In the second edition of his great collection of artists’ biographies, Le vite dei piu eccelenti pitturi, scultori ed architettori (1568), the Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) wrote the following about the significance of drawing:

“Seeing that Design, the parent of our three arts, Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, having its origin in the intellect, draws out from many single things a general judgement, it is like a form or idea of all the objects in nature, most marvellous in what it compasses, for not only in the bodies of men and of animals but also in plants, in buildings, in sculpture and in painting, design is cognizant of the proportion of the whole to the parts and of the parts to each other and to the whole. Seeing too that from this knowledge there arises a certain conception and judgement, so that there is formed in the mind that something, which afterwards, when expressed by the hands, is called design, we may conclude that design is not other than a visible expression and declaration of our inner conception and of that which others have imagined and given form to in their idea.”

The Italian word for drawing is disegno, a broader and more complex term than the more straightforward English ‘drawing’ and ‘design’. Disegno transcends these to encompass the very idea that emerges as drawing. As is apparent from Vasari, it is an epistemological term that unites spirit and matter.

The large, ambitious exhibition of Italian Renaissance Drawings currently at the British Museum aims to show how this notion of drawing came to be. Containing 101 drawings by a little more than fifty artists, selected from the collections of the Uffizi in Florence and the British Museum’s own holdings—the two richest in the field—it offers an impressive overview of the development of Italian drawing in the 15th century.

It demonstrates the development of individualised drawing and personalised technique in early renaissance art, which was otherwise continuing late medieval practices of simplification and stylisation of nature’s forms. We see how the Florentine Dominican Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) around 1430 imbued his portrayal of King David with a youthful sweetness that lay beyond his archetypical point of departure. Or how the Aretine Parri Spinelli (1387-1453) around the same time updated established patterns by animating his forms by a wavy, almost abstract stroke.

Fundamental to the renaissance was the transition from experience as spiritually determined to a reconfiguration of the Christian spirit-body dichotomy into a secular context. In art this meant a revived interest in antique form, which was regarded as the closest man had come to perfection in his reproduction of reality, as well as an increased focus on scientific-empirical knowledge. From more exclusively serving our spirituality, art became a way of reaching as complete a synthesis as possible of the ideal and the real.

Pisanello, Study of Hanged Men; and a Woman and a Child, c. 1434-1438, pen and brown ink over leadpoint, 283 x 193 mm., British Museum.

Among the great innovators of the first half of the century was the Veronese painter Pisanello (c. 1395-c. 1455), by whom the exhibition includes a sheet of studies of hanged men (c. 1434-38), which demonstrates his shocking realism. While not necessarily drawn there, it clearly derives from first-hand observation at the gallows: it coolly records the dead bodies from several angles for use in the famous St. George altarpiece in the church of St. Anastasia, Verona. One of the bodies is relatively fresh—his neck hangs broken in the rope and one of his leggings, loosened from his thigh, has slid down around his ankle. The flesh of another hangs in dissolution from his bones, the weight pulling him out of shape as the noose girdles his last gasp and empty eye sockets.

The artist most deeply inquisitive of antique form was the North Italian Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1430-1506). His drawing of a muscular young man lying, foreshortened, on a stone slab (ca. 1475-85) is an almost programmatic example of his time’s revivification of antique ideals. Presumably a study for a painting of the awakened Lazarus, the man is obviously drawn from the model, but simultaneously looks like a Roman sculpture, animated by a spark that sends a visceral physical shock through his body. The careful hatching on the shroud wreathed around his abdomen and legs registers the warm light meeting him as he wakes.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Head of a Woman (verso & recto), c. 1475, charcoal (some oiled?), heightened with lead white, pen and brown ink (r.), charcoal (v.), 324 x 273 mm., British Museum

As an active illustration of synthesising the ideal and the real, one could not ask for a more beautiful example than the Florentine Andrea del Verrocchio’s (1435-88) Head of a Woman of the 1470s. On one side of the paper, the artist has recorded in charcoal the features and expression of a woman who must have sat directly opposite him. Then he turned over the sheet and went about elaborating and perfecting this study toward greater idealisation, for use in a painting. Initially by anatomically constructing the form loosely, then by describing her sweetly ample facial features by subtle modelling with the coal. Long, wavy locks of hair gathering in an intricately braided knot were added, the former in elegant freehand, the latter by precisely descriptive delineation. An image if ideal beauty through which shines the physical presence of a real person.

The last part of the exhibition is marked by the presence of Verrocchio’s pupil, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who brought to the art of drawing an unprecedented analytical intelligence and at the same time liberated it. Where the vast majority of 15th-century drawings were utilitarian, made in preparation of a work in a different medium—a building, a sculpture, a painting—drawing was a more fundamental part of his work. In concert with his characteristic mirror-writing, it was a means for him of exploring the logic of the natural world. A Tuscan view is transformed into a psychologically inflected fantasy landscape; a child and a cat’s unpredictable movements are recorded spontaneously across a sheet of paper; the forms of the St. Anne, Madona, and the Child are extracted from a dense, almost chaotic whirl of linework; an impossible, tortoise-like war machine is made credible in simulteaneously careful and energetic blueprints. For Leonardo, drawing was a way of thinking and understanding—the epistemological act later described by Vasari.

Attributed to Paolo di Dono, called Uccello, or Piero della Francesca, Study of a Chalice, c. 1450-1470, pen and brown ink over ruled stylus and compass, 349 x 243 mm., Uffizi.

