Art of the Renaissance Beyond Florence

From Italy, the Renaissance spread across Europe, revolutionizing art. We travel to Spain and Portugal where overseas plunder is transformed into lacy architecture and ethereal paintings by El Greco. In bustling Germany and Belgium, new technologies enable Durer's mass-produced engravings, Van Eyck's meticulous oil paintings, Brueghel's peasants at play, and the futuristic visions of Bosch.


[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling anywhere that theme takes us. This time, it's the art of Renaissance beyond Italy. From its springboard here in Florence, this cultural explosion spread far and wide from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands and Germany and beyond. Thanks for joining us!

[3] For two centuries — roughly 1400 to 1600 — there was an explosion of art, learning, and culture known as the Renaissance. After centuries of medieval struggles, Europe enjoyed a rebirth — or Renaissance — of the enlightened ways of ancient Greece and Rome. Though born in Florence, all this progress — so much great thinking and art — couldn't be contained.

[4 Montage] We'll see the dramatic revolution in art…and meet the artistic geniuses who made it possible. In the seafaring lands of Spain and Portugal, we'll learn how plunder and trade funded art from lacey Manueline cloisters to the mystical beauty of El Greco. Following the Renaissance north, we marvel at German woodcarvers, the first mass-produced artists, and the lovingly detailed work of masters in Belgium, Flanders, and Holland. Art that offers a vivid slice-of-life peek into their world as well as art that takes us to places we might not want to go. With the money of merchant patrons, new technology in oil paints, and a more modern outlook, the Renaissance revolutionized the way we think about the world and our place in it.

[5] We'll track the spread of the Renaissance from its birthplace in Italy to Portugal and Spain. Then we head north to Germany and the Low Countries.

[6, Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, Florence] Though best known for its art, the Renaissance would change Europe in every way — from politics to economics to religion.

[7] Most of all, it was a whole new attitude toward life, a new optimism and confidence: it was Humanism. Humanism focused not on our sinfulness — as dominated the Middle Ages — but in our essential goodness.

[8, fresco series by Ghirlandaio in Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella church, Florence] People worked hard, making money was respectable, and excellence was rewarded. Real-life people — not just saints and kings — were worthy…worthy of being portrayed realistically in all their human glory…humanism.

[9] The Renaissance was a time of great curiosity, confidence, and bold new ideas. Leonardo, Luther, Machiavelli, Michelangelo…consider these great names and that they were all living around the year 1500…and so was Vasco da Gama, Columbus, and Magellan. There was a collective sense of adventure to reach out and explore. The Renaissance was fueled in part by the riches generated by the growth of overseas trade. It was a time of exploration and conquest…an age known — both ethnocentrically and euphemistically — as "The Age of Discovery."

[10] The Age of Discovery changed Europe forever. As explorers sailed east for the luxury goods of Asia, and west for gold in the Americas, they returned with new plants, animals, and lots of booty — including enslaved people. Soon, exotic luxuries and gold from abroad were decorating Europe's palaces and churches.

[11] This age made the seafaring nations of Spain and Portugal (rather than Italy) the richest countries in Europe, funding another cultural and artistic boom.

[12, Monastery of Jerónimos, 1515, Belém Tower, Lisbon, Portugal] The Age of Discovery began in Portugal — as the ornate architecture of the day recalls. This tower protecting Lisbon's harbor was the last sight sailors saw as they headed out into the unknown, and the first they saw when they returned, bearing plunder, gold, and spices.

[13, Monument to the Discoveries, 1960, Belém, Lisbon] These early explorers were certainly heroic — eyes on the horizon — but, with hands on their swords, they were also cruel conquistadors. They ushered in a time of trade and advancement but also a dark time of exploitation and slavery. Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator holds the ship that made it possible…a caravel.

[14] Tiny Portugal on the Atlantic seaboard eventually emerged as an economic and cultural power with its own distinctive art. This ornate monastery was built by King Manuel as a thanks to God for the wealth that poured in.

[15] Manuel financed the construction by taxing spices brought back from Asia. He built all of this on the site of a humble chapel, where seafarers prayed before leaving on their frightening voyages. The style of Manuel's church—Manueline.

[16, church and cloisters at the Monastery of Jerónimos, Belém, Lisbon] This uniquely Portuguese style of art reflects the wealth and diverse culture of the Age. It features motifs from the sea: Interiors are open and airy, with slender columns reminiscent of exotic palm trees. Monsters evoke the mystery of uncharted lands: there's a column of indigenous people…artichokes eaten by sailors to fight scurvy… and the ceiling — a scout handbook of knots — it all trumpets Portugal's nautical know-how. These lacy Manueline cloisters are a testament to the bold entrepreneurial and conquering spirit that launched the Age of Discovery and the affluence and art that resulted…in Portugal and beyond.

