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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Exhibitions - Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings - British Museum

Star rating – 7/10

This collection of Italian Renaissance drawings feels particularly suited to the dramatic setting of the Reading Room at the British Museum. Many of the works are on loan from the Uffizi in Florence, and it is a rare thing that these fragile pieces are allowed to leave Italy. The drawings, by some of the most dazzling Renaissance masters, were never intended by their creators to be put on public display, being as they were in the main, preparatory exercises for great paintings.

Artists featured here include Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, Michelangelo and Raphael. And it is fascinating to get an insight into how they went about creating their masterpieces by drawing parts of their subject matter first. These drawings reveal just how much work went into their subsequent creations, but are beautiful in their own right too.

I must admit that not all of the 100 or so drawings featured here are as breathtaking as the best of them. Some do feel very raw and very like the artists are feeling their way to later creative powers. But the purpose of this exhibition is as much to reveal the process of painting and the promise of the finished pieces, as to impress the viewer with the mastery of the creators’ pencil. The detail on some of the drapery and clothing is spectacular, such as on Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio’s ‘Drapery for the Risen Christ from 1491, so accurate that it is almost like looking at a photograph. My own favourite by ‘A follower of Giovannino de’Grassi’ is the ‘Cheetah’ done in water colour and showing beautiful detail of the big cat.

Leonardo da Vinci was slightly different from other Renaissance masters as he did not just create drawings to prepare for his paintings. He loved to draw as a medium in its own right. And it shows here in beautiful pieces such as his technically brilliant ‘Head of a Woman’. Titian’s ‘Young Woman’ from 1510-15 reveals the plump and soft flesh of his subject in startling detail, and is more beautiful than the picture that he eventually created of this same subject.

As you know by now, I am no art critic, but this exhibition is very interesting, and reveals the promise of much more that was to come in the paintings of some of the Renaissance greats featured here.

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