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North and Italian Renaissance – Nancy Grove

Sandra Park

Objects as History

Nancy Grove

December 8, 2017

The North and Italian Renaissance

Some people argue that the Renaissance didn’t happen. The story goes that the Renaissance saw the rebirth of European culture after the Dark Ages, and that it ushered in the Modern era of secularism, rationality and individualism during the 14th to the 17th century. As someone who believes that the Renaissance did happen, and that it was the efflorescence of arts and ideas that came together with the rediscovery of Roman and Greek culture, I wanted to go deeper into this blooming of culture. The Renaissance happened all across Europe, but there was a huge difference between the Northern and Italian Renaissance. In this essay, we will be going deeper into the compare and contrast of artworks that were created in these two Renaissances, such as works of Jan Van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch for the Northern and Michelangelo for the Italian Renaissance.

The Italian Renaissance happened in Italy, and their art prospered greatly due to the wealth of the country at this time. Trade between Italy and different countries, especially the Ottoman happened actively, giving more wealth and room for art to grow. One of the most well known artist from Italy was Michelangelo Buonarotti, and one of his most famous work that represents the Italian Renaissance well is the artwork Creation of Adam, from the Sistine Chapel celling that was finished in 1512 . The artwork represents Italian art well as it is balanced with a good sense of mass and has a linear perspective. In the artwork,“Michelangelo captures the moment when God charges the languorous Adam with the spark of life.” This work is a scene from the Bible, in the very beginning where God creates the first man in His form, Adam. Also well known for it’s enormous size, the work on the ceiling is breathtaking and also has incredibly realistic human figures. Adam’s heroic body seems to be echoing the biblical text by mirroring the body of God’s. This focus on the beautiful human figures that show incredible accuracy and energy represent how the artwork for Italian Renaissance was heavily influenced by the Greek and Roman art. Also, this work was created from Fresco, which is a technique of mural painting of laying pigment on wet lime plaster.

On the other hand, the Northern Renaissance included the countries outside of Italy but within Europe, such as the Netherlands, Germany and France. The most well known artist from this area was Jan Van Eyck. Among his many beautiful artworks, Double Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, created in 1434, is famous for the incredible detail. The Northern Renaissance used Christian sources to propel moments, so it is said that “even within its secular setting, the picture resonated with sacred meaning.” The objects surrounding the couple all has a Christian symbol. The crystal beads imply the couple’s piety, the mirror the eye of God, and the dog fidelity. Among with the Christian implications, the astounding amount of detail in this artwork is what makes it so famous. From the texture of the dog to Van Eyck’s reflection in the mirror at the back of the room, the level of meticulousness reflects the Northern Renaissance. Along with the detail, the stunning color used for the woman’s dress is eye catching. Unlike the Creation of Adam, the human figures are not as realistic since the North wasn’t as heavily influenced by the Greek art. The stunning color was also a result of the use of oil paint on oak. The climate of the North made it harder for artist to use the fresco techniques of Italy since the drying time differed greatly. Despite the fact that people thought the portrait was a scene from a wedding, there are still people who question the relationship of the woman and the man since no one can be sure of who they are, and what the purpose of the portrait was. From the media to the smallest details, this portrait is a good representation of the Northern Renaissance.

Despite the differences between the Italian and Northern Renaissance, there were similarities within. Both types of artworks imitated nature through emotional intensity through religious scenes. Creation of Adam is a scene from the beginning of the Bible that simply focused more on the proportionality which showed human figure. The Double Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife has Biblical references which focused on the secular subjects of religious topic all over the work rather than the human figure. It is said, “Until 1517, when Martin Luther lit the wildfire of Reformation, both places shared a common faith.” People from Italy and the Northern areas all considered themselves to live in “Chistiandom,” and the Church was the main source of provider for the topics to the artists.