[17] The Age of Discovery reached its peak in Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella — the monarchs who commissioned Columbus — ushered in Spain's so-called Golden Age. The massive wealth plundered from the Americas was transformed into great art: towering altarpieces of silver and gold…cavernous churches…imposing palaces…elaborate carvings…and paintings that told the story as Spain wanted it told.

[18] Europe's mightiest power ruled an empire that stretched across the globe — from the Spanish Netherlands all the way to the Philippines. With their immense wealth, cosmopolitan Spanish monarchs appreciated and collected art from far and wide.

[19, The Feast at the House of Levi, 1573, Veronese, Accademia Gallery, Venice] The Spanish especially loved art from faraway Venice — a once-great power that, while in elegant decline, was still producing great art. Rich conservative Spaniards ate up the big canvases and bright colors of the Venetian Renaissance…women painted lush and golden…bathed in a soft-focus haze, like the city of Venice itself. They reveled in the Venetians' buoyant Renaissance spirit.

[20, Titian, c. 1490–1576; Venus with the Organ Player, 1550, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid; Danaë, 1554, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid; Charles V on Horseback at the Battle of Mühlberg, 1548, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid] Titian, the greatest Venetian painter, captured on canvas the bold confidence of the Spanish king — the most powerful man in the world, Charles V. The emperor's son, though very religious, collected a bevy of sensual Titians. We see the moral conflicts these people must have struggled with as this nobleman — with his hands on his organ – is torn between high cultural pursuits like music and more worldly pleasures. During this age, it must have seemed as if Europe's elites were being showered with blessings from heaven — at least that's the implied message they hung on their walls.

[21, El Greco, 1541–1614] The artistic influences from Spain's vast empire came together in Toledo with its greatest and last Renaissance painter. His name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, though his tongue-tied friends just called him "The Greek," or "El Greco."

[22] Artistically, he's hard to classify. El Greco's work reflects his strong faith and his much-traveled life. It's a synthesis of three cultures: the icon-like faces of his Greek Orthodox homeland; the bold color and twisting poses from his schooling in Venice; and the mystical Catholicism of Spain where he eventually settled…in the city of Toledo, then Spain's capital. It's there that El Greco forged his unique style.

[23] Working at the end of the Renaissance, the art of El Greco overlapped with the next artistic style, Mannerism. Imagine being an artist coming after Leonardo and Raphael. How to improve on their brilliance? Well, you'd make your art as a reaction to their perfection.

[24] Mannerism is a melodramatic departure from the calm realism so cherished by Renaissance sensibilities. It featured elongated bodies, twisting poses, and smooth brushwork. Parmigianino — for example, with his stretched-out Madonna and slippery baby — is famed for this. Even Michelangelo's very last statue — the unfinished Rondanini Pietà in Milan — has this stretched out aesthetic.

[25] But we're in Spain and El Greco is a fine example. As a Mannerist, El Greco painted supernatural visions — elongated saints…stretched between Earth and Heaven. He painted souls — not bodies. Faces flicker like candles. Thoroughly modern in its disregard for realism, El Greco's art feels contemporary even today.

[26] This altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary Ascending to Heaven combines El Greco's signature elements to capture an otherworldly event. While on Earth the city of Toledo sleeps, an angel in a billowing robe spreads its wings and flies up, supporting the Virgin Mary, on her trip to Heaven. In this divine vision, she floats through warped space, to be serenaded by angels and wrapped in the radiant light of the Holy Spirit. Mary is charged from within by the ecstasy of her faith.

[27] No painter captured the mystery of the spiritual world quite like El Greco. He fused innovative techniques with Spanish religiosity to cap the Renaissance of Golden Age Spain.

[28, Bruges] The Renaissance eventually spread throughout Europe. In each country the art and architecture evolved differently, shaped by that country's unique cultural and economic environment. That's clear in Europe's Northern Renaissance.

[29] In Germany, the spirit of the age thrived in merchant towns like Rothenburg — which looks today much like it did in the 1500s.

