Looking over Leonardo’s shoulder

Drawings at the Uffizi

Rea Stavropoulos
April 7, 2011

In London last spring, over 120,000 visitors crowded into a temporary exhibition at the British Museum to look at small works on paper from the Italian Quattrocento. The exhibit, Drawings from Fra' Angelico to Leonardo, was described as a ‘once in a lifetime' exhibition by the media and was an unlikely blockbuster in a city that offers a wide range of art and culture from all over the world. The exhibition of 100 drawings was the fruit of the friendship and collaboration between two great museums: the British Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings and the Uffizi's Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, each institution contributing 50 works from its collection.


Now that exhibition has come to Florence, but it has been expanded and has an added resonance, located in the city where many of these drawings were executed and whose churches and galleries contain the final works that were first planned on those small sheets of paper.


The excitement at the show's opening in Florence was not just among art scholars. These drawings are the foundations of Renaissance art and are rarely seen in public because of their fragility. Cristina Acidini, superintendent of Florence's Polo Museale has described drawing as a primary human impulse: its origins lie in a finger tracing a line in the sand, and it is the link through which the abstract idea becomes an exploration of reality. The contemporary interest in drawing is linked to our interest in psychology and the workings of the artist's mind and the re-evaluation of works on paper as important in their own right and not mere appendages or preparatory to ‘finished' works.


Hugo Chapman, Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, who worked together with Marzia Faietti, the director of the Gabinetto, in preparing the exhibition and the catalogue, explains the fascination of the drawings: ‘It is like standing over the artist's shoulder and seeing the work come alive. You are closer to the moment of creation.' The immediacy and spontaneity of the drawings shows us the artist's decision-making process. Antonio Natali, director of the Uffizi, considers the exhibition to be the most important to be held in Florence over the last few years because of the dialogue created with related paintings in the Uffizi and works in other parts of Florence, such as the frescoes in the Churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Trinità.


In Florence, the exhibition, called Figure, Memorie, Spazio. Disegni da Fra' Angelico a Leonardo, has three locations: the 100 works from the London exhibition are located in the Uffizi's Reali Poste. They are hung on transparent glass panels in a challenging ‘labyrinth' display that maximizes the space, which is only one-quarter of what was available in London. It would be impossible to concentrate this number of major artists in one room if they were paintings, but here we have drawings by Pisanello, Fra' Angelico, Filippino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Giacomo and Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio, Piero di Cosimo, Mantegna, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. The exhibit continues within the permanent collection of the Uffizi, where 20 paintings have been selected to highlight their link with drawings in the exhibition.


The third area of the exhibit is in the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi, where the drawings are organised into three titled thematic categories: figures, memories and space. Here it is possible to view important drawings that were too fragile to send to London, such as Uccello's preparatory study for the fresco of Giovanni Acuto in the Duomo and Mantegna's Judith and others which demonstrate the fundamental importance of drawing for all three arts: painting, sculpture and architecture. Maso Finiguerra's words on his sketch of a man concentrated on drawing sum this up: ‘I want to be a good draughtsman so that I can be a good architect.'


Marzia Faietti gives a moving tribute to this exhibition, now that it has come to Florence. The idea for the exhibition and its success in Britain arise out of ‘the great love of the British and their culture for Italy.' With so much beauty around them, Italians can take for granted or undervalue their patrimony, especially in Florence. Now that the works have travelled abroad and attracted new interest and admiration, they will be viewed differently at home. It seems an appropriate development of the long-standing relationship between Britain and the city of Florence that this reciprocal exhibition should give Florentines the opportunity to renew their appreciation and understanding of their cultural heritage.


Figure, Memorie, SpazioDrawings from Fra’ Angelico to LeonardoSala delle Reali Poste, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli UffiziGalleria degli UffiziUntil June 12, 2011www.polomuseale.firenze.it



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