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Identifying with the Art of the Fifteenth Century


This project, supported by the British Academy, explores the art of fifteenth-century Europe and the interests which have shaped its study. Occupying a central place in conventional narratives of Western art as the early Renaissance, the period tends, however, to be viewed very selectively, especially in terms of geographical focus. The aim of the project is to prompt an expansion of the field of view and open up a discussion of the range of issues raised by the art. 

The project has two main elements: a monograph - working title The Art of the Wider Europe in the Fifteenth Century; and an international conference, Frontiers of Fifteenth-Century Art, which took place at Birkbeck on 17 September 2015.

The fifteenth-century prestige in narratives of Western art, derives from very selective attention to the achievements of the early Renaissance in Italy. Although this concentration has not gone unchallenged, the contest has itself been conducted in narrow terms with the art of the Burgundian Netherlands as the main contender. Art away from these privileged regions tends to remain the preserve of national histories and is comparatively little known.

The established focus can seem natural. In the fifteenth century, Italy and the Netherlands produced striking and justly celebrated works which deeply impressed contemporaries and had a profound impact on the art of subsequent generations. However, a history of art which concentrates on the development and dissemination of these pioneering traditions risks both overlooking the potential insights from the concerted study of a wider range of material and underestimating the potential contribution of the discipline. What is the history of the art of this period capable of?

The history of Renaissance art in general has long been urged to adopt a wider scope and especially to engage with the world beyond Europe. However, the leap to a global focus threatens to marginalise still further currently neglected parts of Europe.


The conference concentrated on Central and Eastern Europe as rich and complex regions of critical importance in the modern world but whose artistic heritages are little known and little understood. It cast light on neglected aspects of European art and urges a wider frame of reference, encouraging art historians to engage with Europe at its fullest extent and especially with the ‘new Europe’ which has emerged after 1989.

The programme featured talks by: