In writing Michelangelo’s Vita in 1568, Giorgio Vasari remarked that in his old age the revered sculptor burned many of his drawings, discarding everything he considered less than a perfect creation, thereby destroying any evidence that could have left his monumental greatness in doubt. Although modern scholars frequently question the veracity of Vasari’s anecdotes, this one rings true for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a well-known fact that Michelangelo was an exacting artist, for whom only the finest creations were worth preserving. On the other, and perhaps even more important, one must acknowledge that all artists “edit” their oeuvre and discard undesirable and objectionable material. The survival of any work of art has always been determined first and foremost by its maker, who needs to be a discerning critic. And arguably, drawings will constantly be the first and last works of art to face denigration and disposal, not only because they frequently serve to draft initial or rough ideas that lead to “something grander,” such as completed paintings and architecture, but also because of their delicate nature on paper or other ephemeral materials. With all of these considerations in mind, the survival of graphic works in great numbers from early periods such as the fifteenth century, the era of Michelangelo’s youth, seems not only remarkable but also fortuitous. This becomes evident in glancing through Hugo Chapman and Marzia Faietti’s Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, the catalogue accompanying an exhibition that brings together one hundred drawings from the holdings of the British Museum in London and the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi in Florence. The exhibition and its companion text chart the development of Italian graphic arts in the Quattrocento, the earliest era from which a considerable sum of drawings from Western Europe survives.
The importance of disegno (simultaneously corresponding to “drawing” and “design” in Italian) during the Renaissance cannot be overstated. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Cennino Cennini, Leon Battista Alberti, and Vasari expounded upon the primacy of this practice as the elemental preparation for any artistic creation. Not only has the custom of creating preliminary drawings retained its authority over the centuries, it has remained almost unquestioned ever since. The catalogue for the exhibition commences with a series of essays that explain the significance of this pictorial tradition and contextualize it in its period. The introductory remarks describe the various drawing techniques and materials (such as pen and ink, charcoal, chalks, and metalpoint) and the types of surfaces upon which these were laid (handmade paper, vellum, and wooden tablets). The essays also consider the categories of drawings generated, including presentation drawings, studies and sketches, cartoons, and portraits. Other initial remarks discuss related issues, such as the development of drawing in the early modern period, early preservation and collection of the graphic arts, the primacy of the classical world as a source of inspiration and emulation, and Leonardo’s significance as a draughtsman. Two expositions are dedicated to the history of the collections of the British Museum and the Florentine Gabinetto. The opening essays in the catalogue successfully contextualize the role of disegno in the period and will be valuable to students and uninitiated readers. They would have been even more useful to the scholarly community if new insights and theories were proposed and explored.
The catalogue, however, is noteworthy for several reasons. It brings together many important and well-known graphic works that have not been seen together before. It collects a great diversity of images in terms of style, technique, and subject matter, revealing the tremendous variety in the survival of graphic arts from this particular period in Italy. The catalogue entries are written lucidly, which will appeal to any reader. Although the selection of drawings is comprehensive in representing the major artists of the period, it also demonstrates extensive geographical breadth. Not only are famous Florentines and Venetians included here, but so are their lesser-known compatriots from Milan (Follower of Giovannino de’ Grassi, cat. 2; Master of the Pala Sforzesca, cat. 72), Arezzo (Sparri Spinelli, cat. 5), and Brescia (Bramantino, cat. 73). The chronology presented in the catalogue also allows the viewer to appreciate the evolution of the graphic arts during the fifteenth century. For instance, drawings from the early Quattrocento frequently consist of compositional or drapery studies used as preparations for altarpieces. Later images include well-known secular subjects including Uccello’s Study of a Chalice (ca. 1450–70, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, cat. 15), and Jacopo Bellini’s leadpoint Tournament (from the London album; ca. 1455–60, British Museum, cat. 16). The fastidious precision of Fra Filippo Lippi’s study for the Madonna and Child with Two Angels at the Galleria degli Uffizi (ca. 1460, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, cat. 12) gives way to the sinuous fluidity of sketches such as Leonardo’s Studies of the Infant Christ and a Cat (ca. 1478–81, British Museum, cat. 52) and Raphael’s Studies of the Virgin and Child (ca. 1506, British Museum, cat. 98). The great assortment and delicacy of the imagery presented would be difficult to appreciate were it not for the use of large-scale color photography throughout the text. This format allows the viewer to examine the drawings closely for their details. This is important in many cases, such as in viewing leadpoint images, which tend to be faint and difficult to reproduce. Drawings such as Andrea Mantegna’s Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity: “Virtus Combusta” (ca. 1490–1506, British Museum, cat. 22) are remarkable for their uniqueness in terms of their minute detail and esoteric theme. The catalogue entry explains the drawing’s obscure iconography (as proposed in previous scholarship). Details of some of the more intricate and colorful drawings in the catalogue, including one by Mantegna, are enlarged to fit two pages and also form chapter headings. This is an appealing trait in the catalogue that permits readers to examine minute fragments of the drawings as if through a magnifying glass.
