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Drawing board: Detail from Pisanello's "Six images of men hanging from a gibbet" (c.1434-8) 

The history of art often hinges on trifles. During the Renaissance, for example, would painting have attained such heights if oil paint had not been invented and artists were left with hard-to-work egg tempera? Or what if the popes had remained in Avignon, leaving Rome a cultural backwater? And what if paper had always been cheap? This latter question may have affected how the greatest phase of art developed every bit as much as the former two. In the mid-15th century, the best paper cost per sheet the equivalent of an agricultural worker's weekly wage. It was a precious substance to be used sparingly and is a major reason why today there are only about 100 drawings by 14th-century artists. If they could have afforded to sketch at will, the story of art would have looked very different.

Something of this lost world can be seen in Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum (until 25 July). Covering the period spanning 1400-1510, the exhibition shows the unprecedented advances in Italian art. This would culminate in the High Renaissance when Michelangelo and Raphael left Florence and Perugia respectively for Rome. Quattrocento art is defined by a new obeisance to Classical sources, an increase in naturalism, the development of perspective and the formulation of studio working methods. This exhibition brings together the British Museum's own holdings with those of the Uffizi, home of the world's oldest collection, to form the richest display seen here for more than half a century.

The roll-call of artists on show includes every great 15th-century name, from Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Leonardo to Mantegna, Michelangelo and Titian. The only significant figure missing is Giovanni Bellini. It was in the hands of these artists that drawing, in its numerous guises, became an established part of artistic practice. Drawings were used not just to record and develop compositions but to work out individual details — the fall of a limb, the play of light — as well as to transfer images to either canvas or plaster. During the course of the century, drawings also became artistic objects in their own right and collectors began to pay attention to them in the same way they did to bronzes, tapestries or paintings. All these forms and more are represented among the 100 examples here.

Initially, drawings were regarded as simple tools and rarely seen outside artists' workshops. In 1471, for example, the will of Anna Bellini, the widow of Jacopo and mother to both Gentile and Giovanni, left to her eldest son all her husband's "books of drawings". This was not a sentimental bequest but an artistic one. Together, the Bellinis formed a painting business and the books of drawings contained a repertory of motifs — animals, people, buildings — that could be reused by the sons and their assistants in subsequent studio productions. The images were, in effect, under the Bellini copyright. 

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