Renaissance Comparison

Renaissance Comparison Essay

I. Introduction

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            Renaissance, in a broad sense, is the culturally fruitful period of transition from the medieval era into the beginning of modern civilization in Europe. In a more restricted meaning, the word refers to the revival of interest in classical Greek and Roman culture that began in Italy during the Roman culture that began in Italy during the 14th century. Renaissance is French for “rebirth.”

            It is hard to assign beginning and ending dates to the renaissance, for there was considerable shading and overlapping. Some historians maintain that the Renaissance extended from the middle of the 14th century to the middle of the 17th (Trinkaus 68-71). The time of its beginning, and its duration, varied from country to country. On one hand, the renaissance meant primarily a cultural revival, and interpreting it the chief emphasis was put upon artistic and literary history. Voltaire in his Essai sur les Moeurs (1756) counted four great ages in the history of human endeavor: Periclean Greece, Augustan Rome, Renaissance Italy, and the France of Louis XIV. In the 19th century, however, this view of the Renaissance as primarily a period of significance in the history of the fine arts and literature was suddenly broadened. The great French historian, Jules Michelet, complained of the frivolity which saw in the Renaissance only a new style of decoration or a new form of verse. On the contrary, he proclaimed in a famous phrase that the Renaissance was “the discovery of the world and of man.” He thus became the first historian to assert that the Renaissance was more than a cultural revival that it was, in fact, the historical period which saw the beginning of the modern world.  He was followed by the great brilliant essay, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860), interpreted the period from Dante to Michelangelo in Italy as the age which saw the birth of the modern spirit in a profound transformation of ideas and institutions. Burckhardt’s work was built on an idea of cultural history in which all aspects of a civilization reflected an underlying functional unity. He organized his brilliant picture of Italian civilization around his interpretation of the spirit of individualism (Trinkaus 68-71).  The political conditions of Italy, he maintained, permitted a greater degree of freedom from the pattern of historical conditioning than existed in the north. Men like the condottieri and the early despots succeeded in molding political institutions to their own purposes; the state became, in Burckhardt’s phrase, a “work of art.” With this political background the classical revival combined with the genius of the Italian people to produce those unique achievements of Italian Renaissance civilization.

            Thesis Statement: The paper scrutinizes the cultures and the arts of the Italian and the Northern European Renaissances; thus, it compares and differentiates social, cultural, and relationships between the Italian and Northern European Renaissances. It also shows how the social and cultural differences reflected in the arts.

II. Discussion

A. Renaissance in Italy

            It has already been noted that one of the most striking innovations in the Italian 14th century was the attainment of a new perspective on the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and the consequent development of a new periodization of history. The central figure of this achievement was Petrarch. The son of an exiled Florentine notary who became one of Europe’s first independent men of letters, Petrarch from an early age dedicated himself to the study of the classics. Although his vernacular poetry is today more regarded and remembered than his Latin compositions. His friend Giovanni Boccaccio, shared Petrarch’s passionate desire for a deeper knowledge of the ancient world, and besides the famous Decameron, wrote important works in Latin on ancient mythology and on the fate of heroes and princes. In the followers of Petrarch and Boccaccio we can see clearly developed the characteristic features of humanist thought. In their emphasis on grammar and rhetoric and on the importance of form in writing and speaking, the humanists were the direct descendants of medieval teachers, but their reliance on a better and more direct knowledge of antiquity gave their thought a new orientation. Among the teachers and scholars of the new learning, who often became secretaries of princes and communes, there appeared the intense nostalgia for the civilization of Greece and Rome, the scorn for scholasticism and metaphysic in favor of an interest in man and in ethics and the emphasis n the values derived from ancient literature as a guide to conduct. The more they were developed, the more such interest revealed the possibility of tensions between the Christian believer and the classical scholar and sometimes, especially in the 15th century, the latter seemed to triumph over the former.

            Art. Scholar, poet, and artist all found patrons who gave them commissions and pensions and frequently were able to appreciate their work as connoisseurs. The political conditions in Italy were for a brief period peculiarly favorable to the sponsoring of intellectual and artistic activity. In many cases, tyrants and condottieri who had no legitimate title to the political power they enjoyed tried to justify themselves by becoming distinguished patrons of arts and letters.

