Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings charts the increasing importance of drawing during the period between 1400 and 1510, gathering 100 drawings from the British Museum and the Uffizi in Florence. This era saw the dawn of the great individual artists, and the preparatory sketches by Jacopo and Gentile Bellini, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian reveal the creative thinking of these monumental figures.

This exhibition, which runs until 25 July 2010, is the greatest collection of its kind to be shown in Britain, beginning with the earliest drawings on paper, a new and revolutionary material, and building to the High Renaissance. These drawings also show us the technical discoveries needed to create the illusion of three-dimensional space and the masterful representation of light and shade.

The ‘Renaissance Man’ celebrated a holistic form of knowledge, and that approach and attitude were also manifested in the art from this period. Artists used geometry and mathematics to celebrate the world of Nature around them, and many of these drawings reflect this synthesis of art, Nature and what we now think of as science.

Da Vinci’s Landscape 1473 – the earliest known landscape drawing in Western art – is very likely a mixture of the real and the imagined based on his childhood memories of Tuscany. He incorporates easily discernable orthogonals, (those lines that create a sense of perspective), and a graphic shorthand to capture the variety of natural forms and the atmosphere and heat of the searing August day.

Modern science has also played a pivotal role in the exhibition. Infrared reflectography, a non-invasive process used in medical and forensic investigations, is applied to the drawings to reveal erased or faded images. This layering of lost images is well known in paintings but until now has been difficult to detect in drawings. Because of the great expense of paper, the new material replacing papyrus and parchment in the 15th century, artists would use and reuse every inch of space. Infrared light is used to pick up traces of lead and silverpoint to show more defined detail, and in some cases previously lost and highly significant images have been rediscovered.

Curator Hugo Chapman had long believed Michelangelo’s Eight Studies of Nude Children; a Woman in Profile to be the preparatory sketches for his marble relief known as the Taddei Tondo. When the drawings were examined using the infrared technology, a previously hidden image of a child with a bowl tied to its waist emerged, corresponding exactly to one of the figures of the Taddei Tondo.

The reverence these artists held for the natural world, and their use of scientific and mathematic thought to represent and imitate it stand as reminders of the wisdom of one of history’s greatest cultural eras. It may also be hoped that this exhibition celebrating the dawn and mastery of technical drawing will revive an interest in the importance given to this more orthodox but recently neglected aspect of art, the synthesis of all our greatest discoveries.

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings by Hugo Chapman and Marzia Faletti is published by The British Museum Press ISBN: 9780714126678 at £30.

Amabel Barraclough is an arts and environmental journalist who lives between London and Argyll. She is currently contributing arts editor to Glass.