“Avery has a very strong collection of Renaissance treatises, of which the Alberti is the earliest,” said Teresa Harris, curator of Avery Classics, the rare book collection in Avery Library. These “formed the basis of Western architectural theory and practice for centuries.”
Although Alberti delivered his volume to Pope Nicholas V in 1451, it wasn’t printed until nearly four and half decades later. It came too late for Alberti, who had died 13 years earlier. Its publisher was a familiar hand: his brother, Bernardo. The book was later translated into many languages; an English translation came in 1775.
Adolph K. Placzek, the Avery librarian from 1960 to 1980, once wrote of proudly showing the Alberti volume to a group of visitors, saying “This is the first printed book on architecture ever.” A Chinese student in the group gently corrected him by asking, “What about Yingzao Fashi?” one of the oldest extant Chinese technical manuals on buildings, published in 1103 A.D. Placzek continued, “The somewhat sobered answer was that we were dealing with books that were produced after Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. In that sense, Alberti’s is the first book on architecture.”
The Alberti book is one among 40,000 items housed in Avery Classics. Other rarities include a travel sketchbook by a young Le Corbusier and the first architecture book printed in America, The British Architect: Or the Builder’s Treasury of Staircases, published in 1775.
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