Monday, May 12, 2014

Renaissance Man

Do you often meet people who defy categorization? Those whose interests and talents are so varied that they baffle the mind? Most humans are so fond of classifying one another that they often find it strange, and even stupefying, when one of them seems to excel at a multitude of disciplines.

In some circles, we jokingly label these people, freaks. A more sober qualification might be, 'polymath'. If they reach world renown and professional recognition, we label them geniuses.

You may be familiar with What's My Line, in which contestants are blind folded and have to arrive at the identity of a guest after this one answers a series of questions about their abilities and achievements.  In one particular episode, the contestants were confronted with a most puzzling personality to identify.

For each discipline in which the personality was asked if they had achieved, the response was affirmative. The contestants grew increasingly more confused given their inability to easily associate the guest with a unique dimension of excellence.

"Is there anything this man has not done?" cried one of them, in gentle exasperation.

The personality of course, is Salvador Dali.

Is Dali the only personality with such multi-faceted talents? I do not believe so. I think the majority of individuals are capable of tremendous range, if and only if, they do not limit themselves cognitively into believing that they have found their niche. Self-categorization, or rather, the lack of, is in fact, what I believe is a defining factor of geniuses.

[Self-promotion alert] While writing my novel, The Mascherari, I have been on a glorious trip to 15th century Venice. I want to bring attention to one of the geniuses I met there.  Given the gender biases of the time, the terminology for describing these 'geniuses' revolves around men. And as the title of this post indicates, these multi-disciplinary freaks were then called, Renaissance Men.

There is something elegant and uplifting about being called a Renaissance Man, especially when one happens to be extremely handsome to boot. Leone Battista Alberti was one handsome man, as you can see from this statue of him located in Florence.

He was born Battista Alberti. Later, he changed his name to "Leone".  I ought to mention his birth date, 14 February 1404. Advocates of astrology will have probably noticed that Alberti was an Aquarian.

Hold that thought.

Fans of Leonardo da Vinci will also note that Alberti was several years da Vinci's senior. In fact, he is the bona fide early Renaissance Man, and was equaled to none, except da Vinci.

I believe that geniuses have a cognitive advantage. I do not mean that exclusively in the neurological sense. Their primary advantage is that they have an inherent belief that they can do anything if they set their minds to it. As it turns out, Alberti is credited with the following empowering quote,

"A man can do all things if he but wills them."

So why is this guy so special anyway?

Alberti was known as the prototype of a 'universal man'. His breadth of knowledge is truly remarkable. He was at ease in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, science, classical learning, and the arts. He wrote pamphlets or treatises on ethics, love, religion, sociology, law, mathematics, and different branches of the natural sciences. He also wrote verses which demonstrated his aptitude for the Classics. In the arts, he was versed in painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Alberti could paint and was a good artist however none of his paintings unfortunately survive.

Classical and Law education
Alberti, or should I say, Dr Alberti, was educated at the University of Bologna, where at the age of 24, he acquired a Doctorate in Canon law.

It is said that writings poured out of Alberti, in both Latin and the Vernacular languages of Italy. Alberti scripted and wrote many love poems, fables, Latin comedy and dialogues. He wrote treatises on sculpture, agriculture, law and a host of technical subjects.

He once wrote a ten-book treatise on the technical nature of how a city should be structured (Brisbane, take note). He detailed how water should be properly channeled, how work sites should be constructed, the types of materials to be used and the different kinds of buildings that should be positioned in suitable and ideal locations.

Sounds boring? Wait, there's more.

In 1435, Alberti wrote what is known as the first book on perspective. His book, De Pictura (On Painting), sets out rules for drawing a three-dimensional picture on a two-dimensional surface. Basing himself on the principles of perspective that had been demonstrated by Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti produced a book that would later guide dozens of Renaissance artists in the creation of more realistic, perspectival artwork.

Alberti composed music and was a reputed organist.

Astronomy, Cartography and Geography
Alberti produced a treatise on geography that laid out the rules for surveying and mapping a land area.  The instruments and methods he described pre-dated later geographical depictions of the 15th and 16th centuries which are noted for their advances in accuracy.

