A View on Nature: Leon Bat­tista Alberti’s Legacy

Chiara Toscani


This essay aims to illus­trate the rel­e­vance of Leon Bat­tista Alberti’s human­ism to con­tem­po­rary eco­log­i­cal chal­lenges, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regards to the rela­tion­ship between humans, nature, and the arts, includ­ing archi­tec­ture. In order to under­stand that rel­e­vance, Alberti’s work should be read as a holis­tic project lead by one all-com­pass­ing aim. The mul­ti­plic­i­ty of top­ics cov­ered and the dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary styles give rise nei­ther to obsta­cles to read­ing the works as a whole nor the sus­pi­cion of incon­sis­ten­cy. On the con­trary, this vari­ety is evi­dence of the breadth of his insight. 

On the one hand, Alber­ti shows the pow­er of the line, as the found­ing ele­ment for prospec­tive con­struc­tions, along with oth­er mea­sure­ment tools, invent­ed to describe real­i­ty, but most­ly to design new inhab­it­ed spaces. His con­fi­dence in Nature, as a per­fect mod­el know­able through phys­i­cal obser­va­tion, is what opens up his new direc­tion. For this rea­son, his works can be con­sid­ered one of the first to draw a con­nec­tion between the prac­ti­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal spheres and a sci­en­tif­ic con­cept of Art. Three trea­tis­es, De Pic­tura, Descrip­tio Urbis Romae, and De Stat­ua will be the main ref­er­ences to sup­port this argument. 

On the oth­er hand, in texts such as Vita S. Poti­ti, Del­la Famil­ia, and Theoge­nius he inves­ti­gates the inner atti­tude of liv­ing beings, made up of virtues but also faults, explor­ing its mul­ti­ple con­nec­tions on social struc­tures, from the fam­i­ly through to the polit­i­cal, and their envi­ron­ment. He does not focus on prac­ti­cal trans­for­ma­tions, but on human beings’ pur­pose that indi­rect­ly under­lies and affects them. Both orig­i­nate from the two inter­pre­ta­tions of Nature. How­ev­er, Alber­ti is able to find a con­ver­gence between these two appar­ent­ly irrec­on­cil­able approach­es. He strong­ly con­tributes to Arts and Architecture’s progress, with­out under­es­ti­mat­ing the destruc­tive capac­i­ty of the human actions on Nature. 

Nature as Machina Orbis

As men­tioned above, before com­plet­ing De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria, Leon Bat­tista Alber­ti had already explored how oth­er art forms, such as paint­ing and sculp­ture, could be reformed for a more sec­u­lar and sci­en­tif­ic cul­ture. De Pic­tura, Descrip­tio Urbis Romae, and De Stat­ua, rep­re­sent the first field of inves­ti­ga­tion. Here, he com­bines the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal con­tri­bu­tions, defin­ing new artis­tic prin­ci­ples based on a spe­cif­ic idea of Nature, seen as vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble struc­ture, know­able through direct expe­ri­ence. This will be the basis for the future sci­en­tif­ic method. 

This dif­fer­ent approach evi­dences, read­ing his claim, the impor­tance of oth­er dis­ci­plines in cre­at­ing a stronger the­o­ret­i­cal impact. He looks at both clas­si­cal Greek and Latin authors and their lega­cy in math­e­mat­ics and geom­e­try, but also in poet­ry and rhetoric. How­ev­er, more than any oth­er dis­ci­pline, Alber­ti con­sid­ers geom­e­try to be the foun­da­tion for paint­ing, ded­i­cat­ing to it entire­ly De Pictura’s first chap­ter: I want the painter, as far as he is able, to be learned in all the lib­er­al arts, but I wish him above all to have a good knowl­edge of geom­e­try” (L.B. Aber­ti, De Pic­tura, para­graph 53).

Lat­er, in De Stat­ua, geom­e­try will be fun­da­men­tal to under­stand­ing any nat­ur­al body or envi­ron­men­tal pro­por­tions, to be copied with the use of tri­lat­er­a­tion and coor­di­nates. In fact, geom­e­try, unlike the math­e­mat­i­cal fields that deal with inner struc­tures, is con­cerned with the phys­i­cal appear­ance of the world as well.

As a result, in both trea­tis­es this dis­ci­pline finds a prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion through new tools that open up knowl­edge of the envi­ron­ment as a tan­gi­ble expe­ri­ence, that will affect new cre­ative tra­jec­to­ries. The first trea­tise cov­ers the inven­tion of per­spec­tive. The visu­al rays, inter­sect­ing a sur­face, are the foun­da­tion of this new way of look­ing at the world. Those lines medi­ate the rela­tion­ship between the human eye and the exter­nal world, describ­ing it accu­rate­ly. As a con­se­quence, this descrip­tive process is used lat­er to project pic­tures and buildings.

Whilst per­spec­tive still belongs to the abstract realm of draw­ing, in De Stat­ua, Alber­ti invents new tools: nor­mae, an object made by exempt­ed and squares, used to record dimen­sions along the Carte­sian coor­di­nates, lengths, thick­ness and widths, and to describe more sta­ble and fix by Nature” (L.B. Alber­ti, De stat­ua, para­graph 8); and the fini­tio, used to record curves and body vari­a­tions like movements. 

In spite of their dif­fer­ences, these tools allow the achieve­ment of impor­tant new artis­tic prin­ci­ples: cir­cum­scrip­tion, com­po­si­tion, his­to­ria and recep­tion of light. With­in Descrip­tio Urbis Romae, he shows oth­er sim­i­lar tools, used on this occa­sion to describe a city: Rome. Through a numer­ic sys­tem of coor­di­nates, a sort of para­met­ri­cal pre­cur­sor as sug­gest­ed by Mario Car­po, he draws a series of con­nect­ing points and lines on the ground on which to cre­ate an accu­rate map: walls, gates, rivers, and mon­u­ments, all parts of an urban struc­ture rather than sequences or sin­gle build­ings. Alber­ti explains pre­cise­ly how this process works: 

Using mathematical instruments, I have recorded as carefully as I could the passage and the lineaments of the wall, the river, and the streets of the city of Rome, as well as the sites and locations of the temples, public works, gates, and commemorative monuments and the outlines of the hills, not to mention the area which is occupied by habitable buildings, all as we know them to be in our time. Furthermore, I have invented a method by which anyone, even a man endowed with only an average intellect, may make both exceptionally easily, and also very accurately, depictions on any surface, however large. It was some intellectuals, friends of mine, who moved me to do this, and I thought it good to assist their studies.

