The Italian Renaissance is generally seen as one of the greatest periods of art in human history, this is due to the fact that there were a great number of new artistic techniques in order to create far superior pieces of art in comparison to the previous works of the medieval, gothic age. This Italian Renaissance is commonly believed to be a great influence upon the Northern Renaissance that swept through Northern Europe later – the Church, the Humanist Universities and the mercantile wealth that made Italy the leading Renaissance country were all useful to an extent in influencing the Northern Renaissance.
As the principle city of the Catholic Church, Rome, along with its primary patron in the Pope, was in a very good position to influence Catholic Europe. The Church could spread a great number of ideas to the Northern Renaissance in the Holy Roman Empire, Low Countries, France and England. France considered itself as the greatest defender of the Catholic Church and therefore its diplomatic position with Rome and its papacy allowed a great exchange of ideas. This special relationship is shown in the number of French royalties that married into the Medici family, who extended their reach from Florence into the Papacy in Rome.
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The papacy was very open to Northern Europe and frequently sent diplomats and ambassadors to these Catholic countries; Piaggio, a Florentine humanist, and Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, both served as papal ambassadors in the Low Countries, this would influence the Northern Renaissance in the spread of Italian humanist ideas. Above all, the pilgrimages to Rome that many Catholics underwent allowed Northern Europe to exchange a great number of ideas – Catherine of Aragon went on a pilgrimage to Rome in order to perhaps gain this understanding of politics or humanism that Italy was famous for. The Catholic Church, up until the Reformation, allowed the Catholic countries to gain a significant amount of ideas, both artistically and in its humanism.
The Italian Renaissance led to a lot of universities being built. These Italian Universities attracted many foreign students from the Northern countries. This meant that a lot of these students, influenced by the Italian Renaissance ideals would take them back to the Northern European countries where they could introduce them to others. Perhaps the most famous humanist of the Northern Renaissance, Erasmus, actually studied in Italy before travelling to the Holy Roman Empire and Cambridge University – this would have allowed a great number of Italian ideals to have spread around Northern Europe because they would have had a significant impact upon Erasmus’ own humanist ideals. Along with Erasmus, the humanists Celtis, Hutten and Reuchlin from the Holy Roman Empire all studied in Italy as did the English humanist Linacre.
This shows the large amount of influence that Italy must have had on these Northern humanists, and it is very easy to infer that this influence on the humanists would have a consequence into a significant impact on the Northern Renaissance as a whole. The neo-platonist school in Florence attracted many foreign intellectuals in an exchange of ideas and this school is mirrored in the French building of the Fontainbleau. The Italian universities as a whole were very attractive to any prospective humanists and influence upon these would have had an impact on their Renaissance.
Italy was a hugely wealthy country, and the Italian cities, due to their strong economic position attracted many of the foreign merchants. These merchants would be able to see the wealth of art and introduce them to Europe on their return. This would have encouraged many northern artists and scholars to travel to Italy in order to learn from the painters and sculptors there. One example of this is presented in Holbein’s paintings. After he travelled to Italy it is clear to see some Italian influences in his portraiture style. The smoke-like technique that he used in many of his portraits such as Venus and Amor he would have learnt from Leonardo’s sfumato technique. Holbein also learn the Italian single-point perspective that initially made Italian art so successful. Durer is another famous artist who is shown to have been influenced by the Italian Renaissance.
Durer’s introduction of classical motifs into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian artists, have secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. Durer learnt much from his experience with Bellini in Venice and developed the exact proportions of bodies that can be shown in his ‘virgin and child’. The Italian artists and artistic techniques had a profound influence upon the artists of the Northern Renaissance – the merchants brought back a lot of paintings and techniques that the northern artists could employ along with them actually travelling to Italy in order to get this experience from the artists first-hand.
However, there are also several factors that disagree with the statement that the Northern Renaissance was influenced by the Italian Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance art is often very different to Italian art. In particular, Flemish art was distinctive because it was developed independently of the Renaissance. Van Eyck’s use of oil, before the Italians had fully employed it themselves, allowed a superior detail. The Arnolfini portrait, commonly thought of as his greatest work is very different in its style and skill. Unlike Italian portraiture, it displays an interior marriage with a great deal of symbolism in nearly every object in the room. The convex mirror displayed excellent perspective, unrivalled by Italian art. Altdorfer’s ‘George and the Dragon’ is a good example of how different the motifs were to the Italian Renaissance. Rather than making the portrait a celebration of a particular person, or a symbol of the classical world, Altdorfer created a far more poignant and powerful remark on the insignificance of man.
It was not only the art that may have been independent of the Italian Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance is marked by scholarly and literary humanism that was not based on the classical world but was much more focused on developing Christian humanism. Erasmus, in his work, strove to make people better Christians by providing them with reliable texts and went on to develop his own Christian philosophy. He was also much freer to criticize the Catholic Church, as loyal as he was to it.
The Brethren of the Common Life was very significant in Northern Europe and particularly in the Low Countries. It was perhaps of much more importance to the Renaissance than the number of Universities. It created artists and humanists and taught them that religion was far more important than religion and as a result, it became a much more significant and prominent motif in art and more focused on humanism than the classical.
In conclusion, whilst there are a few arguments that the Northern Renaissance was independent of the Italian Renaissance, there are also a vast amount of cases in which it is undeniable that they held a great similarity to the Italian ideals or techniques. There are differences in humanist ideals and artistic ideals but it was Italy that encouraged the Northern Countries to put an emphasis on art and to explore scholarly ideas.
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