WHILE Titian was preparing a career that spanned the high Renaissance in Italy, a severe German artist named Albrecht Dürer turned up in Venice. Dürer's self-appointed mission: to soak up the best efforts of the Italian Renaissance and teach its lessons north of the Alps. Returning to Nurenberg, Dürer brought about a flowering of German and Flemish art in the early 16th century that ranks with the great moments of art history. The northern Renaissance was cooler, more metaphysical and clear-lined than its sensuous, rainbow-hued Italian source. If the Italians were sometimes overdramatic,...

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