M. Carpo, Leon Battista Alberti’s Delineation of the city of Rome, 98

This accu­rate process leads to the def­i­n­i­tion of some prin­ci­ples that are sim­i­lar to those for paint­ing and sculp­ture, lin­ea­men­ta, col­lo­ca­tio, and situs, cru­cial to plan­ning and design­ing new parts of the city in the man­ner employed by Princes and Popes in Rome at the time, where­by they would extend lines to define inter­sec­tions on the ground. 

Lines, sur­faces, and num­bers, record­ed by tools and defined by prin­ci­ples, would cap­ture the Beau­ty dis­trib­uted by Nature” (L.B. Alber­ti, De stat­ua, para­graph 12), pro­vid­ing it to human­i­ty as a new cul­tur­al horizon.

How­ev­er, the cru­cial thread in Alberti’s thought that encom­pass­es all these process­es and con­cepts is the idea of Nature as a per­fect mod­el to copy, and from which should come any prin­ci­ples and dis­ci­plines. Every­thing can be learned from Nature, con­ceiv­ing it as a unique source, a per­fect organ­ism of shapes, move­ments, char­ac­ters, and col­ors, and of the real Beau­ty. For this rea­son, over any oth­er tools or prin­ci­ples, human eyes are the main medi­um through which to appre­hend the exter­nal world. Togeth­er with the eyes, Alber­ti also men­tions the role of the mind, which should select excel­lent exam­ples from the most beau­ti­ful bod­ies, and every effort should be to per­ceive, under­stand and express beau­ty” (L.B. Alber­ti, De Pic­tura, para­graph 55).

For the first time, Beau­ty is not an abstract idea, but a result of the selec­tion of many beau­ti­ful exam­ples. The art­work is the result of human inven­tion and can be more per­fect than Nature itself, even if it is a copy, open­ing up the debate on the trans­for­ma­tion of Nature into arti­fi­cial, and autonomous objects.

Although this idea of Nature is strong­ly reit­er­at­ed in each of those three trea­tis­es, it is in De Pic­tura that Alber­ti begins a brief inves­ti­ga­tion of anoth­er mean­ing of Nature, as essence. This rep­re­sents the imma­te­r­i­al side of liv­ing beings, the nat­ur­al atti­tude, that, how­ev­er always find an expres­sion through the body, actions, pur­pos­es, etc.

Alber­ti explores this sec­ond inter­pre­ta­tion in oth­er works such as Apologhi, Del­la Famiglia, Theoge­nius, and Momus, but in this treaty, he relates it to the artis­tic world. De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria is the only trea­tise that ful­ly con­verges both aspects, there­by pro­vid­ing a spe­cif­ic role for the archi­tect and the artist.

In chap­ter two, para­graph 41, Alber­ti explains how the painter should define a his­to­ria”, a nar­ra­tive of the paint­ing, cov­er­ing its gen­er­al com­po­si­tion, its char­ac­ters’ move­ments, and their bod­i­ly expressions: 

A “historia” will move spectators when the men painted in the picture outwardly demonstrate their own feelings as clearly as possible. Nature provides that we mourn with the mourners, laugh with those who laugh, and grieve with the grief-stricken. Yet these feelings are known from movements of the body.

L.B. Alberti, De Pictura, paragraph 41

Claim­ing this, Alber­ti high­lights the sub­tle thread that joins inter­nal and exter­nal Nature, between human feel­ings and their bod­ies, com­mu­ni­ty, and environment. 

A few para­graphs lat­er, in chap­ter three, Alber­ti adds that the painter’s aim as being to obtain praise, favor and good-will for his work much more than rich­es. The painter will achieve this if his paint­ing holds and charms the eyes and minds of spec­ta­tors“. Lat­er still, Alber­ti con­cludes that a good painter should be a good man, intro­duc­ing a spe­cif­ic con­nec­tion between his virtue, and his artis­tic work. 

He is aware of the strong rela­tion­ship between the artist, his out­comes, and his moral val­ues. and at the end his spec­ta­tors, that as a result, open up the civic issue of the role of art, which will become the cru­cial aim of archi­tec­ture in cre­at­ing a har­mo­nious society. 

Nature as Immanent Realm

A famil­iar­i­ty with some of Alberti’s pre­vi­ous dia­logues, such as Apologhi, Del­la Famiglia, Theoge­nius, and Momus is essen­tial to ful­ly under­stand his idea of inner Nature (essence). These works are part of his eth­i­cal and social research, an attempt to give relief to the human soul and to probe human exis­ten­tial strug­gles1.

Each work is rep­re­sent­ed by one or more cen­tral char­ac­ters: Saint Poti­tus in Vita S. Poti­ti, Batista and Gian­noz­zo in Del­la Famiglia, Theoge­nius, Geni­pa­tro and Microtiro in Theoge­nius, Gelas­tus, and Eno­pus in Monus. Despite their dif­fer­ences, they are char­ac­ter­ized by a sim­i­lar style of nar­ra­tion2 that unveils the con­nec­tion between the char­ac­ters and their cor­re­spond­ing envi­ron­ments: wild nature for Saint Poti­tus; the city and the coun­try­side for Batista, Theoge­nius, Geni­pa­tro, and Microtiro; and the under­ground world for Gelas­tus. These places are not just set­tings for each dia­logue, but sophis­ti­cat­ed and metaphor­i­cal mir­rors to human behav­ior, their qual­i­ties, and their state of mind. In this sense, a pre-eco­log­i­cal” think­ing emerges here to describe a com­plex research tra­jec­to­ry that will find an answer in his the­o­ry of Architecture.

