Great Works: Self-Portrait, Leon Battista Alberti, (20.1cm x 13.6cm) c.1432-4

National Gallery of Art, Washington

There is something rash, brutishly forceful and brilliantly dilettantish about this oval self-portrait in the form of a heavy, medallion-like bronze relief (it weighs in at about 3.66lbs) by the half-Florentine, half-Genoese bastard and polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who died in 1472. This giant of a man was outstanding at so many things. He wrote a number of learned treatises – on such subjects as architecture, sculpture and painting – which single-handedly helped to define the nature and the scope of the art of the Renaissance; he was an architect of genius – see, amongst many other examples, the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and the great temple commissioned by Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini; he also painted and drew. His reliefs may have had an influence upon the work of the great medal-maker, Pisanello.

There is something gloriously self-preening and self-heroicising about this medal. Alberti clearly regards himself as an emperor amongst men. The head is so staunchly, proudly upright, the neck so gloriously columnar, the trajectory of the long nose so fiercely sure, the eye sockets as wide open and wide awake as they could possibly be, as if to say: challenge me, if you dare, mere boys in the presence of this man amongst men that is I, Leon Battista Alberti – yes, roll my name across your tongue, mere make-weights! It is not so much a head atop a human neck as the top end of a device that might be carried into battle as an inspiration to all.

All that bluster and triumphalism aside, this medal is also fairly crudely executed. This man is not quite on top of the facture, we feel. That knotting of the cloak at the level at which the Adam's apple might have been (had this portrait been blessed with an Adam's apple; perhaps he forgot) is a touch clumsy; the bunching of the cloak at the neck is a little rough and ready, not quite up to par. At least one of the punctuation marks of the truncated signature looks a bit crude and hastily executed, too – look at the way in which the full point has been made, splayed in such an ugly way, between the initial that stands in for his first name and the abbreviated surname. That signature, too, looks a touch amateurish and boastfully large as it climbs side-on to the shooting vertical line of the back of the neck, a little hemmed in by this space, perhaps.

But where else could they have gone, these four letters of such a size and commanding presence? The definition of the musculature of the neck is not quite as sensitively defined as it might have been, either. Michelangelo, the greatest of the muscle men, would have laughed it out of court. And is not that neck itself a little too stretched for its own good, as if it has been unnaturally ratcheted up an inch or two for the sake of getting a better view over the tops of the assembled heads of the rest of benighted humanity?

Does any of this evidence of imperfections really matter in the end though?

No, not at all. What Alberti has been most eager to do – and what he has so singularly succeeded in doing – is to bring over his character as a man unparalleled amongst men. We have no doubts whatsoever about the scope of his self-regard. There is something wonderfully impressive about this degree of self-vaunting, and something slightly laughably endearing too.

Everything here is so fiercely simple and stripped bare – which itself seems to testify to the fact that the characterisation is, in the maker's opinion at least, accurate. There are no nuances here, no sweet subtleties. There is no self-doubt. Every last detail bludgeons us into submission. The hair streams sideways across the dome of his skull like a skull cap embellished by a strange, decorative massing of squirming polyps. The jaw line looks fierce, clenched; the portion of the brow that we can see is a mightily thickened furrowing.

Everything yearns towards nobility, to the highest degree. Only the ear is a touch crisp and dainty. The head is contained so tightly within the oval that it utterly dominates, engulfs, the space. See how the roundness of the head at the back is within a millimetre or two of the very edge of the plaquette itself, almost grazing it. The head is in perfect profile too, coldly and commandingly impersonal in its serenity. We look on, with some trepidation, but we are not invited to be anything other than awestruck observers at this lofty scene.

And then, finally, there is the mystery of that winged eye which appears to hover in front of his neck. What mysteries is this eye privy to?

ABOUT THE ARTIST The great humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), architect, theorist and amateur painter, was one of the polymaths of the Italian Renaissance. In addition to his writings about sculpture, painting and architecture, he also wrote widely on numismatics, mathematics, the equine arts and archaeology.

arts@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine