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From A Literary Source-book of the German Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 47-55.



Place and time of birth undetermined. Thought to be Venice, in 1404. Alberti’s talents covered a wide range of subjects. He is known as a writer of Latin verse, as a musician and as an architect. Employed by Nicholas V. in the restoration of the papal palace and of other Roman buildings. Died at Rome n 1472 (1484). Chief works are upon Sculpture, Painting and Architecture.

EXTRACT FROM THE Trattato del Governo della Famiglia.*

Children.   What things do you find necessary to a family?

Agnolo.   Many things. Good fortune, which is not wholly within the power of men.

Children.   But those which are within the power of men, what are they?

Agnolo.   They are: to possess a home, where the family may be gathered together; to have wherewith to feed the children; to be able to clothe them, and to give them learning and good manners. For nothing appears to me so necessary to the family as to cause the young people to be studious and virtuous, reverent, and willing to hearken to advice; for when reverence and obedience are lacking in the young, then vice grows in them from day to day, either as 48 the result of a depraved nature, or through evil conversation and waste and corrupt habits. Everywhere you see children full of gentleness, pure and diligent, turn out badly through the negligence of him who has failed to govern them properly. It is not the sole duty of the father of the family to keep the granary and cellar of the house filled, but also to watch and to observe, to note what company his children keep, to examine their habits at home and abroad, and to detect all evil practices; to constrain his children with suitable words rather than with anger and contempt; to make use of authority rather than force, to refrain from severity and harshness when there is no need; always to conserve the welfare and repose of the whole household; to rule the minds of children and nephews so that they shall not depart from the duty and the rule of life; to provide in advance against every danger which may threaten the family, kindling in their childish minds love and appreciation of things of worth and value, rooting up all vices, putting before them the good example of his own life, and above all restraining the excessive license of youth. So ought children to be reared and educated.

Children.   We pray God to give us grace so to do.

Nephews.   And how will you observe good husbandry in this? We are a large family, we have great expenses, and we all desire to be like you, good managers, moderate, honest, continent, to live sumptuously at home and decently abroad. How ought we then to do?

Agnolo.   As best you may, according as the time is one of prosperity or adversity. I am of the opinion that in our living and in all our affairs reason avails more than chance; and prudence holds its own against misfortune. Flee idleness, wantonness, treachery, indolence and unbridled greed. Be gentle, self-possessed, humane, benevolent and free from ignorance, vice, insolence and pride, and with graciousness and tact seek the good will and affection of your fellow citizens. Envy ceases where pomp ends. Hatred is extinguished where distinctions of rank cease. Enmity is spent where no offence is given. Strive to be that which you wish to appear.


Children and Nephews.   These are the best of precepts; but in order that we many completely master your teaching and doctrine, suppose the case that you are of our age, that you have wife and children, (and having one possessed them you are experienced); in what manner would you arrange your affairs, — how would you manage?

Agnolo.   My children and nephews, if I were of your age I should be capable of many things, which now I may not undertake. The first thing would be to have a home well ordered and appointed, where I should be able to live with all convenience and comfort, without having to move about. Moving about is too harmful, too full of expense, discomfort and vexation. Things are lost, mislaid, spoiled, broken, and through these evils the mind is greatly disturbed and disconcerted, and it takes some time before you are again well settled. I leave out of account the expense of rearranging the home. I should take care to occupy a clean and wholesome house, well aired (for the age of childhood has great reason to fear bad air and conditions unfavorable to health), and I should observe to what age people had lived there, and whether the old people had remained well and vigorous. My children, the well man always wins in any case whatsoever; the sick man may never call himself rich.

Children and Nephews.   And what seems to you to be requisite to health?

Agnolo.   First of all, that which we are obliged to use just as we find it, whether we will or not. This is the air. Next, the other things necessary to our existence: good and sound food, and especially good wine.

Children.   And in that place you would live?

Agnolo.   Yes, where I thought it best for me to be, for me and mine.

Children and Nephews.   What would you do if you wished to change your residence? Would you buy a home or rent one?

Agnolo.   Certainly I should not rent; for in time a man finds that he has bought a house and still has it not. If I had not one already, I should buy an airy, spacious house, 50 of a size to contain my family, and more, in order that I might entertain one of my friends, if he should come to see me; and I should spend upon this purchase as little money as possible.

Children.   Would you take a house in an out-of-the-way place, where houses are cheaper?