In Theoge­nius espe­cial­ly, Alber­ti employs a bucol­ic dia­logue where this nar­ra­tive form is used to assert that human beings, their nature, and their land­scape can be con­ceived as a sin­gle enti­ty, where exter­nal and inter­nal realms are inex­tri­ca­bly con­nect­ed as a net­work, although they are vis­i­bly sep­a­rat­ed. Theoge­nius and Microtiro, the two main char­ac­ters of this work, reflect on the idea of for­tune and the valu­able virtues of human beings whilst they are in the shade of the trees. This idyl­lic set­ting helps the read­er to pic­ture and con­se­quent­ly to under­stand their human qual­i­ties and the val­ue of the philo­soph­i­cal top­ics they are exploring. 

This har­mo­nious intel­lec­tu­al atmos­phere is dis­turbed by the entrance of Tichipedo, the own­er of all the sur­round­ing land, who brings with him the shad­ow of the urban land­scape. As in many of the oth­er dia­logues, such as Del­la Famiglia, the bucol­ic land­scape is seen as a mod­el of Beau­ty and placed in con­trast with the urban land­scape, described as a place of ugli­ness marred by exces­sive and osten­ta­tious wealth. On the one hand, pris­tine nature is the mir­ror of human­is­tic virtues and the real source of human for­tune. On the oth­er hand, the city is an image of the arro­gance and malfea­sance of human beings and the ori­gin of their unsta­ble and frag­ile fortunes. 

In addi­tion to offer­ing a dis­tinct con­cept of inner human nature and its effects on soci­ety, Alber­ti shows how it phys­i­cal­ly trans­forms the envi­ron­ment, open­ing up a fur­ther con­cern in how human beings con­ceive the trans­for­ma­tive process, cre­ative or not.

In the sec­ond part of Theoge­nius, Nature is described as hav­ing two aspects: its bucol­ic and mag­nif­i­cent ele­ments and, in con­trast, its dan­ger­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions. Alber­ti does not hide this lat­ter aspect; he ref­er­ences many exam­ples of urban cat­a­stro­phes caused by floods, earth­quakes, and vol­ca­noes, rec­og­niz­ing the dan­ger in many poi­so­nous plants and sav­age ani­mals. How­ev­er, Alber­ti round­ly con­demns human beings, call­ing them omin­uc­cuoli3 who, through their arro­gance and rest­less­ness, are the real cause of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters. He is aware that the dan­ger­ous aspect of Nature is incom­pa­ra­ble to the dam­age caused by humans. 

It is a fact that Alberti’s judg­ment on human beings is cyn­i­cal and clear-sight­ed: human beings too often demon­strate lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion for their envi­ron­ment, includ­ing oth­er sim­i­lar liv­ing beings and ani­mals. This means that, unlike in Barbaro’s approach, human actions could cause soci­etal dis­rup­tion and envi­ron­men­tal dam­age if not guid­ed by virtue and cor­rect eth­i­cal behav­ior. This con­scious­ness may have led Alber­ti to con­ceive of Nature as more than just a human resource, thus dis­tanc­ing him­self from Cicero’s4 vision of human beings as explained in his De Natu­ra Deo­rum5.

For the Latin writer, the human being is cen­tral to the whole of real­i­ty and has a more impor­tant role than oth­er liv­ing things. Cicero’s use of par­tic­u­lar terms demon­strates this belief: phras­es such as domi­tu nos­tro” and the homine dom­i­na­tus” clear­ly show how he frames nature from the human per­spec­tive. He gives legit­i­ma­cy to the impo­si­tion of human will on plants by grow­ing them and on ani­mals by hunt­ing or using them, guid­ed only by human desires and only to their ben­e­fit. The human’s pow­er is nev­er denied and he is described as hav­ing a domain”, which express­es an idea of absolute pos­ses­sion over nat­ur­al resources. From Cicero’s point of view, the per­fect and divine nature of the world is the basis of his claim to a spe­cif­ic hier­ar­chy of liv­ing things. This per­fec­tion is not char­ac­ter­ized by the idea of beau­ty; rather, its har­mo­ny is the result of divine wis­dom and intel­lec­tu­al pow­er. In con­se­quence, humans receive a priv­i­leged place in com­par­i­son to oth­ers, giv­ing them the full right to sub­ju­gate the world. 

In con­trast, Alberti’s vision of Nature can be aligned to some con­tem­po­rary eco­log­i­cal think­ing, where Nature is not a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry from human beings but embraces all liv­ing beings equal­ly. For this rea­son, the effects of the inter­ac­tion between Nature and humans must be tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion in all human activities. 

Nature and Architecture as the Good Medicine 

These argu­ments clear­ly sup­port Euge­nio Garin’s claim: Alber­ti con­sid­ers Nature not just as a Machi­na Orbis”, gov­erned by num­bers and a per­fect and beau­ti­ful realm, but also in terms of its imma­nent side. This means con­sid­er­ing the con­nec­tion between inner and out­er worlds, human and oth­er liv­ing things, behav­iors and envi­ron­ment, civic com­mu­ni­ty, and urban struc­ture, made up as a con­stel­la­tion of lines, main­ly shaped by how human beings per­ceive cul­tur­al­ly Nature, and the world outside. 

The first inter­pre­ta­tion of Nature con­tributes to build­ing a new human cre­ative hori­zon, rule-based and ground­ed in sci­en­tif­ic and prac­ti­cal process. The sec­ond aims to frame the cul­tur­al issue that could lead human­i­ty to a more peace­ful and har­mo­nious civic life. To achieve that, he care­ful­ly analy­ses many clas­si­cal authors, such as Pliny, Ovid, Cicero, and Quin­til­iano, as well as her­met­ic phi­los­o­phy6. These con­tri­bu­tions are cru­cial when they sug­gest an ide­al of Nature, as a bound­less vital force, name­ly con­sist­ing of the inner abil­i­ty to heal itself, like med­i­cine. For instance, the noble lie7 that involves the myth of Kho­ra and its social use as Phar­makos, as argued by Pla­to in Timaeus and The Repub­lic, could be the inspi­ra­tion for Alberti’s aim to res­ur­rect the Greek idea of the Polis, in which the urban struc­ture and com­mu­ni­ty are a unique body, due to the fun­da­men­tal con­nec­tion between cit­i­zens and their land. How­ev­er, as fur­ther demon­strat­ed below, Alber­ti does not embrace this con­nec­tion, which meant the clo­sure of the bor­ders in the Polis. In the Sev­enth book of De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria he claims: Yet I don’t think that we ought to fol­low these who exclude strangers of every kind.” (L.B. Alber­ti, De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria, Book 7, 191). This capac­i­ty to con­ceive of a unit­ed com­mu­ni­ty does not pre­clude per­me­able bor­ders and an idea of a ter­ri­to­ry for the many. On the con­trary, this heal­ing qual­i­ty implies a con­sis­tent con­stituent aim that could be very fruit­ful. Chang­ing the cul­tur­al approach on which human behav­ior is based could pos­i­tive­ly affect the social and phys­i­cal environment. 

