Northern Renaissance Culture

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Northern Renaissance Culture

During the 1400s commerce and trade flourished in northern Europe, around the coast of the Baltic Sea and in the Rhine River region of Germany. These areas were linked with trade routes to Italy and the region around the Mediterranean Sea in the south. Often accompanying traders, Italian humanist scholars journeyed north to work as diplomats (official representatives of governments), secretaries, and university lecturers. They took with them the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, which was flourishing in city-states such as Florence, Milan, and Venice. The scholars were soon followed by artists and artisans, who received commissions from northern European monarchs and noblemen. Inspired by the innovations of the Italian Renaissance, thinkers and artists from the north then traveled to Italy to study with prominent figures. Soon northern European scholars and artists began making their own cultural contributions, which became known as the northern Renaissance. (For purposes here, northern Europe is defined as Germany, the Low Countries—present-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg—France, England, and Spain.

Italian Renaissance ideas adopted

During the northern Renaissance, advances took place in literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. Many northern European artists gained international reputations, especially in Germany and the Low Countries, which was also the center of humanism in northern Europe. Most of the art was religious, reflecting a society in which religious images indicated personal piety (religious devotion) as well as heavenly and earthly aspirations. The invention of the printing press greatly facilitated the spreading of the latest scholarly studies, novels, stories, poems, plays, artworks, and musical compositions. The Protestant Reformation, a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church, dealt a severe blow to the Renaissance in Germany and the Low Countries. Protestant reformers did not approve of most Renaissance culture. They prohibited the display of paintings and sculpture in churches, and they frowned on the performance of music during worship services. The Protestants claimed that art and music detracted from the glorification of God. Germany and the Low Countries were at the center of reform activity, but the impact was also felt in France, England, and Spain.

The Renaissance in France is often thought to begin with the reign of King Francis I (1494–1547), who ruled from 1515 to 1547. Nevertheless, strong medieval traditions in the arts continued during this period. They gradually gave way to the influence of Italian writers and artists and artisans who brought fashionable new styles to France. By the mid-sixteenth century the French had developed their own version of the Renaissance, particularly in literature and architecture. During the latter part of the sixteenth century, however, the cultural world was devastated by the Wars of Religion (1562–98), a bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

The course of the Renaissance in England followed the history of the Tudors, the royal family who gained control of the throne in 1485. Renaissance ideas were only beginning to reach England at that time and gradually emerged over the next century. The English Renaissance was firmly established when Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; ruled 1558–1603), the last Tudor monarch, died in 1603. The Elizabethan era produced some of the greatest literature in Western history, and Britain became a major world power by expanding its empire into the New World (the European term for the Americas). Renaissance ideals continued to flourish during the reign of King James I (1566–1625; ruled 1603–25), but lost importance under his son Charles I (1600–1649; ruled 1625–49). Charles's attention was diverted to government crises and the English civil war (1642–49), which led to the fall of the monarchy.

Spain's limited involvement with Italian Renaissance culture began in 1442, when King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396–1458; ruled 1416–58) conquered the Kingdom of Naples. He then moved his royal court from Valencia to Italy. For more than sixty years Alfonso and his descendants sponsored Italian painters, sculptors, and architects who influenced art in Aragon. Elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal), however, artists developed distinctive styles that reflected the existence of several independent kingdoms. Iberian culture was also shaped by Moorish (Muslim) traditions that were established after Muslims from Asia conquered most of the peninsula in the eighth century. For this reason, the Renaissance was not widespread throughout Spain. The greatest efforts to promote the Renaissance were made in the sixteenth century by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; ruled 1519–56) and his son King Philip II (1527–1598; ruled 1556–98), who were active patrons of the arts. This era is known as Spain's golden age.


Northern European humanist studies began in the Low Countries and Germany in the late 1400s. Like the Italian humanists, northern thinkers drew their inspiration from the languages and literature of ancient times, and they believed in the human potential for self-improvement. Scholars in the Low Countries and Germany expanded this philosophy to include religion. At that time they were facing the decline of scholasticism, which had been developed in the Middle Ages by such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280). The scholastics sought to combine Christian teachings with the concept of reason found in the works of ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato (c. 428–c. 348 b.c.) and Aristotle (384–322 b.c.). Scholasticism became the basis of education in Europe. By the fifteenth century, however, scholasticism was dominated by scholars called nominalists, who claimed that faith was beyond the reach of reason.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, a scholastic education consisted mainly of a series of exercises that subjected biblical texts to rational proof, or logical reasoning. This development displeased many religious people, who felt that such training failed to respond to the spiritual side of human experience. Humanists were instrumental in revealing the great ignorance of some scholastics and the inaccuracy of their work. At the same time, newly studied ancient texts and reinterpreted biblical texts seemed more and more to offer the inspiration that was lacking in scholasticism. One result was that the humanists started the Brethren of the Common Life, an educational movement that emphasized inner piety. The Brethren schools provided a training ground for an impressive number of northern European humanists.

Agricola introduces studia humanitatis

Rudolf Agricola (also known as Roelof Huisman; 1444–1485) was the pioneer of humanistic learning in northern Europe. A native of the Netherlands, he studied in Italy in the late 1470s. He encountered the new educational curriculum studia humanitatis (humanist studies), which was then being introduced in Italy. In 1479 Agricola returned to the Netherlands and completed his major work, De inventione dialectica libri tres (Three books on dialectical invention). After serving as secretary to the city of Groningen for five years, he moved to Heidelberg, Germany. He went there on the invitation of his friend Johann von Dalberg, the bishop of Worms and the chancellor of Heidelberg University. Agricola became active in the intellectual community in Heidelberg, lecturing, delivering speeches, and participating in academic disputations, or formal debates. He also began to learn Hebrew. In 1485 he and Dalberg went to Rome to attend the consecration of Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492; reigned 1484–92). Agricola wrote the speech that Dalberg delivered before the new pope. On the journey home Agricola fell ill, and he died a short time later in Heidelberg.

Celtis starts sodalities

The German poet Conrad Celtis (1459–1508) played a major role in humanism by initiating societies called sodalities. He modeled these groups on Italian humanist academies he had visited in Florence and Rome. The best-known sodalities were located in Heidelberg, Germany, and in Vienna, Austria. Inspired by Celtis, other groups were formed in German cities such as Augsburg, Ingolstadt, and Olmütz. Members of these circles worked together on scholarly projects. Regardless of their social or professional background, they found a sense of belonging to a larger intellectual movement.

Although Agricola's career was brief, he had a strong influence on humanism in northern Europe. Among his numerous works were orations, poems, letters, and Latin translations of Greek texts, most of which were published after his death. Agricola's greatest achievement was De inventione dialectica libri tres, which was inspired by his discontent with current educational methods. He based De inventione on Aristotle's philosophy of rhetoric and dialectic, providing a comprehensive theory of methodical thinking and reasoning. Agricola's book was highly influential as a statement of humanist rhetoric, partly because he illustrated rules with detailed examples from classical works. Printed in 1515, De inventione was widely read by advanced students, professors, and theoreticians during the sixteenth century. One of Agricola's letters, "De formando studio" (On the organization of the program of studies), also influenced humanists. This letter became popular because it included a brief description of making a commonplace book, a collection of excerpts from ancient texts that provided models for teaching writing and recitation. The commonplace book was used in Latin grammar schools throughout Europe until the eighteenth century (see "Commonplace books" in Chapter 12).

Erasmus is foremost humanist

The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) was the foremost humanist in northern Europe. Known as a "Christian humanist," he combined Christian teachings with classical ideals. Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Holland, the illegitimate son of a priest and a physician's daughter. Throughout his life he was sensitive about the lowly circumstances of his birth. After receiving a classical education with the Brethren of the Common Life, Erasmus entered the monastery at Steyn in 1487. He was ordained a priest in 1492 and appointed secretary to the bishop of Cambrai the following year.

Erasmus's life took a significant turn in 1495, when he went to Paris, France, to study theology (religious philosophy). Paris was then the center of theological training in Europe. He lived at the Collège de Montaigu, a hostel, or lodging house, for poor students. During his stay in Paris he developed a strong distaste for the scholastic method. In letters to friends Erasmus made scathing comments about the Paris professors, whom he described as pseudotheologians (fake religious scholars) and obscurantists (those who make ideas unnecessarily complex). Finding the living conditions at the Collège de Montaigu unbearable, Erasmus struck out on his own and began to tutor the sons of wealthy families. He never completed his degree in Paris. In 1499 he traveled to England with one of his pupils, William Blount, Lord Montjoy. During his stay in England he made lifelong friends, such as the humanists Thomas More and John Colet. In 1506 Erasmus moved to Turin, Italy, where he obtained a doctorate in theology without meeting the requirement of being a resident student at the university. He then established a connection with the printing house of Aldo Manuzio (1449–1515) in Venice, which later contributed to his productive career as a writer.

Writes Praise of Folly

By the time Erasmus returned to England in 1509, he was disillusioned with the Catholic Church. He disapproved of the wars that popes were always waging, and he was critical of clergymen who failed live by the Christian teachings. As a result of this experience Erasmus wrote Encomium moriae, or Praise of Folly, a satire of the church and the clergy. (Satire is criticism through the use of humor.) In a famous passage a character named Dame Folly ridicules human folly—foolishness or lack of good sense—in general, but she focuses particularly on the self-importance and lack of spiritual values among theologians and clergymen. The book concludes with an appeal to Christians to embrace what appears to be folly in the eyes of the world—that is, the simple-hearted devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ, which leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. Praise of Folly made Erasmus famous. In 1515 he was appointed councilor to Prince Charles (later Emperor Charles V). To be near the royal court at Brussels in Belgium, Erasmus took up residence in Louvain, where he joined the theology faculty at the university. His relationship with other faculty members was an uneasy one from the outset because many of his writings drew criticism from theologians.

Publishes New Testament

Erasmus was an unusually learned scholar and a highly productive writer. He published innumerable works on a wide variety of subjects, including biblical studies, education, and religious reform. During his career he also wrote more than three thousand letters to kings, popes, scholars, financiers, humanists, and reformers.

Erasmus was best known for his edition of the New Testament, the second part of the Bible that contains the teachings of Jesus Christ (called the gospels). Erasmus started his project in 1504, when he discovered a set of notes on the New Testament made by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457; see "Humanist literature" in Chapter 8). Following in Valla's footsteps, Erasmus began making notes on differences and errors he found when he compared Latin translations with the Greek biblical texts. In his New Testament he presented the original version of the biblical texts, which was written in the Greek language, and placed it alongside a Latin translation. Released in 1516, Erasmus's book was the first published Greek text. It provided a basis for further study of the New Testament by scholars and reformers. Erasmus also published Enhiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of a Christian soldier; 1503), in which he described a tightly structured patriarchal (headed by men) society built on Christian values. Although he held traditional views on the role of women, he advocated education for women and emphasized mutual respect and fellowship in marriage.

Erasmus stated his educational views in De pueris instituendis (On the education of children; 1529) and other works, which were typical of humanist philosophy. He believed that parents had a duty to educate their children. If they could not give instruction themselves, they should select a teacher who could provide the necessary moral and intellectual guidance. Erasmus did not approve of physical punishment, and he recommended motivating learners with interesting material, a healthy challenge, and positive reinforcement. His ideal curriculum was based on language studies, the core subject of studia humanitatis. Another dimension to Erasmus's writing was Querela pacis (The complaint of peace; 1517), in which he condemned war as an instrument of tyranny and warned rulers to fulfill their obligation to preserve Christian harmony.

The Reuchlin affair

As Erasmus was expanding humanism in northern Europe, a controversy called the Reuchlin affair was taking place in Cologne, Germany. It began when Johannes Pfefferkorn (1469–c. 1522), a converted Jew, tried to convert other Jews to Christianity. Backed by members of the Dominican community (a Catholic religious order) in Cologne, Pfefferkorn claimed that Jewish religious literature encouraged Jews to resist conversion. In 1509 Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519; ruled 1493–1519) authorized him to examine Jewish books and to destroy those that prevented conversion. In 1510, however, the archbishop of Mainz became involved. He had friendly relations with the Jewish community in Cologne, and he persuaded the emperor to authorize a group of experts to conduct a study of Jewish religious literature.

The German humanist Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522), the leading Christian expert on Hebrew, was one of those consulted. Other members of the study group decided that the Jewish literature should be destroyed, but Reuchlin opposed this move. He argued that destruction of Hebrew books would not only harm biblical scholarship but also violate property rights established by the laws of the Holy Roman Empire. Maximilian followed Reuchlin's advice and refused to seize the Jewish books. Pfefferkorn responded by writing Handt spiegel (Hand mirror; 1511), in which he charged that Reuchlin had been bribed by rich Jews. Reuchlin defended his position with Augenspiegel (Eye mirror; 1511).

Some Cologne theologians claimed that Augenspiegel had damaged Christianity by upholding the Jews. Although most German humanists respected Reuchlin and resented the attacks on him, few of them shared his enthusiasm for Hebrew. Even those who sympathized with his efforts and despised his critics thought Augen-spiegel was unnecessarily controversial. One of those critics, Jacob Hoogstraeten, initiated an investigation of Augenspiegel. Reuchlin then appealed to the office of the pope. Pope Leo X sent the case to the bishop of Speyer, who ruled in 1514 that Augenspiegel was not heretical. The bishop ordered Hoogstraeten to abandon his attacks. Although the theologians appealed the decision to the pope, Leo X had no desire to condemn either Reuchlin or the Cologne theologians. In 1516 the pope imposed an order of silence on both sides, but Hoogstraeten continued his attacks and launched a new appeal. In the end, Reuchlin lost his legal case. The theologians renewed their appeal, and in 1520 the pope reacted against the religious revolution in Germany by condemning Augenspeigel as a scandalous book. Reuchlin quietly submitted to the pope's order that he make a public apology and pay the heavy costs of the appeals procedures.

