In line with the aims of Phaidon’s “Art & Ideas” series, Jeffrey Chipps Smith has written a portable and reasonably priced introduction to the period for students and the general reader. His extraordinarily ambitious remit takes a broad view of the Northern Renaissance indeed: the content ranges from about 1380 to 1580 and strays outside the Netherlands and Germany to visit England, Sweden, Bohemia and Switzerland.
Chipps Smith’s main goal is to write a contextual history of art but he sensibly imposes a broad chronological structure on the material. The earlier chapters, therefore, focus on the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; they address the physical, religious and social settings of art and architecture, as well as the beginnings of printmaking. The later chapters, by contrast, deal with the sixteenth century; they analyze artists’ explorations of the “micro- and macrocosm” of nature, the upheavals of the Reformation and the internationalism of art production in later sixteenth-century courts and cities.
At the same time, key themes and topics are threaded through the book to illustrate continuity and change. The discussion of the artist’s self-presentation is a good example. Chipps Smith makes particularly eloquent use of maps in this regard: illustrations of and commentaries on maps by Etzlaub (before 1499), in the Introduction, and Ortelius (1579), further on in the book, not only demonstrate an increase in cartographic specificity over time but also provide an index to the continuing mixture of faith and science in the Renaissance world outlook. An unexamined topic is the cult of images, which would have given greater resonance to the discussion of the Iconoclasm in the second half of the volume.
In his Introduction, Chipps Smith defends the concept of the Northern Renaissance. Against those who would label the period “Late Gothic,” he argues that “this was a dynamic period of artistic innovation – not an end, as the term Late Gothic implies” (p. 12). To buttress his point, he draws a strict line of opposition between the “new” self-aware Renaissance artist and the “stereotypical anonymous medieval craftsman” (p. 15), despite admitting the stereotype. He also rejects the term “Early Modern,” traditionally held to begin in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Most notably, he avoids entering the fray of Italy versus the North. For him, Burckhardt’s defining concepts of the Renaissance apply equally to North and South. He gives a nuanced account of the influx of Italianate forms and ideas into such cosmopolitan centers as Antwerp or Brussels around 1500, recognizing the resulting mixture of practices and styles to be a distinctive part of the Renaissance experience (“Nowhere else in Europe could such a range of artistic traditions and experiments be viewed,” p. 308). However, had he adopted an international frame of reference for the appreciation and experience of Northern art, so much of which was transported abroad, the book would have provided a more balanced view of the period’s two great artistic traditions.
The book is generally successful in elucidating works of art. The chapter on “Dancing with Death” offers a stimulating cultural history of the subject of death based on a wide variety of thematically linked artefacts, from the low-cost woodcut to the lavish imperial tomb. Any book of this type should attempt to include lesser known works, and Chipps Smith fulfills this expectation: scattered among the standard repertory are such objects as the transi Tomb of Henry of Chichele (c.1424-26), an anonymous Augsburg print showing Brazilian Indians (c.1505) and Bernard Palissy’s glazed terracotta platter of wriggling sea creatures (c.1560). The book is especially interesting for its representations of lost schemes of decoration and display, including Hans Mielich’s Meeting of the Regensburg Council (1536), which shows the council chamber’s Last Judgment on display, and Hans Holbein’s House of the Dance of c.1520-1524.
As a result of its thematic organization, the text tells us very little about individual artists or their working environments: overall, Chipps Smith is more concerned with the experience of art than with its making. This contrasts sharply with James Snyder’s monographic approach inNorthern Renaissance Art (1985), which has been the standard textbook for the period until now. Chipps Smith is sceptical – unnecessarily so, in my opinion – that Hubert van Eyck worked on theGhent Altarpiece, which appears stylistically unified. It remains debatable to what degree style and technique were personal qualities within the context of familial workshops and training at this period. On the subject of the altarpiece, a clear oversight is the attribution of Philip II’s copy to Lucas de Heere rather than Michiel Coxcie (who created it in 1557-1559). Though Chipps Smith pays the Master of Flémalle too little attention in the first chapter on the ars nova (because he focuses on the Valois courts as the initial and main catalyst for this development), it is remarkable just how many of the period’s main artists, themes and concerns he manages to touch on.
Chipps Smiths’s writing is scholarly but light and moves quickly, aided by the absence of footnotes in this series (though a short section of missing text on page 350 interrupts the flow). He engages us in part by asking leading questions, such as “how differently we would evaluate the Renaissance in Italy if three-quarters of its pre-1520 religious art was destroyed; or if Milanese art survived but Florentine art did not. Similarly, how different would its future artistic course have been if most church building and decorations, especially in cities like Rome, ceased for fifty or sixty years in the middle of the century?” (p. 380). Such expansive speculation is typical of this book, which is most valuable as an introduction for its unusual breadth of vision.