Italian Renaissance Drawings from the British Museum

Date:2016-09-30 Browsing Times:4014

This exhibition, “Italian Renaissance Drawings from the British Museum” is the first collaboration between Suzhou Museum and the British Museum, presenting a unique opportunity to appreciate Renaissance art in China, the cradle of rinascita papermaking

The artistic Renaissance, with its centre in Florence, flourished from about 1400 to 1600. Probably the first to use“rinascita”, the Italian term for “Renaissance”, was the Italian painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari from Arezzo,who first published in 1550 The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. He maintained that the drawing, or “disegno”, was the very foundation of the visual arts.

The drawings of many great Renaissance artists including the three giants of the High Renaissance, namely Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael will be shown together for the first time in China. The exhibition features 49 works drawn from the British Museum’s superb collection of Renaissance drawings and opens on 6th October 2016 that marks the 10th anniversary of the new Suzhou Museum designed by Ieoh Ming Pei.

In Renaissance Italy, artists drew inspiration from the legacy of classical antiquity and explored new techniques and styles. They applied linear perspective to represent the world more accurately and used light and shadow to create contrasts and atmosphere. Drawings were not merely used for workshop trainings or preparatory design but took on a more independent and creative role.

Through these 49 drawings created during the 15th and 16th centuries, the exhibition shows how these artists understood and depicted humanity, spirituality, and the natural world with impressive details. We can take a look at how they captured some dramatic moments of their models and how they managed to tell us some intriguing stories in a visual manner. Thanks to these artists we can also have a glimpse of Renaissance costume, architecture and landscapes that stand the test of time. The materials used and the techniques adopted are also interesting and diverse and include: pen, watercolour, iron-gall ink, metalpoint, prepared paper, naturalism, chiaroscuro. Indeed, these stunning and inspiring drawings will showcase the beauty, grace and power of Renaissance art.

All my colleagues and I are much indebted to a great number of people for their great support and help. I would like to express my gratitude to Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum; Liu Dan and Wang Huiyun, Art Consultants;

Sarah Vowles and Hugo Chapman, Curators of this exhibition; Jenny Parker, Project Manager of this exhibition; all our partners from the British Museum, as well as my colleagues at Suzhou Museum for their great contribution to this exhibition.


Chen Ruijin, Director of Suzhou Museum


It is a historic occasion for the British Museum to bring to China for the first time a selection of its world renowned collection of Italian Renaissance drawings. These include major studies by the most significant and celebrated artists working in Italy during the 1400s and 1500s, such as Vittore Carpaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippino Lippi, Michelangelo Raphael and Titian. It is the work of such outstanding individuals that made the Renaissance period one of the great creative flowerings in European culture, one that began in Italy when artists, scholars and thinkers looked back for inspiration at the legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome. The French term of Renaissance, meaning rebirth, later adopted Renaissance to describe this period, arguably plays down the competitive spirit in which Italian artists engaged with the past, since they wished not only to emulate but to outdo the achievements of their classical predecessors. Without question the ability to explore and experiment through the process of drawing was of vital importance to the innovative nature of Italian Renaissance art. A fundamental element in allowing artists the freedom to sketch out and refine their ideas in chalk, silverpoint or ink was the growing availability and affordability of paper made from linen flax and hemp. As papermaking was pioneered in China there is a pleasing symmetry in the British Museum introducing to a Chinese audience an exhibition of works which depends so firmly on this technological advance.

Hugo Chapman and Sarah Vowles have selected works from the Department of Prints and Drawings which give a sense of some of the fundamental and novel elements that set Renaissance art apart from that of earlier periods, such as how light could be deployed by painters to create a sense of three-dimensionality and to heighten the dramatic impact of their painted narratives. At the same time the exhibition underlies how the perfection of the finished work,whether in paint or in stone, depended on many hours of preparation in the artist’s studio through making drawing after drawing. To take just one example from the show, the Titian black and white chalk study on blue paper allows us to share the moment when the Venetian master found the angle of the head, and the distribution of light, that expresses the fervent joy of one of the saints watching the figure of the Virgin Mary carried to heaven on a cloud above his head. Although Titian, in common with most of his contemporaries, probably never expected such a working design to be seen outside his studio after he had completed the painting in the Venetian church where it is still to be found the preservation of preparatory studies of this kind testifies to the long held appreciation of their artistic and aesthetic qualities. Our knowledge of such drawings gives us a sense of how Italian Renaissance paintings, from the arrangement of the figures down to individual expressions and gestures, were carefully planned on paper before the artist picked up his brush. That awareness of the graphic underpinning to Italian Renaissance art sharpens our appreciation of the effort involved in realising the great works to be found in Italy, as well as in numerous galleries throughout the world.

The exhibition includes a page from one of the earliest and most famous collectors of drawings: the sixteenth-century artist Giorgio Vasari, whose graphic collection chronicled the development of Italian art during the Renaissance period to complement his fundamental history of the subject, the Lives of Artists first published in 1550 and then in an expanded and revised form in 1568. That Vasari was a painter, as were many subsequent collectors of drawings, particularly in England, such as Peter Lely and Thomas Lawrence, underlines how drawings were valued as a creative resource that could continue to inform and instruct generation after generation of artists. The important role played by the painter Liu Dan in bringing the present exhibition to China suggests that even after half a millennia Italian Renaissance drawings have not lost their power to inspire today’s artists.

All of us at the British Museum would like to express our gratitude to our partners in China for their help and support: Chen Ruijin, Director; Liu Dan, Art Consultant; Xie Xiaoting, Special Assistant to the Director; Zhang Fan, Head of External Affairs; and Chinese curators. The curators of the exhibition would also like to thank the following colleagues at the British Museum for all their efforts in ensuring the success of the exhibition: Jenny Bescoby and her team in the conservation studio, Nina Harrison and Philip Jell in the Registrar's Office, and Olivia O’Leary and Jenny Parker in International Engagement. It is an exciting new chapter in the British Museum’s history for us to share our collection of Italian drawings with the Chinese public, and we look forward to discovering a new audience’s reaction to the rare insights that they provide of the creative thinking of some of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists.



Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum