Book on Alberti's Biographical and Auto-biographical Writings
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.
Martin McLaughlin’s project is a translation and introduction to five of Alberti’s biographical and autobiographical works for The I Tatti Renaissance Library. Alberti began his career as a writer with a partly autobiographical Latin invective De Commodis Literarum atque Incommodis (1428-32), on the advantages and disadvantages of studying literature, and Vita S. Potiti (1433), the life of an obscure early Christian martyr, which an ecclesiastical patron had commissioned him to write. Yet both texts are characterized by an ambivalence about study and piety that related to Alberti’s own more secular values. The other three works 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. But the full text of the Vita shows how the Swiss historian’s ‘sunny’ portrait omitted the darker sides of Alberti’s personality: his physical weaknesses, his melancholy, his quarrels with his family. The other two works are Alberti’s two mock-encomia of his dog, Canis (1438), and of the fly, Musca (1443), both indebted to the Greek satirical writer Lucian. But unlike his classical model, Alberti uses the mock eulogy to praise the values he himself championed: versatility, a strong work-ethic, a cult of friendship. These works show that even when writing about others, Alberti is always writing about himself.