Drawn into Reformation debate

In the 1520s Erasmus was drawn into the Reformation debate. His position at Louvain became increasingly difficult because he was considered a supporter of Martin Luther (1483–1546), the German priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517. To escape the hostile climate, Erasmus moved to Basel, Switzerland, where he became the center of a scholarly circle that included many prominent humanists. He remained in Basel from late 1521 until 1529, when the city formally turned Protestant. At that point he went to Freiburg, a Catholic city in Germany. During the last decade of his life, however, controversy continued to swirl around him.

At the beginning of the Reformation, Erasmus had given Luther limited support, but he also voiced disapproval of Luther's radical language. When Erasmus saw that the changes proposed by Luther and other reformers would lead to a split in the church, he distanced himself from the movement. Although he preferred to stay on the sidelines, he finally had to defend himself against Catholic charges that he was a Lutheran supporter. In 1524 he wrote De libero arbirio diatribe (Diatribe on free will), in which he quoted biblical passages for and against the concept of free will (humans' ability to choose their own actions). He argued that in cases where Scripture (religious writings) is not clear on the matter, the church should be the final authority. Luther issued a sharp reply in De servo arbitrio (The bondage of the will), stating that humans do not have free will and insisting that this fact is clearly stated in Scripture.

Condemned by the church

Many Catholic theologians thought Erasmus's contribution to the debate came too late, even though he had taken the side of the church. By this time he had already made theologians angry with Praise of Folly, in which he held the church up to ridicule. But he had caused the most controversy with his edition of the New Testament. Although the book was welcomed by humanists, it was attacked by theologians. In the sixteenth century people believed that the Vulgate Bible, the official Latin version, was written by Saint Jerome, in Latin, under divine inspiration (directly from the word of God). Since Erasmus had found errors in the Latin translation, he was charged with blasphemy (insulting God) and accused of giving support to the reformers. From 1523 onward, Erasmus's works were investigated by the Paris theological faculty, whose judgment was considered the final word in religious matters. Numerous passages in his writings were censored. In 1531 the church issued a formal condemnation and Erasmus gave a lengthy apology. Until his death in 1536 he was the focus of attacks from both Catholics and Protestants. Catholics continued to question his faithfulness to the church and Protestants called him a hypocrite for his failure to support Luther.

More supports Christian humanism

The impact of humanism in England was greatly intensified after 1500, partly by Erasmus's first visit. His biblical interests spurred the work of Englishmen who had recently returned from Italy. They had studied Greek intensively and were eager to analyze the New Testament and the writings of the early church fathers. The most prominent English humanist was the statesman Sir Thomas More (1478–1535). He was joined by John Colet (c. 1466–1519), dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral and founder of its famous humanist school, in leading educational reform activities among English churchmen. The movement quickly gained momentum and spread to Cambridge, where Erasmus was periodically a faculty member. The focus on biblical scholarship made London a favored meeting place for Europe's men of letters.

More's life exemplifies the political and spiritual upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. Born into a well-to-do middle-class family in London, More was trained for a career in government at an early age. He studied law at Oxford and came under the influence of Colet, who had been to Italy. Colet had brought back to England the new Italian method of reading ancient texts from a historical perspective. In 1499 More met Erasmus, who increased his interest in humanism. In 1504, while pursuing a legal career, More entered Parliament, the main governing body of Britain. By this time he was active in the Christian humanist movement. In fact, he considered entering the priesthood. He was intrigued by the Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), who had also become more religious as he approached the age of thirty a decade earlier (see "Humanist literature" in Chapter 8). More finally decided that he could fulfill a Christian vocation while remaining a layman. Throughout his life his household was filled with humanist visitors, such as his great friend Erasmus, and provided a model educational community for his children—More corresponded with his daughters in Latin, for instance—and servants.

Writes Utopia

In 1511 More was appointed undersheriff of London. This job involved acting as an adviser at the court of King Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47) and as a negotiator with foreign merchants. Four years later More took his first official trip abroad, to Antwerp in present-day Belgium. When he returned to London he began his greatest work, Utopia, a fiction that he wrote in Latin and modeled on Plato's Republic. Published in 1516, Utopia describes an imaginary land that is free of ostentation (grand displays of wealth), greed, and violence. More's inspiration for the book was the discovery of the Americas.

In the first part of Utopia More recounts his meeting with a sunburned Portuguese mariner named Raphael Hythloday, who has been with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci in the New World. Hythloday is a philosophical traveler, both opinionated and virtuous. As Hythloday, More, and More's friend Peter Giles converse, Hythloday launches into a critique of the ills of European society. Every place he has seen in his voyages seems superior to Europe. He criticizes a legal system that allows a few to amass great wealth, while multitudes endure such poverty that they have to beg or steal to survive.

In the second part of Utopia Hythloday speaks enthusiastically of a republic on an island off the coast of Brazil where, 1,760 years before, a benign conqueror named Utopus established a constitution based on a system intended to make its citizens virtuous and its society secure. Hythloday then goes on to describe in great detail the structure of this society, noting that all the citizens converted to Christianity. By the end of the book, More had given a bleak picture of humanity, and he had portrayed European rulers as being inherently corrupt.

Named lord chancellor

In the meantime, King Henry VIII had invited More to become a councilor in the royal court. More's deep suspicion of rulers and politics made him reluctant to accept the invitation. Nevertheless, he finally agreed to the appointment in 1517, and he went on to build a career in diplomacy, legal service, and finance. More eventually learned that his early doubts about serving Henry had been justified. By 1523 More had risen to the position of speaker of the House of Commons (lower branch of Parliament). Under the direction of the lord chancellor of England, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (c. 1475–1530), he had to promote a highly unpopular war levy, or tax, that was ultimately discontinued. In negotiations with other European countries, More was constantly frustrated by Henry's belligerence and Wolsey's political ambition. More wanted to stop wars so that the Christian faith and culture could be preserved. In 1529 Henry appointed More lord chancellor of England, replacing Wolsey, who had failed to obtain the pope's approval of the annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536; see "England" in Chapter 3). More now occupied the highest administrative office in the land. Yet he soon found himself in a distressing role as Henry's chief agent in dealing with the pope.

Defies the king

While serving as chancellor, More was deeply engaged in writings against Lutherans. In such works as Dialogue Concernynge Heresyes (1529) and Apologye (1533) he defended the Catholic Church, even though he was aware of its flaws. More steadfastly held that heretics—those who violate the laws of the church—should be burned for their blasphemy against God's true church. At the same time, Henry was drawing further away from the church because the pope still refused to grant him a divorce. In 1532 More resigned from office, primarily because of illness and distress over Henry's outright threat to break from the church. Finally, Henry simply announced that the pope had no authority in England. Statutes passed by the Reformation Parliament in 1533 and 1534 named the king supreme head of the church and cut all ties with the papacy. The Anglican Church thus became an independent national body.

More recognized the dangers posed by his pro-Catholic writings, so he tried to avoid political controversy. But Henry pressured him to repudiate the pope's jurisdiction in England. More refused Henry's order because he did not want to contribute to disharmony within the Christian world. In April 1534 More was summoned for interrogation by royal officials. When he did not change his position he was put on trial for treason and found guilty. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535. Although More is most often remembered as the man who defied Henry VIII, the significance of his life extends beyond the realm of English history. During the turbulent years of the early Reformation, he worked to revitalize Christianity within the church through his active involvement in humanism. In 1935 he was canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church. More's Utopia is still being read today as a classic work on the ideal society.


The leading humanists in Renaissance France were Guillaume Budé and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples. Budé was a strong advocate of French "genius" and often criticized the royal court for its excessive admiration of Italian culture. Lefèvre d'Étaples tried to bring reform to the Catholic Church through the study of the classic works of early Christianity.

Guillaume Budé

Guillaume Budé (1467–1540) served as secretary to King Louis XII (1462–1515; ruled 1498–1515). In 1508 Budé published the first extensive humanist study of the Digest by Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I (483–565; ruled 527–65). The Digest was the most important part of Corpus iuris civilis (Body of civil law), Justinian's compilation of Roman law. Budé applied new humanist philological methods (study of language as used in literature) to solve the problem of contradictory passages that had long been debated by medieval scholars. He revealed that Tribonian (died 545), Justinian's chief legal minister, had made errors. In his next work, De asse (On the Roman penny; c. 1515), Budé studied ancient money systems and units of measure. This field was a major concern of humanists who wanted to reconstruct the life and society of Greece and Rome. Budé's project involved the innovative use of Roman coins as sources of historical information.

Budé's works were filled with glowing praise for France and the French king, whom he compared with Roman emperors. When Francis I took the throne in 1515, Budé encouraged the king to become an active patron of humanist projects. In 1530 Francis created the Royal Lectureships, which were professorships in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and mathematics. The Royal Lectureships led directly to the founding of the College of France. Budé was also rewarded with several royal appointments. His last major work was De transitu Hellenismi ad Christianismum (The passage from Hellenism to Christianity; 1535), an attempt to distance humanism from Protestantism. Although Budé had been a critic of the excesses and corrupt practices of the Catholic clergy, he staunchly opposed Luther and other reformers. He rebuked many of his fellow humanists for giving Greek and Roman philosophy a status equal or superior to that of the Christian faith. At the same time, he viewed classical mythology, classical Latin, humanism, and philology as being compatible with Christian theology.

Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples

Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples (also known as Jacobus Faber Stapulensis; c. 1455–1536) began his career as a professor in the Collège du Cardinal Lemoine in the University of Paris. In 1508 he joined a monastery (religious house for men), the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which was headed by abbot Guillaume Briçonnet (c. 1472–1534). Lefèvre d'Étaples found the religious life of the monks to be lacking in spirituality, and he felt they did not know how to pray with devotion. They were using a popular version of the Book of Psalms from the Old Testament, which had been issued a century and a half earlier by Nicolaus of Lyra (c. 1270–1349). Nicolaus had given a literal interpretation of the psalms, and Lefèvre d'Étaples claimed this was the reason for the absence of spirituality in the monks. In 1509 he published Quincuplex psalterium (Five-fold psalter). In this work he contrasted five versions of the Book of Psalms, providing brief statements of the spiritual meaning of each psalm.

Briçonnet was named bishop of the diocese (church district) of Meaux, and in 1521 he put Lefèvre d'Étaples in charge of reforming the clergy and the laity (unordained members of a church) in the region. Lefèvre d'Étaples was part of a group of scholars involved in publishing works aimed at educating the secular clergy (unordained members of religious orders) and lay members of the church. Another goal was to engage parish priests once again in their roles as spiritual leaders. In 1522 Lefèvre d'Étaples published a French translation of the Gospels, the books of the New Testament that contain the teachings of Jesus Christ. Two years later he translated the Catholic Epistles, which comprise the New Testament books James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Jude. Lefèvre d'Étaples had published a French New Testament in 1523, and in 1530 he followed it with a translation of the entire Bible.

The reform efforts were successful, but the Franciscans (members of the order of Saint Francis) in Meaux became upset. They had previously been fulfilling the roles now being taken over by parish priests. At the urging of the Franciscans, the faculty of theology at the University of Paris accused Lefèvre d'Étaples and his colleagues of supporting the Lutherans and thus committing heresy. Their reform activities and their insistence on making scripture available in the French language seemed similar to Luther's work in Germany. Lefèvre d'Étaples' group was split up because of the charges brought against them. Lefèvre d'Étaples fled to the protection of the queen, Margaret of Navarre, in Nérac (see "Margaret of Navarre" section later in this chapter). Although the reform movement had royal support, it was never able to complete its work in Meaux or extend its influence throughout France.


The leading humanist in Spain was Juan Luis Vives, a friend of Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, and Guillaume Budé. Vives became a prominent humanist in Europe, contributing ideas on educational and social reform that influenced modern-day thinking.

Juan Luis Vives

Juan Luis Vives (1492–1540) was born into a prominent merchant family in the Jewish community of Valencia. His parents and relatives on both sides of the family had been persecuted by the Inquisition because they were Jews. After a long trial in 1525, his father was executed by burning, and his mother's remains were exhumed (dug up) and burned in 1528. Vives left Spain at age seventeen and never returned. In 1509 he entered the University of Paris, where he studied for three years. Although he did not complete his degree, he gained respect as a humanist while serving in various positions in Bruges, Belgium, and Louvain, France. In 1519 he was granted permission to deliver public lectures without holding an academic appointment at the University of Louvain. The following year he published the anti-scholastic work In pseudodialecticos (Against the pseudodialecticians), which brought him to the attention of Thomas More and initiated his career as a leading European humanist.

At the request of Erasmus, Vives wrote a commentary on Augustine's De civitate Dei (The city of God). Augustine (354–430) was an early champion of Christianity; Vives's commentary on his work was published in 1522 and dedicated to King Henry VIII of England. In this work Vives made comments on such Christian beliefs as the Immaculate Conception (the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus without having had sexual intercourse) and predestination (the fate of all humans is determined by God before birth). He also criticized the gluttony and lustfulness of the clergy and popes. Vives's royal patrons and other scholars did not respond favorably to his ideas. Nevertheless, in 1523 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the chancellor of England, appointed Vives to a lectureship at Corpus Christi College at Oxford University and supported educational reforms that Vives initiated at the college. For the next five years he divided his time between England and the Low Countries.

In 1526 Vives wrote De subventione pauperum (On aid to the poor), a proposal that war refugees throughout Europe be treated like native citizens. Vives eventually lost his position at Oxford and fell out of favor with the king for taking controversial positions. First, he advocated European unity against the threat of the troops of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman (c. 1494– 1566, ruled 1520–66; see "Ottoman Empire" in Chapter 1). Then he tried to intervene on behalf of Queen Catherine of Aragon when King Henry VIII was seeking a divorce from her (see "England" in Chapter 3). In 1528 he was banned from England.

