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Renaissance and Reformation

In part, the Renaissance was a rebirth of interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture. It was also a period of economic prosperity in Europe—particularly in Italy and in Northern Europe. In art history, we study both the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance. In 1517 a German theologian and monk, Martin Luther, challenged the authority of the Pope and sparked the Protestant Reformation. By challenging the power of the Church, and asserting the authority of individual conscience, the Reformation laid the foundation for the value that modern culture places on the individual. Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of Smarthistory together with leading art historians, and our museum partners have created hundreds of short engaging conversational videos and articles, making Khan Academy one of the most accessible and extensive resources for the study of the history of art.
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Early Renaissance

The Early Renaissance in Europe (the 1400s) was a deeply religious period but it was also a time of increasing wealth and its art is characterized by an interest in the natural (or material) world. In Italy, images of human beings were created with bodies that looked back to ancient Greek and Roman art, and conveyed a depth of human emotion and character that were new to the period. In parts of France and Northern Europe (then controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy), artists took a different approach and their art demonstrates a meticulous approach to painting both the natural world and biblical subjects.
A thumbnail for: High Renaissance in Florence and Rome

High Renaissance in Florence and Rome

The words "High Renaissance" conjure names like: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. And when you think of the greatest work of art in the western world, Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling may come to mind. The High Renaissance is a period of big, ambitious projects that have shaped our understanding of western culture but be wary of this term. The word "high" can suggest a summit and that everything before and after is less.
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Mannerism

The courts that surrounded Italy's rulers became increasingly important centers of learning as wealthy nobles brought together artists and other intellectuals by commissioning art, literature, science, and other learned disciplines. These courts valued erudition, sophistication, virtuosity, and wit. Mannerism is a style of art that builds on the naturalism of the Renaissance but introduces distortions and deceptions meant to delight its highly educated audience.
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The Protestant Reformation

Today there are many types of Protestant Churches. For example, Baptist is currently the largest denomination in the United States but there are many dozens more. How did this happen? Where did they all begin? To understand the Protestant Reform movement, we need to go back in history to the early 16th century when there was only one church in western Europe - what we would now call the Roman Catholic Church - under the leadership of the Pope in Rome. Today, we call this "Roman Catholic" because there are so many other types of churches (ie Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican - you get the idea).
A thumbnail for: The Northern Renaissance in the 16th century

The Northern Renaissance in the 16th century

We often think of the Renaissance as an entirely Italian phenomenon, but in northern Europe there was also a Renaissance. Though profoundly different, the Italian and Northern Renaissances shared a similar interest in the natural world and re-creating the illusion of reality in their paintings and sculptures. Many cities in Northern Europe (Bruges, Ghent and then later Antwerp and Brussels), were rich industrial and banking centers during this period, allowing a large merchant-class to flourish, creating an ideal environment for artistic production.
Early Renaissance
The Early Renaissance in Europe (the 1400s) was a deeply religious period but it was also a time of increasing wealth and its art is characterized by an interest in the natural (or material) world. In Italy, images of human beings were created with bodies that looked back to ancient Greek and Roman art, and conveyed a depth of human emotion and character that were new to the period. In parts of France and Northern Europe (then controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy), artists took a different approach and their art demonstrates a meticulous approach to painting both the natural world and biblical subjects.
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Burgundy and the Burgundian Netherlands

In the 15th century, the northern European countries we know today as Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were controlled by the enormously wealthy Dukes of Burgundy (Burgundy is a region in France). Today the 15th century in this region is often referred to today as the Burgundian Netherlands. The court of the Dukes of Burgundy were the most important patrons of the early Northern Renaissance, but newly wealthy private citizens also commissioned art as part of a growing interest in private meditation and prayer. Portraits were also commissioned in growing numbers.

A beginner's guide to Renaissance Florence

The Renaissance really gets going in the early years of 15th century in Florence. In this period, which we call the Early Renaissance, Florence is not a city in the unified country of Italy, as it is now. Instead, Italy was divided into many city-states (Florence, Milan, Venice etc.), each with their own government (some were ruled by despots, and others were republics).

Painting in Florence

In the 15th century, Florence was a proud republic where political power resided in the hands of wealthy merchant families (such as the Medici who would later seize control of Florence) and powerful guilds (organizations of merchants and craftsmen). Importantly for art history, all of these groups commissioned poetry, painting, sculpture and architecture—often as an expression of civic pride—making Florence the leading city-state in Italy during the cultural epoch we call the Renaissance.

Venice

Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Tuscan poet, called Venice a "mundus alter" or "another world," and the city of canals really is different from other Renaissance centers like Florence or Rome. Painting in Early Renaissance Venice is centered on the Bellini family: Jacopo, the father, Giovanni and Gentile, his sons, and Andrea Mantegna, a brother-in-law. The Bellinis and their peers developed a particularly Venetian style of painting characterized by deep, rich colors, an emphasis on patterns and surfaces, and a strong interest in the effects of light.

England, France and Tyrol

But what about the rest of Europe? Find here a collection art made in 15th century Europe beyond the major centers of Italy and the Low Countries. Discover an alabaster relief from England, a pieta from France, and a massive, completely intact altar still in its original Alpine location in Austria.