Agnolo.   Do not say cheaper. Nothing is dear, if the money is spent on something that suits. Therefore, I should seek to buy a house that would suit me; but I should not pay for it more that it was worth, nor should I show myself an eager purchaser. I should choose a house located in a good neighborhood, in a well-known street, where respectable people were living, whose friendship I might acquire without harm, so that my wife might enjoy the virtuous companionship of their ladies. Moreover, I should inform myself as to who had previously dwelt there, and I should insist upon knowing whether they had lived there sound and well. There are some houses in which it seems that no one can live happily.

Children.   Indeed you speak truly. We remember to have heard of a beautiful and imposing house. A certain one who lived there lost everything; another remained there alone; another was driven forth with much disgrace. All turned out badly.

Nephews.   Surely these observations of yours are worth attention: to have a suitable house in a good and reputable neighborhood. And having this, how would you arrange your other economies?

Agnolo.   I should see to it that all of mine should live under the same roof; that they should be warmed at the same fire and seated at the same table.

Children.   We can imagine your pleasure in seeing yourself in their midst, father of all, surrounded, loved, revered as the master of all; and in the training of youth, which is for the aged the highest pleasure, since virtuous children afford to their parents much aid, honor and praise. In the care of the father lies the virtue of the children. A careful and painstaking father ennobles his family.


Agnolo.   That is true; but, believe me, there is yet a greater economy in living behind a single threshold.

Children.   You say this?

Agnolo.   And I will make you certain of it. Tell me: if now it were night and dark, and some one should light a candle in your midst, you, I and these others would enjoy the light sufficiently to read, write and do whatever might be necessary. But if we go apart, one hither and one thither, each wishing to use the light as before, do you believe that one burning candle will suffice for us, as when we were all together?

Children.   Truly not. Who can doubt it? For where formerly one light burned for all, now divided and gone asunder, there would be need of three.

Agnolo.   And now if it should be very cold, and together we had taken coals and lighted a great fire, and now you wish to have your part of it elsewhere, and these others carry their portions away, will you be able to warm yourself as well, or worse?

Children.   Worse.

Agnolo.   So it happens with the family. Many things there are at suffice for many persons living together, but which are insufficient for a few here and here in various places. Quite other power and favor, quite other praise and reputation, quite other authority and credit will he enjoy who finds himself surrounded with his family. He will be more feared and more esteemed than he who goes forth with few about him and without the company of his own people. Much more will the father of a family be recognized and regarded, whom many of his people follow, than he who goes alone. The abundance of persons constitutes the value of the family. Let not the family be divided, for where formerly it was large, there will be but two small groups. The utility and honor of the whole family ought to be preferred to that of the individual. The head that is not supported by all the members fails. The divided family is not alone diminished, but every social grade and favor heretofore acquired is lost. Every one respects a untied family; two 52 discordant families enjoy no regard. I wish now to speak as a man rather practical than learned, and to adduce reasons in support of my proposition. For two tables two cloths are spread, two fires are kindled, and two fires consume two portions of wood. For two tables two servants are employed, where for one table one servant answers. I need not follow out the thought; you can complete it for yourselves. In dividing one family into two it is necessary to double the expense; and there are many other disadvantages, more evident in practice than in theory. This dividing of the family has never pleased me, nor does it please me now; this going and coming through many doorways. Nor would my spirit permit that you should live without me, under another roof.

Children.   For all of which we honor you.

Agnolo.   Yes, my children, under one roof the family lives to best advantage. However, when the children are grown up, or the increasing family makes the dwelling too small to hold them, let those who go away at least depart of their own pleasure.

Children.   O, speech worthy of being held perpetually in memory! With one will shall the family stand! But then when all are at home and desire to sup and dine?

Agnolo.   Let it be so arranged that they may sup and dine in due season and well.

Nephews.   Do you mean by that to eat of good food?

Agnolo.   Good, my children, and abundant. Not indeed pea-fowls, capons, partridges, pheasants, and other choice food of the kind, which are fit for invalids or for banquets; but let a substantial table be prepared, so that no one of us, accustomed to our fare, may desire to dine elsewhere, hoping thereby the better to satisfy his hunger. Let the home table be well supplied with wine and bread. Let the wine be honest, and the bread as well, and with these pure and abundant condiments.

Nephews.   That is a good idea. And would you buy these things from day to day?

Agnolo.   I should not buy them at all, for that would not 53 be economy. Whoever sells his things, sells only those he no longer cares to retain. Who, think you, will deprive his house of the best rather than the worst, and that which he deems it not longer prudent to retain? In some cases, however, from need of money, the better articles are sold.

