When people hear about the Renaissance Period, the images that usually come to mind are the masterpieces of the Italian artists and architects: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the great dome of Florence Cathedral, and the countless other works of masters who flourished in the Italian city-states. But while it is understandable that the Renaissance is remembered best for its legacy in Italy, it is important to note that this movement was not confined in Italy; rather, other parts of Europe thrived during this era. In what is now known as the Northern Renaissance, countries and regions experienced an equally magnificent scientific and cultural flowering. But what exactly is the Northern Renaissance? More importantly, how does it differ from the Renaissance in Italy? This essay traces the similarities and differences between these two movements in the context of art. Apart from the obvious difference in geographical scope, the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance also differed in the way their artists approached art, the subjects and themes they featured, and the artistic techniques they employed.
Understanding the similarities and differences between the art of the Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance naturally begins by tracing the geographical scope of these two movements. The Italian Renaissance, as the term itself indicates, largely took place in the Italian peninsula. At the time, Italy was not the unified country that it is today but instead was a collection of independent city-states. Among the most prominent of these were Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome, Pisa, and Naples among others (“Renaissance”). Florence is often considered as the birthplace of the Renaissance. On the other hand, the Northern Renaissance largely took place in the regions north of the Alps. These included countries such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany, and the England (“The Northern Renaissance”).
One of the main differences between the Northern Renaissance and the Italian Renaissance pertains to the approaches to art taken by artists. Whereas artists in Italy were keen on employing principles that defined the aesthetics of classical antiquity, artists in the north focused on refining details and achieving realism. It must be noted that one of the catalysts that made the Renaissance possible was the rediscovery of writings from classical antiquity, mainly the civilizations of Greece and Rome, which were largely lost during the Middle Ages. These writings explored principles that were believed to lend works their beauty. Such principles included ideas regarding order, balance and symmetry, proportion, and a mathematical approach to design. The discovery of artworks made by the Greeks and Romans also inspired the Italian artists. In their attempt to study and emulate these writings and works, the Italian masters created artworks that were characterized by innovations like linear perspective, volume, and more accurate anatomy (Bambach, 2002). An excellent example, of course, is Michelangelo’s majestic paintings in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (Barris, 2012). On the other hand, artists of the Northern Renaissance innovated upon the approaches to art from the Middle Ages. This resulted in the focus being on enhancing realism and detail. Works from the Northern Renaissance were known for their highly realistic details, an example of which is The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden (Jones, 2002).
Apart from the approaches to art, another crucial difference between the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance involves the subjects and themes of artworks. As the Italians were inspired by classical antiquity, many of their works depicted scenes from classical mythology. Examples of these include works such as Venus of Urbino by Titian and The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. On the other hand, subjects in the Northern Renaissance featured more domestic and secular scenes. As the Low Countries including parts in present-day Belgium and the Netherlands broke away from the Catholic Church and expanded their economies, wealthy merchants rose to become important patrons of the art. The result was that many artworks featured more domestic and secular subjects and themes (Ainsworth, 2009), such as the famed Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. There also emerged an extensive tradition of portraiture in the Low Countries, as wealthy citizens commissioned more and more works from such artists.
Another important difference between the Northern Renaissance and the Italian Renaissance is the type of techniques and mediums that artists employed. In Italy, the main techniques that artists used involved tempera. Tempera was a technique that involved dispersing pigments in water-soluble fluids. This technique was widely used during the Middle Ages and continued to be used well into the 15th century. On the other hand, the Northern Artists developed what was then the fairly new technique of using oil in paintings. Unlike tempera, which was dried quickly and prevented artists from easily modifying their works, oil painting was slow-drying, thus giving artists more room for making changes to their work.
While there are differences between the Renaissance in Italy and the Renaissance in other parts of Europe, it is worth noting that each movement had many overlapping areas and both profoundly influenced European society and the history of the world itself. No essay or research paper can ever fully answer the question of what impact did the Renaissance have on the Western world. After all, the Renaissance was not just about art or architecture; it was also about the Age of Discovery that made it possible for Europeans to establish connections with new peoples and cultures; it was also about a literary flowering that gave birth to works like William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. In the end, whether in the North or in Italy, the flourishing of culture and science in this period left a lasting mark on the course of human history that can be felt even to this day.
Ainsworth, Maryan W. “Early Netherlandish Painting.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/enet/hd_enet.htm. Accessed 14 January 2021.
Bambach, Carmen. “Anatomy in the Renaissance.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/anat/hd_anat.htm. Accessed 14 January 2021.
Barris, Roann. “The Early Renaissance in Northern Europe: Sacred and Secular Space.” Radford University, https://www.radford.edu/rbarris/art216upd2012/northern%20renaissance%2015th%20century.html. Accessed 14 January 2021.
Jones, Susan. “Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441).” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eyck/hd_eyck.htm. Accessed 14 January 2021.
“Renaissance.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Renaissance. Accessed 14 January 2021.
“The northern Renaissance.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/The-northern-Renaissance. Accessed 14 January 2021.