Most of the exhibited drawings emerge, as Vasari says, from rational thought. Being studies from nature and the model or constructive and compositional sketches, they embody his description of disegno as constituted by human rationality. An extreme example of this is a diagrammatic drawing of a chalice (c. 1450-1470) attributed alternately to Paolo Uccello (c. 1397-1475) and Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492)—the century’s two most assiduously geometrical-analytical painters. It is a highly sophisticated exercise in three-dimensional rendering, employing more than 2.000 connected points theoretically—almost Platonically—to represent a well-known form which may well remind today’s viewer of digital 3D-modelling.

Leonardo is different. His inquiry is clearly rational, but in his theoretical writings he simultaneously describes experience as constituted through the filter of our senses, making our understanding of the world fundamentally subjective. This is reflected in his drawing method: he recommends artists always to have a sketchbook handy so they can record impressions and thoughts on the fly, and that one draw freely to activate what we now call the subconscious. Leonardo’s drawn oeuvre itself is the first to be characterised significantly by this approach.

This discovery was essential to his younger countryman and competitor Michelangelo (1474-1564), who along with his great contemporaries Raphael and Titian rounds off the exhibition, and who is also the subject of a small, exquisite show in the Courtauld Gallery. This exhibition focuses on a suite of drawings that Michelangelo executed around 1533 as presents for his friend, the young, beautiful aristocrat Tommaso de’Cavalieri, whom he had met the previous year and for whom he nurtured an evident, passionate (Platonic) love for the rest of his life.

In contrast to the specific, practical usage of the previous century, the early 16th century saw the emergence of a taste for drawing as an autonomous art form, which resulted in artists executing drawings specifically for collectors and connoisseurs. Michelangelo’s carefully rendered, breathlessly refined drawings for Cavalieri count amongst the finest examples of this type of drawing, often called ‘presentation drawings.’

They concentrate on mythological subjects and deal with themes of passion and destruction: the demigod Phaeton’s fall from the sky and death by Zeus’ hand; the giant Tityus chained in Hades, his liver being devoured by an eagle; the abduction of the young shepherd Ganymede by Zeus in the shape of an(other) eagle; and a bacchanal of children in which a revelling congregation of intoxicated young boys carry to slaughter a cloven-hoofed horse. The drawings are accompanied by a handful of original letters, containing love poems, that Michelangelo sent to Cavalieri and in which he with touching abandon expresses longing for a pure love beyond the flesh.

These works thus significantly express the artist’s more or less sublimated and clearly turbulent inner life and in that sense place Michelangelo at a far remove from his rationally working predecessors, arguably making him the originator of the modern myths of the artist as a troubled genius and of creativity as an emotional impulse. Although he mastered the forms of nature, he distanced himself from naturalism to embrace a monumental idealism based on an impossible hope for transcendence.

Michelangelo, The Dream, c. 1533, black chalk, 398 x 280 mm., Courtauld Gallery.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Courtauld’s own drawing, The Dream, which is clearly related to the Cavalieri presentation drawings and was probably also made for him. It shows an allegorical scene in which a young, idealised nude man is awakened by the clarion call of an angel. He sits on a box full of masks and rests against a blank globe and is surrounded by a fog of writhing figures engaged in plenitudinous sexual and violent activity. Always somewhat controversial, the exact meaning of the image is uncertain, but the title goes back to Vasari and the basic idea seems clear: a slumbering man—or soul—surrounded by sin (a persuasive interpretation sees the background elements as an allegory of the seven deadly sins) is awakened from his timely, duplicitously masked, existence to a higher call.

Michelangelo’s most iconic work, the Creation of Man on the Sistine ceiling (c. 1508-1510), shows the moment of incarnation and he spent his life exploring the physical conditions of existence. The transcendence he seeks starts in the idealised human body, which is evident in The Dream—the protagonist of which is based on an earlier design for Lazarus—as well as in his use of the Cavalieri Tityus for a contemporary Resurrection of Christ, both of which are shown in the exhibition. A few years later, he would develop this theme further in his largest single painting, the Last Judgment on the east wall of the Sistine Chapel (1537-1541), in which he corporeally depicted the resurrected souls. His treatment of the Christian dichotomy is thus acutely physical, seeking salvation not only for the soul, but also the body.

Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1796-1797, etching and aquatint, 216 x 152 mm.

Michelangelo’s engagement with the subconscious that Leonardo sensed at the root of creation is powerfully empassioned: it became part of the mythology around his person that he himself cultivated, not the least in images like The Dream, which integrates the subconscious impulse into a rational aspiration that will lift the dreamer out of time. In it, he anticipates another famous allegory, which has since become one of the quintessential images of modernity: Goya’s picture of a sleeping man from whose mind a swarm of monsters emerges, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1796-1797). In the late 18th century, the renaissance notion of the individual’s capacity rationally to control his destiny had suffered a fundamental shock, but it is important to remember that the sleeper’s rationality is not devalued, merely destabilised. Michelangelo dreams of the moment he wakes.

This article originally ran in Danish in Weekendavisen (29/5-4/6/2010). The exhibition Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum closes on Sunday, July 25, while the Michelangelo’s Dream at the Courtauld closed on May 16. Vasari translation by Louisa S. Maclehose, from Vasari on Technique, New York 1960.


  1. I really am enjoying these posts of yours & I hope you continue … as TCJ noted, this is a rare opportunity to get young people who have an interest in the popular arts to become aware of the bigger picture.

    You are right about disegno not meaning draftsmanship although even the latter term is falling into disuse. We have to take what we can get these days & I’ll say that the draftsmanship on the Verrochio was sublime. And note carefully that Hogarth’s Line of Beauty lurks everywhere in that drawing …

    Modern draftsmanship, or rather, the modern contempt for it in popular & some academic circles, is deracinated entirely.

    Wake up! Look! Read! Think! Draw! What more you could want from life?

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