Introduces modern ideas

Vives returned to Bruges in 1529. Although he had to sever his ties with England, two of his most important works on education were connected with his earlier visits to that country. The first was De institutione feminae Christianae (Education of the Christian woman), which he wrote in 1523 and dedicated to Catherine of Aragon. The other, also written in 1523, was De ratione studii puerilis epsitolae duae (On the right method of instruction of children). It was a guide for the education of Princess Mary, the future Queen Mary I (1515–1558; ruled 1553–58) of England. In De institutione feminae Christianae Vives advocated an ascetic, or spiritually disciplined, life for women, but he also argued that education was compatible with female virtue. This work was so successful that in 1528 he wrote a sequel on the duties of the husband, De officio mariti. Vives's other educational works supported methods of education devoted to social and moral reform. They were widely translated and used in schools throughout Europe.

Historians note that Vives's interpretation of Christian charity was far ahead of its time. During his final years he continued to contribute to the discussion of moral and social improvement. In 1529 he wrote De concordia et discordia in humano genere (Peace and conflict in human society). With this work Vives intended to inspire Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to meet the challenge of moral as well as political leadership. Two years later Vives published De disciplinis libri xx (Twenty books on education), which offered not only a revolutionary program of education but also a plan for reforming corrupt human culture. The last book published during his lifetime, De anima et vita libra tres (Three books on the soul and on life; 1538), contributed to the development of modern concepts of psychology. Vives based his ideas on observation and experience rather than the works of Aristotle, which were central to the scholastics' view of human behavior.


During the Renaissance, literature throughout Europe was directly influenced by the humanist emphasis on reviving ancient and traditional literary forms, exploring human creativity, and writing in native languages. Humanism had also produced widespread scrutiny of traditional values, especially scholasticism and the role of religion in people's everyday lives. In France this influence took the form of scathing satires of scholastic traditions, invention of the essay, and refinement of the Italian novella. In England, drama and poetry reached a level of refinement never before witnessed in Western (that is, non-Asian) literary history. Spain was the birthplace of the modern novel and a Spanish novelist provided one of the most memorable characters in world literature.

Writers in most European countries were immensely prolific, producing works in every imaginable literary form. It is therefore impossible to give a complete overview of Renaissance literature. Instead, the sections below focus on a few figures in France, England, and Spain, countries where the major literary contributions were made during the Renaissance period.


The comic writer François Rabelais and the essayist Michel de Montaigne have traditionally been considered the most important writers in France during the sixteenth century, the height of the Renaissance era. In the twentieth century, however, Margaret of Navarre was given equal status with these authors because she perfected the novella.

François Rabelais

The French humanist, physician, and author François Rabelais (pronounced rah-bleh; c. 1494–c.1553) is acclaimed as a comic genius. He published several works, but he is best known for Gargantua and Pantagruel. There are gaps in information about Rabelais's life. It is known that he came from the province of Touraine, where he may have had a scholastic education. This type of education would explain the disdain for overly learned, self-important scholars that he expressed in his writings. During the 1530s and 1540s Rabelais made three trips to Rome, where he absorbed humanist ideas. In 1532, after receiving a medical degree in Montpellier, he settled in Lyons as a physician at the hospital Hôtel-Dieu. Shortly thereafter he began his career as a writer.

Publishes Gargantua and Pantagruel

Gargantua and Pantagruel consists of a collection of four books released separately, and out of sequence, over a period of twenty years (1532–52); a fifth book was published in two parts (1562 and 1564) after Rabelais's death. Scholars are still disputing whether he wrote book five, as it was published under the pseudonym (pen name) Master Alcofibras, which contains the letters of Rabelais's name.

Rabelais based Pantagruel (book two) on a popular collection of fanciful tales of giants set against a background of the Arthurian legend (medieval stories about the legendary English hero King Arthur). These tales were called Les grands et insetimables chroniques du géant Gargantua (Chronicles of Gargantua). Rabelais presented his own work as a sequel to the tales. He depicted the birth, education, and adventures of Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, both of whom are giants. Two other characters play prominent roles in the stories. In Gargantua (book one), Friar Jean represents a new type of monk, a worldly and dynamic one, who tills the earth and performs heroic feats against the army attacking his vineyards (grape vines). In Pantagruel, Panurge is a comic prankster who becomes Pantagruel's companion. The author was also influenced by classical writers of a literary form called Menippean satire, which is a loose collection of parodies (comic imitations) of intellectual and religious figures.

Influences other writers

Rabelais wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel during the religious and intellectual turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. He rejected rigid ideologies, which he attacked with outrageous scenes and excessive language. Rabelais drew his words from both the highest and lowest elements of his world. He also gave conflicting points of view. For instance, in Gargantua the narrator presents himself as a wise philosopher and then as a carnival barker selling his wares. Rabelais calls for an excess of eating and drinking, and he incessantly mocks the seriousness of clerics, intellectuals, and ideologues (those who adhere to rigid ideals) of every variety. An example is an English scholar who appears and seeks a debate in which only hand signals can be used since words cannot express the mysteries of truth. Panurge responds with a series of mostly obscene gestures that mock this learned fool.

Although Paris theologians routinely condemned Gargantua and Pantagruel, the work was an immediate popular success. Scholars note that it most certainly influenced Don Quixote, the novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes (see "Spain" section later in this chapter). Rabelais also had an impact on modern writers, and the adjective "Rabelaisian" has come to mean any text that is characterized by extravagant and coarse humor.

Michel de Montaigne

The French author Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) created a new literary genre (form), the essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general.

Montaigne was born into a noble family in Périgord near Bordeaux. His father, Pierre Eyquem, was a Bordeaux merchant and municipal official whose grandfather was the first nobleman of the line. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes (Lopez), was descended from Spanish Jews, called Marranos, who had converted to Catholicism. He was educated at the Collège de Guyenne, in Bordeaux. In 1557 Montaigne obtained the position of councilor in the Bordeaux Parliament (the law-making body), where he met his closest friend, Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563). The two men shared many interests, especially a passion for classical antiquity. La Boétie died from dysentery (infectious disease causing extreme diarrhea) in 1563. The loss of his friend was a serious emotional blow that Montaigne later described in his essay "On Friendship." Two years later he married Françoise de la Chassaigne, daughter of a co-councilor in the Bordeaux Parliament. Montaigne and his wife were apparently compatible but the marriage was sometimes cool—he believed that marriage ranked somewhat lower than friendship.

In 1568 Montaigne's father died, and Montaigne inherited the rank of lord. Before his death, Pierre Montaigne had persuaded his son to translate into French the Book of Creatures or Natural Theology by the fifteenth-century Spanish theologian Raymond of Sabunde (died 1436). The work was an apologia—an apology for, or defense of, the Christian religion based on proofs from the natural world. From his work on this translation, which he published in 1569, Montaigne later developed the longest of his many essays, "The Apology for Raymond Sebond." In this essay, Montaigne presented his philosophy of skepticism (attitude of doubt), attacked human knowledge as presumptuous and arrogant, and suggested that self-knowledge could result only from awareness of ignorance.

"What do I know?"

In 1570 Montaigne resigned from the Bordeaux Parliament and retired to his country estate, where he began writing Essais, or Essays. Ten years later books One and Two were published in Bordeaux. In Essais Montaigne used self-portrayal as a method for reaching conclusions about human experience in general. He was not a systematic thinker, however, and he did not maintain a single point of view. Instead, he preferred to show the randomness of his own thought as representative of the self-contradiction to which all people are prone. Montaigne's characteristic motto was "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?"). Although he was skeptical about the power of human reason, he argued that each person should have self-knowledge in order to live happily.

Since Montaigne believed that "each man bears the complete stamp of the human condition," his essays can also be seen as portraits of humankind in all its diversity. He constantly attacked the presumption, arrogance, and pride of human beings, yet he held the highest view of human dignity. As a skeptic, Montaigne opposed intolerance and fanaticism, saying that truth is never one-sided. He championed individual freedom but held that even repressive laws should be obeyed. He feared violence and anarchy (lawlessness, or political disorder) and was suspicious of any radical proposals that might jeopardize the existing order. Acceptance and detachment were for him the keys to happiness.

From 1580 until 1584 Montaigne served as mayor of Bordeaux, and he indirectly defended his regime in the essay "Of Husbanding Your Will." He was in failing health during his last years, so his young admirer Marie de Gournay (1565–1645), worked on the expanded edition of his works. Drawing mainly from annotations made by Montaigne, Gournay published the edition in 1595, three years after his death. It was the basis of the 1603 English-language edition by John Florio, which was a source for Shakespeare's play Tempest (see "William Shakespeare" section later in this chapter) as well as the works of other playwrights.

Margaret of Navarre

Margaret of Navarre (1492–1549), duchess of Angoulême, was the sister of King Francis I of France. She became an important political and social figure when Francis took the throne in 1515. In 1527, two years after the death of her first husband, Margaret married Henry II, king of Navarre (1503–1555; ruled 1517–55). Interested in philosophical and religious matters, she was familiar with the works of Italian poets Dante (1265–1321) and Petrarch (1304–1374; see "Poetry" in Chapter 8) and with the Bible. She set the intellectual and cultural tone at court, especially in the 1530s and early 1540s. An early supporter of reform in the French church, she remained outwardly obedient to Catholicism. At the same time, however, she protected leading humanist reformers such as Guillaume Briçonnet and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples (see "Humanism" section previously in this chapter), who were suspected of Lutheran leanings.

A prolific writer, Margaret produced many works, though few were published during her lifetime. In 1531 she published the long poem Le miroir de l'âme pécheresse (Mirror of the sinful soul), which was followed two years later by Dialogue en forme de vision nocturne (Dialogue in the form of a nocturnal vision). These works were condemned by the theology faculty of the Sorbonne because of Margaret's reformist views concerning grace, faith, and free will. In 1547 she published a collection of her poetry under the title of Les marguerites de la marguerite des princesses (Pearls from the pearl of princesses ["marguerite" means pearl]).

Writes Heptaméron

Margaret's most famous work, which was incomplete at her death, is the Heptaméron. The book is a collection of novellas (a form, originating in Italy, of short fictitious stories) modeled on the Decameron by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375; see "Giovanni Boccaccio" box in "Humanism" in Chapter 8). The narrative centers on ten aristocrats—five men and five women—who are stranded by a flood. They tell stories while waiting for a bridge to be built. After each story, they comment on the tale just told, drawing from it moral lessons that usually present contradictions and have no neat conclusions. Complex relationships are established among the speakers. They focus on the difficulties of meeting the demands of a worldly life while trying to live according to the Christian message of charity. Because of the frank and stark depiction of sexual desire, many sixteenth-century readers were perplexed by the book and tended to view it as a collection of indecent tales. Late-twentieth-century scholars reevaluated the Heptaméron, however, stressing its complex narrative and the prominence of women in the tales. The Heptaméron is now ranked alongside the books of François Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne as one of the greatest prose works of the French Renaissance.


Three great figures emerged during the English Renaissance—the playwrights William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and the poet Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare and Jonson wrote some of the most brilliant dramas in Western literature. (Although plays were created for performance, they are now considered part of the literary tradition.) Spenser invented new poetic forms that influenced the work of later poets.

William Shakespeare

The playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of English writers and one of the most extraordinary creators in human history. Shakespeare's career coincided with the height of the English Renaissance, and his plays were immensely popular. Theater in London was just coming into its own, and audiences from a wide range of social classes were eager to reward his talents. He devoted his entire life to the public theater, creating works alongside other great playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Most of Shakespeare's plays are still read and performed throughout the world today.

Perfects dramatic forms

Shakespeare came from the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. Although no documents survive from his school years, his literary work shows that he attended the Stratford grammar school. At age eighteen he married Ann Hathaway, with whom he had three children. Shakespeare began his career in London by writing comedies and historical dramas called "chronicles." In the early comedies—including The Comedy of Errors (c. 1590), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1591), and Love's Labour's Lost (1593)—he showed his talent for using intricate plots, dazzling language, and a wide range of characters. His first chronicle plays were Henry VI (1592) and Richard III (1594). These dramas dealt with the tumultuous events of English history between the death of King Henry V in 1422 and the accession of Henry VII in 1485. At the time they marked the most ambitious attempt in English theater to present epic drama. Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1593), reveals similar ambition. Although the play may seem to be a chamber of horrors—the plot is full of mutilations and murders—Shakespeare succeeded in outdoing other English playwrights in the lurid tradition of the revenge play. For twenty more years he continued to master and perfect all of these forms—comedy, history, and tragedy—as one of the most productive and brilliant playwrights in history.

By 1594 Shakespeare was established as a prominent playwright. In that year he became principal writer for the successful Lord Chamberlain's Men, one of the two leading companies of actors in London. In addition to performing as a regular actor in the company, he was a "sharer," or partner, in the group of artist-managers who ran the entire operation. The Lord Chamberlain's Men performed in unroofed but elaborate theaters. Required by law to be set outside the city limits, these theaters were the pride of London. They were among the first places shown to visiting foreigners and seated up to three thousand people. The actors played on a huge platform stage equipped with additional playing levels and surrounded on three sides by the audience. The absence of scenery made possible a flow of scenes comparable to that of modern-day movies. Music, costumes, and ingenious stage machinery created successful illusions under the afternoon sun. In 1599 the company had the Globe Theater built on the south bank of the Thames River.

