At Villa Lante, about an hour north of Rome, there are beautiful box hedges and parterre. Box, like birch bark, has been used as a surface for drawing. Some of the box hedges at Villa Lante are very tall, and if you look into the center of the hedges, you’ll see trunks thicker than you would imagine–wide enough for small rectangular drawing supports.
Early draftsmen used boxwood to make model-books where they could record successful compositions, poses, and subjects for future use. Boxwood, because of its great density and because it could be smoothed to a high degree, was the wood of choice. Parchment, fig wood, and paper were also used. Cennino Cennini, writing in circa 1400, tells of how to prepare a boxwood drawing surface in Chapter V of his Libro dell’arte (English here) and and in Chapter VI he talks of fig wood, specifying that the fig wood should be old. To make a little panel, he calls for pieces of wood as high and wide as “un sommesso.” According to the 1612 Crusca dictionary, a sommesso is the width of a fist with the thumb extended, as in the hitchhiking gesture. For me, that is about 6 inches (I’ve seen some translations of Cennini say 9 inches, which seems too much. There’s a limit to box trunk width.) Whether box or fig, he says to clean it well, smooth with a cuttlebone, dry, and then coat with well ground bone dust and spittle.
There are too few examples of model books, and especially boxwood ones. I don’t think there are any early drawings on fig wood tablets. The drawing on box just below is given to a Jaques Daliwe. The attribution to Daliwe is based solely on an inscription on one of the 12 pages that make up the Berlin model book. The inscription might also refer to an owner of the model-book. There are a total of 22 drawings, mostly in metalpoint with white heightening. A couple of the drawings are based on illuminations of the Limbourg Brothers, though this one is not. If boxwood grew to be bigger, would they have wanted larger drawings, or were they happy to have a book that was so easily transportable to bring along to their various jobs?