Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Global Renaissance and the North

Heather Madar

Detail of the globe in Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533). London, the National Gallery.

[1]  The 2000s have seen a proliferation of scholarship on the so-called global Renaissance. Seen as originating from sources as diverse as Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II and scholarly and curatorial attention to the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, geo-political events of the early 2000s, particularly in the wake of 9/11, are seen as providing a particular stimulus. A parallel focus in Medieval scholarship in this same time frame, the postcolonial middle ages, similarly reframed study of the Middle Ages. Global Renaissance scholarship understands the world of the 15th to 17th centuries to be much more culturally fluid than has been traditionally recognized, seeing the notion of fixed – rather than permeable – boundaries between East and West to be later fictions. The interactions and influences of non-European cultures with Renaissance-era Europe, whether artistic, diplomatic, economic, cultural or intellectual, are explored and global Renaissance scholars make strong claims for the broader and enduring significance of those interactions.

[2]  Jerry Brotton, for example, whose 2003 book The Renaissance Bazaar undoubtedly helped to popularize the term, framed the global Renaissance as a paradigm shift in conceptualizing the Renaissance, arguing that key touchstones of Renaissance culture, whether literary, artistic or intellectual, came into being only as a result of cross-cultural exchange.[1] Moreover, in Brotton’s view, Renaissance Europe conceived of itself in a fundamental way through comparison (rather than opposition – a more Saidian model) to the East. Gerald McLean similarly states that “the confluence of artistic, literary, scientific and cultural developments that made the Renaissance. . .can be fully understood only in light of Christian Europe’s relations with eastern and Islamic cultures.”[2] He goes on to claim that “the Renaissance would have been entirely different, if not impossible, had it not been for direct and regular contact with the eastern, largely Muslim world.”[3] If the Renaissance is understood as fed and shaped in fundamental ways through such interactions, which left their indelible traces on Renaissance cultural production, global Renaissance scholarships sees these traces as having been heretofore largely ignored, an omission it seeks to correct. In the process, the master narrative of the Renaissance is amended, European exceptionalism is challenged, and the spatial scope of the world of the Renaissance is reframed.

[3] The success of global Renaissance studies seems evident in the mass of scholarly publications of the past decade plus that take a more expansive view of the Renaissance and explicitly examine cultural exchange and its traces on Renaissance cultural productions. In more anecdotal, yet potentially telling signs of shifts in the academy, a casual glance at many job listings in Renaissance fields reveals a new need for aspiring candidates to engage with the global Renaissance, the Atlantic world or the larger Mediterranean world. The Sixteenth Century Society meanwhile now explicitly names Ottomanists as being within its purview.

[4]  Yet the global Renaissance turn has not gone without criticism. Douglas Bruster, in a review for the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, offered a trenchant critique of global Renaissance studies, which he sees as representing a scholarly fad whose peak has already passed.[4] Others have offered more incremental critiques, suggesting that the grand claims of some global Renaissance scholarship overreach. James Harper, who refers to the “revisionist Global Village model” of scholars like Brotton and Lisa Jardine, proposes that the results of cross-cultural contact were considerably more limited, and warns of presentism and a desire to recast the past in our own (global) image.[5] Oleg Grabar, focusing specifically on the visual arts, sees the major accomplishments of Renaissance art as unaffected by transculturalism, whose impact he describes as “quite limited” and as restricted to “minor themes.”[6]