Nephews.   We are persuaded of it, and he who would be prudent will sell the least valuable first, and when he sells the better articles, he will sell them for more than cost.

Agnolo.   True. It is desirable, nowever, to have at hand the things that are needed, to have tested them and to know their season; so that I am better pleased to have them in the house than to seek them elsewhere.

Children.   Would you wish to have in the house a whole year’s consumption at one time?

Agnolo.   I should like to have in the house that which is needed, and that which can be kept without risk, annoyance or extra labor, or without giving cause for accidents or too much lumbering up the house. That which would not keep I should sell, and refurnish myself from time to time, for it is better to leave the labor and risk of these things to others until the time of their use.

Nephews.   Would you sell that which you had previously bought?

Agnolo.   Insomuch as I might do so, if by keeping it I should incur loss. If I had my choice I should not wish to sell this or that article, because these things belong to low and mercenary occupations. Economy demands that sometimes you should lay in a large supply and that you should furnish yourself with everything in season. Still I tell you that I should not like to be obliged to pay out my ready cash every year.

Children.   We do not see how that can be avoided.

Agnolo.   I will show you. I should manage to have an estate, which, with less expense than buying in the market, would keep the house supplied with grain, wine, oats, wood, fodder and the like. Then I should raise sheep, poultry, pigeons and even fish. I should buy this property out of my capital, and not hire it, for then it would be mine and 54 my children’s, and my nephews’ as well; so that we should have more interest in its care, and in seeing that it was well cultivated, since my successors in their time would reap the fruits of my planting.

Nephews.   Would you expect to gather from your land in a single location grain, wine, oil, fodder and wood?

Agnolo.   Indeed I should.

Children.   To grow good wine side-hills and a southern exposure are necessary. To grow good grain requires flat land, mellow and light. Good wood grows on the mountains and on steep places; hay, in cool, damp meadows. Do you expect to find such a diversity in any one locality? Are there indeed many localities adapted at once to the vine, to grain crops, to wood and pasturage? And if you found such a place, do you believe you could acquire it, except at a high price?

Agnolo.   I believe it would cost dear. But I remember that in the vicinity of Florence there are many sites in crystalline air, charming country, fine view, few fogs and harmful winds, good water, everything healthful, pure and good; and many handsome houses, like seignorial palaces (many are built like fortresses, — like castles), superb and splendid edifices. I should seek an estate, such that, taking there a measure of salt, I should be able to feed my family the whole year through, and give them the whole year what they needed — if not all, at least the necessary things, such as bread, wine, oil, wood and corn. to see that nothing was lacing I should often inspect the fields, and indeed the whole estate; and I should prefer to have it all together, or at least the separate portions not far distant from each other, in order to be able the more easily to go over it both on horse and afoot.

Children.   A good idea, for then the laborers from one end to the other would not neglect their tasks, and then you would not have trouble with them so often.

Agnolo.   It is beyond belief how roguery has grown amongst the peasantry. Their every thought is to deceive us; and you may be sure they never err on the side of their 55 own disadvantage in your dealings with them. They always see to it that something of your share remains with them. In the first place the peasant asks you to buy his ox or his sheep, goat, swine or horse. Then he demands a loan to satisfy his creditors; something more to clothe his family, a dowry for his daughter, something to rebuild his cottage or other buildings, farming utensils to be replaced, and he never ceases with his complaints. And when he has been well paid, better perhaps than his master, he still continues to lament and to plead poverty. Something he will always be in want of, and he never talks with you that it does not cost you something. If the harvest is abundant, he always retains the better share for himself. If, on account of bad weather or any other cause, the harvest fails, he sets aside for you the damaged portion, and reserves the greater part of the useful product or himself; the useless and injured he always leaves for you.

Nephews.   Then it would be better to spend your money in town, in furnishing your house, than to have to do with such persons.

Agnolo.   Nay, it is useful, my children, to have to do with such persons, and to deal with rustic dispositions, in order that you may better understand how to deal with your fellow-citizens of equal rank. The country people teach us not to be negligent, and if you are careful in your own affairs neither your farmers nor other people will be able to cheat you much, and you will not be obliged to endure their malice. Indeed, you may laugh at it.


*  Edited by Antonio Fortunato Stella, Milan, 1811. Attributed to Agnolo Pandolfini.

[To see what a fellow humanist thinks of Alberti, read Paolo Giovio’s tribute HERE on this site. — Elf.Ed.]

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