Shakespeare's sonnets

During much of 1593 and 1594 English theaters were closed down because of an epidemic known as the plague (a widespread outbreak of disease). Shakespeare therefore turned to writing nondramatic poetry to make a living. Again he excelled in his chosen craft by producing two masterpieces, the serious-comic Venus and Adonis and the tragic Rape of Lucrece, for a wealthy patron, the earl of Southampton. Both poems carry the sophisticated techniques of Elizabethan narrative verse to their highest point, drawing on Renaissance mythological and symbolic traditions. Shakespeare's most famous poems were his 154 sonnets (published in 1609). They are considered the supreme English examples of the sonnet form, which was in vogue in Europe during the Renaissance. Shakespeare used the fourteen-line sonnet with its fixed rhyme scheme to express emotions and ideas ranging from the frivolous to the tragic. The sonnets are dedicated to "Mr. W. H.," whose identity remains a mystery. Scholars also cannot determine whether there was a real-life "dark lady," or an unfaithful friend, who are the subjects of a number of the poems.

For the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare produced a steady outpouring of plays. Among them were the comedies The Taming of the Shrew (1594), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595), The Merchant of Venice (1596), Much Ado about Nothing (1598), and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599). In the year 1600 alone he wrote As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is often described as the perfect comedy. Shakespeare's only tragedies of the period are among his most familiar plays: Romeo and Juliet (1596), Julius Caesar (1599), and Hamlet (1601). Continuing his interest in the chronicle, Shakespeare wrote King John (1596), Richard II (1595), the two-part Henry IV (1597), and Henry V (1599). At the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign he wrote works that are often called his "problem plays." All's Well That Ends Well (1602) is a romantic comedy that presents sexual relations between men and women in a harsh light. Troilus and Cressida (1602) is a sardonic and disillusioned piece on the Trojan War. The tragicomic Measure for Measure (1604) suggests that modern urban hopelessness was settling on London.

Writes great tragedies

When King James I took the throne in 1603, he became the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The flag of the King's Men now flew over the Globe. During the next five years Shakespeare wrote fewer but perhaps even finer plays: Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), Antony and Cleopatra (1607–08), Coriolanus (1607–08). Each in its own way is a drama of alienation, works that continue to be relevant to the lives of people in the twenty-first century. These tragedies present an astonishing series of worlds different from one another, in language that exceeds anything Shakespeare had done before. He also created some of his most complex and vivid characters and used a variety of new structural techniques.

A final group of plays took a turn in a new direction. Commonly called the "romances," Pericles (1607), Cymbeline (1609), The Winter's Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1611) were tragicomedies, a form that had been growing increasingly popular since the early years of the century. Shakespeare turned this fashionable mode into high art. The Winter's Tale is considered one of his best plays, while The Tempest is perhaps the most popular. After completing The Tempest, Shakespeare retired to Stratford. In 1613 he returned to London to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. He died in 1616, at age fifty-two. Shakespeare's reputation grew quickly, and his work has continued to seem to each generation like its own most precious discovery. His value to his own age is suggested by the fact that, in 1623, two fellow actors gathered his plays together and published them in the Folio edition. Without their efforts, since Shakespeare was apparently not interested in publication, many of the plays would not have survived.

Ben Jonson

The English playwright and poet Ben Jonson (1572–1637) is best known for his satiric comedies. An immensely learned man with an irritable and domineering personality, he was, next to Shakespeare, the greatest dramatic genius of the English Renaissance.

Jonson was probably born in or near London and received his formal education at Westminster School. He did not continue his schooling, probably because his stepfather forced him to engage in the more practical business of bricklaying. Nevertheless, Jonson continued to study the classics throughout his active life. He began his theatrical career as a strolling player in the provinces. By 1597 he was in London and had begun writing plays. His first piece of dramatic writing, The Isle of Dogs, was judged to be indecent, seditious (inciting resistance to the government), and slanderous (making false charges against someone). Jonson was imprisoned for this offense. In 1598 he was in more serious trouble. He narrowly escaped being hanged after he killed a fellow actor in a duel (formal combat fought by two persons with guns).

Christopher Marlowe

The English dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) died tragically at age twenty-seven. Scholars speculate that if he had lived longer he would certainly have rivaled the dramatic genius of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Marlowe was the first English playwright to make significant advances in tragic drama. Marlowe's best-known tragedies are Tamburlaine the Great (printed 1590), The Jew of Malta (printed 1633) and Doctor Faustus. In each of these plays he focused on a single character who dominates the action with his extraordinary strength of will. Shakespeare later perfected this form in his famous tragedies.

Marlowe was killed in a tavern fight on May 30, 1593. He was dining in the town of Deptford with a man named Ingram Frizer and two other men. In the course of an argument over the tavern bill, Marlowe wounded Frizer with a dagger. Frizer then seized the same dagger and stabbed Marlowe over the right eye. According to the coroner's inquest, Marlowe died instantly. Despite the unusual wealth of detail surrounding this fatal episode, there has been much speculation about the affair. It has been suggested, for example, that the deed was politically motivated and that Frizer (who was subsequently judged to have acted in self-defense) was simply acting as an agent for a more prominent person.

Reveals dramatic genius

In the same year, Jonson's first major work, Every Man in His Humour, was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with Shakespeare taking the lead role. Called a "comedy of humors," the play features characters whose behavior is dictated by a dominating whim or affectation. It was followed by Every Man out of His Humour (1599 or 1600), Cynthia's Revels (1601), and Poetaster (1601). These three "comical satires" represent Jonson's contribution to the so-called war of the theaters—a short-lived feud between rival theatrical companies. Jonson then wrote one of his most important works, the tragedy Sejanus His Fall (1603), which was admired by intellectuals but considered boring by average playgoers.

By 1604, before he had written his most famous works, Jonson had become known as the foremost writer of masques, a popular form of theatrical entertainment, in England. He continued writing masques throughout his career, frequently in cooperation with the famous architect Inigo Jones (see "Architecture" section later in this chapter), who designed the stage sets and machinery. Jonson's dramatic genius was fully revealed for the first time in Volpone, or the Fox (1606), a satiric comedy that contains the playwright's harshest and most unrelenting criticism of human vice. All the principal figures are named (in Italian) after animals suggestive of their characters: for example, Volpone, the cunning fox, and Voltore, the ravenous vulture. The main action turns on Volpone's clever scheme to cheat those who are as greedy as he but not nearly so clever. Volpone is too clever for his own good, however, and the punishment imposed on him is unusually severe for a comedy.

Career declines

The satire of Jonson's next three comedies is less harsh. Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609) is an elaborate intrigue built around a farcical character with an insane hatred of noise. In The Alchemist (1610) the characters are activated more by vice than folly—particularly the vices of hypocrisy and greed. Their punishment consists largely in their humiliating self-exposure. Bartholomew Fair (1614) has a relatively thin plot featuring a rich and varied collection of unusual characters. After BartholomewFair Jonson's dramatic powers suffered a decline. Nonetheless, he remained an impressive and respected figure, especially in literary and intellectual circles. He was also idolized by a group of younger poets and playwrights who styled themselves as the "tribe of Ben."

Jonson's nondramatic writings included a grammar (rules for using language) of the English language (1640), a collection of notes and reflections titled Timber, or Discoveries (1640), and a large number of poems. After the death of King James I in 1625, Jonson suffered a number of setbacks. His talents as a masque writer were not fully appreciated by the new king, so he was less in demand and frequently short of money. After becoming paralyzed in 1628, Jonson was confined to his home in Westminster. When he died nine years later, he was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.

Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599) ranks as the foremost English poet of the sixteenth century. His best-known work was the unfinished epic poem The Faerie Queene.

Spenser was working as a government official when he began writing poetry. In 1579 he met Philip Sidney, the poet and courtier. Spenser had written a considerable quantity of poetry by this time, but he had published nothing. Upon the advice of friends he decided to make his literary debut with The Shepherd's Calendar (1579), which he dedicated to Sidney. In this work he adopted a variety of poetic forms—dirges, complaints, paeans—and attempted to enrich the English poetic vocabulary with foreign terms and archaic and dialect words. Spenser continued writing poetry while studying law. In 1580 he was named secretary to Arthur Grey de Wilton (1536–1593), the new lord deputy of Ireland. Spenser moved to Ireland, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1588 he settled at a castle in County Cork, where he remained for the rest of his life, except for trips to London.

Publishes The Fairie Queene

For some years Spenser had been working on The Faerie Queene. He had completed three books in 1589, when the English courtier Walter Raleigh paid him a visit. Raleigh was so impressed with this work that he took Spenser with him back to England. Early the next year the first three books of The Faerie Queene were published, with an elaborate dedication to Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser's ambition was to write the great English epic. His plan was to compose twelve books, each concerned with one of the twelve moral virtues as classified by Aristotle. In turn, each of these virtues was to be embodied in a knight. Thus the poem would combine elements of the romance of chivalry, the handbook of manners and morals, and the national epic.

Spenser's style is distinctively his own in The Fairie Queene. For his verse form he created the Spenserian stanza, which has since been often imitated in English literature. Composed of nine lines, the Spenserian stanza contains eight lines of iambic pentameter (five units, called feet, consisting of one short, or unstressed, syllable followed by one long, or stressed, syllable) and concludes with a line of iambic hexameter (six metrical feet) called the Alexandrine. The Faerie Queene met with much acclaim. Although he enjoyed great success in London, he returned to Ireland. He wanted a government post in England, but in courtly circles he was considered a minor figure.

Philip Sidney

The English poet Philip Sidney (1554–1586) is sometimes ranked with William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser as one of the great figures of English Renaissance literature. Sidney is best known for three major works—The Defense of Poetry, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (known as Arcadia), and Astrophil and Stella.

The Defense of Poetry (1595) is a statement of Renaissance ideals that Sidney wrote in the form of an autobiographical essay. By poetry he meant imaginative literature, which he claimed has the power to bring about moral improvement in the reader. In this work Sidney reviewed the course of English poetry and challenged his peers to write English literature that emulates the achievements of the Greek and Roman poets.

Arcadia (1590) is considered the first English novel. It is written in the form of letters and stories within stories, from various points of view. The narrative includes plot devices that became common in English fiction: near drowning at sea, near rape of the lead female character, crowd scenes, court-of-law scenes, and royal court scenes. All are colored by a female sensibility. Sidney wrote Arcadia for his sister, Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke (1561–1621). Mary Sidney was herself an accomplished writer and literary patron, who supervised the publication of Arcadia.

In Astrophil and Stella (1591), a series of sonnets, Sidney tells the story of Astrophil, a brilliant young man who pursues an adulterous affair with Stella, an unhappily married woman. The real-life model for Stella was possibly Penelope Rich, whose father wanted her to marry Sidney. Although Sidney married Francis Walsingham, some scholars suggest that he was in love with Rich. Astrophil and Stella is a psychological study of the vanity of human wishes and the joys of poetic ambition, all capped with a visit to the tortuous world of melancholy love.

In 1595 Spenser published a collection of poems dedicated to the memory of Sidney. It contains "Colin Clout's Come Home Again," which he dedicated to Raleigh. Considered one of Spenser's most charming poems, "Colin Clout" tells the story of the poet's reception in London and his impressions (mostly negative) of court life. The collection also includes the first elegy (poem expressing sorrow), "Astrophel." A year earlier Spenser had married Elizabeth Boyle, an Anglo-Irish woman from a well-connected family. His sonnet series "Amoretti" and the love poem "Epithalamion" give a poetic account of his courtship and marriage. "Epithalamion" is regarded as one of the greatest love poems in English. In this poem a lover's passion blends with a deeply religious spirit, combining both classical myth and medieval legend. During a trip to London in 1595 Spenser published three more books of The Faerie Queene. He also worked on View of the Present State of Ireland (published 1633). In this prose tract he proposed a program for subjugating (governing and controlling) the Irish people and then establishing an English form of government in the country.

After returning to Ireland in 1597 Spenser continued writing The Faerie Queene. Two more cantos (parts) of a seventh book were published in 1609, but most of what he wrote in these years has been lost. In October 1598 Spenser was named sheriff of Cork. Shortly after he took office, Tyrone's Rebellion, a revolt against English rule in Ireland, broke out in Munster. Spenser's castle was burned, and the poet was forced to flee with his wife and four young children. In December the provincial governor sent Spenser to London as a messenger to Elizabeth I. Weakened by the hardships of the preceding months, Spenser died in London the following January. He was buried near other poets in Westminster Abbey.


Spain was somewhat culturally isolated from mainstream Renaissance literature, yet the author Miguel de Cervantes produced Don Quixote, one of the great masterpieces of world literature, during this period. This work was largely responsible for creating the modern novel, a fictional story that depicts the motivations and actions of several characters in complex plots. One of Cervantes's contemporaries, the prolific playwright Lope de Vega, introduced the concept of "new theater" to Spain.

Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (known as Cervantes; 1547–1616) was a native of Alcalá de Henares, Spain. He lived at the end of the glorious years of the Spanish empire and his own experiences paralleled those he described in Don Quixote. Moving to Italy in 1570, Cervantes served in the Spanish army in Naples. At that time Spain had the most powerful army in the world. Some of its bases were located in Italy for better access to the Mediterranean Sea, where Spain could fight the Ottoman Empire, which posed a major threat to European countries. The following year he fought heroically and was wounded at the Battle of Lepanto, a naval conflict in which an alliance of European nations defeated the Ottoman Empire. Cervantes remained in Italy until 1575, when he boarded a ship headed for Spain. Off the coast of France the ship was seized by Turks, and Cervantes and several other passengers were taken captive. They were held in Algeria until 1580. Cervantes's military service in Italy and his subsequent years of captivity did not win him any privileges upon his return to Spain. Throughout his life he existed on the margins of society in a continuous struggle for economic survival.

In 1585 Cervantes wrote his first novel, La Galatea, which gave him some prestige but not much financial relief. Two years later he was appointed commissary (officer in charge of supplies) for the Spanish Armada, a fleet of heavily armored ships built to defeat the British navy. The Armada expedition ended in catastrophe in 1588, when it was defeated by the British during a dramatic battle in the English Channel (see "Spain" in Chapter 3). Spain then fell upon hard times. When municipalities and local churches refused to pay support for the Armada, Cervantes was accused of mismanagement. He was held in Spanish prisons in 1592 and 1597. It was probably during his last imprisonment that he conceived the idea of writing Don Quixote. In the 1590s Cervantes wrote a collection of stories titled The Exemplary Novels (published 1612). In the prologue (introduction) he declared himself the first person ever to write novellas in Spanish. In one story, "El Licenciado Vidriera" ("The Glass Licentiate"), the main character is much like the madman Cervantes later portrayed in Don Quixote: a scholar who becomes insane and believes that he is made out of brittle glass. His temporary insanity gives him remarkable understanding of the problems of his society.

Achieves fame

In 1605 Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote. It was an immediate success and established him, at age fifty-eight, as an important writer. The novel contains a number of the popular literary styles and subjects of the time, such as the romantic novel focusing on tales of chivalry, and such subjects as religion and faith. (Chivalry was a medieval tradition that required knights, or nobleman soldiers, to pledge themselves to a complex code of honor. Knights frequently dedicated their military adventures to ladies, whose virtue they vowed to protect.) Cervantes intended to mock the popular chivalric romances and the adventure stories of traveling knights. He created the character of Don Quixote, an elderly gentleman who becomes insane due to his excessive passion for reading chivalric romances. Don Quixote leaves his home, having decided to revive heroic times by reenacting knightly feats. Later, with the promise of fabulous rewards, he convinces the poor peasant, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, or shield bearer. The novel narrates in a descriptive and majestic manner the absurd adventures of knight and squire as they travel through Spain. Using a satiric approach, Cervantes depicted characters who reflected their society, thus making a commentary on the social customs of the day. The book was an immediate success and was edited several times in subsequent years. It was translated into English as early as 1612 and appeared in French and other European languages.

The popularity of Don Quixote was so extraordinary that in 1614 a man named Avellaneda attempted to write a sequel without the permission of Cervantes. This unauthorized work so enraged Cervantes that he decided to write the second part of Don Quixote, which was published in 1615. The continuation is considered to be as good as, if not better than, the first installment. The second part is more reflective and possesses greater structural unity. At the conclusion Don Quixote dies after recovering his sanity, much to the distress of a transformed Sancho who is eager to engage in more adventures. With Don Quixote's death Cervantes ended the possibility of further adventures for his character.

Fails as playwright

In addition to writing novels, Cervantes tried to become a playwright. At that time in Madrid, theater-going had become a popular form of entertainment, much like going to the movies today. There were several open-air theaters in the city, and people were eager to see new plays. Cervantes decided to try his fortune in the thriving market of comedies. He wrote several plays, but only two have survived from this period: El cerco de Numancia and El trato de Argel (The traffic of Algiers). The public's favorite playwright, and Cervantes's main rival, was Lope de Vega. Cervantes eventually failed as a writer of plays, but he did not abandon the theater entirely. In 1615, at a bookseller's request, he collected some of his plays and published them under the title of Ocho comedies y ocho entremeses (Eight plays and eight interludes). The plays were published in the three-act come-dia form, with the interludes (short plays between acts of longer plays) in the traditional form of farce (obvious humor). These plays were never performed in Cervantes's lifetime.

Don Quixote influences literature

Don Quixote has been translated into more languages than many works of Western literature. The literary influence of the novel has been immense. Direct traces can be identified in the work of countless other authors of various nationalities. In addition, thinkers and philosophers have dedicated essays to the myth of Don Quixote. Such twentieth-century musical productions as The Man of La Mancha, as well as several movies, have been inspired by Don Quixote. Modern artists like the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) have immortalized the image of the errant knight escorted by his faithful squire.

Cervantes's achievements as a novelist did not guarantee him the economic security that best-selling works bring their authors today. In the seventeenth century writers lost the rights to their work after selling it to a merchant. Therefore, Cervantes had no access to the profits made from his books. Before he died in 1616, he was trying to finish what would be his last novel, Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda (The Labors of Persiles and Segismunda). The book was published by his widow after his death. Cervantes was proud of this novel and thought its success would exceed that of Don Quixote. Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda was not well received, however, and Cervantes's fame rests on his creation of the traveling knight and his faithful squire.

Lope de Vega

The Spanish playwright, poet, and novelist Lope Félix de Vega Carpio (known as Lope de Vega; 1562–1635) was an immensely productive writer. He produced so many works—reportedly eighteen-hundred-plays alone—that he was called "monstruo de la naturaleza" (prodigious monster of nature) and "fénix de los ingenios" (intellectual phoenix; a phoenix is a mythical bird that rose to life again after being burned). Lope wrote in nearly all the literary genres of his time—sonnet, ballad, epic, Byzantine (pertaining to the Byzantine Empire) and pastoral (rural) romance, Italian-style novella, and prose fiction mixed with poetry. Today he is known mainly as a playwright.

The son of a master embroiderer, Lope was a child prodigy (unusually talented child or youth) who composed verses before he could write. He was able to read Latin as well as Castilian (form of Spanish spoken in the Castile province) by age five, and he claimed he wrote his first play when he was twelve. In 1588 Lope was banished for eight years from Madrid and for two years from the entire kingdom of Castile. He was being punished for malicious libel against the family of Elena Osorio, a married woman with whom he had an affair. This incident was the basis for numerous sonnets and ballads featuring Elena.

Introduces "new theater"

Lope spent his exile in the province of Valencia, where he became acquainted with dramatists. Upon his return to Madrid he introduced several theatrical innovations that challenged current practices based on classical Greek and Roman forms. He later described these innovations in Arte nuevo de hacer come-dias en este reino (New art of playwriting in this kingdom; 1609). For instance, he advocated using comedy in serious dramatic works, and he reduced the number of acts from the traditional four to three. He also used different rhyme schemes to make the language of a play more lively and interesting. Lope drew his plots from history, legend, mythology, and religion. Introducing subplots involving lower-class characters, he developed the comic figure of the gracioso, who was usually a witty servant. Other popular features of his plays were the figures of the peasant protagonist, or hero, and the mujer varonil, a woman dressed as a man. Lope was recognized for his role in transforming Spanish theater into the popular comedia nueva (new theater) that drew crowds to open-air patios adapted for theatrical use in Madrid.

Lope wrote many kinds of theatrical works. Among them are "peasant honor" plays and capa y espada (cloak-and-sword) plays. A typical peasant honor play is Fuenteovejuna (The sheep-well; 1612–14), which is based on an actual fourteenth-century uprising of peasants against a tyrannical overlord. Lope set the plot in the fifteenth century and justified the peasants' actions by making them loyal to Ferdinand of Aragon (1452–1516) and Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504). At the time the Spanish monarchs were symbols of stability against rebellious nobles. In another of Lope's peasant play, Los comendadores de Córdoba (The commanders of Córdoba), an outraged husband kills his wife when he learns she has had an affair. He then kills all of the servants and even the animals in his household who might have witnessed his dishonor. Lope's capa y espada plays ridiculed the customs, taboos (forbidden behavior), and prejudices of Spanish society of his day. For instance, La vengadora se las mujeres (The avenger of women; 1621) features a dama docta (learned woman) who protests the injustice of historical accounts written by men. She is determined to write her own defense of women's virtue.

Many of Lope's plays have been translated into English, as has La Dorotea (1632), a dramatic dialogue narrating his youthful affair with Elena Osorio. In 1627 Lope wrote the poem La corona trágica (The tragic crown) about the life of Mary Stuart. Mary was the Catholic queen of Scotland who was beheaded by order of her cousin Elizabeth I, the Protestant queen of England. This poem earned Lope the title of doctor of theology and the Order of Saint John. Thereafter he signed his works Fra Lope de Vega.("Fra" is a term for a priest.) Thirteen years earlier Lope had in fact been ordained a Roman Catholic priest, perhaps in response to the death of his second wife. He did not observe the rules of celibacy, however, and continued to have love affairs. Lope's humble family origins and his ability to write with great ease were criticized by his more learned rivals. Some of them could claim a noble heritage, but none could challenge his theatrical and literary success. His death in 1635 was the occasion of public mourning.

Northern Renaissance art

Art flourished in northern Europe, especially in Germany and the Low Countries, in the fifteenth century. Italian Renaissance theories of art had begun to influence painting, sculpture, and architecture around the mid-1400s. In each country Renaissance concepts were adapted to existing art forms to produce distinctive versions of Renaissance classicism.

More than ever before art was available as well as affordable. For instance, a simple woodcut cost only pennies. Wealthy merchants filled churches with altarpieces, statues, stained-glass windows, and tombs. They decorated their homes with portraits, goldsmith wares, and small collectible objects. Most of the art was religious, reflecting a society in which religious images indicated personal religious devotion as well as heavenly and earthly aspirations: a patron might commission an altarpiece as a sign of his desire for salvation and as a reminder to fellow citizens of his prominent social or financial status. Unlike Italy, there were no great cultural centers to which large numbers of artists gravitated. Most artists in northern Europe, therefore, created their works in a certain town or region, rather than moving from one artistic haven to another. Only a few of the biggest towns were able to attract a group of artists who received commissions from patrons in other countries.

The Protestant Reformation dealt a severe blow to Renaissance art, and many artists' careers were damaged. Protestants objected to the presence of statues of saints and other religious figures in churches because, they said, the artwork detracted from direct communication with God. Many charged that the statues themselves were being worshiped as a replacement for God. These complaints resulted in widespread destruction of religious art throughout northern Europe in the 1520s and 1530s. Even in Catholic regions, the demand for religious art waned dramatically. Since moving was not an option for most artists, many failed to adapt to the changing times. Others branched out into portraiture, notably in the form of small medals, or specializations such as landscapes, small-scale reliefs, and statuettes.


Innovations in painting emerged primarily in Germany and the Low Countries and then spread to other parts of northern Europe. An early pioneer was the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck (c. 1390–1441), who rediscovered the ancient art of oil painting practiced by Apelles (fourth century b.c.), court artist of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.; ruled 336–323 b.c.). Although mixing pigments in an oil base was not new to the fifteenth century, van Eyck was the first to use thin pigmented oil glazes and varnishes in all of his works. He created an enamel-like surface by applying several layers of thin oil glaze. Brush strokes can hardly be seen in van Eyck's paintings, and colors are so luminous and clear that the passage of five hundred years has not dimmed them. His techniques had a direct impact on painters working in the mid-1400s.

Van Eyck perfects oil painting

Van Eyck's paintings display astounding visual beauty and virtuosity. Neither microscope nor telescope—both inventions of a later age—can match the precision with which van Eyck captured the individual hairs of a fur collar, the texture of an Oriental carpet, or the minute reflection on the polished surface of a single pearl. An example is the rich attention to detail in the Madonna with Canon George van der Paolo. At the same time, he enjoyed depicting things seen at great distances. The faraway cityscapes and country vistas glimpsed through the windows and archways of van Eyck's richly appointed interiors are, upon close inspection, actually comprised of a multitude of individual elements—each paving stone, flower, and tree is painted with as much care as if it were meant to be placed in the foreground before our very eyes. An example is the background vista of the Madonna with Chancellor Nicolas Rolin. Van Eyck also focused upon human subjects. His painted portraits combine realistic detail with what eventually became the accepted formula for Netherlandish portraits. Each sitter appears in three-quarter facial view against a blank background, eyes gazing outward and directly engaging those of the viewer. The result is an eerie sense that the face in the portrait is communicating wordlessly with the living viewer. An example is Man in a Red Turban (1433), which some art historians consider to be a self-portrait of the artist.

Dürer introduces Renaissance

The German painter and graphic artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) introduced the achievements of the Italian Renaissance into northern European art. His influence was greater than that of any other northern artist of his time and was most widely felt through his woodcuts and engravings.

The young Dürer received training as an engraver in his father's workshop in Nuremberg. He executed his first self-portrait, a drawing in silver-point, at the age of thirteen. After serving an apprenticeship with a local painter and woodcut illustrator, Dürer traveled in the Low Countries, then worked as a woodcut designer in Basel, Switzerland. In 1494 he journeyed to Venice, Padua, and Mantua, where he copied works by the leading contemporary Italian masters. While in Italy, Dürer became interested in the art of the ancients. He also gained an appreciation of art theory, to which he later devoted much of his time. Dürer's travels opened his eyes not only to the marvels of ancient art but also to the variety to be found in nature, which he captured in landscape drawings and watercolors of Alpine views.

In 1498 Dürer published a series of fifteen woodcuts, titled Apocalypse, which was based on the fantastic images described in the Book of Revelation. It is considered the highest achievement in German woodcut art. Dürer's self-portrait of 1498 marked the turning point of his art. He represented himself as a humanist scholar and an elegant young man, asserting that the artist is a member of the cultural elite instead of being merely a craftsman. This new concept of the artist was widely accepted in Italy (see Painting" in Chapter 8), but it had not yet reached northern Europe.

Dürer revealed humanist influences in other works. He used perspective (artistic technique of depicting an object from a single point of view) in the Paumgartner Altarpiece (1504), and his portraits, such as Oswolt Krell (1499), were characterized by sharp psychological insight. He depicted mythological and allegorical subjects in engravings on metal, such as the Dream of the Doctor (after 1497) and Sea Monster (c. 1498). He also used that technique for one of his most popular prints, the Prodigal Son (c. 1496); this work is based on a biblical story, but Dürer represented the hero in a new way. Dürer chose to depict neither the prodigal son's sinful life nor the happy ending of his return to his father, but instead captured the moment when the son becomes aware of his sinful life and begins his repentance. The print Nemesis (1502) shows Dürer's knowledge of human anatomy and his interest in humanistic allegory


During the fifteenth century the Rhineland and southern Germany were the foremost centers for the early printing and publishing industry. The industry was based on the technology of printmaking, which involved reproducing text and images from woodcuts and engravings.

