The Northern Renaissance

The Renaissance, a polar shift in thought which occurred during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, is generally held to have originated in Italy, among the rich city states. But we increasingly refer to this as the Italian Renaissance, because as the classical influences spread the rest of Europe began to transform in unique ways. Perhaps the chief rival to the Italian Renaissance is what we call the ‘Northern Renaissance’.

Historians use the term to refer either specifically to the Netherlands, or to north-west Europe in general.

Burgundy and the Netherlands

In the fifteenth century the Dukedom of Burgundy included the Low Countries and occupied a trade route between the Mediterranean world and the north, giving access to a wide range of foods, resources, plenty of income, and moving ideas. The result was a boom in art which, it can be argued, was the equal of the developments in Italy. Jan van Eyck (died 1441) managed to create distance in his work – and that of his followers – without using the Italian linear perspective. With fellow artists like Rogier van der Weyden, and Hieronymus Bosch, art from Flanders and the Netherlands was spread, admired and discussed perhaps just as much as the art from Italy. Burgundy grew in reputation and forged marriage links with many other states, eventually becoming part of the Habsburg lands, after which Germany took over as the center of the Northern Renaissance.

The Rest of the North

But the ‘Northern Renaissance’ wasn’t just about Burgundy.
In the German speaking lands wealth generated by trade in free cities was being invested in new buildings and commemorative artwork, and Gutenberg was to invent one of the most important devices ever: moveable type and a cheap printing press, which enabled better textual criticism – a key element of the Renaissance Humanism – and which began to the rise to mass literacy.
But Germany would also unleash the religious revolution which would effectively swamp the Renaissance: the Reformation. Kepler, working in Germany, made great strides in astronomy, along with Copernicus in Poland.

France experienced major developments in art and architecture, and benefited from royal patronage early on, and an aging Leonardo da Vinci stayed there. Castile and Aragon experienced a hardening of religious views and Renaissance Humanism only survived by merging with the established Scholastic thinking to survive, but the royals sponsored new universities and a great deal of new art. However, artists like El Greco incurred the wrath of the Inquisition, and it was several centuries before Spanish art really exploded into new life. But the key development in the Iberian Peninsula was sponsoring Italian navigators to sail west, where they changed world history by connecting the Americas to Europe. The English Renaissance is considered to have been more literary than pictorial, with writings and plays.

How Closely was the Northern Renaissance Linked to the Italian?

Everyone in Europe engaged in what we would consider Renaissance activities – painting, writing, criticizing, searching – was aware of what was happening in Italy. But this doesn’t mean that the Northern Renaissance was a mere copy of the south, even though their aims and ambitions frequently matched. Artworks and ideas traveled from north to south as well as from south to north. Patrons – the people actually paying for the Renaissance work – were largely rulers or religious figures in Italy, while in the north they were middle class - or ‘bourgeois’ - and guilds, with a greater domestic use than in Italy, where things were focused more on showing off religion or power. Northern art works tend to be smaller. In addition artists in the north more commonly created what they thought would sell, and then sold it, while the Italian works were more commissioned and immovable, like frescoes (which were less common in the colder, wetter north.)

Northern artists, or perhaps their patrons, seemed more focused on displaying social status than in Italy, although it was a strong theme in both.

Symbolism was also different, with artists like Bosch at one end creating powerful works which had little comparison in the south, and at the other artists who used plenty of small objects in pictures to clearly show status and make points (points that in some cases we no longer understand.)