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Art History 101 - The High Northern Renaissance

The First Half of the 16th Century


Albrecht Durer - Apostle Philip

Albrecht Durer: Apostle Philip (1516); Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Scan © Mark Harden, used with permission

The end of the 15th century also saw the beginning of Flanders' decline as the artistic center of northern Europe. The Flemish and Netherlandish schools had been the trendsetters in art for around a century, but circumstances changed when the Duchy of Burgundy was absorbed. The artists of Flanders lost their ducal patrons, for one thing. Even worse, Flanders lost status and got shoved, if not entirely out of the art information loop, right to the fringes.

Germany became the hub of Northern Renaissance art.

    This occurred partially because there was a vacancy (where Flanders had been) in the top slot. More than that, the German merchant class (especially in the southern German provinces) had established some pretty close ties with the Italian banking and merchant classes. As a result, there was a lot of travel from Germany to Italy, and back again.

    We used to suppose that a Northern artist traveling to Italy, during the time of the Renaissance, was a relatively rare thing. That wasn't the case at all. German artists, in particular, frequently headed off to Italy and spent months (or even years) moving about visiting with the Italian artists and studying their techniques, themes and materials. Word spread rapidly upon these artists' respective returns, and it wasn't long before most Northern artists were incorporating new ideas into their work. (Surely you are familiar with how people, in general, like to "keep up"?)

    Besides the time-tested Word of Mouth method of spreading information, Northern artists also had a new technology at their disposal. The printing press had recently been invented, with the result that etchings and engravings were now widely available (and highly portable). One Italian artist, in particular, was turning out engraved copies of contemporary Italian art left and right. Marcantonio Raimondi left us nothing original of his own, but he was responsible for sending copies of everyone else's work to the farthest corners of the globe (as we understood it, back then). German artists seem to have gotten hold of them first, though.

Thanks largely to Albrecht Dürer, the North had a "High Renaissance" similar to Italy's.

    Albrecht Dürer made two trips to Italy specifically to study its art. He sparked what we now call the "High Renaissance" in the North by contributing in three major areas.

    First, Dürer's sojourns to Padua and Venice didn't exactly leave him with a complete understanding of how those places used color, or even thoroughly at ease with nudes. But! He definitely understood the use of line. (Anyone who has ever seen his woodcuts and/or engravings will attest that Dürer was a true master of the use of line.) As the Northern artists had a long tradition of using and understanding line, Dürer's works (full of line as they were) told Northern artists all they needed to know about that which the Italian artists were trying to accomplish.

    Secondly, because Dürer made prints far more often than he painted, his graphic works were both widely available and rapidly circulated. (To most artists, a picture is, truly, worth many, many thousands of words.) It is also worth noting that Dürer was, at the time, hugely successful as an artist. Smart artists have always known that some degree of imitating success may be profitable. That Dürer "set the pace" in the North's art was due to both his enormous talent and the fact that he was worth imitating (on more than one level).

    Finally, Dürer also understood that the elevated status Italian artists were now enjoying was highly desirable for any artist. He was instrumental in bringing that Renaissance concept northward, too.

    In sum, Dürer was an excellent translator. He understood the Italian Renaissance, and was able to convey its concepts to Northern artists using modified Northern techniques. Had he not been a good artist, or prolific publisher of his graphic works, it's doubtful that the Renaissance would have spread throughout the North as quickly as it did.

The Northern "High Renaissance" coincided almost exactly with the same event in Italy.

    In retrospect, the High Renaissance in the North came about (and dissipated) at the same rate as did the High Renaissance in Italy - although for different reasons. Dürer, and the other great Northern name, Matthias Grünewald, were contemporaries of Raphael and Michelangelo. There was no sacking (as in Rome) in the North, but Dürer and Grünewald had both died by 1528 (as Raphael had, in 1520). It is thought that the Northern High Renaissance dwindled and disappeared due mainly to the region's religious struggles, as well as the aforementioned deaths.

    For whatever reason, both High Renaissances were as brief as they were glorious. And - again as happened in Italy - the North entered into a "Late" Renaissance stage we now refer to as "Mannerism".

Next: Mannerism in the North.

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