Woodcuts could be created with a minimum of technological expertise. To make a woodcut, an image was drawn onto a flat plank of fairly hard wood, such as pearwood. The wood was cut away from the sides of the lines, leaving the image in relief (raised above the surface). Ink was then applied onto the woodcut, which was then pressed onto a piece of paper. Woodcuts were probably being printed on paper by 1400. The great majority of early woodcuts depicted a saint or a religious scene, often accompanied by a prayer. After the invention of movable type in the mid-1400s, woodcuts were used for illustrating books that were produced on the printing press. By 1500 illustrated books were issued in great numbers north of the Alps (a mountain range between France and Italy). In the 1490s Albrecht Dürer singlehandedly raised the woodcut to the level of high art.

An engraving is made by cutting lines into a metal plate (usually copper). The cutting tool, called a burin, creates grooves of varying width and depth depending on the pressure applied to it. Ink is spread onto the plate, and the surface is then wiped clean. A dampened piece of paper is put on top of the plate. Next the paper is covered with a piece of felt or blanket, and the two are run through a roller press, resulting in the transfer of the ink in the plate's grooves to the paper. A much more complex technology was needed to manufacture a flat, smooth metal plate than to prepare a plank of wood. For that reason the production of engravings was more expensive, so it was usually confined to a local area. Engraving seems to have begun in the upper region of the Rhine River valley, near Lake Constance. Again it was Dürer who brought the Renaissance to the north by using engravings to reproduce fine art.

(story featuring characters with symbolic significance), which appears in several of his prints of that period.

Dürer went to Venice again in 1505, and the paintings being produced in the city at that time strongly influenced his work. In 1506 he painted Feast of the Rose Garlands for the church of the German merchants in Venice, San Bartolomeo. After returning to Nuremberg the artist painted several large altarpieces (works hung above altars in churches) that combined colorful Italian features with the traditional northern style. Among them are Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508) and Adoration of the Trinity (1511), which show little figures in vast landscapes. Dürer then left painting and returned to print-making. Perhaps his most important works of the period from 1513 to 1520 were his engravings, which show the influence of his friendships with distinguished German humanists. The three so-called Master Engravings—Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), St. Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melencolia I (1514)—represent the height of Dürer's engraving style and also express his thoughts on life, man, and art. These engravings are allegories of the three kinds of virtue associated with the three realms of human activity—action, contemplation, and intellectual pursuit. The active realm is depicted in Knight; the contemplative, in St. Jerome; and the intellectual, in Melencolia I.

Dürer gave equal attention to the world around him. Throughout his life he drew and engraved simple motifs studied from life, as in the dramatic drawing of his aging mother, who is emaciated and ill (1514). Until 1519 Dürer worked for Emperor Maximilian I. He was involved in various allegorical and decorative projects, most of them prints, such as Triumphal Arch and Triumphal Procession of Maximilian I. Dürer also did some miniatures, such as drawings in the Maximilian I Prayer Book (1515).

In 1520 Dürer left Nuremberg for Antwerp, Belgium, to collect his yearly salary from Charles V, the new Holy Roman Emperor. This trip was a triumph for the artist and proved that he was held in high esteem. In his travel journal Dürer left a daily record of his stay in Antwerp and of his visits to various Dutch, Belgian, and German towns. He met princes, rich merchants, and great artists. He drew portraits, landscapes, town-scapes, and curiosities in his sketchbook. He met Erasmus, whom he admired and of whom he made a portrait drawing; in 1526 he made an engraving of this drawing.

During the final decade of his life Dürer supported the reform ideas of Martin Luther. Dürer's last great work was a two-panel painting, often called Four Apostles (1526). The monumental, sculpture-like figures represent Saints John and Peter (left panel) and Saints Mark and Paul (right panel). The paintings were probably intended as the wings of a triptych (three-panel artwork), but Dürer did not paint the central panel. He gave Four Apostles to the Town Council of Nuremberg. In the panels he included quotations from the writings of the saints, which contained accusations against "false prophets." Dürer's work proclaimed the unity of the new Protestant faith against the different sects arising at that time. In 1525 Dürer published a book on perspective Instruction in Measurement, and his treatise on fortifications appeared in 1527. He died in 1528, a few months before the publication of The FourBooks on Proportions, his last and most important theoretical work.

Hans Holbein is popular portraitist

The German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497–1543) was one of the best-known portraitists of the northern Renaissance. He still ranks among the great portrait painters in European art history.

A native of Augsburg, Holbein was the son of Hans Holbein the Elder (c. 1465–1524). The elder Holbein was noted for his silver-point (drawn with a pencil of silver) portrait drawings that showed mastery of the art of characterization. The younger Holbein's natural gift for drawing and for satire was recognized by Erasmus while the artist was still a teen-aged journeyman in the publishing capital of Basel, Switzerland. Erasmus's heir, Bonifacius Amerbach, was instrumental in collecting Holbein's early paintings and drawings in the Basel Museum. Among these works is Christ in the Tomb, a depiction of the dead Jesus of Nazareth as a stiffened and sightless cadaver. The image was so shocking that many critics accused Holbein of being an atheist (one who does not believe in God). There is virtually no evidence as to what Holbein's religious views may or may not have been, though some point to the mocking tone of his Dance of Death wood-cut series as an indication of his feelings about religion. In one scene Death attacks a mendicant (begging) friar who tries to save his money-box, and in another Death snuffs out a nun's candle as she is entertained by her secret lover. Modern scholars have noted that this famous series is the last of a long line of medieval depictions of Death as the unwelcome force that robs every class and profession of its status symbols.

Although Holbein designed weapons, jewelry, tableware, biblical illustrations, and mantelpieces, and painted several murals, he is best known as a portrait artist. He is particularly famous as court painter for King Henry VIII of England. He painted portraits of Henry; works depicting two of the king's wives, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves; and a portrait of Princess Christina of Denmark, to whom Henry unsuccessfully proposed. Holbein also did portrait paintings, drawings, and miniatures of various members of the court, including the French ambassador and his house guest, the Bishop of Lavour. Painted in 1533 and titled The Ambassadors, the double portrait includes the haunting image of a skull that serves as a contrast to youth, intellect, and good health. Other portrait subjects were the humanist Thomas More and young German merchants of the Hansa (trading organization) headquarters, or of the "Steelyard" in London.

Holbein's portraits were cherished by their owners. Yet before the advent of color photography in the twentieth century, when copies of his works were widely reproduced, he was relatively unknown. Holbein was not honored in Germany primarily because he moved first to Switzerland and later to England. Beginning in the twentieth century, however, exhibitions of the painter's works were held in Europe and the United States.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Dutch painter and engraving designer Pieter Bruegel the Elder (pronounced BROO-gehl; c. 1525–1569) is considered one of the foremost late northern Renaissance artists. His works provide insight into humans and their relationship with nature. He lived and worked in Antwerp and Brussels at a time when northern European art was strongly influenced by the late Italian Renaissance style called mannerism, which was characterized by distortion of space and elongation of human forms (see "Painting" in Chapter 8). Yet he chose to develop his own style, often adapting the themes and techniques of earlier artists.

After studying and working with artists in Antwerp, Bruegel traveled extensively in France, Italy, and the Alps in the early 1550s. Returning to Antwerp in 1555, he embarked on a successful career. Bruegel was a remarkably versatile painter. He produced landscapes, religious and allegorical subjects, scenes of peasant festivities, depictions of Flemish proverbs (brief statements of truth), and compositions in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch. Bruegel's career falls into two major phases—the first in Antwerp, the second in Brussels. In Antwerp he produced many designs for the print publisher Hieronymous Cock. Bruegel's earliest known paintings were also done in Antwerp. Among them were Parable of the Sower (1557), Children's Games (1560), and Carnival and Lent (1559). All were inspired by Flemish speech and folk life, but with allegorical content. In Brussels, Bruegel continued producing designs for Cock, but he concentrated on painting.

Bruegel's art represents the culmination of the Flemish realistic tradition, often reviving styles and compositions of earlier generations. In Procession to Calvary (1564), his largest surviving painting, he drew upon a traditional composition, possibly invented by Jan van Eyck, and adapted the holy figures from the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399–1464). Bruegel's interest in Bosch appears in some of his earliest print designs, such as Big Fish Eat the Little Fish and especially Triumph of Death. The latter painting is closest to Bosch in its apocalyptic (expectation of catastrophe) view of human destiny. Bruegel's landscapes range from depictions of the Flemish countryside to grand vistas. Vast space and heroic scale distinguish his two famous paintings of the Tower of Babel, one dated 1563 and the other probably done later. Bruegel's allegorical works are often satires of human folly, presented with a biting wit that reflects his interest in humanist themes (see "Humanism" section previously in this chapter). His peasant scenes also contain acute observations of the human form and psychology. Among the best-known are Wedding Dance (1566), Peasant Dance, and Peasant Wedding.

Hieronymous Bosch

Hieronymous Bosch (Jheronimus or Jeroen van Aken; 1450–1516) was a Dutch painter who developed a distinctive, often disturbing style. Although Bosch depicted traditional subjects—folk tales, stories about Christ, images of saints—his paintings are filled with bizarre plants and animals, distorted human figures, and amusing cartoon-like creatures. Paying close attention to small details, he used brilliant colors that gave a nightmarish, grotesque effect to his pictures. One of his best-known works, Garden of Earthly Delights, seems to be an elaborate morality tale (story with a lesson on good and evil) about the punishment of sinners, yet art scholars have been unable to agree on an exact interpretation of the painting. After Bosch died, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and other artists made copies of his paintings and produced new works that imitated his style. Some modern scholars believe Bosch's art was an expression of his disturbed mental state, while others think it was inspired by witchcraft or alchemy (science devoted to turning base metal into gold) and astrology (pre-diction of future events according to the positions of the planets and stars).

Although Bruegel studied in Italy in the early 1550s, he showed little interest in Italian art until he moved to Brussels in 1565. Many of his works from that time on show closer attention to composition and feature larger-scale figures. He was possibly influenced by the Italian painter Raphael (1483–1520; see "Painting" in Chapter 8). Most notable in this regard is Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1567). Some of his later paintings may be comments on the troubled times that led to the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648), the conflict in which the Netherlands sought independence from Spain. Among them are Census at Bethlehem (1566), Parable of the Blind (1568), and Misanthrope (1568). Before his death Bruegel destroyed a number of his satirical drawings to save his wife from persecution. Bruegel's paintings and prints were endlessly copied and imitated. His peasant subjects and landscapes influenced later Netherlandish painters, including the great baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Bruegel's legacy was most directly transmitted through his two painter sons: Pieter the Younger (1564–1638) and Jan (1568–1625).

Foreign artists dominate Spain and Portugal

For most of the Renaissance, painting in Spain and Portugal was dominated by foreign masters—artists from Flanders and Burgundy in the fifteenth century and artists from Italy in the sixteenth century. Bridging these two influences was the Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete (c. 1450–c. 1504). From about 1475 to 1482 Berruguete worked in Italy at the court of Federigo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino (1422–1482), where he created his own distinctive style. The artist's return to his native land in about 1483 marked an important point in the Spanish Renaissance. Working in Ávila and Toledo, Berruguete incorporated Italian and northern European influences into his paintings. Equally important was King Philip II, an avid art collector who was particularly interested in the works of the Italian mannerist Titian (c. 1488–1576; see "Painting" in Chapter 8). Philip covered the walls of his study in the Alcázar, the royal castle at Madrid, with Titian's paintings of nude figures. Beginning in the 1560s, the king erected the famous Escorial, an enormous complex of buildings north of Madrid (see "Architecture" section later in this chapter). To impress the elite in the Italian cultural centers of Florence and Rome, Philip invited a team of Italian painters to decorate the interiors of the rooms. Collaborating with them was the Spanish painter Juan Fernandez de Navarrete (1526–1579), who was called "El Mudo" (the mute). Philip also commissioned the Flemish-trained Spanish painter Alonso Sánchez Coello (c. 1531–1588) to paint formal portraits to hang on the walls. These portraits provided a striking contrast to the exuberant, colorful Italian style of the rooms. Philip's efforts to promote Renaissance culture ensured significant artistic advances in Spain. Yet his commission of a painting by the Greek-born painter El Greco proved to be a disappointment for both the king and the artist.

El Greco displeases king

El Greco (1541–1614) began his career in Venice in the 1560s. Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos (pronounced tay-ohtoh-KOH-poo-los) in Crete, he is said to have been a pupil of Titian. During his stay in Italy he became known as Il Greco ("the Greek") because his name was too difficult to pronounce. Later, in Spain, he was called El Greco. Various reasons have been suggested for El Greco's move to Spain. According to one theory, he could no longer find patrons in Italy and he hoped for commissions to work at the Escorial. He knew Philip had been a patron of Titian, who provided several religious compositions for the Escorial as well as mythological pictures and portraits for Philip's art collection.

In 1577 El Greco moved to Toledo in Castile, where he was awarded a commission to paint the Disrobing of Christ for the city's cathedral. El Greco merged episodes from different accounts of Christ's Passion (death on the cross) in this picture, and he used a vivid, somewhat abstract painting technique (a technique not based in reality). Disrobing of Christ met with much criticism. One complaint was that El Greco had raised the heads of secondary figures above the head of Christ. Refusing to make changes, the painter filed a lawsuit to obtain full payment for his work. Eventually he had to settle for much less money than he had anticipated. The main problem was that El Greco embraced the Italian Renaissance concept of the artist as a creative genius who must be given complete freedom. The Spanish audience deemed such an idea unacceptable.

