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Drawing us in: the joys of draughtsmanship

Three exhibition catalogues of Italian Renaissance art demonstrate the unique intimacy of pen or pencil on paper

There is much that we owe Renaissance Italy, but even Jacob Burckhardt, its most enthusiastic advocate, did not cite what a group of exhibitions in London and New York in early 2010 have made unmistakable—the creation of drawing as a major art form. From Fra Angelico to Bronzino and on to the Carracci, artists used pencil, pen and chalk not only to work out their most cherished ideas but also to connect to their audience with an immediacy that has no equal.

The riches on display at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum (until 9 May) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 18 April), and London’s Courtauld Gallery (until 16 May) and British Museum (until 25 July), tempt one to call spring 2010 the season of Italian drawing. Except for the Morgan, which showed works from its holdings under the rubric “Rome after Raphael”, all the organisers have produced sumptuous catalogues that reinforce the uniqueness of their subject through learned essays on context, meaning and provenance. Though the absence of an index in the Courtauld volume is regrettable, all three books are exemplary in presentation and scholarship. And the Morgan labels alone convey the adventure that students of drawings embark on as they seek to unravel purpose and origins. Here, in around 80 works, one can follow a succession of talents as they struggled with the weighty heritage of Raphael and Michelangelo, forging the new styles of mannerism and Baroque, and creating new kinds of subject matter.

For the scholar, however, intent and attribution remain perennial problems. In the Courtauld show, “Michelangelo’s Dream”, these issues are relatively limited but still vexing. The centrepiece is one of the gallery’s great treasures, Michelangelo’s The Dream, around 1533, a beautifully rendered but strangely esoteric composition that Panofsky linked to Platonic and Christian ideas of love, but which has eluded definitive interpretation. Stephanie Buck seeks, with some success, to link it to other presentation drawings Michelangelo made for his beloved Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, and these, notably the haunting Fall of Phaeton, 1533, are the focus of the catalogue. And yet, however famous these were (among the many copies made of The Dream, for instance, the one by Clovio is at the Morgan), their aims remain fiercely contested. The alternatives are judiciously laid out in the catalogue, but firm conclusions about the artist’s intent (and in some cases even his authorship) remain out of reach.

The trouble is that drawings are rarely signed, and (unless they can be linked directly to other works—a gift not often given) their lightness of touch can complicate opinions about style and attribution. In Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, the British Museum avoids the problem by offering more than a hundred masterpieces that have solid provenance. These drawings make an overwhelming case for the power of the form. Whether it is an old man captured by Signorelli or Vivarini, or a young girl evoked by Titian, people come to life with a vividness and distinctiveness that the more distancing art of painting never achieves. One has a sense of the artist, just inches away from the vellum or the paper, making tiny adjustments, adding a line or two here and there, right before one’s eyes.

Here we have the whole range the form encouraged: magnificent presentation drawings, such as Mantegna’s beautifully finished and elaborate Virtus Combusta, around 1490; Verrocchio’s preparatory drawing of an angel’s face, pricked and ready for transfer to his Baptism of Christ, around 1475; Pollaiuolo’s experiments with hands in different positions for a St John the Baptist, around 1470; and Leonardo’s quick observations of a cat in varied poses. The variety, encompassing moods from grandiose ambition to personal delight, is breathtaking. And repeatedly the artist himself seems to emerge from the scene. To see the changes Carpaccio made between the pen and oil versions of his St Augustine in His Study, around 1502, is almost like standing at his shoulder as he decided, for example, to substitute a dog for an ermine, or to surround the saint’s desk with books.

In scholarly terms, though, the principal achievement in these volumes is the restoration of Agnolo Bronzino to his proper place as a master draughtsman. The precision and unadorned directness of his drawings have even led one critic, Souren Melikian, to suggest that they were more compelling than his paintings. The comprehensive illustrations of Bronzino’s oils and tapestries at the end of the catalogue remind one that, for elegance and the vibrant use of colour, he had few equals.

And, as the Metropolitan Museum’s The Drawings of Bronzino says more than once, they are magnificent. Bronzino could convey pathos, intimacy, charm, yearning, grace or power in just a few strokes. His sharp observations of detail, his easy control of line and shading, and his subtle suggestions of character make it remarkable that this is the first ever show devoted to his drawings. But the catalogue soon reveals the problem—the question of attribution is a central concern. Bronzino was so close to his teacher Pontormo in the 1520s, for example, that differentiating them is never easy. Nonetheless, despite the lack of consensus among experts, and their own modest willingness to accept “attributed to” in a number of cases, the authors make a strong case for the oeuvre as they have defined it. Their success in lending new stature to a famous 16th-century Italian artist is no mean achievement.

It is heartening to see drawings receiving such attention from these major museums. The form may lack the glamour of painting or sculpture, but it allows the viewer a unique glimpse of the moment of creation when an artist brings his ideas into reality. Especially in the quick sketches and the tiny details, these sheets help one understand how it was that Italians of the Renaissance were able to transform the nature of the visual arts.

The writer is Professor Emeritus of History, Princeton University

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