Vanished Drawings

What happened to all of the scribbles, doodles, and sketches from Medieval and Renaissance times? Today artists and patrons take pride in such drawings—from brute childhood masterpieces in crayon, stuck on refrigerators everywhere, to the work of Jim Dine, who exhibits drawings and paintings with equal ease. Yet during Medieval and Renaissance times, paper was often scarce and expensive. Fledgling artists honed their craft on erasable drawing boards, each drawing as impermanent as that mysterious magic dust in an Etch-A-Sketch. 

From the 15th century, The Craftsman's Handbook describes how artists could make just such a board for drawing: "First take a little boxwood panel…when you need some priming for this panel, take less than half a bean of …bone, or even less. And stir this bone up with saliva. Spread it all over the little panel with your fingers." Such a white surface would have witnessed countless drawings, made and erased by the hand of a budding artist.

This might explain the miraculous drawing skill of those artists deemed worthy of expensive paper. Amateur artists, meanwhile, may have worked exclusively on erasable boards. Could Dante, the famed 13th-century Italian poet, be one of those amateur visual artists? Just a year after his beloved Beatrice died at the age of 24, he recalled, "I was thinking of her as I sat drawing an angel on some wooden boards." Dante's angel may have proved fleeting—like Beatrice and so many vanished drawings.

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