Scroll detail, Santa Maria Novella church, Florence; designed by Leon Battista Alberti. Photo by Amada44 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture.
Historians regard Leon Battista Alberti to be one of the principal figures of the early Italian Renaissance. He was the epitome of the Renaissance Man: at once an author, artist, humanist, linguist, mathematician, poet, philosopher, and architect. Perhaps due to his wide-ranging curiosity, he never singled out one field of his studies as prevailing or governing over the others. Instead, Alberti regarded all his interests equally; however, he did consider mathematics to be common ground for both the arts and sciences. It was from the perspective of mathematics that he would formulate his seminal views on art and architecture. More specifically, he believed beauty in painting, sculpture, or architecture to be the pleasing agreement of parts in a composition, very much contingent upon the number, proportion, and arrangement demanded by harmony.
The word harmony derives from ancient Greek, in which it meant “to fit together” or “to join.” Alberti broadly invoked ancient Greek and Roman theorists, who believed as he did that harmony is fundamentally a mathematical construct. In large part due to Alberti’s influence, Renaissance architecture would come to be characterized by mathematical proportion and units of measurement based on human scale as much as it would a borrowed classical vocabulary of columns, pediments, and arches.
For many of us, harmony finds its most accessible expression in music. The basis of musical sound can be described mathematically. Playing multiple notes at the same time can produce aesthetically pleasing harmonies. Discrete pitches correspond to particular frequencies, which can be expressed numerically. A musical scale has an interval of repetition—the octave—that is exactly twice that of a given note. In Western tradition, composers used chords to manipulate harmony. A chord is a harmonic set of pitches consisting of two or more notes. We naturally recognize and enjoy pleasing harmonies when we hear them.
Alberti reasoned that “what is pleasing to the ear should be pleasing to the eye,” so it followed that beauty should be a harmony inherent in a building, a harmony which can be detected through rational means—mathematics. He further asserted in his treatise De Re Aedificatoria that harmony consists of the relation of all parts to each other and to a greater whole, all governed by mathematical laws:
“Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse. It is a great and holy matter; all our resources of skill and ingenuity will be taxed in achieving it; and rarely is it granted, even to nature herself, to produce anything that is entirely complete and perfect in every respect."
So defined, harmony is the essence of beauty. Alberti recommended simple proportions—one to one, one to two, one to three, two to three, three to four—which he found to be the elements of musical harmony as well as the basis for the proportioning systems of ancient architecture.
In architecture, the expression of harmony is conveyed through composition, proportion, and scale of parts in balance with one another. We regard certain buildings as harmonious and pleasing because their parts play well together to achieve a whole that likewise is consonant with its surroundings. Harmonious buildings are not dissonant. They are rich in their diversity but in tune with their neighbors and the natural world. Harmonious buildings abide by grammatical rules founded upon mathematical and aesthetic principles. Like nature does, they exhibit a living structure and recurrent patterns.
Fundamentally, everything in our world displays its own level of harmony with its surroundings. If there is artistry at work in the work humans do, greater harmony is achieved. The connectedness, the sameness, the oneness underlying all things—be it music, nature, art, or building—is invariable in the wholeness of a world in harmony.
Like the ancients he admired, Alberti believed harmony could be mathematically deduced and represented in the proportions of architectural elements in a structure. We may not be able to generate harmony mechanistically, but it is achievable through intuition, inspiration, learned experience, and artistry. We’ve long had the means to mathematically measure harmony in design, music, or the natural world. It all implies a cosmological underpinning for everything that is nothing short of AWESOME.
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