Thursday Seminar: Alberti’s Autobiographical Writings


Thursday, April 11, 2019, 6:00pm to 7:30pm


Gould Hall, I Tatti


Speaker: Martin McLaughlin (I Tatti / Magdalen College Oxford) 

When we think of Alberti in visual terms, what first comes to mind is usually the bronze self-portrait (c.1435), with or without his famous logo of the winged eye, and its motto Quid tum? His desire to project an image of himself also permeates the five biographical and autobiographical works to be translated for a volume for The I Tatti Renaissance Library. It begins with an early Latin invective, De Commodis Literarum atque Incommodis (1428-32), on the advantages and disadvantages of studying literature, followed by a hagiography of an obscure early Christian martyr, Vita S. Potiti (1433), both of which contain echoes of the author’s own life. The other three works in the volume are even more autobiographical. The Vita (1438-43) was one of the first autobiographies of modern times, and was the main source for Burckhardt’s famous portrayal of Alberti as a ‘universal man’ of the Renaissance. The two mock-encomia of his dog, Canis (1438), and of the fly, Musca (1443), are both humorous works indebted to the Greek satirical writer Lucian, but they are also witty versions of Alberti’s own life and values, with their emphasis on the animals’ versatility, strong work-ethic, and cult of friendship. The seminar will examine these works, bringing out the importance of humour for the author, and illustrating his quest for an identity: even when writing about others, Alberti is always writing about himself.

Martin McLaughlin has a background in Classics and Italian literature, with degrees from Glasgow and Oxford Universities. He was Lecturer in Italian at Edinburgh University (1977-90) before moving to Oxford, where he was University Lecturer in Italian and Student (ie Fellow) of Christ Church (1990-2001), then Agnelli Serena Professor of Italian and Fellow of Magdalen College (2001-17), where he is now Emeritus Fellow. His major publications include Literary Imitation in the Italian Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1995), Italo Calvino (Edinburgh University Press, 1998), and Leon Battista Alberti. La vita, l’umanesimo, le opere letterarie (Olschki, 2016). He was awarded the British Academy Serena Medal in 2017.