The Northern Renaissance is the term used to describe the Renaissance in northern Europe, or more broadly in Europe outside Italy. Before 1450 Italian Renaissance humanism had little influence outside Italy. From the late 15th century the ideas spread around Europe. This influenced the German Renaissance, French Renaissance, English Renaissance, Renaissance in the Netherlands, Polish Renaissance and other national and localized movements, each with different characteristics and strengths.
In France, King Francis I imported Italian art, commissioned Italian artists (including Leonardo da Vinci), and built grand palaces at great expense, beginning the French Renaissance. Trade and commerce in cities like Bruges in the 15th century and Antwerp in the 16th increased cultural exchange between Italy and the Low Countries, however in art, and especially architecture, late Gothic influences remained present until the arrival of Baroque even as painters increasingly drew on Italian models.
Universities and the printed book helped spread the spirit of the age through France, the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire, and then to Scandinavia and finally Britain by the late 16th century. Writers and humanists such as Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard and Desiderius Erasmus were greatly influenced by the Italian Renaissance model and were part of the same intellectual movement. During the English Renaissance (which overlapped with the Elizabethan era) writers such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe composed works of lasting influence. The Renaissance was brought to Poland directly from Italy by artists from Florence and the Low Countries, starting the Polish Renaissance.
In some areas the Northern Renaissance was distinct from the Italian Renaissance in its centralization of political power. While Italy and Germany were dominated by independent city-states, parts of central and western Europe began emerging as nation-states. The Northern Renaissance was also closely linked to the Protestant Reformation and the long series of internal and external conflicts between various Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church had lasting effects, such as the division of the Netherlands.
The detailed realism of Early Netherlandish painting, with masters such as Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden, was greatly respected in Italy, but there was little reciprocal influence on the North until nearly the end of the 15th century. Despite frequent cultural and artistic exchange, the Antwerp Mannerists (1500-1530)-chronologically overlapping with but unrelated to Italian Mannerism-were among the first artists in the Low Countries to clearly reflect Italian formal developments.
Around the same time, Albrecht Durer made his two trips to Italy, where he was greatly admired for his prints. Durer, in turn, was influenced by the art he saw there. Other notable painters, such as Hans Holbein the Elder and Jean Fouquet, retained a Gothic influence that was still popular in the north, while highly individualistic artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder developed styles that were imitated by many subsequent generations. Northern painters in the 16th century increasingly looked and travelled to Rome, becoming known as the Romanists. The High Renaissance art of Michelangelo and Raphael and the late Renaissance stylistic tendencies of Mannerists that were in vogue had a great impact on their work.
Renaissance humanism and the large number of surviving classical artworks and monuments encouraged many Italian painters to explore Greek and Roman themes more prominently than northern artists, and likewise the most famous 15th-century German and Netherlandish paintings tend to be religious. Especially common are winged polyptychs, from the monumental to the portable, that could be opened and closed on different days of the liturgical year. In the 16th century, mythological and other themes from history became more uniform amongst northern and Italian artists. Northern Renaissance painters, however, took the leading role in establishing new subject matter, such as landscape and genre painting.
As Renaissance art styles moved through northern Europe, they changed and were adapted to local circumstances. In England and the northern Netherlands the Reformation brought religious painting almost completely to an end. Despite several very talented Artists of the Tudor Court in England, portrait painting was slow to spread from the elite. In France the School of Fontainebleau was begun by Italians such as Rosso Fiorentino in the latest Mannerists style, but succeeded in establishing a durable national style. By the end of the 16th century, artists such as Karel van Mander and Hendrik Goltzius collected in Haarlem in a brief but intense phase of Northern Mannerists that also spread to Flanders.