The first step towards understanding Renaissance drawing is to take stock of the plethora of reasons for its existence, ranging from doodles to elaborate studies in human anatomy. What started as a design for sculpture may well have evolved into a preparatory sketch for painting. Drawing was the artist’s way of jotting down an idea before losing it and before knowing precisely what, if anything, it might develop into later. Artists are even more likely than composers and writers to be driven to insanity without a sketchbook nearby. Precisely because drawing was considered an indispensable daily discipline, it became the privileged means of unlocking the cognitive processes that led masters to produce their greatest work. Whereas we tend to approach sketchbooks as modern-day detectives, at the time they were produced, budding apprentices knew full well that they were the most reliable entryway into the minds of their teachers. In the fifteenth century, they were also considered the most convenient way of experimenting with new styles and recording the results of studies of the human figure, nature, and the art of the ancients.
Just as Florence was reaching the height of its power with the capture of Pisa in 1406, a corridor opened between Florence and the sea, allowing the fruit of three great innovators to be imported abroad: Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the mastermind behind the dome of the Florentine Duomo and the inventor of a mesmerizing perspective as seen in the Baptistery of the Palazzo Vecchio; Donatello, the sculptor whose studies of Roman ruins enabled him to incorporate perspective into his breathtaking relief of San Gregorio e il drago now at the Bargello; and Masaccio, the youngest of the three, who executed frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine and Santa Maria Novella using an ingenious, “rational” technique of illumination that imparted new volume and substance to his figures. Donatello and Masaccio were also responsible for introducing naturalism in sacred art and evoking a sense of empathy in the viewer by a bold realism in the action and emotion of their figures.
This exhibit focused heavily on the theoretical and aesthetical concerns of these three artists and those inspired by them. The curators assembled fifty drawings from the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi with fifty from the British Museum as a follow-up to a similar show at the latter in 2010. The period of interest is marked by a unique, autonomous style that continues to influence artists today. Most represented were Florentine artists and those active in central Italy, including Beato Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Verrocchio, not to mention Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michaelengelo. Drawings by Pisanello, Bellini, Mantegna, and Titian were also featured. Attached to the exhibit was a fine display of other drawings, etchings, and casts at the Reali Poste. Of particular note were Mantegna’s Judith and Paolo Uccello’s Cartonetto per il monumento equestre a Giovanni Acuto. Along the route of a normal visit to the Uffizi Gallery, special didactic panels accompanied about twenty paintings to show their connection with drawings included in this special exhibit.
Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, for example, a longtime favorite of Uffizi visitors, was correlated with a preparatory sketch (n. 436E) on view in the special exhibition. The large panel now in the Uffizi was left unfinished by Leonardo and is now one of the most privileged loci for unraveling the mysteries of his creative process. We see two parallel staircases that closely resemble those of San Miniato al Monte. Leonardo has even reproduced the exact number of stairs. He wished to evoke the atmosphere of a temple, but in this case a temple in the process of reconstruction, undoubtedly an illusion to Isaiah’s prophecies about the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The novelty is that the architecture is now classical, showing that what was once frequented by the chosen ones is now open to the Gentiles and the entire human race.
The drawing is clearly a preparatory study for the unfinished painting commissioned for the high altar of San Donato a Scopeto outside Florence. It seems that Leonardo’s father, a notary at the attached monastery, arranged the deal. Leonardo’s hasty departure for Milan in September of 1481 prevented him from completing the panel. Nevertheless, even a preliminary comparison of the drawing and painting leaves one shocked by the originality and innovation of the composition. They far exceed his previous work and the work of his peers with their vibrant energy, particularly in the movement of the cavalry in the background.
The drawing in this exhibition was one of the last studies for the upper section of the painting. It expands the perspective Leonardo originally had in mind and defines more precisely the reciprocal positioning of human figures and their corresponding architectural features. He began the drawing in silverpoint, using a ruler and compass to trace the grid. This makes it easily one of the most highly refined examples of perspective of the early Renaissance period. Interestingly, in the drawing he places the vanishing point not in the center but slightly offset to the right as a way of balancing the portico that occupies more than half of the left quadrant. In the right quadrant is an enormous stable still in a phase of construction, the apex of which lies just above the center. The idea of a new structure arising from the old is further emphasized by a series of changes, including the addition of a thin pillar that runs along the center near the staircase.
After Leonardo changed from silverpoint to ink, further changes were made to the position of the stable’s roof. This resulted in the elimination of a male figure originally peering from behind the pillar on the right, as well as several corrections to the figures on the left. Analysis has shown that the final changes were made in a darker colored ink, a few touches in a heavily diluted ink, and subtle illuminations in white lead. At this point, the artist evidently wanted to sharpen the architectonic structure and therefore decided to raise everything by adding three small steps leading to a platform. This required him to cover a tiny stream with grassy tufts stretching across the center of the composition. The superimposition of these corrections shows that his ideas were constantly in a state of flux until the very end. Modifications to the background figures on the panel show that changes even occurred as he was working on the painting.
In comparison to the drawing, the panel is highly simplified: the perspective is brought back to the center, the total number of figures reduced, an imposing camel is erased, and the architectonic structures on the left and various objects in the distance to the right appear to be reduced versions of corresponding objects present in the study drawing. The investment of creative energy that went into both drawing and painting is astounding. They prove that Leonardo’s obsession with perspective far transcended his drive for geometric precision; he was clearly motivated by compositional concerns that flowed from and fed back into his interest in biblical and classical symbolism.
On the other side of the spectrum we have the Baptism of Christ done in Verrocchio’s workshop, showing that in many cases a painter finished a sketch already having in mind everything he intended paint. Also on view were drawings by Michelangelo, including his masterful Young Man (n. 92) that brings out his ability to turn two dimensions into three using a modulation of light and an unparalleled combination of naturalism and idealism. Michelangelo, along with Giuliano da Sangallo, was responsible for a few drawings on display for architectural or sculptural purposes. Particularly notable were Michelangelo’s drawings on opposite sides of a single foglio entitled Two studies of a standing male figure with raised leg and a battle scene between knights (Battle of Cascina) (c. 1503-1505) and Architectonic studies and rapid sketches of a nude figure (c. 1503-1504). These show the fecundity of his mind after returning from Rome to Florence in 1501. At least two other projects are visible on the front side of the sheet: a thinking figure in profile – first done as a nude and later clothed (this figure seems to correspond to one of the apostles in the Duomo) – and a sketch that roughly corresponds to other studies done prior to the Battle of Cascina.
It is encouraging to know that exhibits like this are happening more frequently, yet they require an enormous amount of energy from the viewer. Drawings of this quality are best viewed sitting in a comfortable, upright chair with generous lighting and an adjustable easel. Viewing them hurriedly in a large crowd leads to fatigue and even discouragement. In this case, great consolation is found in not one but two very fine publications, both published by Giunti: the first is a catalogue and the second a special edition dedicated to works housed in the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, together with critical reviews of Italian drawing and fifteenth-century engravings.