The catalogue will become a good reference source for students and scholars alike due to its treatment of the subject matter. The drawings discussed are almost always paired with at least one related color image on the facing page, allowing a comparison of the image in question and the final product it helped generate or, alternatively, its source of inspiration. For example, Ghirlandaio’s pen drawing Woman Pouring Water from a Jug (ca. 1486–90, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, cat. 58) was a preparatory sketch for a figure in the Tornabuoni Chapel Birth of the Virgin. The catalogue entry explains the innovative aspects of the drawing: its pioneering cross-hatching is used “to describe the plasticity of form and fine gradations of tone akin to those on the surface of marble sculpture . . . [which] set a new expressive standard for pen drawing” (222). Similarly, Benozzo Gozzoli’s Nude Man With a Horse (ca. 1447–49, British Museum, cat. 14)—a metalpoint drawing on blue paper with a gray-black wash heightened with lead white—is juxtaposed with a photo of one of the Dioscuri (two ancient Roman sculptures of horse tamers on the Capitoline Hill in Rome), upon which it is based. Often, the recto image on a sheet of paper is paired with its verso, allowing a simultaneous view of both sides. Although exhibition catalogues frequently pair related imagery, the subsidiary items presented here are always in color and large enough to facilitate a viewer’s comparison.
In curating this exhibition, Chapman and Faietti initially sought to examine the revolutionary aspects of Florentine drawings of the early sixteenth century, but quickly realized that these innovations stretched back well into the Quattrocento. The impetus for this show was one at the British Museum in 2006 dedicated to the drawings of Michelangelo. When some of his early work there was juxtaposed with two drawings by Ghirlandaio—Michelangelo’s early teacher—his debt to the elder artist became apparent. “The drawings exposed the falseness of the elderly Michelangelo’s account in his ‘authorized’ biography of 1553, written by his young follower Ascanio Condivi, in which he presented himself as a virtually self-taught genius who owed little to his time in Ghirlandaio’s studio” (15). Unfortunately, the curators did not include a chapter summarizing their observations and conclusions this time, as they seem to have done four years ago. One of their statements in the catalogue suggests how appropriate this would have been, given the richness of the material presented: “bringing together drawings from two collections, the majority of which have never before been seen together, will doubtless raise new questions and provoke debate” (20). Chapman and Faietti pose no queries or new hypotheses while simultaneously abstaining from interrogating, critiquing, or challenging established assumptions about the subject.
Throughout the catalogue the reader will find evidence that drawings allowed artists flexibility and freedom in exploring and presenting new ideas. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the sketches by Michelangelo of ca. 1503–4 (cat. 92 to 95). In this period, having triumphantly returned to Florence from Rome after creating the Pietà at St. Peter’s, the young sculptor was in great demand as patrons clamored for his services in hopes of flickering in his reflected glory. These sketches reveal some of the projects he was working and reworking in his mind at that time. On one sheet, muscular nudes gesticulate and struggle while, nearby, the infant Christ hesitantly takes his first steps away from his Mother. On another, skirmishing cavalry figures share space with a pensive apostle. The classicizing candelabrum on one page becomes, on closer inspection, a pair of symmetrical dancing dragons topped by a mysterious countenance. Elsewhere, two birds with long intertwined necks and curling tails emerge as a whimsical decorative conceit. Some of the images on these pages are recognizable steps toward major commissions: the Battle of Cascina, the Bruges Madonna, and an apostle for Florence Cathedral. But the purpose of the zoomorphic figures is less clear. Was Michelangelo planning a particular work of art for which these lively creatures would have lent their elegance? Or was he merely channeling excessive energy through the pen one night? Either way, we must be grateful that in some circumstances he chose not to destroy what may have been mere doodles that provide only a glimpse into his working processes and fanciful imagination.
Lecturer, Art Department, California State University, Sacramento
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