In this sense, Archi­tec­ture, through its civic role, could become the best dis­ci­pline to address this change, as long as it is based on the prin­ci­ples iden­ti­fied above. 

Momus can be con­sid­ered a sort of bridge between these dia­logues and the art treaties and the writ­ing of De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria, which could be seen as rep­re­sent­ing the cul­mi­na­tion of his explorations. 

In Momus, Alber­ti writes of a minor Greek god and his vicis­si­tudes whilst in exile in the human world, and his trav­els between the heav­ens and earth fol­low­ing divine for­give­ness. Although the sto­ry deals with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sub­ject to those described above, it can also be seen as a nar­ra­tive device used by Alber­ti to high­light his dis­ap­point­ment with the cur­rent polit­i­cal pow­ers in Rome, and show­ing the virtues and vices of human beings. Unlike his pre­vi­ous eth­i­cal works, the nar­ra­tive is full of insights on archi­tec­ture. It is a fact that dur­ing the same peri­od, Alber­ti was writ­ing De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria, demon­strat­ing the rea­son for these connections. 

Focus­ing on some spe­cif­ic para­graphs makes Alberti’s idea of Nature and its rela­tion­ship with the art world even clear­er. Some con­firm his claims from pre­vi­ous works, whilst oth­ers car­ry the idea yet further.

For instance, the first sug­ges­tion comes from the scene that takes place in the heav­ens. Here, all the oth­er Gods are involved in a con­test cre­at­ed by Jupiter’s request to add grace to the human world, giv­ing it ele­gance and worth. Some gods invent­ed dif­fer­ent species of ani­mal, Prometheus cre­at­ed human beings, Juno a house, etc. As a result, the human world receives these divine gifts but the beau­ty and plea­sure they cre­ate imme­di­ate­ly inspire envy in the same gods. 

Encour­aged by the oth­ers, Momus decides to pro­vide his gift: insects and oth­er dis­gust­ing ani­mals. Here, Alber­ti con­firms the Nature includes neg­a­tive aspects as well, as already shown in Theoge­nius, but more than that he empha­sizes again the virtues and vices of human beings.

How­ev­er, what is very inter­est­ing is that the entire work is an inves­ti­ga­tion of human trans­for­ma­tive actions: from Jupiter’s desire to dis­rupt the world that he him­self designed, to the dif­fer­ent places that Momus vis­its, the city and its pub­lic build­ings, but also the pris­tine land­scape, and even Charon’s realm, the Under­world. These places are crowd­ed with all kinds of human beings, in all their vari­ety and with dif­fer­ent social behav­iors. The mis­for­tunes and for­tunes of human beings are well described by Momus, who spends his exile on Earth dis­cov­er­ing their dif­fer­ent aspects. He goes to the city direct­ly from the sky and here he tries many jobs to bet­ter under­stand how humans live. He encoun­ters all kinds of char­ac­ters, giv­ing a descrip­tion of a wide range of pos­si­ble human behav­iors. As in Theoge­nius, the city is the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of human cor­rup­tion, vio­lence, and chaos, except for few places: the tem­ple, that rep­re­sents a civic and valu­able place, where the god Virtue finds a refuge; and the coun­try­side, where two philoso­phers, Socrates and Dem­ocri­tus, live exclud­ed from the soci­ety. Again, the land­scape is a mir­ror of soci­ety and, as in the Bucol­ic tra­di­tion, the coun­try­side is a place of vir­tu­ous men reject­ed by a cor­rupt society. 

In anoth­er scene, this dialec­tic oppo­si­tion between pris­tine Nature and the city, between Nature and human trans­for­ma­tions, reach­es a cru­cial point. Fol­low­ing Gelas­to and Charon’s jour­ney from the Under­world to Earth, the read­er is encour­aged to reflect on the idea of Beau­ty, with both a har­mo­nious visu­al dimen­sion and a spir­i­tu­al one, and the ques­tion of whether it belongs to the nat­ur­al world or the arti­fi­cial one.

Walk­ing out of the Under­world towards the oppo­site side of Earth, Charon and Gelas­to find them­selves in a flow­ery field sur­round­ed by a rur­al land­scape. Charon is cap­ti­vat­ed by the smell and the views, which fill him with joy and aston­ish­ment. This idyl­lic scene is imme­di­ate­ly brought to an end by Gelas­to, who invites Charon to con­tin­ue their jour­ney in order to admire the human achieve­ments in the city. Gelas­to promis­es to find a place as won­der­ful as the flow­ery field: the theatre. 

Through this scene, Alber­ti opens up a crit­i­cal ques­tion: what is the rela­tion­ship between Nature and Archi­tec­ture? Is there a dif­fer­ence between the Beau­ty of Nature and the Architecture’s one? The answer is pro­vid­ed in the ensu­ing the­atre scene and will be ful­ly devel­oped with­in De Re Aedificatoria.

Whilst walk­ing towards the city, Charon asks Gelas­to about the ori­gin of this nat­ur­al beau­ty. Gelas­to offers him a philo­soph­i­cal expla­na­tion tak­en direct­ly from Aris­to­tle. Gelas­to explains the For­mal Cause, which is what gives mat­ter its form, and the Final Cause, which gives a thing its pur­pose. Through the For­mal and Final Cause, Nature reach­es the most har­mo­nious result, with­out contradiction. 

Charon is unsat­is­fied with this expla­na­tion, which does not seem to cap­ture the deep beau­ty of Nature, but rather con­fines it with the­o­ry. As they final­ly reach the the­atre, Charon’s judg­ment is final: 

You neglect the flower: should we admire the stone? Everything within the flower aims to beauty and grace. These human works are a waste of energy.

