Origins of early Renaissance styles in Italy and Northern Europe


The Renaissance was one of the most significant movements in European history affecting changes in attitudes towards problems of human existence. The term implies rebirth and renewal, a new venture which helped shape the modem world. For both Italy and northern Europe the roots of the Renaissance lie deep in the soil of the middle-ages. Renaissance art was socially significant, in Italy and northern Europe, because it consciously devised to portray for posterity the merits of the class which patronised it. The Renaissance began in 14th century Italy and spread to the rest of Europe by the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period fragmented medieval feudalism was transformed into a society increasingly dominated by central political institutions. Underpinning this historical watershed was an urban, commercial economy with lay patronage of education and arts.

The agricultural economy and church dominated intellectual and cultural life of the middle-ages was replaced, in both north and south, by the institutions of nascent capitalism. Despite differences in origin for Italian and northern European Renaissance art they shared much in common. Not least of all they boil rested on the patronage derived from the financial accumulation of developing mercantile capitalism. Italian mercantile families and the bourgeois burghers of mercantile Flanders patronised the development of Renaissance art from the standpoint of the individual Than’ as the centre of all things. The ‘new’ man thus took centre stage and, in the process of doing so, brought the artists in from the wings to create images to enhance their sense of individual worth.

The aim of the essay is to outline the origin of the Italian and northern Renaissance and then compare the Italian and northern styles in painting. A number of Italian and northern artists will be briefly discussed. However, in order to illustrate both the similarities and differences between Italian and northern Renaissance painting, a more detailed discussion will be made of the works of Masaccio and Jan van Eyck. Finally in conclusion the threads will be drawn together with the suggestion that Italian painting had a more esoteric nature compared to exoteric northern style.

The Origin of the Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was essentially an urban phenomenon, a product of cities flourishing in northern and central Italy, such as Florence, Ferrara, Milan, Venice. These cities, all highly competitive areas, and their mercantile families financed the cultural achievements of the Italian Renaissance. Indeed, the chief patrons of Renaissance art and literature were the merchant classes of Florence and Venice. The Italian Renaissance was made possible by the rise of a rich urban society that was far more intelligent and sophisticated than the feudal economy and baronial society it replaced. (Green, 1952).

Medieval Platonism and Aristotelianism were crucial to Renaissance philosophical thought. The Renaissance idea of humanism became a cultural break with medieval tradition. Humanism became the major intellectual movement of the period and its achievements became permanent. The tendency of the Renaissance was therefore to attach the greatest importance to classical studies and to consider classical antiquity as the common standard and model by which to guide all cultural activity.’ (Kristeller, 1979). Classical texts were studied and valued on their own terms with the intention of producing free and civilised human beings, people of judgement and taste, citizens rather than monks and priests. Humanistic studies, along with great artistic endeavours, were given financial support and encouragement by leading families e.g.; the Medici of Florence; the Este of Ferrara; the Sforza of Milan; the Gonzaga of Mantua; the dukes of Urbino; the doges of Venice; and papal Rome. The Medici family provide a good example of the new concept of the patron. They were `concerned with hitching the new intelligentsia to the wagon of their class…’ (Green, 1952). This was clearly stated by Alfred von Martin (1944) who opined that `…the intellectual leading group supports the power position of the ruling class by provision of an ideology and by guiding public opinion in the requisite direction. The function had been fulfilled in the Middle Ages by clerical intellectuals; now it devolved to the humanists.’

The recovery of the classics led to the creation of new disciplines. By the 15th century intensive study of the Latin and Greek classics, ancient art and archaeology, had given Renaissance scholars a more sophisticated view of antiquity. In art the decisive break with medieval tradition occurred in Florence around 1420 with the invention of linear perspective. Reality was now representable three-dimensionally on a flat surface ‘…which allowed the construction of geometrically convincing illusions of the natural world.’ (Welch, 1997). This new technique was dazzling represented in the works of the painter Masaccio and the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. The founder of modem sculpture, Donatello, created his bronze David, the first life-size nude since antiquity. Indeed, the sculpture `… of Donatello and the painting of Masaccio, in the decade from 1420 to 1430, portrayed human beings and the natural space in which they lived more nearly as they appeared to the common sense observer.’ (Holmes, 1969). Thus from the 15th century onwards classical form was rejoined with classical subject matter with an increasing resort to using mythological motifs from literary sources. Portraits of notable figures that emphasised individual characteristics were painted by Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Sandro Botticelli. Eventually the Renaissance ideals of harmony and proportion culminated in the works of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo in the 16th century.

