Show unites great Renaissance drawing collections

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A new exhibition at London’s British Museum unites arguably the world’s two greatest collections of Renaissance drawings and underlines their growing importance to artists throughout the 15th century.

'Warrior' by Leonardo da Vinci. REUTERS/Trustees of the British Museum/Handout

“Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings” displays around 100 works by Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Michelangelo and Titian in a show already being hailed by critics as a five-star event.

It combines works from the museum’s own collection and from that of the Uffizi in Florence. The show runs from April 22 to July 25 and then transfers to the Uffizi.

The exhibition explains how drawings were used to prepare for major paintings and frescoes and, later in the 15th century, how they became works of art in their own right, particularly with the arrival of print-making from northern Europe.

In addition to often detailed and exquisite pictures of figures, limbs and drapery are fast, rough sketches by the likes of Leonardo who used pen and ink drawings as a way of brainstorming and arriving at ideas for major works.

“One can sense the excitement as their quills raced over the paper to keep pace with the flow of ideas,” said British Museum director Neil MacGregor in introductory remarks for the show.

The show also underlines how the development of paper, a cheaper alternative to vellum, was key to drawing’s expansion.


Most of the works on display were never intended for public exhibition although today they would be considered masterpieces.

A drawing by Raphael for a work commissioned by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century, sold in December for $47.9 million at Christie’s, a world record for any work on paper.

The exhibition opens with a demonstration of the different stages developed by Renaissance artists to design a painting, from the earliest sketches to the use of grids that allowed them to copy it across to a larger cartoon.

One drawing, by Piero Pollaiuolo and dated around 1470, features the face of the allegorical female figure of Faith where the contours are pricked with a small pin allowing him to transfer the image exactly, using powdered chalk.

The show includes the earliest known preparatory study for an extant panel painting, and Lorenzo Monaco’s drawing of around 1407 for the left wing of his “Coronation of the Virgin” altarpiece is united with the painting for the first time.

Mantegna is represented by his “Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity,” which, unusually for the exhibition, was intended as a finished work of art.

To the left of the original, dated between 1490 and 1506, is a print of the same image by an engraver, a method that had arrived in Italy from northern Europe earlier in the century.

His use of prints was one reason the artist became so well known across much of Italy.

At the end of the show, drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael underline how High Renaissance masters developed pre-existing Florentine artistic trends and took them to a wider stage.

The Times newspaper gave the exhibition a five-star review.

“As you examine Pisanello’s unflinching studies of a hanged man in various stages of decay, or see Leonardo’s lightning evocations of a child with an armful of struggling cat, you are peering into the private world of the artist’s imagination,” wrote Rachel Campbell-Johnston.

“You discover a personality that was not meant for public show.”

Editing by Steve Addison