L.B. Alberti, Momus, 94

Nature’s beau­ty is unique and all-sur­pass­ing. How­ev­er, Alber­ti enables the read­er to dis­cov­er a more nuanced view in the rest of the book. Two episodes involv­ing Juno and Jupiter are par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant. In one episode, Juno asks Jupiter to fur­ther adorn her house with lux­u­ri­ous orna­ments. This seem­ing­ly triv­ial event is, in fact, high­ly sig­nif­i­cant. This is where Alber­ti starts to divide good archi­tec­ture from bad archi­tec­ture, Aed­i­f­i­can­di libido as defined by Alber­to G. Cas­sani8. This is the oppo­site of civic archi­tec­ture, which gen­uine­ly pur­sues the pub­lic good, as described with­in De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria. In this sense, Archi­tec­ture can reach an approx­i­ma­tion of nat­ur­al beau­ty, offer­ing an opti­mistic per­spec­tive for human beings and their social structure.

In the sec­ond episode Jupiter, who rep­re­sents polit­i­cal pow­er and is a metaphor for Nico­lo V, is shown as utter­ly obsessed with the idea of design­ing a new world that could strength­en his pow­er over human beings. For this rea­son, he seeks advice from oth­er gods and philoso­phers but real­izes that archi­tects would actu­al­ly be of far more use to him. This final scene opens up the con­vic­tion that Archi­tec­ture can be more valu­able than philo­soph­i­cal thought in the ambi­tion to build a dif­fer­ent kind of soci­ety. The civic aim of Archi­tec­ture is drawn. The con­ti­nu­ity between De re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria and Momus is now ful­ly under­stand­able, despite the dif­fer­ent content.

Up to this point, Alberti’s writ­ings have pro­vid­ed an idea of Nature, con­sid­er­ing both aspects, more or less empha­sised depend­ing on the aim of var­i­ous argu­ments of the trea­tis­es: exter­nal Nature, seen in its phys­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal mod­el, and inner or imma­nent Nature as the essence of liv­ing beings. Both can lead to oppo­site cul­tur­al approach­es and phys­i­cal results since the inter­ac­tion between these two pro­duces human cul­ture and arti­facts, affect­ing the qual­i­ty of a civic community. 

In this sense, it is very mean­ing­ful the sen­tence includ­ed with­in the Pref­ace of De re Aedificatoria: 

Finally cutting of cliffs, the tunneling of mountains, the levelling of valleys, the containment of sea and lake waters, the emptying of swamps, the construction of ships, the rectification of course of rivers, the excavation of the outlets of waters, the constructions of bridges and ports, he not only resolved problems of temporary circumstance, but also opened the way toward every region of the earth. In this way people can exchange the partake of all that serves the improvement of health and way of life. (...)

L.B. Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, preface

Regard­ing this para­graph, Man­fre­do Tafu­ri, in Venice and Renais­sance9, sug­gests a com­par­i­son between this para­graph and a sim­i­lar state­ment by Daniele Bar­baro10, to under­line the sub­tle dif­fer­ence between them. 

On the one hand, D. Bar­baro sim­i­lar­ly rec­og­nizes that uni­ver­sal har­mo­ny belongs to Nature for Arts. How­ev­er, he also starts to con­sid­er it as a sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cle, assert­ing the impor­tance of human actions over it. On the oth­er hand, Alberti’s descrip­tion of the human artifact’s impact on Nature shows the pow­er used to mod­i­fy ground into inhab­it­ed ter­ri­to­ries. Cut­ting cliffs is a very strong image in this sense, with their bor­ders, inner shapes, their orog­ra­phy, and their geo­graph­i­cal lines mod­eled direct­ly by new machines and by an extra­or­di­nary trans­for­ma­tive capac­i­ty. As explained above, this human activ­i­ty should be not the cause of divi­sions and explo­ration, but rather of civ­il part­ner­ship, wealth, and pros­per­i­ty, in con­sid­er­a­tion of Nature, not against it. 

As a con­se­quence, despite his con­cerns, Alber­ti pro­vides here a cul­tur­al hori­zon where Archi­tec­ture and the city can become the cure for society’s ills and the device to build a har­mo­nious soci­ety, based on the same har­mo­nious struc­ture of Nature and its trans­la­tion into a strong the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal approach and in-depth research.

How­ev­er, to bet­ter under­stand how Alber­ti assigns archi­tec­ture to the civic role, the Sev­enth, Eighth, and Ninth books of De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria are essen­tial. They are cen­tered on the orna­ments on the sacred build­ings, both pub­lic and pri­vate. The Sev­enth book begins with this statement:

The principal ornament to any city lies in the siting, layout, composition, and arrangement of its road, squares, and individual works: each must be properly planned and distributes according to use, importance, and convenience. For without order there can be nothing commodious, graceful, or noble.

Here, Alber­ti asserts the impor­tance that the urban struc­ture is based on open spaces and pub­lic build­ings, and a sort of hier­ar­chy between them: func­tion, impor­tance, and con­ve­nience are the prin­ci­ples on which to build this organ­ism and its com­mu­ni­ty as a body or as a nat­ur­al environment.

This approach can be con­sid­ered usu­al and coher­ent with the char­ac­ter of the book. 

How­ev­er, recall­ing Alberti’s intel­lec­tu­al aim, this approach shows the cor­re­spon­dence between these arti­facts and the urban essence, defined by char­ac­ters, orna­ments, shapes, mate­ri­als, their loca­tions, func­tions and in rela­tion to their pub­lic or pri­vate role with­in the city. These ele­ments and the sym­bol­ic loca­tion of the build­ing rep­re­sent here the rel­e­vance of the archi­tec­tur­al rela­tion­ships at any scale. The prop­er mean­ing and the use of Archi­tec­ture and its Beau­ty depend on it. 

