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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
Revisiting the Classical Age: the Renaissance and Modern Europe

The mainly feudal economy of Europe in the Middle Ages began to disintegrate in the 13th to 14th centuries as cities emerged to dominate the scene and the status of the Church began to wane. The invention of the printing press encouraged new outlooks on the world through the rapid dissemination of knowledge, and scholars increasingly turned from meditations on the Kingdom of Heaven to facts and features of the real world. Not only did they study nature with unprecedented interest, they also investigated the workings of the human body. Artists in particular often showed a strong desire to represent the way things appear to the eye and to the touch, creating forms full of life and substance. The desire to explore not only new worlds, but also ancient civilizations, led to the discovery of distant lands and the re-emergence of interest in the classical world. Reconstructing the glory of classical Greek and Roman civilizations became one of the major aspirations in the cultural arena of the post-medieval period. Starting from the study of ancient Greek and Latin, Italian scholars and artists were among the first to pave the way in pioneering this new era of more than a century referred to by historians since the 19th century as the Renaissance.

It was during this period that many geniuses in literature and the arts appeared, from Dante and Boccaccio to Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer, among others. They took elements of classical civilization as their master and created one of the most spirited outbursts of creativity, thereby establishing important foundations for modern European art and culture.

A nude man standing with his right hand on his hip and holding a staff in his left hand

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Pen and brown ink over black chalk
10.8 x 5.4 cm
Purchased in 1860 at the auction after the death of Samuel Woodburn; formerly in the collections of Jonathan Richardson and Sir
Thomas Lawrence
A nude man standing with his right hand on his hip and holding a staff in his left hand

The Florentine artist Leonardo possessed one of the most original and inventive minds in the Renaissance, his brilliance as a painter and draughtsman matched by his abilities as a scientist, naturalist and engineer. Leonardo was a fascinated observer and recorder of the world around him, and his acute powers of observation are evident in this pen study of a nude model. This is the kind of drawing Leonardo made as an artistic exercise in his studio, rather than with a finished painting in mind. A central theme in Leonardo's art is the depiction of the body in motion, and even here with a stationary model he animated the pose by the turn of the figure's head and the contrast between the tensed muscles on the left side of the body with those at rest on the right. The shading in the background sloping downwards from right to left is typical of Leonardo who drew with the quill in his left hand.

P Pouncey and J A Gere, Italian Drawings in the BM: Raphael and his Circl', (London, 1962), 110.
The Three Crosses

Rembrandt (1606-1669)
Drypoint and burin engraving
38.7 x 45.4 cm
The Three Crosses

This is one of Rembrandt's greatest prints, and is so famous that it is always known by the name of the 'Three Crosses', which was applied to it from a very early date – perhaps even within Rembrandt's lifetime. The subject shows the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging between the two thieves. This impression is of the second state, and shows the moment, described in the Bible, when the centurion in charge of the execution, kneels before the Cross and exclaims that this man was indeed the son of God. In a later state, Rembrandt completely changed the central part of the design, eliminating the centurion and introducing a mysterious man on horseback with a high hat.

A M Hind, A Catalogue of Rembrandt's Etchings, 2 vols, (London, 1923), 270.II.