[30, Altar of the Holy Blood, Last Supper, 1504, Riemenschneider, St. Jakob's Church, Rothenburg] This wooden altarpiece, Rothenburg's artistic highlight, is a testament to German craftsmanship. Tilman Riemenschneider, the Michelangelo of woodcarvers, created it to hold a tiny crystal capsule — believed to contain a drop of Jesus' blood. Carved 500 years ago, the dramatic expressions add emotion to the story. In the scene of the Last Supper, Jesus gives Judas — as usual clutching his bag of coins — a piece of bread, marking him as the traitor. This exquisite altarpiece is a German blend of medieval piety and Renaissance sophistication.

[31, Albrecht Dürer, 1471–1528; The Four Apostles, 1526, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] In painting, Germany's Renaissance master was Albrecht Dürer. He traveled to Italy and brought home Italy's embrace of realism, humanism, and respect for artists as cultural leaders of the day.

[32, Self-portrait at age of 28, 1500, Albrecht Dürer, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] Bold and dynamic, and quirky, Dürer had no problem with his ego. He painted himself almost as the Christ of his day…celebrating his genius…and his great head of hair. His proud monogram marks nearly all his art.

[33] Dürer was more than a painter. As a master engraver he created prints made from finely crafted metal plates. His trademark detail and realism is extraordinary.

[34] At his workshop you can see how it's with these tools that the artist cuts an image into the copper plate. After rubbing it with ink, a print is made from the plate. Dürer was famous for his vivid portrayals of the natural world. To be able to enjoy such beautiful, yet mass-produced art, must have been a marvel 500 years ago.

[35] Dürer was the first best-selling artist in history. Thanks to this impressive new technology, many prints could be made from a single master plate. Dürer's engravings were affordable and spread across Europe, further accelerating the rapid spread of new art and new ideas.

[36, Bruges] The Northern Renaissance wasn't a Renaissance in the literal or Italian sense — like the rebirth of classical culture in Florence. It was a cultural boom funded by an economic boom. While in the south it was art for kings, nobility, and the Church, here in the north it was more the art of merchants and businessmen.

[37, La Grand-Place, Brussels] Europe's North was humming with commercial hubs like Brussels. Its magnificent main square and towering city hall proclaimed the wealth of the new merchant class. These ornate buildings were the headquarters for the different professional guilds — bakers, brewers, tanners, and so on.

[38] The nearby city of Bruges was another economic and cultural powerhouse. Its soaring bell tower announced that it was a self-ruling city of the prosperous region of Flanders. (That's the Dutch — or Flemish-speaking — northern half of Belgium.) This church — also with a skyscraping tower of bricks, the most practical local building material — was filled with cultural treasures, from its powerful pipe organ to its elaborate tombs.

[39, Groeninge Museum, Bruges] The appetite of the market shaped the art. Here in the north, where the patrons were mostly merchants, they didn't want to be preached at. They wanted art that celebrated their values and their hard work…art that was feel good and affordable.

[40] It was no-nonsense portraits of themselves and their families. Happy scenes of everyday life. Flemish painters were great story tellers. Rather than just Madonnas and saints, it was also peasants, landscapes…and food.

[41] Northern paintings were filled with symbolism and extremely realistic — with astonishing detail.

[42, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, Jan van Eyck, National Gallery, London] This Flemish power couple hired a famous painter to portray — with lots of symbolism…their wealth, loyalty, piety, and fertility. Their rich belongings from fancy clothing to their stylish headwear are proudly on display. The dog at their feet? Loyalty…you can practically count the hairs on its head. Rosary beads on the wall…that meant a strong faith.

[43] While the woman may look pregnant, she's most likely not — just gathering together her fine cloth to show it off or creating the impression that she's fertile or maybe she's just boasting the belly of a well-fed, upper-class woman. Perhaps the first famous canvas to use oil-based paint, the detail is groundbreaking: the reflection of the couple from behind in the mirror and even the artist himself, the masterful treatment of light and shadow…

[44] By the way, to capture such detail, Flemish artists mastered the use of oil-based paints. Until about 1500 an egg-based paint called tempera was what most European painters used. They'd mix the mineral-based colors with egg yolk which, when dried, became the binder.

[45] But then, Flemish painters begin using oil-based paints. With this new improved paint — the same mineral-based colors are mixed into vegetable oil. Now, when dried, the oil — rather than egg yolks — binds the color.

[46] This oil painting by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck — from the early 1400s and still vivid — is exquisite in its detail. The Madonna's delicate face, the saint's robe, the weave of the carpet, the stubble on the aging face…glasses actually magnifying the print…are all possible because of the qualities of oil-based paints.