It is in book Eight that, as sug­gest­ed by Cas­par Pear­son in Human­ism and the urban world: Leon Bat­tista Alber­ti and the Renais­sance city, Alber­ti devel­ops fur­ther this top­ic. Its con­tent is made up of a descrip­tion of Alber­ti walk­ing through the coun­try­side toward the urban land­scape. The move­ment itself is an inter­est­ing nar­ra­tive strat­e­gy that empha­sizes the struc­ture of the urban space and focus­es more on rela­tion­ships than archi­tec­tur­al objects. His jour­ney starts from a view of the coun­try­side, with its roads and hous­es, and the vil­lage is drawn fol­low­ing the nat­ur­al shape of the terrain. 

Alberti’s eyes are able to cap­ture its beau­ty and har­mo­ny that aris­es not just from a sys­tem of num­bers and pro­por­tion, but from the pleas­ant­ness of the land­scape with the city seen in the distance. 

Per­haps the deci­sion to start his walk from here could be inter­pret­ed as a ref­er­ence to Nature as the main mod­el of Beau­ty and the pri­ma­ry archi­tec­tur­al source. How­ev­er, unlike in Theoge­nius and Momus, the con­flict­ual dialec­tic between the coun­try­side and the city is now dis­solved. Through the move­ment of his walk, Alber­ti brings togeth­er those two land­scapes with­out giv­ing them any pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive attributes. 

This absence is coher­ent with a descrip­tion that attempts to con­tain few emo­tions or empath­ic thoughts. Alberti’s judg­ment is lit­tle affect­ed by the envi­ron­men­tal atmos­phere or by an empir­i­cal expe­ri­ence. His ideas are formed through the ratio­nal process and are sup­port­ed by his his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge. This cre­ates a text that is strong­ly char­ac­ter­ized by objec­tiv­i­ty and sci­en­tif­ic rea­son­ing, and which aims to high­light all the main prin­ci­ples that should char­ac­ter­ize a har­mo­nious civic space.

The descrip­tion is inter­wo­ven with dif­fer­ent tex­tu­al con­tent: his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences to val­i­date Alberti’s state­ments; the clas­si­fi­ca­tions of all urban ele­ments, e.g. roads, squares; accu­rate descrip­tions of math­e­mat­i­cal pro­por­tions. The result is that the read­er does not focus on the author and his move­ment through the city, but is able to con­cen­trate on the prin­ci­ples described. 

Alber­ti con­tin­ues on his path, going through the grave­yard, still out­side the city, explain­ing their mean­ings, up to the city lim­its where he begins to ana­lyze the role of the city gates and the dif­fer­ent kinds of road. From this point on, the nat­ur­al side of the city is left behind. 

His entrance into the city is the chance to explain the impor­tance to have three cat­e­gories of roads: the ones with a spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter and shapes by rea­son of their uses and con­nec­tions to their sacred places or pub­lic build­ings, and those called com­mon roads. 

Mov­ing through the descrip­tion of the­atres, amphithe­aters, and places for the comi­tia, he sug­gests the right shapes, and the prop­er orna­ments. These qual­i­ties, like the mor­pho­log­i­cal ones, also have an impor­tant role with­in the urban body.

More­over, he describes the impor­tance of con­nect­ing pub­lic build­ings with open spaces for plea­sure, such as groves and pools. They give dig­ni­ty to the city. The grove is shown in terms of its sym­bol­ic mean­ing. It rep­re­sents the har­mo­nious trans­for­ma­tion of the ter­ri­to­ry and is a place where, close to oth­er pub­lic build­ings, every­day civic life takes place. 

The same sym­bol­ic empha­sis is giv­en to the library. Placed in the cen­ter, this build­ing replaces the medieval role of the church. It is the core of the new human­is­tic cul­ture, where books are col­lect­ed along with objects: math­e­mat­i­cal instru­ments, maps and stat­ues of ancient poets. 

I shall only observe, that the principal ornament of a library, is the number and variety of the books contained in it, and chiefly their being collected from among the learned remains of antiquity. Another great ornament, are curios mathematical instrument of all sorts, especially if they are like that made by Posdonius, in which all the seven planets performed their proper revolution by their own motion.

L.B. Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, Book VIII, chapter 9, 183

The image of the math­e­mat­i­cal instru­ments with the poets’ stat­ues in the library rep­re­sents the final image of a jour­ney through Alberti’s thought. The Renais­sance city should be gov­erned by the con­ver­gence of ratio­nal thought and tools (such as those already found with­in De Stat­ua), but also poet­ry and oth­er valu­able arts, in order to build a peace­ful community. 

The Ninth book, which is cen­tered on the orna­ments of pri­vate build­ings, con­tains a full chap­ter ded­i­cat­ed to the prin­ci­ple of Concin­ni­tas. Alber­ti strong­ly claims that any artis­tic process in Archi­tec­ture should be based on Nature and this prin­ci­ple belonged to it: 

Beauty is a form of sympathy ad consonance of the parts within a body, according to definite number, outlines and position, as dictated by Concinnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule in nature. This is the main object of art of building, and the source of her dignity, charm authority, and worth.

L.B. Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, Book IX, chapter 5, 303

In this par­tic­u­lar sen­tence, Alber­ti shows a deep rev­er­ence for Nature as the ori­gin of Beau­ty. He remarks on the dif­fi­cul­ty in cap­tur­ing this imma­te­r­i­al qual­i­ty. The Concin­ni­tas is described as the main prin­ci­ple, that pro­duces a har­mon­ic com­po­si­tion. This is not just an aes­thet­ic qual­i­ty, but also pro­vides dig­ni­ty, author­i­ty, and charm. 

In this sense, Beau­ty does not rep­re­sent just a final result of his the­o­ry of aes­thet­ics. As explained at the beg­ging of this essay, his the­o­ry does not exist with­out an eth­i­cal aim that should involve a sin­gle life and society.

Inher­it­ing the Greek clas­si­cal approach towards Nature, espe­cial­ly the one described with­in Timaeus, it is based on the geo­met­ri­cal fig­ures and num­ber. How­ev­er, Nature is also the essence of life, the cause, a liv­ing organ­ism. This estab­lish­es a deep con­nec­tion between life and har­mo­ny: with­out har­mo­ny there is no life and no human beings and con­se­quent­ly Polis, look­ing at its phys­i­cal and social aspects. 

For this rea­son, Beau­ty, described as a result of Concin­ni­tas, has the poten­tial to rep­re­sent the com­mon fea­ture of the two inter­pre­ta­tions of Nature and their mutu­al forms of expression. 

