Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings on display at the British Museum

A highly distinguished and expertly organised exhibition


British Museum, London

22 April-25 July

This exhibition is highly distinguished on several counts. First, the number (101), the high physical quality, the clear provenances and the proven authorship of the drawings are of the first order. They are drawn from two of the world’s greatest collections of prints and drawings, that of the British Museum and that of the Uffizi. On view are works by 47 artists, many of whose names are a roll-call of the Italian Renaissance—Lorenzo Monaco, Pisanello, Fra Angelico, Lippo Lippi, Benozzo Gozzoli, Jacopo and Gentile Bellini, Mantegna, Cosmè Tura, Marco Zoppo, the Pollaiuolos, Botticelli, Giuliano da Sangallo (shown right, Standing Man Tearing a Scroll, around 1485), Verrocchio, Lorenzo di Credi, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Signorelli, Filippino, Piero di Cosimo, Bramantino, Cima da Conegliano, Carpaccio, Veronese, Fra Bartolommeo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and no less than 10 by Leonardo—as well as works by artists such as de’Grassi, Spinelli, Finiguerra, Boltraffio, the Master of the Pala Sforzesca and Aspertini, who are better known to scholars and specialists.

Second, the exhibition is curated and its catalogue (The British Museum Press, £45, ISBN 9780714126685) edited by two outstanding scholars: Hugo Chapman, the British Museum’s curator of pre-1800 Italian drawings, and Marzia Faietti, director of the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi. Their team includes leaders in the field of Italian Renaissance drawings and works on paper: Elena Bonato, Cristina Casoli, Cristiana Garofalo, Daniel Godfrey, Elisa Maggini, Giorgio Marini, Maria Maddalena Rook, Iliaria Rossi and Raimondo Sassi.

Third, the exhibition is far from being an omnium gatherum or a “glories/treasures/masterpieces of” show, but is carefully conceived, the drawings pertinently chosen to fit the overall aim of the show and they are coherently presented. The purpose of the exhibition is to illustrate how drawing developed in Italy from around 1400 to around 1510 when Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian began to lead the way into the next phase of classically inspired naturalism. The key innovators are Leonardo and Antonio Pollaiuolo, but while the main organising principle is chronology, the show is subdivided by other themes (regional differences, drawing as a teaching tool, the variety of techniques and media, the different classes of graphic works). Scientific analyses by the BM conservation and scientific research team, using imaging techniques (infrared and ultraviolet) and X-ray fluorescent and Raman spectroscopy, have revealed a host of details about some of the drawings.

Fourth—de gustibus non disputandum est—there is the matter of the sheer beauty of these drawings. Drawings, more than any other medium, require great concentration and silence: much as one wishes the BM every good thing, God forbid that this exhibition becomes a blockbuster, the crowds making these works unviewable. BP, the exhibition’s sponsor, is to be congratulated on a very wise investment.

The exhibition travels next year to the Uffizi (1 February-30 April 2011).