The rediscovery of classical antiquity resulted in the restoration to life of a culture and values that had lain buried for centuries. The importance of this `reborn’ humanism was basic to Renaissance thought and led to the new awareness of ‘man’ himself as the centre and measure of all things. The renewed interest in classical antiquity led to the rereading of Virgil, Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle. The mid-14th century poet Petrarch stressed such study along with reliance on one’s own observations. In 1462 Cosimo de’Medici established the Florentine Academy which was supervised by Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Humanism became the philosophical view emphasising the importance of human values and achievement, the characteristic intellectual feature of the age.’ (Schmitt, C. 1995). It stressed objective enquiry guided by human reason but also sought to reconcile the classical view of human potential with Christian belief, a syncretism whereby “Renaissance humanists… strove to make a synthesis of Platonic and Christian ideas, and some of the ways this was reflected in art.’ (Hall, 1995).

The origin of the northern Renaissance

During the 14th and 15th centuries painting developed through its own strengths in the northern European countries of Flanders, France and Germany. This development has been described as the Northern Renaissance. Northern painting did not develop in isolation. Northern artists came into contact with their southern counterparts, or examples of their work and vice versa, through a series of reciprocal contacts and influences. Economic links existed between the mercantile north (notably Flanders) and the merchants of Florence, especially those involved in the woollen and textile trades.

At the beginning of the 15th century the courts of northern Europe, especially that of the Dukes of Burgundy, were the main artistic centres. They employed artists to create ephemeral and decorative works for pageants and memorials. This elegant and courtly style is referred to as the International Gothic. Northern European painting originated in illuminated manuscripts of which the Limbourg brothers are a fine example. The meticulous detail involved remained a quality of northern art, especially Flemish, until the advent of Rubens in the 17th century.

The rising northern and Flemish middle class of traders and merchants, allied with court functionaries, became important patrons of art. They quickly realised the commercial value of illusionistic panel painting. Their cities and commercial locales figure in the backgrounds not only as provenance but also as pride. The self-awareness of the northern burghers was matched by that of their commissioned painters. Due to Flemish city based production of commercial goods, with regulated and regulatory guilds, the production of art also became increasingly city based. The production of paintings therefore became carefully controlled for commercial purposes. Moreover, during the 16th century, artists began to paint speculatively for the open market, vending at fairs and markets. During the Flemish Renaissance period Jan van Eyck      the herald of a specifically Netherlandish school of art whose nature was moulded by precise social and political circumstances.’ (Haskell, 1993) and Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464) emerged as the founding members of an influential tradition of early Netherlandish or Burgundian painting. Their works reflected the commercial expertise of their locales and patrons, further emphasising the underlying economic impetus to northern Renaissance art, with its individual consciousness, believable images of the visible world, naturalism and humanisation.

During the fifteenth century, Flanders, then ruled by the dukes of Burgundy, was politically and artistically affiliated with France. Artists worked for properous local patrons in Ghent, Bruges and Brussels, as well as the Burgundian court. In northern Europe, which had been the birthplace of the Gothic style.’ (Zucker, 1963), features of late Gothic culture were contemporary with the discoveries and changing outlook toward humans and their world characteristic of Italy. Four main areas illuminate the northern Renaissance style of art — realism, physical location, religious meaning, and secular specialities. They embody various northern ideals rooted in a work of art’s relation to the world around it and the viewers perception of it The northern Renaissance pursued Similar ideals to the Italian Renaissance — interest in individual consciousness (portraiture), desire to make images of the world (often a  religious scene) more accessible and believable. As the new interest in man appeared in the not with as much force as in the south it was therefore not a specifically Italian phenomenon, but part of the general European shift to secular interests: (Zucker, 1963). The commonality was naturalism with the humanisation of art and culture as a basic principle.

Italian and Northern Styles

Northern Renaissance painters, unlike their Italian counterparts, did not make a demi-god of man. They preferred to paint man as he was, highly conscious of mortality (though this was a feature of Italian art also), clothed rather than nude, with his world carefully and loyally depicted in intricate detail against actual backgrounds, landscape or domestic. Northern paintings tend to be smaller, more intimate, because there was no place for fresco in cold and damp northern dimes. The meticulous detail of northern oil paintings, imbued with the northern artists’ burgeoning self-consciousness, contrasts with the larger, sunnier harmonies of the Italian Renaissance.

In the north there were no antique statues, no classical ruins, nor a tradition of Latin language. Therefore there was no direct influence of Greek and Roman art in northern Europe. Understandably then northern art is less provocative than It an Renaissance art with its grand public and civic inspiration of the antique. The naturalism of the north contrasts with that of contemporaneous Italian art in which ideas and physical traits were personified and heroic types were glorified and placed, idealised and monumental, in carefully organised settings! (Zucker, P. 1963. p.307). Northern artists did not seem inspired to make provocative commentaries on their times. Their work is small-scale, intimate, private, and individually calculated compared to the fixity and monumentality so typical of the Italian Renaissance. The northern Renaissance showed the first use of oil painting whereas initially the Italian Renaissance used egg tempera.


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