[5] The question of the global Renaissance paradigm shift and the potential for ongoing scholarship in this vein is clearly contested. As an art historian engaged with global Renaissance concerns in connection with northern Europe, particularly Germany and Austria, I have found global Renaissance scholarship, while enticing, to be somewhat problematic in its potential applications to the north, and its focus to be limited. The dominance of Italy, particularly Venice, in art historical discussions of the global Renaissance is undisputable, despite references to the internationalism of key northern works like Holbein’s Ambassadors.[7] Indeed, a gesture to the presence of Turkish carpets, Arabic (or pseudo-Kufic) script and Islamic metalwork in Italian Renaissance paintings is a common rhetorical shorthand in the literature for the significance and scope of such cross-cultural interactions. Renaissance England has received considerable attention in global Renaissance scholarship, particularly in literary studies.[8] Yet the role of northern centers like Bruges, Antwerp, Nuremberg, Strasbourg or Vienna in the global Renaissance seems to have been largely overlooked. Given the stated interest of some global Renaissance scholars in deconstructing the master myth of the Renaissance, it is hardly surprising that the north receives short shrift, given the traditional focus of that myth on Italy.

[6]  So whither the North? Should Northern Renaissance studies explore the presence of material objects from the Muslim world in northern paintings? Stress the genuine, if fragmented and ultimately unfulfilled global interests of Maximilian I? Recall the international economic interests of trading families like the Welsers of Augsburg, whose funds supported the voyage of the German merchant Balthasar Springer to India? Further explore the careers of Northern artists such as Melchior Lorck or Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose travels to the Ottoman world tend to be eclipsed by the more widely known travels of Italian artists like Gentile Bellini? Look to travel literature by continental northern European writers or the presence of Ottoman subject matter in literary texts, such as the French Renaissance drama La Soltane? Would such further examinations tell us something new and distinct about the north or the northern Renaissance in this period?

[7] Certainly, more work can be done here. These are only a few, comparatively well-known examples of transculturalism in Northern Europe during the Renaissance. The larger presence of global interests and exchange in the cultural, economic and political fabric of Northern Europe in this period also could be further stressed, better understood and added to the typically Italo and Anglo-centric discussions of the global Renaissance. Yet clearly a larger question about the lasting significance of global Renaissance studies remains. While I do not pretend to answer it here, will such (arguably needed) northern contributions to the global Renaissance canon further enrich and expand our understanding of the north and/or the Renaissance in truly transformational ways? Or will they remain interesting footnotes that merely document, in Oleg Grabar’s words, “proto-turqueries?”[9]

Humboldt State University, April 2015


[1] Brotton, Jerry. The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[2] McLean, Gerald. “Introduction,” in Re-Orienting the Renaissance, ed. Gerald McLean, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005, p. 2.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4] Bruster, Douglas. “Review Article: The New Globalism’s Bubble – Review of A Companion to the Global Renaissance,” in Journal of the Northern Renaissance 2 (2010), n.p.. Jyotsna Singh’s Introduction to the text reviewed by Bruster, A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, ed. Jyotsna Singh, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 1-28, also provides a useful overview of the aims and conclusions of global Renaissance scholarship.

[5] Harper, James. “Introduction,” The ‘Turk’ and Islam in the Western Eye: Visual Imagery Before Orientalism, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 5-6. In addition to The Renaissance Bazaar, works by Brotton and Jardine relating to the global Renaissance include Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, New York: W. W. Norton, 1998, Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton, Global Interests: Renaissance Art Between East and West, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000 and Jerry Brotton, Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World, London: Reaktion, 1997.

[6] Grabar, Oleg. “Review,” The Art Bulletin 85:1 (2003), 190.

[7] See for example Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797, ed. Stefano Carboni, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, Rosamond Mack, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Renaissance Art, 1300-1600, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, and Deborah Howard, Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture 1100-1500, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

[8] See, for example, the contributions to A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, cited above, as well as works by Daniel Vitkus and Nabil Matar.

[9] Grabar, ibid, 192.

About the Author:

Heather Madar is Associate Professor of Art History at Humboldt State University, where she works on sixteenth-century German art, and the art of the Northern Renaissance more broadly. Her scholarly interests centre upon prints and print culture in sixteenth-century Germany, upon art and political ideology, and upon cross-cultural interactions in the Renaissance between Western Europe and the Muslim world and their reflection in visual art. She is currently working on a book-length project on Ottoman imagery in sixteenth-century prints.

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