Art in Central Europe

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Art in Central Europe

During the Renaissance, many artists in central Europe looked to Italy for inspiration. They studied examples of Italian painting, sculpture, and architecture to learn about new theories and techniques. This interest and activity helped make the cities of Cracow in Poland, Prague in Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic), and Buda in Hungary centers of Renaissance art and learning. Wealthy patrons*, including royalty, supported the production of art in these and other cities.

Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary (ruled 1458–1490), was one of the earliest patrons of Renaissance culture in central Europe. Corvinus maintained close contacts in Florence, Milan, and other Italian cities throughout his reign. His successor, Vladislav II Jagiello, united Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary both politically and culturally. Vladislav and his brother, Sigismund I, helped spread Renaissance ideas throughout central Europe.

In 1526 Ferdinand I, a member of the Habsburg dynasty, took over as king of Bohemia and Hungary. Under the Habsburgs, royal patronage of the arts expanded dramatically, reaching a peak during the reign of Rudolf II (1572–1611).


Hungary. King Matthias Corvinus helped make the city of Buda (part of present-day Budapest) a center of Renaissance art in the 1400s. His first major artistic project was rebuilding the royal palace. Directed by an Italian architect, the reconstruction included grand courtyards that were enclosed by arcades*. Sculptures of Greek and Roman gods appeared alongside those of the king and his family.

Toward the end of his reign, Corvinus focused on assembling a great library, the Bibliotheca Corvina, which contained nearly 1,000 manuscripts. The collection reflected the king's interest in art and humanism* and included many richly decorated manuscripts produced by Hungarian and Italian artists.

The first church building in Hungary designed entirely in Renaissance style was the Bakócz Chapel in the town of Esztergom. Begun in 1506, the chapel was built of red Hungarian marble and featured circular windows on the upper level and a dome held up by curved triangular supports. Commissioned by Vladislav II Jagiello, the chapel echoed the work of Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In turn, it inspired a series of similar buildings in central Europe, including the Sigismund Chapel in Cracow.

The mid-1500s brought political turmoil to Hungary, including invasions by the Ottoman Empire, based in present-day Turkey. Although part of Hungary fell under Ottoman control, the other areas continued to produce art in the Renaissance style well into the 1600s. In fact, the threat of Turkish attack led the Hungarians to build a number of new castles and to fortify some old ones, often with the help of Italian architects.


Poland. The Polish city of Cracow became one of the most important centers of Renaissance art. Although artists in Cracow, particularly architects and sculptors, employed certain Italian techniques, their work took on a distinctive form of its own. They mixed Renaissance styles with more traditional Gothic* ones. Moreover, most of the painting and decorative arts in Cracow followed styles popular in Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands.

The royal tomb of King Jan Olbracht (1505) was one of the first major works in Cracow to reflect Italian style. The tomb featured a classical* arch and decorations. However, the sculptor carved the figure of the king on the tomb in a style drawn from northern Europe, rather than from Italy. Another important example of Italian style is the Sigismund Chapel in Cracow Cathedral, which incorporated classical motifs* such as a dome, statues, and mythological images. Dedicated to Sigismund I (ruled 1506–1548), the chapel inspired many similar buildings throughout Poland.

In the late 1500s, a burst of artistic activity produced a "second" Renaissance in Poland. It was inspired partly by the work of artists from Venice and Lombardy in northern Italy. Polish architects and sculptors of this period combined ideas from Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands in an innovative way. In addition, Cracow developed a particularly distinctive tradition of miniature painting.


Bohemia. During the late 1400s and early 1500s, artists in Bohemia tended to merge the Gothic and Renaissance styles. Vladislav Jagiello commissioned several buildings for Hradcany Castle in Prague that displayed this tendency. The castle's Ludvik Wing, for example, featured a Gothic vaulted ceiling but Renaissance frames around the windows.

From the mid-1500s, the main artistic patrons in Prague were the Habsburg rulers, such as Ferdinand I, who brought a number of Italian artists to the city. In the 1530s Ferdinand ordered the construction of the Villa Belvedere on the castle hill in Prague. Based on the design of Italian Renaissance country houses, Belvedere had an arcade made up of columns capped by arches. The decorations included carvings of Greek and Roman subjects.

Bohemian artistic culture reached new heights under Habsburg ruler Rudolf II. In 1583 Rudolf set up his court in Prague and invited artists and humanists from throughout Europe to work there. Painters and sculptors at the court studied many of the pieces in Rudolf's outstanding art collection. Rudolf commissioned artists to produce portraits, allegorical* paintings, still lifes*, landscapes, sculpture, and decorative items in gold and ivory. In 1604 one observer described the Prague court as the most important place for an art lover to visit.

(See alsoArchitecture; Art; Austria; Croatia and Dalmatia; Decorative Arts; Prague. )

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* arcade

series of arches resting on columns or pillars

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses; also, artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* motif

theme or subject

* allegorical

referring to a literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities, and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* still life

picture of inanimate objects, such as flowers or fruit

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Art in Central Europe

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