Look­ing at Archi­tec­ture and Arts as the main ori­gin of a har­mon­ic world, Alber­ti is able to hold the clas­si­cal approach—rediscovered intro­duc­ing the idea of Gaia11—but to open it towards a Beau­ty that is the result of human transformation.


Look­ing at var­i­ous con­tem­po­rary philoso­phers and thinkers who deal with eco­log­i­cal issues, they agree that moder­ni­ty has sep­a­rat­ed the nat­ur­al realm from the cul­tur­al one, deny­ing the onto­log­i­cal auton­o­my of those objects that are the prod­ucts of this blend­ing. This approach, per­pe­trat­ing up to this cen­tu­ry, has deeply affect­ed most of the human con­texts, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, etc., char­ac­ter­ized by lit­tle aware­ness and care about their effects on Nature and human beings them­selves. In recent decades, thanks to eco­log­i­cal move­ments and many the­o­ret­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions such as those of Bruno Latour, it has been demon­strat­ed that this sep­a­ra­tion has been mis­lead­ing. For this rea­son, more than ever, Latour12 asserts an urgent need to define Nature in a dif­fer­ent way, since many nat­ur­al” objects belong to this blend­ing and no longer to one of the two worlds. All these insights arose from the inter­na­tion­al issues relat­ed to cli­mate change and they seek to iden­ti­fy the onto­log­i­cal ori­gin of this anthro­pocen­tric approach, in order to try to mod­i­fy our cul­tur­al per­spec­tive. Although Alberti’s thought belongs to a dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal peri­od, this does not mean that it is not a valid lega­cy from which we can still learn. In fact, Alberti’s idea of Nature that is not twofold or con­tra­dic­to­ry, as demon­strat­ed above, appears to be an attempt to main­tain the two cat­e­gories Nature and Cul­ture, look­ing for bal­ance between human trans­for­ma­tive action, which implies selec­tion and sep­a­ra­tion of ele­ments, and con­ser­va­tion. What Philippe Desco­la now sug­gests, name­ly mov­ing beyond these cat­e­gories, was part of Alberti’s inves­ti­ga­tions. This is evi­dent from his works and his statements.

More­over, by ele­vat­ing Archi­tec­ture and the city as the place of dig­ni­ty and charm and under­lin­ing its civic role, Alber­ti assigns a key role to our dis­ci­pline, propos­ing fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples and new tools. If there are short­com­ings in con­tem­po­rary the­o­ry, these could be addressed through con­nec­tions with one of the most trans­for­ma­tive human actions: Architecture. 

In this civic role archi­tec­ture should pro­vide a spe­cif­ic the­o­ret­i­cal approach. Gra­ham Har­man recalls the con­cept of imma­te­ri­al­i­ty13, in order to bridge the mod­ern mis­ap­pre­hen­sion of sep­a­rat­ed realms. For him, Art and Archi­tec­ture are cru­cial to demon­strate the new notion of Nature and draw­ing a new trajectory.

Man­fre­do Tafu­ri14 con­firms this key role for Alber­ti, explain­ing that, from the Renais­sance, the archi­tec­tur­al object has been los­ing its auton­o­my and its imma­te­r­i­al side. For this rea­son, Leon Bat­tista Alber­ti is deserv­ing of greater in-depth research. His approach to the con­cept of Beau­ty and his relat­ed think­ing would par­tic­u­lar­ly repay fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion into its rel­e­vance to address­ing con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges and the new notion of Nature.

  1. 1

    For many years, schol­ars have attempt­ed to high­light his art trea­tis­es at the expense of his oth­er works, in order to keep intact an idea of Alber­ti as a con­sol­i­dat­ed human­is­tic intel­lec­tu­al. As a result, his com­plex con­tri­bu­tion, less aligned with stereo­typ­i­cal tra­di­tion, has been under­es­ti­mat­ed. Euge­nio Garin, in Medio­e­vo e Rinasci­men­to. Stu­di e ricerche, is the first to high­light this aspect of Alberti’s work, try­ing to under­stand them in their entire­ty. He claims that Alberti’s con­tra­dic­tions are not relat­ed to his matu­ri­ty or relat­ed to dif­fer­ent oppor­tu­ni­ties and for­tune dur­ing his life.

  2. 2

    Theoge­nius, a bucol­ic dia­logue, par­tic­u­lar­ly con­firms the use of Arca­di­an as an adjec­tive to iden­ti­fy a nar­ra­tive approach to this idea of Nature, close to con­tem­po­rary eco­log­i­cal thought. 

  3. 3

    This word in Ital­ian means human beings poor of intel­lec­tu­al skills.

  4. 4

    J. R. Spencer describes in Ut Rethor­i­ca Pic­tura how Alber­ti tapped into Cicero’s works, De Ora­tore and De Inven­tione, to define the nar­ra­tive struc­ture of De Pic­tura, and oth­er impor­tant ideas, such as Concin­ni­tas, etc. How­ev­er, rea­gring his approach on Nature, Alber­ti has an oppo­site point of view.

  5. 5

    Garin, Medio­e­vo e Rinasci­men­to. Stu­di e ricerche, 149.

  6. 6

    Garin, Medio­e­vo e Rinasci­men­to. Stu­di e ricerche, 133.

