Early Draws

The British Museum is displaying some of the greatest draughtsmen of the Renaissance

Michael Prodger

The history of art often hinges on trifles. During the Renaissance, for example, would painting have attained such heights if oil paint had not been invented and artists were left with hard-to-work egg tempera? Or what if the popes had remained in Avignon, leaving Rome a cultural backwater? And what if paper had always been cheap? This latter question may have affected how the greatest phase of art developed every bit as much as the former two. In the mid-15th century, the best paper cost per sheet the equivalent of an agricultural worker’s weekly wage. It was a precious substance to be used sparingly and is a major reason why today there are only about 100 drawings by 14th-century artists. If they could have afforded to sketch at will, the story of art would have looked very different.

Something of this lost world can be seen in Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum (until 25 July). Covering the period spanning 1400-1510, the exhibition shows the unprecedented advances in Italian art. This would culminate in the High Renaissance when Michelangelo and Raphael left Florence and Perugia respectively for Rome. Quattrocento art is defined by a new obeisance to Classical sources, an increase in naturalism, the development of perspective and the formulation of studio working methods. This exhibition brings together the British Museum’s own holdings with those of the Uffizi, home of the world’s oldest collection, to form the richest display seen here for more than half a century.

The roll-call of artists on show includes every great 15th-century name, from Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Leonardo to Mantegna, Michelangelo and Titian. The only significant figure missing is Giovanni Bellini. It was in the hands of these artists that drawing, in its numerous guises, became an established part of artistic practice. Drawings were used not just to record and develop compositions but to work out individual details — the fall of a limb, the play of light — as well as to transfer images to either canvas or plaster. During the course of the century, drawings also became artistic objects in their own right and collectors began to pay attention to them in the same way they did to bronzes, tapestries or paintings. All these forms and more are represented among the 100 examples here.

Initially, drawings were regarded as simple tools and rarely seen outside artists’ workshops. In 1471, for example, the will of Anna Bellini, the widow of Jacopo and mother to both Gentile and Giovanni, left to her eldest son all her husband’s “books of drawings”. This was not a sentimental bequest but an artistic one. Together, the Bellinis formed a painting business and the books of drawings contained a repertory of motifs — animals, people, buildings — that could be reused by the sons and their assistants in subsequent studio productions. The images were, in effect, under the Bellini copyright. 

This workshop homogeneity is most clearly seen in three drawings of young women’s heads by Verrocchio (1475) and his pupils Leonardo (1468-75) and Lorenzo di Credi (1490). Each shows an inclined, oval female face with downcast eyes and an elaborate coiffure but each is also stylistically distinct. Verrocchio’s is executed in charcoal, di Credi’s distinguished by white hatching and Leonardo’s by its bravura delicacy. However, not only is the motif (a favourite in Verrocchio’s studio) identical, but the women have a meditative expression that gives them a shared mood. This is not an instance of pupils copying their master in order to increase hand-eye facility — as was often the case — but of them interpreting his example while working within a demonstrable house style.

Other examples show the different uses to which drawings were put. There is a fine but macabre sheet by Pisanello (c. 1434-8) covered with six images of men hanging from a gibbet. It was a preparatory work for a background incident in his fresco of St George and the Princess of Silene in Verona and depicts the corpses in various states of decay as he worked out which poses were most suitable for the final work. Some of the sketches are clearly drawn from a posing model while two show a putrefying figure with a gaping mouth, vacant eye sockets and a neck snapped at a 90º angle that must have been drawn from life — or rather death. Despite the grisly subject matter, the bodies are drawn with great detail and almost loving delicacy.

Some drawings, such as Piero Pollaiuolo’s head of the figure of Faith, show the holes that were pricked through the paper in order to transfer the exact design on to panel for painting. Some, such as Boltraffio’s exquisitely rendered swirl of drapery on a roughly sketched figure of Christ, show the degree of care that underlay every element of a major commission in oil. Others, such as the sinuous, frothy figure studies by Parri Spinelli (1387-1453), show artists who were better draughtsmen than painters. 

There is a small clutch too of presentation drawings, autonomous works given to patrons or acquaintances as demonstrations of the artist’s abilities or their friendship. The pick of them is Leonardo’s celebrated profile Bust of a Warrior (c. 1475-80) showing a crumple-faced soldier in fantastical armour. It is a work of equal imagination and skill, drawn in metalpoint, a medium that, because it worked through a chemical reaction between the metal stylus and the prepared paper, allowed for no corrections or rubbings out. It is, in the very best sense, a show-off piece. 

The Leonardo, like many of the works in this thrilling selection, does what we have come to expect from the best drawings: they draw a direct line from the conception in the artist’s brain, through his arm to their appearance on paper and, in doing so, take the viewer close to what in the post-Romantic age we presume to be the wellspring of creation. 

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