El Greco finally received a commission from King Philip, who selected him as one of the artists to provide altarpieces for the royal church at the Escorial. In 1582 El Greco completed Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion. (Martyrdom is defined as suffering death for one's religion.) Philip was displeased with this painting, but he kept it, paying El Greco less than he had requested. The king then ordered a new picture of the same subject from the Italian painter Romulo Cincinnato. Scholars have concluded that Philip was disturbed because El Greco had put portraits of contemporary people in an event from early Christian history. He had also placed the martyrdom scene in the distance and to the left, instead of featuring it as the central focus of the picture. As a result of his innovative methods, El Greco succeeded in alienating two of the most powerful patrons in Spain—the Catholic Church and the king himself—in less than five years.

Promotes Catholic Reformation

El Greco returned to Toledo, and by 1585 he had established a successful workshop that produced copies based on his paintings, as well as picture frames and statues. In 1586 he obtained the important commission for The Burial of the Count of Orgaz for a chapel in Santo Tome, Toledo. This monumental picture depicts the moment when the heavens opened, and Saints Augustine and Stephen suddenly appeared in order to lower the corpse of the prominent Toledo citizen Gonzalo de Ruiz into his tomb. The fourteenth-century scene is witnessed by late sixteenth-century Toledan aristocrats and church officials. They watch as Gonzalo's soul is lifted by an angel toward God in heaven, which hovers just above them. Gonzalo was renowned for his gifts to the church. The painting declares that good works are needed to obtain salvation and reveals the power of saints to deliver the soul to God. Both of these doctrines were vigorously disputed by Protestants, who declared that salvation can be gained through faith alone and that saints are false idols. El Greco thus contributed to the Catholic Reformation, which was underway at the time, by asserting the validity of church teachings. He was also known as a great portrait painter with a gift for achieving psychological insights into his subjects. Examples are Gentleman with His Hand on His Breast (1579) and the famous Cardinal Fernando Nino de Guevara (c. 1600).

El Greco was a learned, well-read, and highly inventive artist who advanced Renaissance ideals in Spain. Yet he had no talented followers, and his style fell out of fashion after his death in 1614. By that time the Renaissance period had come to a close, and the baroque movement, with its emphasis on sensuality and expressiveness, was gaining momentum in Europe.


Germany was the major center for the production of sculpture in northern Europe. Sculptors created religious works such as statues, altar-pieces, and tombs to be placed in a growing number of churches. The most popular form of religious art was the altarpiece (a large sculptural work placed above the altar, or the center of worship, in a church). As the number of churches continued to grow, so did the quantity and variety of altarpieces.

Riemenschneider is foremost sculptor

Prior to the Reformation the foremost sculptor in northern Europe was Tilman Riemenschneider (REE-menshnigh-der; c. 1460–1531), a native of Heilgenstadt, Germany. Little is known about his artistic training, except that he moved to Würzburg around 1479 and joined the Guild of Saint Luke four years later. Riemenschneider enjoyed great success as an artist, especially in Würzburg. Between 1501 and 1517 Riemenschneider supervised twelve apprentices (people being trained), producing mainly altarpieces for churches in the region. Riemenschneider controlled all aspects of altarpiece production, so his large workshop included joiners (artisans who join pieces of wood), sculptors, and painters.

Working in both wood and stone, Riemenschnieder carved large altarpieces, tombs, and epitaphs (inscriptions on tombs), and statues. He chose to stain (apply dye or other pigment) his pieces rather than decorate them with bright-colored paint, a process called polychrome, which had been a tradition during the Middle Ages. Many of Riemenschnieder's creations were destroyed or damaged in the Peasants' War (1524–26) and other upheavals. Riemenschnieder's best-known altarpieces are Holy Blood at Saint Jacob's Church in Rothenburg (completed 1505) and Assumption of the Virgin (completed 1510) at the Herrgottskirche in Crenlingen. In both works, which stand about thirty feet (nine meters) high, the artist pierced the back wall of the altarpiece to make effective use of light from nearby windows. For instance, in Holy Blood, light streaming through the windows behind the Last Supper section heightens the moment when Jesus Christ stares at Judas, the disciple who betrayed him. The brighter illumination also enabled Riemenschnieder to draw attention to the apostles' expressions and poses.

Riemenschnieder produced at least ten known altarpieces and possibly eleven others that were done in his style. Riemenschneider was quite influential within the Würzburg diocese until 1525, but the future impact of his work was severely limited by the Protestant Reformation and its political upheaval. Virtually no important sculpture was created in Germany between 1520 and 1555 because the Protestant Reformation brought an end to the Renaissance. Protestant reformers did not approve of most Renaissance art, and they prohibited the display of paintings and sculptures in churches. They claimed that such works detracted from the glorification of God. Martin Luther took a moderate position on religious art, and gradually sculptors began depicting images of him.

France and Spain dominated by Italians

Sculpture in France was dominated by Italians. Among the most influential was Francesco Primaticcio (1504–1570). In 1545 he completed stucco statues of elegant nude figures in the room of Anne de Pisseleu, duchesse d'Estampes (1508–c. 1580) at the royal château Fontainebleau. (For a description of Fontainebleau, see "Architecture" section later in this chapter). Important early French sculptors were Jean Goujon (c. 1510–1568) and Germain Pilon (1535–1590). Goujon made reliefs (raised images on a flat surface) of nymphs for the Fountain of the Innocents, which can now be viewed in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Pilon used images that were characteristic of Italian Renaissance style. For instance, in Gisants (the term for the deceased reclining just after death), which decorated the tomb of King Henry II (1519–1559; ruled 1547–59) and Queen Catherine de Médicis (1519–1589), he depicted idealized likenesses of the French monarchs. This portrayal was a contrast to the late Gothic (early fifteenth century) style, which showed the dead in a state of decay. Italian influences can be seen in the rich sculptural decor of the upper story of French architect Pierre Lescot's Louvre Court (see "Architecture" section later in this chapter).

As in France, Spanish sculpture was dominated by foreign masters for most of the Renaissance. During the fifteenth century masters came mainly from Flanders and Burgundy. When Spanish artists began returning from Italy in the sixteenth century, Italian influences became stronger. Sculptors worked closely with architects in designing columns, doorjambs, and window frames, and especially the retablo, an ornamental high altar that is the most distinctive Iberian (the Spanish and Portuguese peoples) feature of church architecture. The Spanish sculptors Bartolomé Ordoñez (died 1520) and Diego de Siloé (c. 1495–1563) first collaborated in the early 1500s in Naples, which was ruled by Spain at the time. They created the decorative details for the church of San Giovanni a Carbonara, which was completed in 1516. Siloé and Ordoñez then took their innovative style back to Spain. From 1517 to 1520 Ordoñez produced the spectacular tombs of the Capilla Real, the royal chapel in the Cathedral of Granada. He also created monuments for Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella I of Castile, Philip I (1478–1506), and Joan I (1479–1555). The free-standing figures in these works reflect the influence of the great Italian sculptor Michelangelo (see "Sculpture" in Chapter 8). Siloé and Juan de Juni (c. 1507–1577) continued using Italian techniques for the rest of the century. Alonso Berruguete (1488–1561) worked as both a painter and a sculptor in the elaborate and highly expressive mannerist (late Renaissance) style introduced by Italian artists (see "Renaissance art" in Chapter 8). He had adopted these techniques during his visit to Italy from about 1504 to 1518, when he met Michelangelo and the art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574).


The French château was the major contribution to northern Euorpean architecture during the Renaissance. A château is a large country house, or mansion, that was the residence of the royalty and the nobility. Many châteaux had been built as fortified castles in the Gothic style from the twelfth century into the sixteenth century. During the reign of King Louis XIIthe châteaux of Blois, Amboise, and Gallion were remodeled. Under King Francis I more châteaux, both royal and noble, were built—Chambord, Azay-le-Rideay, Écouen, and Madrid (now destroyed)—and Blois was further renovated. Chambord, which was completed in 1540, was built on the plan of a medieval castle, with an elaborate roof that features dormers (projecting windows on sloping roofs), towers, and turrets (small towers).

King Francis imports Italian Renaissance

Francis's most famous project was the expansion and renovation of the cháteau of Fontainebleau, located outside of Paris. Starting in 1528, the king attempted to use Fontainebleau as a way to bring the Italian Renaissance into France. He was motivated by his defeat in a crucial phase of the Italian Wars (1494–1559), a conflict between France and Spain over control of Italy (see "Italian Wars dominate Renaissance" in Chapter 2). Francis had had some initial successes in the war, but in 1525 he lost the Battle of Pavia in Italy and was taken captive. After being imprisoned in Spain for about a year, he returned to Paris and decided to "conquer" Italy by bringing its culture into France. He had already made a start earlier, in 1517, when he persuaded the great Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) to retire to France (see "Painting" in Chapter 8). The king also had agents in Italy collecting books, medals, antiquities, modern paintings and sculptures, and reproductions of numerous pieces of antique sculpture.

Francis was given an opportunity to promote his cultural campaign in 1527, when the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked, or raided, Rome. Italian artists, who had been part of the flourishing culture of Rome, no longer had jobs, and they were quite willing to travel to France. Francis therefore set out to incorporate Italian style into French culture by employing Italian artists for the Fontainebleau project. Many of the workers were also French and Flemish. The Italian artists brought with them the highly ornamental mannerist style, which was then popular in Italy. It was easily adapted to the flamboyant Gothic features of Fontainebleau. The most influential artists were the painters Giovanni Battista di Jacopo Rosso (known as Il Rosso Fiorentino) and Francesco Primaticcio. They were responsible for decorating the apartments of Fontainebleau with frescoes (wall paintings made by applying paint over a thin layer of damp lime plaster).

Fontainebleau promotes king's image

The most notable accomplishment at Fontainebleau was the Galerie François I, which was completed in the 1530s by numerous artists working under Rosso's direction. It is considered one of the finest works of mannerist art outside Italy. The gallery was decorated with large narrative frescoes and other details such as fresco medallions and friezes, stucco reliefs (raised images on a flat background), and woodwork. The frescoes depict mythological stories and allegories (symbolic stories) featuring Francis himself in both violent action and solemn rituals. For the gallery Rosso invented stucco "strapwork," a curving, leather-like ornamental detail. Strapwork had a strong influence on art when engravers made copies of Rosso's designs and distributed prints throughout northern Europe.

The abundant ornamentation of Fontainebleau promoted Francis's image of himself as a powerful and cultured monarch. This abundance was also evident in Primaticcio's stucco decorations for the chamber of the duchess of Étampes, the king's mistress (a woman who has a sexual relationship with a married man). The chamber is decorated with delicate female forms, fruits, and putti (figures of small children). Primaticcio used similar decorations elsewhere at Fontainebleau, including the Galerie d'Ulysse, the ballroom, and the baths—most of which have been destroyed. The use of stucco by both Rosso and Primaticcio had an influence on Italian interior design.

French classicism emerges

Gradually, French architecture began to incorporate Italian classical features such as columns, arcaded loggias (open porches called galleries with roofs supported by arches), and squared windows and doorways. This led to the style called French classical. In the 1540s the Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554) visited Fontainebleau and developed a new kind of column. Spaced at intervals along the length of the column were rusticated (roughened) stone rings, a style that was widely imitated in France. Other characteristics of the French style were experiments with staircases and with ornamental brickwork.

The height of sixteenth-century French classicism was reached with the remodeling of the Cour Carrée (square court) château during the reign of King Henry II. The building was renamed the Louvre, which is now a museum and the remodeling was designed by the French architect Pierre Lescot (c. 1515–1578). Lescot expanded the original structure by adding new wings (extensions) that had classical features as well as typical French slate-covered roofing. He also used a pitched roof, large windows, double-columned pavilions, and abundant decorative detail. These became standard design elements in later châteaux.

Along with Lescot, France's most important architect of the period was Philibert de l'Orme (also known as Delorme; c. 1515–1570). His most famous work was the château of Anet, which is still standing today. Anet was built for Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566), mistress of Henry II, after she fell from favor upon the king's death in 1559. De l'Orme is also known for his writings on architecture, Nouvelles inventions pour bien bastir à petits frais (New inventions for building well at little cost; 1561) and Architecture (1567). In these works he sought to develop a French style of architecture based on classical theories and practical building techniques.

Spain and Portugal introduce new styles

The first Renaissance buildings appeared on the Iberian Peninsula in the late fifteenth century. Many Spanish buildings were constructed in a style called plasteresco. Plasteresco combined Gothic features, such as spires, decorated window frames, and pointed arches, with Renaissance classical details, such as portals (entry-ways) with columns and rounded arches. Examples are the Medinaceli Palace in Cogolludo (completed 1409), the Palacio de Cogolludo, and the University of Salamanca (completed 1494). In Portugal the architect Diogo Boytac (died before 1528) developed the style known as "Manuelino," named for King Manuel I (1469–1521; ruled 1495–1521). Like Spanish architecture, Manuelino combined decorative Gothic elements with simple Renaissance classical lines. A distinctive feature of Portuguese Renaissance architecture was the use of ornamental tiles known as azulejos to decorate facades, floors, and fountains. Two spectacular sixteenth-century tiled buildings can still be seen today. They are the Quinta de Bacalhoa at Azeitão (1565) and the church of São Roque by Francisco de Matos (1584) at Coimbra.