B. Renaissance in Northern European

            From Italy the Renaissance spread to France, Germany, England, Spain and other countries. Erasmus, the great Dutch Scholar, often is credited with interpreting the movement for northern Europe. A new school of painting was a notable development in the Netherlands and Flanders. In Germany the strongest expression of the Renaissance was in humanistic philosophy (Trinkaus 68-71).  The humanism of Germany and the Low Countries was less artistic, less worldly on moral questions, and less indifferent to traditional Christian attitudes than was the humanism of Italy.

            In France the movement bore a rich harvest in literature. Francois Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne typify the new spirit in their country. Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard, and other poets of the Pleiades group contributed to it when they wrote in the meters and on the themes of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Some famous chateux of the Loire valley are Renaissance-inspired.

            The Renaissance began late in Spain, but it produced the writer Cervantes and the painters Velasquez and El Greco. Scholars from England began pilgrimages to Italy during the latter half of the 15th century. One of these was Thomas Linacre, who taught Erasmus and Sir Thomas More at Oxford (see The Rise of Monarchies: France, England, and Spain).  The English Renaissance reached its finest achievement in the Elizabethan age, when Shakespeare was writing his plays and Francis Bacon was pursuing his philosophical and scientific investigations.

 Moreover, the connections between Italy and northern Europe had become increasingly close during 15th century. Students and artists began to frequent the Italian centers; from Germany came Rodolphus Agricola, Conradus Celtis, and Albrecht Durer; from France, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples; and from England such men as William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre. On the other hand Italian scholars discovered that willing audiences and sometimes lucrative positions were to be found north of the Alps (see English Renaissance), Such exchanges were still further increased by the results of dynastic marriages, diplomacy, and war. Many northern monarchs and princes including the distant kings of Hungary and Poland and the emperor of Germany, found brides among Italian ruling families. In the suites which accompanied these Italian brides came a host of secretaries and attendants, humanist scholars and poets, so that their courts became centers of patronage for the new learning. The most decisive event, however, in the diffusion of a more general knowledge of Italian civilization was the French invasion of Italy in 1949. The French crown had long had a legal claim to the kingdom of Naples and, as a result of a threat to the balance of power among the Italian states. The French Army with its more powerful and mobile artillery enjoyed a spectacular success and reached Naples without encountering any serious opposition. In the following year, however, the French were driven out by a coalition of Italian powers who allied themselves with the empire and Spain. The French soldiers returned dazzled by the sights of Italy and stricken with the disease of syphilis which began to spread over Europe in epidemic proportions in the last years of the 15th century (Bergin 34-51). Philippie de Comines reports the astonishment and wonder of the French soldiers in beholding cities which seemed all “built of beautiful marble.” In the years which followed the first French invasion, thousands of men-at-arms recruited from Spanish, Swiss, German, and French villages had an opportunity to view the marvels of Italian architecture and see at first hand a kind of urban life which was beyond their previous experience. In the succeeding decades, the search for booty and plunder in the smoke and glory of Italy reached its climax in the sack of Rome in 1527 when Spanish and German mercenaries looted the palaces of cardinals and stabled their horses in the Sistine Chapel. By this time the influence of Italian taste had begun to conquer northern Europe, and the Italian language was to remain until at least the time of Milton. Italian literary modes, Italian architecture, even Italian taste in clothes became the reigning fashion. Those Italians who mourned their political fate could nevertheless claim with some justice that their country had achieved a cultural conquest which compensated in some degree for their subjection (Bergin 34-51).

III. Conclusion

            As conclusion, these influences from Italy were nevertheless inevitably modified in many ways in the process of transformation north of the Alps. Medieval traditions of learning and piety shaped the attitudes toward classical civilization and, in spite of the enthusiasm in northern countries for imitating Italian learning, there remained in every country a large admixture of an earlier inheritance.  France had been the greatest center of learning in the Western World and the French Renaissance was conditioned by this background. In Germany and the Netherlands, the Brethren of the Common Life had been the center of a great educational movement which emphasized the application of classical learning to the improvement of practical piety. As a more comprehensive knowledge of ancient civilization became available, it was natural in this context that such knowledge should be regarded primarily from the point of view of its contribution to an understanding of the Christian tradition.


 Bergin, T.G. The Social and Political ideas of Some Great Thinkers of the Renaissance and the Reformation, pp. 34-51 (Greenwood Press, 2005)

 Trinkaus, C.E. The Scope of Renaissance Humanism, pp. 68-71 (University of Michigan, 2003).

 English Renaissance.

The Rise of Monarchies: France, England, and Spain.


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