  7. 7

    Pla­to uses the word Kho­ra in many dia­logues, the Repub­lic and the Laws and Timaeus. This lat­ter was the first to deal with Kho­ra and its rela­tion­ship with Plato’s cos­mo­log­i­cal doc­trine. The impor­tant con­cept that emerges from Timaeus is that Nature is a mate­r­i­al and liv­ing organ­ism, accord­ing to the Ion­ian tra­di­tion, but shaped look­ing at the intel­li­gi­ble world of Ideas, based on arith­meti­cal and geo­met­ri­cal rules as stat­ed by Pythago­ras. On one hand, these Arith­meti­cal and geo­met­ri­cal rules are the source of order­li­ness and har­mo­ny. On the oth­er hand, the vital­i­ty is giv­en by the motion. These two qual­i­ties togeth­er are the base of a per­va­sive idea of Nature, con­ceived as body (plants, ani­mals, stuff, and human beings), soul and mind, three imma­nent essences of Nature. The Kho­ra is the orig­i­nal matter/stuff, that con­nects the two worlds, sen­si­tive world and intel­li­gi­ble. Kho­ra is in-between the two worlds. It is described as a recep­ta­cle, the womb, the place/space where all things take a shape. Although its fem­i­nine adjec­tives, it is not iden­ti­fied as a woman/mother in con­trast with a man/father, a third, moth­er­ly place that gen­er­ates all earth­ly things, onto­log­i­cal­ly is dif­fer­ent from them.
    As a result, Kho­ra has two main qual­i­ties: its mater­nal aspect and its spa­tial aspect. The first means that all liv­ing beings come from the same recep­ta­cle, the same orig­i­nal and vital mat­ter. The sec­ond mean puts togeth­er two con­cepts, space and mat­ter with­out dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing them. More­over, in Repub­li­ca, Pla­to describes the myth of noble lie”: human beings are born inside the Earth. Con­nect­ing them direct­ly to land (Kho­ra), they become cit­i­zens with a spe­cif­ic social hier­ar­chy. This builds a con­nec­tion between cit­i­zens and their land, and, con­se­quent­ly, between cit­i­zens and Polis. Pla­to draws a direct line between Nature (ground and under­ground), human beings and Polis, that from the Greek point of view rep­re­sents not just the urban struc­ture but the col­lec­tive body. As Stu­art Elden, with­in the book The birth of ter­ri­to­ry, explains that the myth is noble lie can be con­sid­ered the good med­i­cine, a social Phar­makos. In fact, it works with a spe­cif­ic social func­tion: to enhance the Polis’ com­mu­ni­ty and keep its social stability.

  8. 8

    Cas­sani, Attra­ver­so lo spec­chio. Adden­da al rap­por­to Momus/De Re Aed­i­fi­ca­to­ria, 159.

  9. 9

    Tafu­ri, Venice and the Renais­sance, 123.

  10. 10

    A Won­der­ful thing is the pow­er for the com­mon good to assem­ble coarse men, and unite them in the faith and dis­ci­pline, secure and tran­quil in the cities and fortress­es: then with a greater vio­lence done to nature, to cut the rocks, tun­nel through the moun­tains, fill the val­leys, dry the swamps, build ships, straight­en rivers, sup­ply port, build bridges, and over­come Nature her­self, which we have van­quished by lift­ing immense unlike weights, and sat­is­fy­ing in part the desire of eter­ni­ty.” Bar­baro, The Ten Books of Archi­tec­ture, Book 1, 15.

  11. 11

    James Love­lock, Gaia (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016).

  12. 12

    Latour, Fac­ing Gaia, The insta­bil­i­ty of the (notion of) nature, 7.

  13. 13

    G. Har­man claims that there are not-know­able and hid­den aspects of objects. Opac­i­ty is the term used to describe this fea­ture and sur­prise is the way in which we can indi­rect­ly access the hid­den aspects. He invites us to look at archi­tec­ture as an iden­ti­fied object with inde­pen­dent attrib­ut­es: Works of art and archi­tec­ture are mis­un­der­stood if we reduce them down­ward to their phys­i­cal com­po­nents or upward to their socio-polit­i­cal effects, despite occa­sion­al attempts with­in those dis­ci­plines to do just that. There is some­thing in these works that resist reduc­tion in either direc­tion, push­ing back against the lit­er­al para­phrase of which knowl­edge always con­sists.” Har­man, Imma­te­ri­al­ism, 12.

  14. 14

    Chiswick, Blenheim and Kew Gar­dens are not the sim­ply the trans­la­tion of the con­cept of pic­turesque into the land­scaped vis­tas: as Argan has said, they are micro­cosms that reflect not the divine cos­mos, but the world of human expe­ri­ence. As didac­ti­cal instru­ments they are turned towards man, awak­en­ing his sens­es and inject­ing into them, imme­di­ate­ly after­wards, a crit­i­cal stim­u­lus: Nature by now not a reflec­tion of divine Idea but a struc­ture shared by man, can emerge with the his­to­ry of the entire human species, show­ing that the ratio­nal course is nat­ur­al, because it moves (Gian Bat­tista Vico) from the realm of the sens­es to that of the intel­lect. Archi­tec­ture, from absolute object, becomes in the land­scaped con­text, rel­a­tive val­ue: it becomes a medi­um for the descrip­tion of an edi­fy­ing play. (…) Absorb­ing art into behav­iour excludes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of speak­ing of paint­ing or archi­tec­ture as objects: they are, rather, hap­pen­ings, and in this sense the cri­sis of his­toric­i­ty of art is linked to the cri­sis of the objects. His­tor­i­cal links and archi­tec­tur­al phe­nom­e­na are reduced to pure events.” Tafu­ri, The­o­ries and His­to­ry of Archi­tec­ture, 82–85.


Alber­ti, Leon Bat­tista. Theoge­nius. Lec­ce: Cre­ate­Space Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­ing, 2012.

Alber­ti, Leon Bat­tista. Del­la famiglia. Lec­ce: Cre­ate­Space Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­ing Plat­form, 2012.

Alber­ti, Leon Bat­tista. Apologhi. Lec­ce: Cre­ate­Space Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­ing, 2012.

Alber­ti, Leon Bat­tista. Momus. Lec­ce: Cre­ate­Space Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­ing Plat­form, 2012.

Alber­ti, Leon Bat­tista. On Paint­ing and on sculp­ture. Edit­ed by C. Grayson. Lon­don: Phaidon Press, 1972.

Alber­ti, Leon Bat­tista. Delin­eation of the city of Rome. Edit­ed by Mario Cam­po and Fracesco Furlan. Tempe, Ari­zona: Ari­zona cen­ter for Medieval and Renais­sance Stud­ies, 2007.

Alber­ti, Leon Bat­tista. On Art of Build­ing in ten books. Traslat­ed by J. Ryk­w­ert, N. Leach, and R. Tav­er­nor. Lon­don: MIT Press, 1972.

Car­po, Mario. Leon Bat­tista Alberti’s Delin­eation of the city of Rome. Milan: Mrts, 2007.

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