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Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings

A unique collaboration between the Uffizi and the British Museum

Andrea del Verrocchio, Head of a woman

Charcoal, heightened with lead white, c. 1475

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Round Reading Room – British Museum

22 April – 25 July 2010








A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


“Drawing, the father of our three arts, architecture, sculpture and painting.” Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, 1568

The British Museum’s Round Reading Room, with its gold, domed ceiling is as fine a setting for this exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings as any you’re likely to find anywhere in London.

Renaissance or rebirth was a term coined by Italian scholars and artists from 1300 onwards to stress, among other things, their connection to ancient Rome.  In the early 1400s, Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance style. This exhibition, a collaborative one between the Uffizi Gallery of Florence and the British Museum, covers a period of approximately 100 years, with drawings by Fra Angelico and Leonardo da Vinci forming the beginning and end of the timeline.  It seeks to tell the story of Italian drawing in the 1500s through its 100 drawings in a way that is as close as possible to the thinking of the artists, in relation to how they worked out their creative ideas through their drawings.

The first drawings one sees, St. Peter (1435-45) by Tuscan artist Parri Suppinelli is all about surface, while its counterpart, hanging nearby, Old Man Wearing a Hat (Philosopher) (1495 – 1500), by Michelangelo is all about form. These two drawings, we are told, effectively frame the exhibition. Initially, artists used pens when drawing, for speed and ease of use. Where-ever applicable, drawings are accompanied by small, full colour images of their corresponding finished paintings so you can see how they compare and what changes were made.

Rarities abound in the exhibition, with Piero Polluriado’s extremely beautiful Head of Faith (1410) being the oldest surviving cartoon. The word ‘cartoon’ is derived from the Italian cartone, which means ‘large sheet of paper.’ Its’ contours were pricked with a pin in order to transfer the image onto a blank sheet which was then placed on a panel, with chalk powered over it, to create an outline for the corresponding painting. In most cases, Renaissance artworks have several layers.

‘Take pain and pleasure in constantly copying the best things which you can find done by the hands of the great masters’. So wrote Cennino Cennini in The Craftsmen’s Handbook (1390 – 1440). During the ensuing Gothic era, one of art’s greatest leaps occurred when paper replaced more expensive vellum. Until then, drawings had been recycled in a manner of speaking, as they were copied from model books and handed down. But with the birth of the Renaissance, there was a trend towards naturalism, which encouraged artists to work more from life drawing than from model books.

Though it was then a very conservative place, many of the light sensitive artists, understandably, originated from canal laden Venice and surrounds. A fine example of the light exploring trend originating from Venice is Charity (1425 – 28) by Stephano de Verona.

Animals were the most frequently copied subjects for model books, as figures had to be discarded once their clothes became outmoded.

Anon-Lombard, Two-cheetahs, 1400-10

bodycolour and watercolour on vellum

copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Lorenzo Monaco, Gothic Master is represented here by one of the earliest known preparatory drawings, displayed alongside a surviving painted panel of his work, entitled ‘Adoring Saints’ from his Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece (1407-09) for the very first time, displayed together. During this era, there was also evidence of copying from other sources, as in the case of Bernozzo Gozzoli’s Nude Man with Horse (1447-49) which he copied from the two colossal marble sculptures Horse Tamers, which have been on Quirinal Hill in Rome since Antiquity.

There are intriguing bits of personal information to be had here too. Fra Lippi for example, whose Woman (1460-61), one of an album of drawings, left monastic life after fathering a child with a nun. Their son, Filipino also became a painter. Lippi’s drawing Virgin and Child with Angels is sublime. Knowing that Leonardo de Vinci wrote backwards is not the same as actually seeing his handwriting, which you can do here, as he wrote a couple of lines on his drawing, Landscape (1473) and dated it, ‘5th of August, 1473.’ Rather than smudge the ink, he wrote from right to left.

Around 1413, the most important artistic innovation since paper, linear perspective, was introduced by architect/engineer Filippo Brunelleschi. Paolo Uccello’s mathematical drawing, Chalice (1430-40)shown here, is a fine example of this innovative discovery, which enabled artists to consider space in new ways. Though hand drawn, Chalice is not unlike what a computer rendering of such a subject looks like today.

Renaissance albums, like today’s artist’s portfolios, were compiled for similar purposes, namely, sale and/or self-promotion. Albums were only in use for a short time, (1450 – 70) due to the fact that printmaking became more widespread. Jacopo Bellini’s massive album, considered the earliest, is on show here, opened to an impressive drawing entitled Tournament on page 99 (1455 – 60). 

‘Never take the stylus or brush in your hand if you have not first constituted in your mind all that you have to do.’ Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting (1435 – 36). This quote opened the ‘Masters of Design’ section of the exhibition.

Maso Finiguerra and Antonio Pollauiolo were two Florentine masters of design. A goldsmith by trade, Finiguerra created drawings used by generations of his family thereafter. His Two Studies of Hands and Figures (1450-60) are a tribute to his talent. Naturally, Finiguerra’s drawings were sought after by printmakers.

In order to aid your journey through this densely populated exhibition, the title and artist of each drawing has been painted in enlarged letters on the wall above them, making revisits possible.

In ‘Engraving in Italy,’ we are introduced to work by some of Finiguerra’s pupils, among them, Antonio Pollauiolo who chose as a subject, St. John the Baptist (1470-80), the patron saint of Florence. His St. John is a figure of longing and pain, as he portrays him as a desert hermit. Small gestures were important to Pollauiolo, and re-workings of hands and feet are seen alongside the figure. We often see such reminders that drawings were, truly a way ‘in’ to an artist’s process, as they were never meant to be shown to the public, but were for the artist’s use alone. Paper, though more plentiful and cheaper than vellum was still being used to maximum capacity, with drawings often being made on both sides of the page and fainter renderings visible beneath the main subject.

