In the early part of the Renaissance Northern Europe especially the Holy Roman Empire whose core was Germany enjoyed a relatively stable economic period. Without a dominant court culture the clergy and merchants became patrons of the arts. The dominant themes of this period were mostly religious themed art. The artist would submit proposals to his patron for approval and if approved would begin the project with the patrons guidance. Usually the painting or sculpture was meant to project the wealth and power of the patron.
The most dominant themes were religious themes. Art patronage in the Italian Renaissance came from different sources, public and private, religious and secular, much as it does today. It was not always so. Times were hard for rich and poor alike during the Middle Ages. Europe saw the collapse of the feudal system. Following this, peasants who had previously worked the fields under the protection of their feudal lords left the countryside, migrating to the towns and city centers in pursuit of more lucrative means of support.
As population centers became crowded, unfortunately, so followed the Black Death, wiping out a large percentage of the inhabitants. Patronage of the arts was given little thought during this time as people were struggling merely to survive. When the plague finally subsided, however, there emerged a new thriving middle class of merchants and businessmen, men who had wealth and leisure time. Some of this wealth was channeled into the arts during the Early Renaissance.
Among this merchant class, a new interest in education developed, specifically reading and mathematics, the language of contracts. There also developed an interest in the pursuit of pleasure like music, literature, and fine art. There still remained some aristocratic, noble families such as those in Ferrara and Mantua who maintained great courts. There arose from the middle class new nobility, competing with the nobility to patronize the arts, particularly in Florence. Most prominent in Florence among the new nobility were the Medici, who earned their fortunes in the banking industry.
The Medici and other Florentine families of note used their enormous wealth to maintain lavish lifestyles, create beauty, both public and private, and to provide extravagant entertainments for the masses. In Venice art patronage was largely controlled by the scuolas, or confraternities, great religious and social organizations. The church was also an important patron of the arts. Creative individuals like artists, architects, musicians, and writers benefited substantially from art patronage during the Italian Renaissance.
Artists in Italy had to go through a training program in a particular guild for whichever art they practiced. Starting from childhood as an apprentice studying under a master and learning the basics of their craft, then as a journeyman studying under different masters and, then finally becoming a master. Artists, who were largely anonymous during the medieval period, began to enjoy greater emancipation during the 15th and 16th centuries, when they rose in rank from artisan to artist-scientist. The value of their individual skills—and their reputations— became increasingly important to their patrons and clients.
Northern Renaissance on the other hand evolved differently from the Italian Renaissance. In the north where the central governments tended to be weaker a majority of the arts commissioned came from lay organizations and to a lesser extent the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was weaker in the north as opposed to their seat of power in Rome. The Northern Renaissance was distinct from the Italian Renaissance in its centralization of political power. While Italy and Germany were dominated by independent city-states, parts of central and Western Europe began emerging as nation-states.
The Northern Renaissance was also closely linked to the Protestant Reformation and the long series of internal and external conflicts between various Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church had lasting effects, such as the division of the Netherlands. The political and religious situation in Northern Europe greatly affected the patronage system in that lesser nobles were more likely to be a patron of the arts. Also because of the weakness of the Catholic Church works of art commissioned by the church was not as prevalent.
In Northern Europe guilds controlled the artist’s future in the artistic profession. To pursue a particular skill in painting or sculpture for example one had to belong to that particular guild. The Guild of Saint Luke, the patron saint of painters for example controlled the guild of painters. The path to eventual membership in the guild began, for men, at an early age. A child’s father for example would negotiate with a master for his son’s entry into a particular guild. The aspiring painter would usually live with the master. The master taught the basics of his craft.
For example how to make implements, prepare panels with gesso (plaster mixed with a binding material), and mix colors, oils, and varnishes. Once the young apprentice learned these procedures studied the master’s particular style. The apprentice would then spend a few years as a journeyman working in various cities, learning from other masters. He then was eligible to become a master and to apply for admission to the guild. The guild, obtained commissions for the new master. His work was inspected by his peers to ensure that he used quality materials and to evaluate his workmanship.
The guild also made sure he was adequately compensated for his work. As a result of this quality control, Flemish artists for example soon gained a favorable reputation for their solid body of work. There is a marked difference in aesthetics between northern European Renaissance artists and Italian Renaissance artists. The Northern artists retained the more rigid Byzantine style of painting. An example would be Dirk Bouts, Last Supper, center panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament, Saint Peter’s, Louvain, Belgium, 1464–1468. Oil on wood.
Although it is a marked improvement from the early Byzantine style as far as perspective and the realism of the human form it still retains the rigidity and formality of the movements of the subject. The perspective and vanishing point along with the scale of the painting is better than the earlier styles. In contrast the Italian painters took lessons from earlier Greek and Roman styles in their portrayal of the human form. An example would be Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, ca. 1495–1498. Oil and tempera on plaster, Refectory, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
His portrayal is a complete departure from the Byzantine style. The human body is portrayed in its natural form and movement the rigidness is not present. The subjects seem to be frozen in the middle of moving as if a picture was taken. The scale of the painting is more realistic, and the background seems to convey a three dimensional image. In conclusion, the patronage system during Renaissance changed by the influence of social, religious and geopolitical factors. However, the most evident thing I can see from the text that is the Italian artists were less conservative than Northern European artists.
According to the text, Italian accepted and developed more new techniques and concepts, but the Northern European artists were a kind of sticking on the former styles, and made less dramatic changes. Then, the other thing I did not mention above which could show us Northern Europeans were more conservative than Italians is that Northern Europeans depicted less nude images than Italians during the Renaissance. All in all, no matter what style they used, artists during the Renaissance period left us great works, they are all priceless treasures, and memories of our human-beings’ history.