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Book Review: The Family in Renaissance Florence

Read me, and take me to your hearts.

Above is the opening line of Leon Battista Alberti’s I Libri Della Famiglia, The Family in Renaissance Florence. Alberti was a 15th century Italian humanist, author, architect and courtier steeped deeply in the booming Renaissance in Florence, Italy; a period where ideals from antiquity were revived and Greco-Roman figures like Plato, Caesar and Cicero were studied with renewed vigour. It also ushered in a new outlook on life and etiquette, raising the bar for what it meant to be noble, dignified and cultured. Alberti claims a spot among them, considered a Uomo Universale (Universal Man), he was a multitalented gentleman who studied the classics, built chapels, composed poetry, did geometry and wrote Latin books on architecture. Admired and respected, Alberti was the embodiment of “the perfect Renaissance man”.

Della Famiglia is the third book out of a four book volume that is the Renaissance equivalent of a Guide to Life handbook written by Alberti. It is written in dialogue, similar to Plato’s Symposium with an exchange of ideas where Alberti communicates his vision, beliefs and philosophy through the voice of Giannozzo. Below are excerpts from his book, organised in respective topics, that I particularly savoured:

On family: Families are to be gathered under a single roof, and if, when the family has grown, a single room no longer holds them, at least let them all repose in the shadow of a single will

On health: We ought to be extremely watchful in the management of so precious a commodity as health

On spending: it is most desirable my dear children to be thrifty. One should guard against too great spending as if it were a mortal foe; Spend enough, but not more than enough

On needs vs wants: when something is necessary, don’t rush in madly but do with deliberate speed. Voluntary expenses, on the other hand, I handle quite differently: I’ll tell you I go slow, I delay again and again, I go as slow as I can. To see if this particular desire will leave me along the way. For the shoppers who have regretted one too many impulse purchases...

On greed: for if a man finds he has less than he needs in his home, he will find still less outside

Alberti was shrewd and observant, and regarded certain professions (which I shall leave you the liberty to venture a guess) with distaste:

You construct here, appeal there, bow before one man, quarrel with another, no true friendships, all full of pretence, vanity, and lies. What does your advantage consists of but this: that you can now steal and use violence with some degree of liberty. Let others enjoy pomp, and let the winds blow wide their sails while fortune wills.

He was also realistic. When asked his thoughts on where to raise children, he muses on his affection of the rural countryside, for it is freer of vice, yet he understands that without exposure to vice one cannot differentiate it from good:

If my children could expect to spend their whole lives never to talk to any but good persons, I would certainly want to have them grow up in the country. But the number of men who are not of the very worst sort is so small that we fathers, to protect ourselves from the wicked and their many devices, must make sure that our children know them. A man cannot distinguish who is wicked if he knows nothing of wickedness. First, we must learn to wound so that then we may know how nimbly to avoid the pointed lance. It is in the city that one learns to be a citizen.

Some understandably out of date topics were amusing to read:

The character of men is stronger than that of women and can bear the attacks of enemies better, can stand strain longer, is more constant under stress. Therefore men have the freedom to travel with honour in foreign lands, acquiring and gathering the goods of fortune. Women, on the other hand, are almost all timid by nature, soft, slow, and therefore more useful when they sit still and watch over our things.

Alberti did not like belts.

I have given some thought to the matter, and I think people do not generally consider it as much as they should. To generous and easy spenders it may seem unimportant if you belt your robes; but in fact belting a robe is doubly wasteful. Without a belt your dress appears fuller and more dignified; in addition, the belt, of course, makes the cloth shiny and rubs off all the nap. Soon, while your robes may still be new, the waist will already be worn out. Beautiful clothes, therefore, should not be belted. We want to have beautiful clothes.

Bear in mind this was a time of flourishing young talents and breathtaking arts, but also take comfort in the fact that while Raphael was painting his School of Athens at 26, Masaccio his Holy Trinity at 26, and Michelangelo sculpting his Pieta at just 23...for all their glorious accomplishments, like us, they also struggled with time management, and they also procrastinated, as so aptly put by Alberti:

The man who neglects things finds that his time escapes him, then necessity or at least desire brings him to action. Having, by then, almost let the season go by, he must act in a mad rush. With strenuous effort he accomplishes the same thing that earlier and at the proper time would have been easy.

This book was an assigned reading from a Renaissance and Reformation course I took at University of California, Berkeley. For all intents and purposes, I expected this to be an archaic text. Yet, I did not expect to take to heart, nor indulge in such a comfortable read on quiet nights. Who would have known that the words of a man who lived over 500 years ago still resonates with our modern selves? We all could heed some life advice from the seasoned Italian courtier...

Reflect on your values, defend your loyalties. I shall leave you with my favourite line, that is his advice on truth and choice:

Never do something about which you are doubtful. Because things that are true and good are luminous and clear in themselves.

Life Advice from a Renaissance Man

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