Before you can compare and contrast the art of the Italian Renaissance to the artworks of the Renaissance in the North, you have to understand the roots of the Renaissance. Renaissance has a special meaning, referring to a period of the grand florescence of the arts in Italy during the 14th century and progressed and migrated, in the 15th and 16th centuries, to Northern Europe. The Renaissance was stimulated by the revival of the classical art forms of ancient Greece and Rome. The “re-birth of knowledge,” better known as the Renaissance, can be contributed to the teachings of the Humanists at the time.
Francesco Petrarch took little interest in his legal studies, and much rather preferred to spend his time learning about the classical Greek and Roman philosophers. In his readings, lying out before him were the ancient values of “…Greek love of physical beauty, of nature, of freedom and the ideals of the Greek city-states [which] appeared side by side with the historical awareness, political power and firm determination of the Romans (Letts 8).” From the ancient texts Petrarch, re-discovered the significance of liberal studies once considered for a free man in Greek or Roman culture to follow, called Studia Humanitates. A free man studying Studia Humanitates, would study grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy and would be called a Humanist. When Humanism began to spread, the result was the Renaissance, which restored life and values which had been buried for centuries. The renewed interest of these ancient ideas triggered the coming advancements in art, science and society. To contrast and differentiate the Italian Renaissance with its Northern counter-part is simplistic, to compare between the two becomes slightly more difficult.
Throughout history the primary historical focus of the Renaissance was based primarily on Italy, but north of the Alps, the arts had reached an apex a century earlier in the Gothic, the antithesis of the classical. And even after the period of its Gothic prestige, Northern Renaissance art flourished and in many ways it was just as splendorous and revolutionary as the Renaissance in Italy, but just had different aspects. The Northern Renaissance was distinct from the Italian Renaissance in its centralization of political power. Countries in central and Western Europe began emerging as nation-states. The Northern Renaissance was also closely linked to the Protestant Reformation and the long series of conflicts between the different Protestant churches and the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In the fifteenth century, Italy was not a unified country or made up of nation-states like the North, but a series of principalities, Duchies, and Republics ruled by affluent merchant families that were major patrons of art. Thus, allowing countless centers of free trade and commerce to emerge, resulting in the rapid spread and exchange of new ideas. In the North there was a fewer number of economic trade centers like in Italy, thus making the centers of free commerce in the Low Countries, France, and the Holy Roman Empire to be more spread out resulting in less communication and comparison of new ideas. The North also did not have a wealthy merchant class to constantly fund various art projects. This was not the case in the north. In fact, the only notable similar class, like the merchants of Italy, in the North lay in the Duchy of Burgundy with the Dukes of Burgundy.
The Duchy of Burgundy encompassed a territory from present-day eastern France northward to the sea, and included parts of modern Belgium and sections of the current Netherlands. It was the only state standing amid France and the vast Holy Roman Empire at the time. The dukes of Burgundy would best fit the description as a worthy counter part to the wealthy merchants of Italy. But their wealth and patronage was their only claim to a similarity, because the type of patronage and works they funded contrasts heavily with the...
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Smiths, Jeffrey C. The Northern Renaissance. New York: Phaidon Press, 2004.
Sypher, Wylie. Four Stages of Renaissance Style. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1955.
Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Florence, Italy: Primary Document/Historical Text, 1558.
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