Andrea Mantegna, son-in-law of Jacopo Bellini, was the first of these artists to create a drawing meant as a finished artwork in its own right, entitled ‘Virtus Combusta’ (‘Virtue in Flames’)/'Virtus Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity (1490). But things were rapidly changing during this period in terms of how art and subjects of art were viewed. A fine example of this growing trend is Campo San Lis Venice (1490-1507) by Gentile Bellini which offers a true ‘slice of Venetian life.’

‘The Florence of Verrocchio and Leonardo’ was a flourishing place, as evidenced by the international acceptance of Florentine gold, or florins. This was the era (1430 – 90) when the powerful Medici family dominated city government. The studio of Andrea Del Verrocchio (1435-88) where the master taught goldsmithing, sculpture and painting was a magnet for budding artists, some of whom were, already, artists in their own right, including, Leonardo. Their styles were shaped by the ‘descriptive and atmospheric qualities of light.’ Head of a Woman (1475) the symbol of this exhibition, was a model for the artist’s feminine ideals. Lorenzo Di Credi’s Head of a Woman (1490), hanging nearby, offers a lovely comparison. Leonardo’s Head of a Woman (1468-75) however, trumps the others in that it demonstrates its artists’ ‘precocious powers of observation and technical brilliance.’

Leonardo da Vinci, Head of a woman 1470s

black chalk or leadpoint, brown and grey black wash with white

copyright the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi

Apparently Leonardo often found it difficult to set his drawing aside in order to finish paintings, as for him, drawing was ‘vital to how he analysed the world.’ There are ten fine examples of Leonardo’s drawing in this exhibition.

In Botticelli’s Abundance or Autumn (1480-85), in the ‘Venice and Northern Italy’ section of the exhibition, we see the origins of the title figure of his famous painting Birth of Venus (1484) and realise that he altered the human form considerably, yet, created such balance that it is not noticeable at first glance. Having savoured the radiance of the Birth of Venus at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery some years ago, I must add that this variance never occurred to me, such was my fascination with the work. 

‘Leonardo began the third style, which I will call the modern...’ G. Vasari – Lives of the Artists. The section ‘Milan and Northern Courts’ allows, among other things, glimpses into Leonardo as visionary, or inventor. Among the many things he envisioned was a rudimentary version of the first helicopter – amazing. Having outdone Perugino, one of Umbria’s favourite painters, in 1508 Raphael moved to Rome, where he challenged Michelangelo’s artistic primacy at the papal court. Studies for Virgin and Child (1506 – 07), one of the truly great drawings, eventually became the lovely painting, Bridgewater Madonna (1507). Other drawings here illustrate the practice of placing drapery over a wooden model, which was then copied as the human form, a common way of working at that time.

No exhibition of Renaissance drawings would be complete without works by the great Florentine master, Michelangelo and here, we have his Youth Beckoning, A Right Leg, (1504) taken from the sculpture, Apollo Belvedere in Rome, artist unknown. However, Michelangelo chose to literally, upset the balance, by placing his athletic looking youth in a much more precarious pose, emphasising the fact that for him, art was about movement, the torso being the most important part of the body. Michelangelo’s mastery of life drawing and vast knowledge of classical sculpture are apparent here.

One of the rarest jewels of this exhibition is Titan’s Young Woman (1510 -15)   demonstrates the way in which he began to make costume less important, in favour of the face and form of his subject. In this drawing, we get a real sense of a ‘living sitter.’ Titan was also an artist capable of rendering ‘sensual textures’ and ‘atmospheric lighting on paper.’ Somehow, his young lady seems quite timeless.  Titan is widely credited with augmenting ‘pictorial drawing.’

Titian, Study of a young woman c. 1510

black and white chalk on faded blue paper

copyright the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi

This brings us to the artistic legacy of the Renaissance artists, which is, incomprehensibly vast. Their discipline and technique spawned a number of European academies adapting their practices, which, basically, remained the same until the onset of ‘synthetic chalks, graphite pencils and wood pulp paper’ in the 1800s. But more importantly, Renaissance art blurred the lines between the real world and the painted one, so in that way, it was really, quite revolutionary.

Hugo Chapman of the British Museum curator of the exhibition stated: ‘There are drawings which have never been lent to this country before, and others, like the Leonardo Landscape drawing which have not been seen here since 1930,’ when the Royal Academy held an exhibition of Italian Art. There is an ‘emphasis on technique’ here. It is Chapman’s hope that visitors ‘gain a sense of the incredible importance of drawing in this period....when paper was a new, vital material’, which, ‘allowed artists to experiment.’ Virtually all of the renaissance masterpieces were ‘rehearsed on paper.’

This is a heady exhibition, not easily ‘consumed’ and put out of one’s mind, but a showing which requires study, and careful contemplation.  It might seem a trifle academic to some, given its lack of colour and references to more main stream masterworks. However, this is the first major exhibition of Renaissance drawings in London for seventy years and those seeking a refresher course in Art History, insight into the processes of Renaissance artists, lovers of Renaissance art and/or those interested in subjects of great historical importance, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings should prove a truly memorable and enlightening experience.


Open daily 10.00–17.30 (last entry 16.20)

Open late Thursday and Friday until 20.30 (last entry 19.20)





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