Despite having had no formal architectural education, Leon Battista Alberti was known as the Father of Modern Architecture. He was the principal initiator of Renaissance art theory.
Among his work, he completed the Pitti Palace, the Temple of Malatesta at Rimini and the Church of Sant’ Andrea.  Before its later renovation, Alberti was commissioned to design the first Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Since I am particularly clueless in Music and Architecture, none of this excites me as much as what follows.

Cryptology and Mathematics
Remember - I mentioned that Alberti was an Aquarian, and Aquarians are traditionally known for their cutting-edge, technical minds. Given Alberti's impressive portfolio in various technical fields, it should be readily evident that, for once, astrology seems uncannily spot on in describing its subject.

But it is in the field of cryptology that Alberti truly shines as an Aquarian specimen. Here, we find the summit of his technical mastery and visionary mind. In our modern information technology age, we take for granted that technology can obfuscate our messages and encrypt our passwords, without paying so much attention to it. Consider, then, that long before the advent of computers, Alberti developed a type of cipher to which most of today’s systems of cryptography belong, and which is known as polyalphabetic substitution. It was called the Alberti cipher.
It turns out that Alberti is known today as the Father of Western Cryptology.

Brains are sexy. But men with secrets, even more so!

Secrets of the Vatican
Alberti had, since his twenties, been appointed to an ecclesiastic post and worked many years for the Vatican. One of his friends was pontifical secretary, Leonardo Dato. It has long been believed that it was Dato who spurred Alberti’s interest in cryptology.  At the time, both the Vatican and the Venice Republic were dabblers in secret communication inasmuch as they also engaged in intercepting and deciphering foreign messages.  Decipherers were employed both in the Vatican and in the Venice Republic - two cities which incidentally hold impressive archives (the Vatican has the largest archive in the Western world and Venice is not far behind.)

According to cryptology historian, David Kahn, Alberti was strolling in the Vatican gardens with Dato (what on earth were they doing), when this one asked him, “You’ve always been interested in these secrets of nature. What do you think of these decipherers? Have you tried your hand at it as much as you know how to?”
Alberti smiled. Alberti already knew that Dato’s duties included ciphers, yet he replied as though he ignored it, “You’re the head of the papal secretariat. Could it be that you had to use these things a few times in matters of great importance to His Holiness?”
“That’s why I brought it up,” replied Dato. “And because of the post I have, I want to be able to do it myself without having to use outside interpreters. For when they bring me letters in ciphers interpreted by spies, it’s no joking matter. So please – if you’ve thought up any new ideas having to do with this business, tell me about them.”

And this exchange is supposedly what enticed Alberti to deliver a cipher treatise around the age of 63. Think of it as an off-the-shelf cipher tool complete with a set of revolving discs which Signore Dato could play with to his heart's content.

New - Alberti Gadget

Ta da! Just like that, out of the blue. Unless...

Genius in the Making
What struck me about Alberti’s conversation with Dato, is that our Renaissance man already knew of Dato’s ciphering activities long before Dato admitted to them. To me, this awareness hints to Alberti’s inherent interest in matters of ciphering (just hanging around the Vatican would do that to you, I reckon).  Alberti’s attraction to solving problems, and to mathematics in general, arose long before he ever knew Dato, back when he was a twenty year old law student.  In those days, he used to find mathematics relaxing and even mentioned that it was a welcome break from studying law, which he said, taxed his memory.

Merging these ideas together, and working on the premise that one’s great work later in life often sprouts from seeds sown when one is much younger, I speculated at length on Leone Battista Alberti’s early life.

The Lost Years
Leone Battista Alberti appears briefly in my novel, The Mascherari. I wanted to pay homage to a man who, while born a wealthy banker’s son (the Alberti bank was known in the 14th century as greatly contributing to Florence’s wealth), flatly refused to work in banking, and focused instead on contributing to humanity in various fields. I also wanted to speculate on a challenging period in his life - a period where he lost his father, lost his inheritance to his uncle, and suffered illness even while studying.

What did Alberti do to survive during this time?

The Mascherari is set in 1422, at a time when Alberti was only 18 years old. That may seem young, but it did not stop me from advancing some bold theories about our 'universal' err, young man...

After all, with a genius of his caliber, anything may have been possible.

Aquarians and other geeks can delve into David Kahn's The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication. 

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