Drawn to perfection

    Our critic is enlightened by the British Museum’s pioneering parade of Italian Renaissance masters from Fra Angelico to Leonardo da Vinci

    I was going to begin here with the assertion that drawing was back. But that would have been silly. Drawing cannot be back because it cannot ever have been away. It is too central and useful an artistic activity ever to allow us to do without it. As long as human beings have fingers and the rubbing of one substance across another leaves a mark, there will always be drawing.

    The point I would have been trying to make, had I attempted to make it, however, is that a certain fashionableness has once again attached itself to this primary means of communication. At Christie’s recently, a bedazzled foreign moneybags was so taken by a Raphael drawing of a woman’s head that he spent £29m on it. It’s a beautiful drawing. No argument there. And since it was made in preparation for Raphael’s great decoration of the papal apartments in the Vatican, it has some genuine historic resonance. But as a pretty drawing of a woman tilting her head, angelically, it tells us more about the predictability of a modern billionaire’s tastes than it does about the progress of the Renaissance.

    Why didn’t the poor sap just buy a framed photo of Lady Di? As if to compound the societal error of lavishing £29m on a Raphael rubbing, our culture minister, Margaret Hodge, has placed an export ban on the charming bauble, deeming it of such profound national importance that we cannot allow it to go abroad. Is this some kind of an aesthetic joke? Have our national values slipped so precipitously that we are sending out the country’s hat and seeking to amass the colossal sum of £29m in order to waste it on a pretty but minor Italian Renaissance sketch?

    Think how many babies that could feed in Somalia. How many hospitals it might staff in Congo? Anyway, to return to the main point here, the prominence of Renaissance drawing is currently being boosted. And the British Museum’s beguiling survey of these things has, therefore, arrived at an opportune moment. The show is billed as “the finest group of Italian Renaissance drawings to be seen in this country for over 70 years”. Which takes us back to the 1930s. It’s a long wait.

    If you lust after Raphael drawings, this parade has a hatful of them. There are exceptional things also by Michelangelo. Ten Leonardo da Vincis. Works by Botticelli and Uccello, Mantegna and Bellini, Carpaccio and even Titian, whose rare drawings I have never previously seen. Half the exhibits come from the British Museum’s own fine holdings, and the rest from the Uffizi gallery, in Florence, the world’s most bountiful store of Italian Renaissance treasures. Frankly, it would have delighted me enough to have arranged all that is here in a line and allowed us to wander before it.

    But the British Museum is too useful an institution these days to resort to casual blockbuster methods, so a welcome attempt has been made to organise the goodies into an instructive course. The idea is to chart the processes that made drawing crucial to the progress of the Renaissance. The initial point that is made — and to my shame I had never previously considered its significance — is that for the developments in drawing that are celebrated here to take place, you need first to have invented paper.

    Nothing that appears in this display would have been possible without the great Chinese invention and its transportation into Europe by the Moors in Spain. The progressive East was once again fertilising the backward West. Before the invention of paper, drawing, when it was attempted, was a laborious and wasteful process performed clunkily on breakable tablets. There are no, or hardly any, such things as drawings of the Middle Ages because vellum was too smooth and too precious to allow for the free play of the artist’s hand upon it. In any case, since drawing is, at heart, a temptation to artistic freedom, the Middle Ages were temperamentally unsuited to it, while the Renaissance was not.

    The opening display provides a useful resumé of the early techniques employed to work on paper: pen and ink, charcoal, chalk, leadpoint and silverpoint. Each had its own dynamics. The obscure Parri Spinelli, from Arezzo, employed a fidgety pen and ink to record the frantic twists and arabesques of a piece of falling drapery; while the not obscure Michelangelo applied it, instead, in the Florentine manner, thoughtfully, in considered crosses and hatches, to give his drapery a tangible weight. Leadpoint, a laborious medieval drawing method that continued into the Renaissance and which added a blurry softness to the artist’s markings, gave Jacopo Bellini the chance to fill a marvellous drawing book with ghostly scenes of pale waterside architecture and Venetian horse tournaments. Silverpoint, a finer cousin of leadpoint, could, in the hands of Leonardo, manage any number of twists and flourishes, encouraging him to imagine his famous Bust of a Warrior: a stern quasi-mythical Renaissance warlord sporting a fantastical suit of armour worthy, in its intricacy, of a Nuremberg goldsmith.

    Whichever techniques were favoured, the overall effect was the same: to free up the artistic imagination. Drawing gave Renaissance art a practice ground. It allowed it the space and opportunity for experiment and error. An exciting new level was added to the creative journey. Most significantly of all, it encouraged the process we might call conceptualisation: an envisaging of what was possible, a dreaming of what lay ahead. Without it, the Renaissance could not have happened.

    The organisers here have made a brave but not entirely secure attempt to organise their gorgeous wares into telling thematic clusters. I happily admit to losing track of their meta-narrative as I bounced from Pollaiuolo to Mantegna, and Vivarini to Cima. An exhibition of paintings by such an illustrious Renaissance cast is unimaginable these days. What’s more, the show is brilliantly installed. Set against a profound burgundy background, poignantly lit within the permitted lux levels, these works, in these circumstances, have a dramatic presence that drawings do not usually achieve.

    Two pleasures on offer here are particularly welcome. One is the thoughtful comparisons that the BM has managed to engineer between drawings and finished works. I must have passed the Lorenzo Monaco altarpiece of San Benedetto, lent to this show by the National Gallery, on scores of occasions, but have never previously felt the need to examine it. Here, though, in a moment of display magic, it appears at the culmination of a compelling vista, with the drawing for it positioned perfectly in the foreground. You could not ask for a clearer example of the magnifying effect of great presentation.

    Where the finished works are not available, notably in a sequence of drawings by Filippino Lippi for his sumptuous fresco cycle in the Strozzi Chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, a simple but effective combination of silent video and eloquent drawing allows you to see clearly what was prepared for where. This is genuinely helpful exhibition-making.

    The show’s second great pleasure is, of course, the opportunity it allows us to dawdle before some of the most skilled mark-makers in the history of art. Michelangelo, who seems to hate the sight of unused paper, fills one sheet with naked children scampering this way and that, and another with two heroic nudes attempting to lift a third into the air. It’s the kind of thing the rest of us might try when giving someone the bumps on their birthday. What awkward twists and balances it involves. How brilliantly the master records these complex movements.

    Leonardo, on the other hand, appears gloriously uninterested in the sweaty realities of life. In a Leonardo drawing, you can always hear the artist’s imagination whirring busily as that itchy hand of his seeks to keep up with the incessant darting of his great brain. A hilarious sheet of studies is filled here with entirely impractical war machines: one contraption looks exactly like a flying saucer from the 1950s; another is designed specifi-cally to cut off the enemy’s legs. The first known landscape drawing in European art is here, a vertiginous vista of dizzy mountain peaks, bottomless river valleys, crashing waterfalls and thrusting rocks. It feels huge, but is actually contained in a packed drawing barely 8in wide.

    This event is so skilfully paced that it even manages to end on a futuristic surprise. It’s a Titian drawing, done in chalk, of a plump Venetian noblewoman lost in thought. Titian drawings are so scarce that I have never before encountered one and vaguely assumed there weren’t any. Yet this lovely portrait is bolder, bigger and more assured than anything else in the show. It is as if an age of experiment has finished. And an age of certainty has begun.