The Renaissance was originally centered in Italy, but in time spread throughout all of Europe. In France King Francis I imported Italian art and artists, including Leonardo da Vinci. At great expense he built ornate palaces. Writers such as Rabelais also borrowed from the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. From France the spirit of the age spread to the Low Countries and Germany, and finally to England by the late sixteenth century. There the Elizabethan era saw writers such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe as well as great artists, composers, and architects.
The Northern Renaissance, unlike that of Italy, was marked by the centralization of political power as potent nation states emerged throughout Western Europe. The Northern Renaissance was also closely linked to the Protestant Reformation and the long series of internal and external conflicts that resulted.
Perhaps even more important than the initial outbreak of Renaissance in Northern Italy, was its spreading throughout Europe. Many of the same causes that helped cause change in Northern Italy also affected the rest of Europe. The Black Death was just as devastating in Northern Europe, with many of the same after-effects.
In addition, Western Europe was far more uniformly under the embrace of feudalism. This economic system had dominated Western Europe for a thousand years, but was on the decline at the beginning on the Renaissance. The reasons for this decline include the post-plague environment, the increasing use of money rather than land as a medium of exchange, the growing number of serfs living as freedmen, the formation of nation-states with monarchies interested in reducing the power of feudal lords, the increasing uselessness of feudal armies in the face of new military technology (such as gunpowder) and a general increase in agricultural productivity due to improving farming technology and methods. As in Italy, the decline of feudalism opened the way for the cultural, social, and economic changes assosiated with the Renaissance in Western Europe.
Finally, the Renaissance in Western Europe would also be kindled by a weakening of the Catholic Church. The seeming inability of the Church to help with the devastating Black Plague, and the Western Schism contributed to a heavy loss of prestige across Europe. The slow demise of feudalism also weakened a long-established policy in which Church officials helped keep the population of the manor under control in return for tribute. Consequently, the early 15th century saw the rise of many secular institutions and beliefs. Among the most significant of these, humanism, would lay the philosophical grounds for much of Renaissance art, music, and science. Forms of artistic expression which a century ago would have been banned by the Church were now tolerated or even encouraged.
It would be inaccurate to describe the Renaissance as an un-religious time; the Christian faith was still a predominant influence across all of Europe and played an important role in the lives of commoners and nobility like. It would be more accurate to describe the Renaissance as a time of increased secularism, wherein people retained their religion but increasing participated in affairs outside of the church.
The speed of transmission of the Renaissance throughout Europe can largely be ascribed to the invention of printing press. The Gutenberg press arrived well after the Renaissance was under way in Italy, but its power to mass produce printed material dramatically affected the course of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The ability to widely disseminate knowledge caused by this invention enhanced scientific research and helped spread the Renaissance from Italy to other parts of Europe. The creation of the press also lead to the introduction of public propaganda, which was used by rulers to strengthen nation states. Finally, the creation of the printing press also encouraged authors to write in the local vernacular, widening the reading audience and further promoting the spread of Renaissance ideas.
As Renaissance art techniques moved to Northern Europe they were changed and adapted to local circumstances. Notable painters of the period include Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel, Hans Holbein, Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden. Paintings by these artists retain a Gothic influence; this is perhaps most evident in the works of Hieronymus Bosch. Northern art was more concerned with Christianity than Classical mythology, in part a reflection of the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation.
A major difference between the Northern and Italian Renaissances was that of language. While Italy's humanists turned to the past and the Latin and Greek languages, the Northerners began to write in the vernacular creating literature that was widely accessible. The greater use and respectability of the vernacular languages played an important role in the formation of the new nation states that were largely defined by language.
The Northern Renaissance, unlike that of Italy, was marked by the centralisation of political power as potent nation-states emerged throughout Western Europe. The Northern Renaissance was also closely linked to the Protestant Reformation and the long series of internal and external conflicts that resulted.
Age of Discovery
- Main article: Age of Discovery
Perhaps the most important technological development of the Renaissance was the invention of the caravel, the first truly ocean-going ship. This combination of European and Arab ship building technologies for the first time made extensive trade and travel over the Atlantic feasible. While first introduced by the Italian states, and the early captains, such as Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Caboto, who were Italian, the development would end Northern Italy’s role as the trade crossroads of Europe, shifting wealth and power westwards to Spain, Portugal, France, and England. These states all began to conduct extensive trade with Africa and Asia, and in the Americas began extensive colonisation activities. This period of exploration and expansion has become known as the Age of Discovery. Eventually European power, and also Renaissance art and ideals, spread around the globe.