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Italian Renaissance vs Northern Renaissance

The Renaissance was a cultural movement that took place from the 14th to the 17th century. It is believed to have begun in Florence, Italy in the late Middle Ages, aided by the political and civil structure of the city, the patronage of the powerful Medici family, and the migration of Greek scholars and their texts after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. The movement focused on a return to the concept of humanism, which centers on humans and their values, capacities, and worth. The Renaissance affected literature, philosophy, religion, science, politics, and art. Its two main divisions are the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance, although the later covers a much larger area and even though every country had its own regional differences, it is still more convenient to speak of them together since they are similar and all were different from what characterized the movement in Italy.

Although the Renaissance affected every aspect of culture throughout Europe, it is the art we think of most often when we hear the word  and the exploits of  the “Renaissance Man”, such as the most famous of them, Leonardo da Vinci. The Renaissance produced some of the most famous artwork ever made, works that are studied extensively even to this day, and although they are under the same movement of humanism, there is a marked difference between what came out of the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance.

The Italian Renaissance can be thought of as loftier, more idealistic than the Northern Renaissance, which focused more on the common man and the everyday realities of life. These ideals and concerns heavily influenced the subject matter of the art produced under each movement. Italian Renaissance art focused on classical Greek and Roman mythology, like Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Northern Renaissance art turned its attention to portraits and domestic scenes, the most famous of which is Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife.

Across the entire span of the Renaissance are works of a religious nature, although it is still possible to pick out the ones from the Italian movement and the ones from the Northern movement. The best works to contrast are two by the same name by two very different artists. Taking a look at The Last Judgment from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, we see that the focus is on the Kingdom of Heaven and the saints who are with God. In The Last Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch, the focus is clearly on the suffering of man and is much darker, both in content and color.

Along with subject matter, both the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance had distinct styles also influencing the look of its art. Italian Renaissance art was heavy on symmetry and balance and giving the subjects a sense of mass and volume by using knowledge of the underlying anatomy of the human figure. This allowed for more realistic art with shadows and motion in sharp contrast to the flat art of the Middle Ages. A fine example of this is another work of Michelangelo’s from the Sistine Chapel, titled the Creation of Adam. Northern Renaissance art, while also more realistic than previous movements, focused heavily on the minute surface details and naturalism. A kind of documentary nature takes hold in this kind of art, as if the painters are capturing a moment in time, much the way a photograph would. A Goldsmith in His Shop, by Petrus Christus, who was thought to be a student of van Eyck, displays this perfectly from the objects of the goldsmith’s trade scattered throughout the interior as well as objects that suggest the scene is one of a marital contract being forged.

Toward the end of the Renaissance, the travels of these artists allowed for overlap of some of the trends that marked the differences between the Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance. These great thinkers and doers exchanged ideas and techniques in their efforts to learn and grow. Eventually, the Renaissance came to an end, but the ideals and viewpoints that came out of it are as relevant today as they were then.


Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Eleventh Edition, Harcourt College Publishers, 2001



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