[47] Ever since, oil paints have been the standard. With these paints, artists enjoyed richer colors and more flexibility — they could apply layer upon translucent layer (called “glazes”) to create ever-more subtle details. While medieval paintings, like this lovely Madonna by Giotto, are egg-based tempera on wood, you can see the advantage oil-based paints on canvas gave later artists. With oil, Raphael could get a fuller spectrum of colors and Leonardo could paint with more nuance.

[48] One thing I love about art is it can be the closest thing to a time-tunnel experience we'll enjoy in our travels. Slices of everyday life like these take us back in time.

[49, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1525–1569; The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Children's Games, 1560, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] The undisputed master of the slice-of-life scene was the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He captured the rustic simplicity of country folk at play. Where the Italian Renaissance depicted strong noble heroes, northern artists like Bruegel celebrated humanity's quirks and poked fun at its foibles.

[50, The Peasant Wedding, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] At this Peasant Wedding, farmers scramble for their share of the free food. Two men bring in fresh pudding on a tray, another passes the bowls down, a kid licks his fingers, while the bagpiper pauses to check it all out. Amid the feeding frenzy, almost forgotten, sits the demure bride.

[52, The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Bruegel, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels] In this bird's-eye view of a snow-covered Belgian village, kids throw snowballs and play on the ice while men lug bushels across a frozen lake and a crowd gathers at the inn. But wait…it's actually a religious scene: The village is Bethlehem, and there's Joseph with his carpenters' saw leading a pregnant Mary, looking for a room. Far from the Holy Land, Breughel literally brings the religious message home…it's Bethlehem in Flanders.

[53, The Last Judgment, 1450, van der Weyden, Beaune, France] In addition to their slice-of-life secular scenes, Northern artists of the Renaissance also gave the traditional medieval altarpiece a new level of sophistication. To those who understood it, the symbolism was obvious: As Jesus presides, the lily means "Mercy"…the sword…"Judgment." He stands on a globe representing the universality of His message. As angels blow horns to wake the dead, Michael the Archangel determines which souls are heavy with sin. The apostles pray for the souls of the dead as they emerge from their graves. A painting could be like a sermon for the illiterate faithful.

[54] The individual faces are painted to make each a real person with a unique personality. And extraordinarily intricate detail—enhanced by the new technique of oil paints — illustrates the full range of human emotions. In the faces of the damned, you can almost hear the screams and gnashing of teeth. But Christ is expressionless — at this point, the cries of the wicked are useless.

[55, St John Altarpiece, 1479, Hans Memling, Bruges] This altarpiece in a hospital in Bruges was also painted with an agenda: to comfort dying patients. Gazing at this gathering in Heaven, they could imagine leaving this world of pain and illness, and being at home with Mary, Jesus, and the saints. This Heaven — which echoes wealthy Bruges in the 1400s, complete with familiar details — brought the religious message home to the here and now.

[56, Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450–1516] Five hundred years ago, one Flemish painter, Hieronymus Bosch, took the Northern Renaissance in a direction that seems radical even today. His Garden of Earthly Delights — a three-paneled altarpiece, or triptych — shows the delights of the world and where those temptations lead. In Act One, man and woman are born innocent in the Garden of Eden, blessed by a kind God.

[57, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1505, Hieronymus Bosch, Prado Museum, Madrid] But then, foolish people chase after earthly delights — a pursuit that is ultimately a vicious cycle. They're lured by the world's pleasures: eating…drinking…sex. Like the fleeting flavor of that fruit, strawberries everywhere symbolize how the delights of hedonism are soon gone. Two lovers are suspended in a bubble…

[58] …then, in the third panel, the bubble pops. The moral of the story: Those party animals are heading straight to Hell…a burning, post-apocalyptic wasteland where sinners are led off to eternal torment. Every sinner gets an appropriate punishment: Gluttons are themselves consumed over and over; good-time musicians are tortured by their own instruments; gamblers have their party forever crashed; and a lecher gets sexually harassed by a pig-faced nun. Amid it all a face peers out of this bizarre nightmare — a self-portrait of the artist: Bosch.

[59] Whether portraying Heaven, Hell, or anything in between, artists of the period were opening people's eyes to a new way of looking at things. And the Renaissance was this and more — an invigorating spirit of humanism that had begun in Florence…it spread from Italy to Spain to the north…eventually infusing all of Europe with its can-do optimism.

[60 OC] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through the highlights of the Renaissance beyond Italy. Soon the progress unleashed during this age would bring even more revolutionary changes and even more dynamic art. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!