The reason so many old master drawings remain, and in a good state of preservation, is that they were kept in albums. Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574), sometimes considered the first collector of drawings, kept his drawings in what is known as his “Libro de’ Disegni.” The Libro had at least five volumes. It must have seemed quite natural to keep drawings in albums. So many drawings were bound together to form model books and precious illuminations were integral to bound manuscripts. For artists, portable books of drawings would have been great assets to bring to commission sites.
It is very rare to see drawings, the objects themselves, in paintings before the 17th century. An occasional St. Luke can be seen working on a portrait of the Virgin, sometimes in drawing, but usually in painting. Lorenzo Lotto’s Lucretia (1530-32) shows a woman holding a drawing of her namesake, not because she was a collector of drawings, but as a way of likening her to that virtuous Roman heroine, who killed herself rather than live with the shame of being raped by the Etruscan enemy.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that non-artists started collecting drawings in significant numbers and we start seeing the display of drawings in kunstkammer paintings. In this example of Frans II Francken drawings are displayed, mostly unframed, alongside paintings, sculptures, and natural history specimens.
Once drawings started being displayed on walls, great losses started to occur. Sunlight hitting, with flies and dust landing at will, contributed to losses. Fortunately, collecting drawings became so engrossing and many collectors so avid that they would have to find space saving methods of storage, including passepartouts, portfolios, boxes, and albums for their growing collections. Probably the greatest losses came from casual collections that had but few drawings.