Another work that represents the Italian Renaissance is The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, another piece from the Sistine Chapel, finished in 1541. In this piece of work, it depicts the second coming of Christ, another scene from the Bible. Once again, similarly to the Creation of Adam, the figures are portrayed incredibly realistically with the perfect proportions despite the fact that there are over 300 figures. The work shows more of the saints up in the top of the painting and the angels can be spotted awakening the dead with their trumpets. There also is a depiction of Michelangelo’s face on the skin that St. Peter is holding. As a whole, this piece shows the grandness of the Kingdom of Heaven with all the saints and angels and archangels and the trumpeters. The way the figures are spread throughout the ceiling with the even spacing between the groups reflect the symmetry and balance of the Italian Renaissance. Like the Creation of Adam, this work was also a Fresco work on the ceiling, which was a form of media used frequently in Italy while not as much in the Northern Europes.

Comparing to the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Europe has a work also called the Last Judgement depicted by Hieronymus Bosch in 1486. This work shows is a lot darker than Michelangelo’s version of the Last Judgement. The art piece portrays much more of the suffering humans, especially towards the bottom of the painting. It shows the dark side of man and also the light and angelic side, giving the work a heavy contrast between the ground and the sky. Unlike the Italian work where there are plenty of angelic beings portrayed among with God, this work shows how God is the only form of goodness. Michelangelo’s work shows the complication and complexity that coexists even with the good and angelic side, but Hieronymus’s work has a clear distinction that delivers the message that God is almighty and always good. This work was done with oil paint on wood similar to Van Eyck’s work, once again reflecting on how the climate limited with what media the artists could easily work with.

Even with the clear distinction between the North and Italian Renaissance artwork based on the same Biblical topic, there are similarities. Both the works have God depicted in the very top central part of the painting. This shows His importance for the artists or even to the viewers during this time. Another similarity is that both works is shown the figure of God with a blue circle, surrounded by Saints and the Virgin Mary. Along with that, there are angels and Apostles net to Jesus and God. So, this placement of God and his surroundings have meaning to it that reflects on the importance of religion. The separation of the bad and good is also something that comes to view as both works have God and his saints above the human sinners. The sinners are all in the darkness suffering in nudeness, once again emphasizing the influence of religion for both works.

Artworks were not the only form that was distinguished by the Northern and Italian Renaissance. Literature also took a big role in showing how people, especially philosophers, had distinct political and social thoughts. According to Machiaveli’s literature titled The Prince, it stresses on how to be an effective leader. This shows how the Italian Renaissance focused more on the individualistic side of people. Leaders studied on how to improve oneself as an individual who is seeking to acquire power. Their motto was that it was better to be feared than to be loved which shows a secular approach. Once more, it reflects on the influence of Christianity. On the other hand, Thomas More focuses more on the ideal society in his book Utopia, just like the title. The Northern Europe focused more on social reform rather than the individual. People were constantly debating about the abolition of property since many thought that wealth corrupts. This area reflected how they are prominent in Christianity, especially in Catholic theology. Even with this huge literature difference, both regions were inspired by classical studies, humanism. Machiaveli used ancient Rome as an inspiration and wrote while More’s model was Plato, who explored the idea of the ideal state. Even literature was a echo of the compare and contrast between the North and Italy when it came to the Renaissance.

The role of these different works, whether they’re literal murals and paintings or literature were essential in representing how different regions processed religion distinctly. All these works were art that marked a new era for the 14th to 17th century. The Renaissance was an important period of time that truly brought out amazing art and literature that truly show how people of that era thought. So yes, the Renaissance was real, enough to be compared from one specific region to another.







Provider of online book for Art a Brief History


Provided information of Jan Van Eyck’s work


Information on more Italian and Northern Renaissance


Gave me brief summary of the literature portion of the Renaissance


Provided information on the Northern Renaissance


Gave me information on the media difference (fresco and oil paint)


Provided small and concise difference between two regions


Provided examples and reasons for the second compare and contrast


Provided information on Michelangelo’s Last Judgement


Provided information on Jan Van Eyck’s work

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