Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings BRITISH MUSEUM, UNTIL JUNE 25 Like handwritten letters, drawings often carry an edge of intimacy. We catch a glimpse of the artist’s thought processes as human figures and faces are turned into marks on a page. In this large and brilliantly arranged exhibition, a wide variety of Renaissance works are presented. This is not an assembly of dazzling masterworks by “supermen” like Michelangelo. It includes many studies of figures and sheets of exploratory drawings by artists with less familiar names. The framed drawings hang, one by one on the walls, with wide spaces between each work and clear, well-chosen information nearby. It is a collection of fine, rare works and also an exploration of materials, methods and uses of drawing during this vital period in European art.
From a scratchy group of marks by Perugino as he magically evokes the figures and architecture for a fresco to a serene study of drapery by Butraffio, the drawings and their impact vary hugely. Pollaiuolo, in two drawings of nude figures, presents Adam with his hoe and Eve with a spindle and wool, each toiling after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Small children, Cain and Abel, play. The figures are tough and edgy. Their plight is embodied by tense marks, part of the language of this age when the nude figure was a major conveyor of ideas and qualities. Mantegna’s Man on a Stone Slab (c1480) provokes a breathtaking awe as we meet this figure in the process of lifting his head and upper body from the death slab on which he lies, half covered by a sheet. He may be Lazarus returning to life – or perhaps Christ. The crisp draperies, the gentle feet with carefully observed soles and toes, the shape of fingers and the modelling of fine physique and heavy head (semiconscious) are stunning. Is it beauty we are responding to, or is it the marks the artist has made, or is it the idea?
Verrocchio’s Head of an Angel (c1475) in chalk and ink includes fine pinpricks on the page so that its outlines can be transferred onto a painting surface. Beautifully shaded and drawn with a robust eloquence, this delightful face, eyes looking downward, is crowned with curls: a fragment of charming poetry before our eyes. A totally different sort of message stems from the background of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi where the artist is working out plans for a painting. Bits of figures hover like ghosts on the page. On top of them, ruled receding lines dominate the drawing, creating a web of perspective, including stairs, walls and ceilings. This was not made for us to see.
But Botticelli’s Abundance or Autumn (c1480) is finished at least in part. Created in chalk and ink, it reveals one of his sublime and lyrical supertall female figures. Clothed in an almost transparent gown, soft folds gathered here and there by ribbons caress the slender body. Delicate hair caught in a breeze crowns what might be an absurd concoction if it were not for the poetic genius of the artist. A third of the composition is unfinished pencil marks, but somehow it doesn’t matter.
We are offered clear examples of the use of these studies. Projected on the walls of small, dark galleries we see the final destination of some of the ideas embodied in drawings. Films show a drawing superimposed on to the completed painting. One room is devoted to work by Carpaccio; another to Ghirlandaio. They serve as a pleasant interlude for the eyes – and reveal the difference between a more personal “handwriting” in the drawing and the final, fully coloured destiny of the idea enlarged and translated into paint.
Raphael’s preparatory study for St George and the Dragon (c1504) is exhibited next to the painted panel which it served. The drawing catches intense physical tension in the athletic St George. As a painter, the artist abandons this raw energy for a gentler George in a colourful, placid landscape with a less fearful dragon. The more tranquil landscape has modified the role of the figures.
With the resources of both the British Museum and the Uffizi, this could have been a thundering collection of fivestar masterpieces. It is to the credit of the organisers that they have chosen not to simply “wow” us. We see greatness, but we also discover more about drawing as a path, a discipline, a matter of note-taking, experimentation and reflection. Among the exhibits, however, it is a happy jolt to find Michelangelo’s A youth beckoning, a right leg (c1504). The sheer tension of ink marks, like a carver’s chisel carefully creating torso, arm, neck and head with tactile and elegant vitality – on a page shared with other bits of drawing – is memorable. And at the very end of the exhibition we find one of the few known drawings by Michelangelo’s Venetian counterpart, Titian. In Young woman (1510) the clear sharp lines of Florentine drawing are set aside in favour of bold and terrific chalk marks to reveal a strong presence. Authority and vulnerability live side by side in this fine work at the end of a splendid journey of discovery and delight.