he mastered in just a few days all the liberal arts that are worthy of a wellborn dog.]
       And: "The extraordinary thing" -- indeed ! -- "is that before he was three he could understand Greek and Latin as much as Tuscan".
       A particularly nice touch is how Alberti uses the dog-specific qualities, as in:
     Fuit igitur pecuniarum omnino gravis et sapiens aspernator. Una tantum vixit contentus veste. Pes illi ut estate ita et bruma ad nives nudus.

     [He was thus a serious and wise despiser of money. He lived content with just the one coat. His paws were bare both in summer and in winter snow.]
       It's a clever and accomplished piece, in which Alberti demonstrates what he's capable of.

       'My Life' is a purely autobiographical account -- noteworthy both for being written in the third person (with the Latin title simply: 'Vita', 'A Life' might have thus been more appropriate, though it is admittedly Alberti writing about his own) and for its emphatic projection of self-confidence: Alberti is no shrinking violet here. Proud of his accomplishments, he lets readers know just what an impressive fellow he is: "Ingenio fuit versatili, quoad nullam ferme censeas artium bonarum fuisse non suam" ('He possessed such a versatile mind that you would think that there was almost none of the humanities that he had not mastered'), he notes early on.
       Quite a bit of paranoia runs through much of this -- with especially his relatives rubbing him the wrong way (including their not bothering to read his books):
     Multorum tamen, etsi esset facilis, mitis ac nulli nocuus, sensit iniquissimorum odia occultasque inimicitias sibi incomodas atque nimium graves; ac praesertim a suis affinibus acerbissimas iniurias intollerabilesque contumelias pertulit animo constanti.

     [However, although he was easygoing and gentle and would harm nobody, he sensed the hatred of many extremely wicked people, and felt that their hidden enmity was a very serious source of discomfort to him; yet with constant equanimity he put up with the bitterest of injuries and intolerable slander, particularly from his relatives]
       He was apparently convinced that a lot of bad things were being said about him behind his back:
coram, etiam ab ipsis invidis honorifice accipiebatur; ubi vero aures alicuius levissimi ac sui simillimi paterent, hi maxime, qui prae ceteris diligere simulassent, omnibus calumniis absentem lacerabant

[Face to face, he was received with great honor, even by the envious themselves; but when he was absent, and there were very frivolous or like-minded people ready to lend their ears, then particularly those who had pretended to love him above all others would destroy his reputation using every form of calumny.]
       It's an interesting thin-skinned streak he shows here, especially in contrast to his consistent lack of humility:
     Huiusmodi rebus investigandis operae plus adhibuit quam promulgandis; nam plus ingenio quam gloriae inserviebat. Numquam vacabat animo a meditatione et commentatione; raro se domi ex publico recipiebat non aliquid commentatus, tum et inter coenas commentando. Hinc fiebat ut esset admodum taciturnus et solitarius aspectuque subtristis, sed moribus minime difficilis, quin inter familiares, etiam cum de rebus seriis disputaret, semper sese exibebat iocundum et, servata dignitate, festivum.

     [He spent more time researching these things than in publicizing them, for he was in thrall more to his intelligence than to fame. His mind never stopped meditating and commenting on things; it was a rare event if he went home from the city without having pondered some on problem, and he would also reflect on various subject over dinner. Hence he became quite taciturn and solitary and with a slightly melancholy look, but he was certainly not difficult in character: in fact, among his close friends, even when discussing serious topics, he would always be humorous and amusing, though staying within the bounds of dignity.]
       He is also obviously very proud of his quick tongue and would-be witticisms -- and, as luck would have it: "Fuerunt qui eius dicta et seria et ridicula complurima colligerent" ('There were some people who collected his many serious and witty sayings'), and so he shares a few examples. Times change, so maybe this sort of thing impressed back in the day, but these little, clever comments now fall pretty flat; so also at the end of the piece, he offers more examples of his clever way with words, and, well ..... Consider, for example, the closing example:
     In eum qui esset claudus: 'Poplitem is,' inquit, 'perquam belle scalpit.'

     [Of a man who limped, he said: "How elegantly this man scratches his knee."]
       As good as Alberti is when he remains vague in his descriptions of his life and accomplishments -- when we have to take his word for it -- his actual examples of how cleverly he says things undermine that. Still, 'My Life' is an entertaining and revealing autobiographical sketch, and obviously of interest.

       The final piece, 'The Fly', feels the most artificial; where there's some honesty even to the joking 'My Dog', this piece is all too obviously just a clever idea played out. The basic idea is amusing enough, as Alberti wonders why: "veteres poetas in laudandis apibus, spreta musca, tantum posuisse opere et diligentie" ('ancient poets rejected the fly and devoted so much work and diligence to praising bees'). Alberti makes the argument that it is flies that are the exemplary species -- and, certainly, how he does so is quite amusing, if all also a bit forced and contrived.
       Alberti concludes his piece by noting: "Scripsimus hec ridendo et vos ridete" ('We wrote the above laughing, and you too should laugh'), and it is a well-turned piece -- but it lacks a naturalness found in the other pieces collected in this volume, which makes its artificialness all the more glaring and makes it a poor fit here. It is a good piece, but is rather out of place here.

       As McLaughlin notes in his Introduction: "One of the most striking aspects in all five works is the staggering, perhaps unequaled range of reference to classical texts, both Greek and Latin", and the endnotes here helpfully guide readers through much of this. Even ignoring the references, Alberti's writing consistently impresses -- these are anything but dry texts and all make for very good reading, with a lot more to them as well if one wants to explore them in light of the references.
       McLaughlin's translation strikes me as just a bit loose -- see the above examples -- but with the Latin text facing the English rendering the original is always there for reference (and the texts are certainly enjoyable enough even read in just these English translations).
       This is a very entertaining collection, and both a good introduction to the remarkable Alberti and fine sampler of his work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 August 2023

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Biographical and Autobiographical Writings: Leon Battista Alberti: Other books by Leon Battista Alberti under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Leon Battista Alberti lived 1404 to 1472.

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© 2023 the complete review

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