Leon Battista Alberti
Ordine delle lettere

c. 1435
parchment; 215 × 145 mm
Florence, Città Metropolitana, Biblioteca Moreniana, Moreni 2

This short note on the back of a guard sheet on parchment for a paper book containing Alberti’s moral works provides early evidence of the Florentine humanist and architect’s intentions to compose a grammatical treatise that, by providing it with rules, would give to the Italian vernacular the same status as the Latin language. The note organises the letters of the alphabet into rows and columns according to a hierarchy based upon their graphic shape (made up of straight lines, curves and oblique strokes), from the most basic to the most complex (from the letter “i” made up of a small vertical stroke to letters made up of multiple strokes, to ligatures such as “ch” and “gh”, to letters with cedillas, spirits or accents), all the way to whole words and verbal sentences. Therefore in representing letters as the “architectural” elements needed for building the structure of the language, the note entitled Ordine delle lettere pella linghua toschana (order of letters for the Tuscan language) offers the foundations in nuce of the rules subsequently illustrated in the treatise. The note was only discovered in 1962 and identified as original because of the presence of erasures and corrections penned in by the same hand; it also dispelled any doubts about Alberti being the author of the Grammatichetta, the first grammar book of the Italian language (Colombo 1962). Composed between 1434 and 1438, the treatise has come to us only in an adespoto (anonymous) and anepigrafo (without title) manuscript which was copied in 1508 from the original that once belonged to Lorenzo de’ Medici, now lost (C. Grayson, in Alberti 1964, pp. VI-VII; G. Patota, in Alberti 1996, pp. XXIV–XXXIV, 13–14, 55). This copy (Vat. reg. lat. 1370) perhaps belonged to Pietro Bembo who, without being aware of its author, used it during the preparation of his Prose della volgar lingua dated 1525 (S. Taddei, in Pietro Bembo 2013, no. 35).

The letters in the note are written in Alberti’s more informal handwriting, a cursive hand with elements of the mercantesca script (the handwriting used by Tuscan merchants, artisans and artists from the beginning of the fourteenth century and spreading all over Italy during the fifteenth century); one should observe the writing of the letters “c” with cedilla, “g”, “h”, “v” and the ligatures “ch” and “gh”, and the distinction between “v” and “u”, normally interchangeable both in Latin and vernacular writing of the time (A. Piccardi, in Leon Battista Alberti 2005, no. 34; Tristano 2005, passim; L. Bertolini, in Pietro Bembo 2013, no. 4.29). It is therefore different from the all’antica cursive (a formal humanistic cursive hand) employed by Alberti in transcribing or correcting his works and penning his letters (Leon Battista Alberti 2005, Tavole, I. Autografi albertiani), and very distant from the elegance of humanist cursive writing in luxurious manuscripts from the late-fifteenth century and of Aldine italics. However, the poised and regular dutto of the note gives away the importance that the author attributed to each single letter as primary signs that, once ordered in sequence, created the very fabric of a language. In this way, Alberti anticipated and predicted the printing process based upon the use of preformed, repeatable and reusable characters for constructing words and therefore an entire text.

Laura Nuvoloni