The Retablo

The Iberian Renaissance was characterized by a close relationship between architecture and sculpture. This union can be seen in the most distinctively Iberian feature of church architecture, the retablo, or ornamental high altar. Originating in the Middle Ages, the retablo was a huge construction that often included paintings, sculpture, and architecture depicting up to sixty sacred scenes. By the time of the Renaissance, retablos could extend all the way from floor to ceiling and had become extremely ornate, covered with intricate carvings and loaded with paintings and statues. As tastes shifted from elaborate Gothic detail to simpler Renaissance forms, retablos were adapted to the plasteresco style. The most beautiful examples, both in Spain and Portugal, were plasteresco altars created for cathedrals. Even though these high altars were considerably less ornate, they still provided a riot of decoration. An example was the retablo of San Lorenzo at the Escorial, which was constructed according to a severely proper design by the great Spanish architect Juan de Herrera. It features brilliantly colored paintings by Italian artists, gilded statues, and colored marble columns. The popularity of the retablo tempted painters like El Greco to try their hand at sculpture with trained stonecarvers and metalsmiths.

Herrera completes Escorial

The most famous architect of sixteenth-century Spain was Juan de Herrera (c. 1530–1597). He had no formal training, but he probably acquired practical knowledge of architecture while serving in the army in the mid-1550s. Herrera began his architectural career as an assistant to Juan Bautista de Toledo (died 1567). Toledo was the architect who designed San Lorenzo el Real del Escorial (called the Escorial) for King Philip II. The Escorial contained a mausoleum (building that houses tombs) for the Habsburgs (Philip's family line), a monastery and church, and a royal residence. Soon after Toledo's death in 1463, Herrera took over construction of the Escorial, which he completed in 1584. Herrera's main contribution to the project was the church, the Basilica of San Lorenzo el Real.

Herrera was involved in a number of other architectural projects. Among them were the royal palaces at Aranjuez, the Alcázar in Toledo, and the palace of Emperor Charles V in the Alhambra at Granada. He also created designs for the rebuilding of the cathedral at Valladolid, considered one of his greatest achievements. In addition, he was involved in designing town halls in Toledo and Valladolid, and he planned the Merchant's Exchange in Seville. He constructed water systems for the Escorial and Valladolid, built bridges, and worked as a city planner. Herrera was a true Renaissance man, excelling in numerous professions—architecture, engineering, writing, philosophy, and mathematics. He gained favor with King Philip, with whom he shared a preference for architecture that eliminated ornament and emphasized simple geometry. Nevertheless, Herrera's designs had little influence in other countries because Spanish architecture was still culturally isolated from the rest of Europe.

Jones brings Renaissance to England

English architecture was strongly influenced by the designer Inigo Jones (1573–1652). Considered the first professional architect in England, he was responsible for introducing Italian Renaissance architecture into the country. During a stay in Italy in the early 1600s he observed the buildings of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), one of the major architects of the late Renaissance (see "Architecture" in Chapter 8). A series of villas (country houses) built in Italy during the 1550s and 1560s represent the model that is associated with Palladio. All of these villas have a vaulted sala, or central hall, that can be square, rectangular, or in the shape of a cross or the letter "T." A row of rooms lines each side of the sala, and the facade (front) has a Greco-Roman temple portico (a portico is a type of porch, in this case designed in a Roman style influenced by the Greeks). Palladio's theories and designs had a profound effect on Jones. In 1615 King James I appointed Jones surveyor of the king's works, which was essentially chief architect to the king. Jones also held this position under Charles I until 1642, when the outbreak of the civil war between the Puritans and supporters of the monarchy disrupted court life. During the reigns of both monarchs Jones also designed and produced elaborate theatrical festivals called court masques. The masques allowed him to use his imagination in ways that were not possible with his sober architectural designs.

Jones designed many architectural projects, some of them vast in scale. Only seven buildings actually executed from his designs remain, and most of them have been altered or restored. The earliest of Jones's surviving buildings is the Queen's House at Greenwich, a project he undertook for Queen Anne, wife of James I, in 1616. The lower floor was completed at the time the Queen died in 1619. Work then stopped but was resumed in 1630 for Queen Henrietta Maria, Charles I's wife, and was completed in 1635. The building is marked by a symmetrical plan, simplicity of classical detail, harmonious proportions, and severe purity of line. All of these elements reflect Italian Renaissance influences and at the time represented significant architectural innovation to the English.

Designs Banqueting House

The building now most associated with Jones is the Banqueting House at Whitehall (completed 1622), which was intended to serve as a setting for state functions. The building clearly shows the influence of Palladio. The main facade consists of seven bays (main divisions) and two stories gracefully unified in an elegant, rational pattern of classical columns and pilasters, lightly rusticated stone, and understated carved ornamentation. The interior is simply designed. In 1635 the ceiling was decorated with rich paintings by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, which provide a dramatic contrast to the classical style of the interior.

Jones also developed the design for the Queen's Chapel, Marlborough Gate (completed 1627), the first church structure in England in the classical style. In 1631 Jones became associated with a city planning project in the Covent Garden district of London. He designed Saint Paul's Church, which still exists in a restored condition. It was built in the form of a classical temple with a deep portico and severe Tuscan columns. Between 1634 and 1642 Jones was occupied with extensive restoration of the old Saint Paul's Cathedral (now destroyed). From about 1638 he was also involved in preparing designs for a vast palace planned by Charles I, but it was not built.

In 1642 the conflict between Parliament and the king erupted in open warfare that swept away the elegant court of Charles I. Jones's world disappeared along with it. He undertook his last important work in 1649, when he and his assistant, John Webb (1611–1672), provided designs for the Double-and Single-Cube Rooms at Wilton House. Wilton House was completed in 1652, the year of Jones's death.


During the Renaissance the most popular forms of entertainment among the upper classes were music and the court masque.


Throughout the Renaissance, the Low Countries were the birthplace of many major composers as well as a vast number of lesser-known musicians who wrote works that were performed in the chapels, churches, and cathedrals of Europe, particularly in France and Italy. No single reason can fully explain the large number of composers and musicians originating in the Low Countries, but several factors contributed to it. The Low Countries had choir schools associated with churches and large cathedrals. Comparable institutions were not nearly so prevalent elsewhere in Europe. In these schools choirboys learned the art of singing, and the more talented ones received their first lessons in music composition. Music masters from the Low Countries traveled throughout Europe training musicians and composers. For instance, the great Italian composers Giovanni Palestrina (c. 1525–1594) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) were trained by masters from the Low Countries (see "Music" in Chapter 8). Another important factor was patronage. The dukes of Burgundy and later the Habsburg emperors were important patrons of music who spent large sums of money on singers, composers, instrumentalists, and music books. As the Low Countries grew in prosperity, smaller churches were able to support modest chapels. Towns hired trumpeters and wind bands, and the increasingly larger middle class could afford to promote music through guilds (professional trade and artisan organizations) and confraternities (religious organizations for lay people).

Equally significant was the printing of music. Many of the large cities of the Low Countries had a room called a scriptorium where manuscripts were produced. The most important were such rooms in the court of Margaret of Austria in the Netherlands and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Brussels and Mechlin. The first successful music press in the Low Countries was founded by Tylman Susato (c. 1500–1564) in Antwerp in 1543. Over a period of eighteen years Susato published at least fifty-seven books of music, including chansons (types of French songs), motets (choral music based on sacred texts), masses (music for Catholic worship services), psalms (sacred songs), and dances. During the Reformation the singing of psalms in native languages became important in all Protestant countries. The first Dutch psalter (psalm book) was published in 1540 by Symon Cock in Antwerp. Known as Souterliedekens, these psalms were set to popular tunes, mostly Dutch folk songs but also some French and German folk songs. They were meant for singing at home. Later composers produced polyphonic (music with harmonizing parts) versions of the Souterliedekens.

Composers set trends

Several major composers emerged in the Low Countries during the early Renaissance period. Among them were Johannes Cicona and Guillaume Dufay. Cicona was probably born in the 1370s and was a choirboy in Liège (in present-day Belgium), but he spent most of his adult career in northern Italy. He thus set a precedent followed by many other Renaissance composers who were trained in one country and pursued careers in other countries. Cicona combined aspects of the complex musical styles of fourteenth-century France and Italy. The principal forms at this time were motets, masses, and three types of chansons: ballade, rondeau, and virelai. Dufay was a choirboy at Cambrai (in present-day France) from 1409 until at least 1414, then spent much of his early career in Italy. He served at the papal court and the court of Savoy before returning to Cambrai in 1439. Dufay integrated Cicona's music with three-part works of English composers Leonal Power (died 1445) and John Dustable (c. 1390–1453). Dufay's innovations became the standard in Europe for the rest of the fifteenth century. It was the starting point for other composers, who transformed his style to suit their own purposes. Among them was Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410–1497), who spent part of his career in Antwerp and Moulins before joining the French royal court. He expanded the concept of music by giving nearly equal prominence to each voice in a polyphonic work.

Josquin des Prez (c. 1450–1521) was one of the most important musical figures of the Renaissance. He may have been born in Condé-surl'Escaut in Hainault, where he retired after a career at courts in France and Italy between the late 1470s and 1504. Some of his technical innovations include a closer relationship between words and music and the use of imitation (repetition by one voice of a melody sung by another voice). He and his contemporaries in the Low Countries were sought after in courts and churches throughout Europe. During this generation the mass and motet were of greater interest to composers, and chansons ceased to be limited to the ballade, rondeau, and virelai.

The so-called post-Josquin generation was also dominated by composers from the Low Countries. Adrian Willaert (c. 1490–1562), born in Bruges or Roulaers, spent most of his career in Italy. He worked in Ferrara and then as choirmaster at Saint Mark's in Venice. Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495–1560), a native of Flanders, served at the chapel of Emperor Charles V. Thomas Crecquillon (c. 1480–1557) also worked for the emperor and served in Béthune and Louvain. These composers and their contemporaries continued the innovations of Josquin, particularly his use of imitation and his attention to the relationship between text and music. The madrigal, an Italian vocal music form that first appeared in the 1520s, was dominated for some time by composers from the Low Countries working in Italy.

Although there were several important composers from the Low Countries during the Renaissance, their dominance had essentially passed by the end of the sixteenth century. The most prominent, Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594), was born in Mons, but he spent most of his career in Italy and at the chapel of Charles V. A far more dramatic composer than his Italian contemporary Palestrina, Lasso wrote in every musical form and in a wide variety of styles. He was committed to the idea that music should heighten and convey the meaning of a text.

Orlando di Lasso

Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594) was a Franco-Flemish composer who wrote more than one thousand compositions. Although he did not compose instrumental music, he excelled in all musical forms of his day—motets, masses, magnificats (music based on the song of the Virgin Mary in the book of Luke), madrigals, and songs (short compositions of words and music). The most famous and admired composer in Europe in the late sixteenth century, Lasso was hailed early in his career as "prince of music" and "le divin Orlande" (divine Orlando). He was known for his talent for expressing the meaning of words in music. In fact, his music can be understood only in the context of the words that it so vividly presents. He accomplished this by a variety of means, sometimes through sudden changes in rhythm, melody, or harmony. Lasso rarely experimented with the latest musical trends, so by the end of his life his style was overtaken by newer techniques. Nevertheless, he was the first great composer whose fame was spread by printed music. During his lifetime and soon after his death more than six hundred publications featured his music. That is, between 1555 and 1595 a composition by Lasso appeared in print on the average of once a month in France, Italy, the Low Countries, or the German empire.

Court masque

The masque was a popular form of court entertainment, especially in Italy, France, and England, during the Renaissance. Sovereigns and courtiers wearing masks participated in this dazzling spectacle, which was organized around allegorical or mythological themes. The performance usually took place in the evening and involved music, ballet, and spoken parts. It required fantastic costumes, complex stage machinery, and brilliant stage settings. The masque was customarily performed as part of Christmas festivities, or else staged to mark significant state occasions. Today the masque is most closely associated with the reign of King James I of England and is often called the Jacobean court masque.

The premier English masque designer and producer was Inigo Jones (see "Architecture" section previously in this chapter), who served as surveyor of the king's works during the reigns of both James and Charles I. Between 1605 and 1640 Jones worked on at least twenty-five of these productions. James's queen, Anne of Denmark (1574–1619), was devoted to lavish entertainment and to the masques, and the tradition was continued in the reign of Charles I. Hundreds of Jones's drawings for the costumes and stage designs still exist. None would have been possible without his knowledge of Italian art and draftsmanship.

Scripts for masques were written by playwrights such as Ben Jonson (see "Literature" section previously in this chapter), Thomas Campion (1587–1620), and George Chapman (c. 1559–1634). The script writers faced a complex task. Central to all masques was the entry of disguised courtiers who performed a series of choreographed (composed and arranged) dances. After this formal presentation the courtiers selected members of the audience to participate in social dances, called "revels," that occupied most of the evening. The first step, then, was to construct a narrative that might explain the masquers' arrival. Consequently, the masque "plot" often referred to visitors arriving to pay homage to, or show respect for, the monarch. At the same time, this device had to be appropriate to the particular occasion of the performance or meet the demands of a certain patron. Masques also provided a way of displaying the magnificence of the court to an audience that frequently included foreign ambassadors (representatives of governments). Above all, it was essential that the masque praise the monarch, who was the most important spectator.

An example of a playwright's response to such demands was The Masque of Queens, which Jonson wrote in 1609. For this masque Queen Anne suggested that her entrance be preceded by a "false masque," called an anti-masque. Jonson then provided an antimasque of witches to set against the "good Fame" that was represented by the queen and her ladies. After 1609 the antimasque, usually performed by professional actors, became a permanent part of the masque. Thus masques presented a moral debate by having the antimasque figures of evil, deceit, or trickery symbolize the opposite of the heroic virtues embodied by the principal masquers. For Jonson the masque was a learned, moral, and instructive form of drama. Although not everyone shared his view. To many critics the masque seemed to symbolize the extravagance rather than the magnificence of the court. Nevertheless, the masque made a significant contribution to theater by adopting the latest musical fashions and introducing complex stage machinery and elaborate sets.

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Northern Renaissance Culture