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.

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