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Jacob Burckhardt


About the Author

Jacob Burckhard’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was first published almost a century ago, in 1860. Its forty-two-year-old author, professor of history and the history of art at the small Swiss university of his native Basel, was already known to the learned world as the writer of a highly original book, The Age of Constantine the Great (1853), and of the Cicerone (1855)* which was to guide generations of enthusiastic pilgrims to the artistic monuments of Italy. But the Civilization of the Renaissance became the real foundation of his world-wide fame.

The first English translation of the Cicerone was published in 1873, that of Constantine appeared in New York in 1949.

In his own lifetime Jacob Burckhardt published only one more book, which was of a more specialized character, on Italian Renaissance architecture. It appeared in the same year, 1867, in which he reissued his Civilization of the Renaissance in a revised edition. During the remaining thirty years of his life he did not publish any of his writings and even turned over the preparation of new editions of his books to others. He devoted himself completely to the teaching of history at the university and before public audiences of his fellow-citizens. In 1898, a year after his death, his great History of Greek Civilization appeared. It was followed in 1905 by his absorbing Reflections on World History,** originally a course of lectures intended to expose the fundamental pattern of historical development in its impact on man. Soon also the first collections of Burckhardt’s private correspondence came to light and revealed one of the most profound and perspicacious critics of the social political trends of his times. No other nineteenth-century thinker was as clairvoyant about the potential dangers of future totalitarianism hidden in the growth of modern mass civilization.

** An American edition was published in New York in 1943 under the title Force and Freedom: Reflections on History.

Still, Burckhardt never aspired to the role of prophet nor, for that matter, to any public role. The great range of his mind and imagination, the intensity of his feelings, he managed to express in the sublimated form of objective creations of written history. They became alive through his genius but, like great works of art, they can be enjoyed whether or not one knows anything about the author. This was amply demonstrated by the history of the Civilization of the Renaissance. Well received by scholars of history and art, early translated into Italian, English, and French, it was already widely read all over the world in Burckhardt’s own lifetime, but the fast-growing number of new editions after his death proves that it was the following generation that took the book fully to heart. The general cult of the Renaissance in the early decades of the twentieth century, to which undoubtedly Burckhardt had contributed, assisted in this growing esteem, although Burckhardt himself would have been disquieted by this popular exaggeration. The emulation of Renaissance forms in contemporary architecture and home decoration to which this enthusiasm for the Renaissance led was not to the liking of a man who cherished only the genuine and historically rooted human expressions. Burckhardt was also pained by Friedrich Nietzsche’s praise of the amoral Renaissance man as the model of the future superman, for the historian was a strict moralist who never tired of pointing out that power was evil and that whatever happiness human beings might acquire could not be found in amoral action, but only in pure-hearted contemplation of eternal ideals.

The experiences of wars and revolutions in our own times make us look at Jacob Burckhardt’s work with fresh eyes, and it is surprising to find that the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy has not lost any of its radiance under this new questioning. It has remained the greatest single book written on the history of Italy between 1350 and 1550–a period which proved so fateful for the development of Western civilization. It created methods of reviving the past which will have a lasting influence on the writing of history. Finally, it opened a deep view of the relationship between the human individual and the forces of history.

Only a year before the Civilization of the Renaissance was published, another significant historical book on the same period had appeared: Georg Voigt’s The Revival of Classical Antiquity (1859) was undertaken in the belief that the great transformation of Western civilization in the epoch that reached from Petrarch to Michelangelo must be laid to the revival of classical learning. This interpretation of history stemmed from the early humanists themselves, who had been convinced that the study of the classics had enabled them to overcome the barbarous Middle Ages and to revive the life of antiquity. In a monotonous manner the view was repeated through the centuries down to Guizot. Voltaire took a different position. His brilliant conception of history as the history of human civilization, which had a great effect on Burckhardt, was an attempt to dislodge not only the supranatural explanations of world history but also the old annalistic historiography with its crude outward causes. Voltaire saw the interaction of the human spirit with political and social forces and he knew that it should be possible to discover a unifying pattern of every age. Such awareness gave him the first insights into the social and political conditions which had produced the age of the Medicis. But he lacked the historical erudition–and, for the fifteenth century, even the interest–to carry his ideas to fruition. Jules Michelet published in 1855 the seventh part of his History of France, dealing with the sixteenth century. It bore the subtitle The Renaissance. Again the Renaissance was conceived as the epoch of liberation, but now also as the setting of the stage for the age of reason. This prelude to the Enlightenment, however, was characterized not by the rebirth of classic antiquity but by man’s ‘discovery of the world and of man’–in other words, by a profound change in man himself.

Burckhardt’s adoption of Michelets formulation of the discovery of the world and of man as the essence of the Renaissance movement indicated that French historical writing affected the Swiss historian. His own realistic style, too, shunning every pontifical tone, full of smiling and grave irony, and shedding rich light and color over the scene, could easily have gone astray if it had not learned so much from French literary discipline. Still, Michelet’s ideas were rather an encouragement than an inspiration to Burckhardt’s work. The conservative Swiss thinker was far from measuring the modern world in terms of reason. Michelet had also judged that the religious reformers of the sixteenth century, as well as Montaigne, Shakespeare and Cervantes, were actually the discoverers of the world and of man, and the only Italians who were given niches in his hall of Renaissance fame were Columbus and Galilei. In stark contrast Burckhardt proclaimed the Italy of 1350-1550 as the home of the Renaissance. Moreover, Burckhardt brought to his task the new methods of historical verification developed by the masters of the critical study of history, who had risen in Germany during the first half of the nineteenth century. Leopold Ranke had been his chief teacher and Burckhardt shared his conviction that history could not be deduced from philosophical assumptions and that it could not be reconstructed by mere intuition unless it was grounded on the most careful analysis of the sources of each individual phenomenon or event.

In Burckhardt’s hands the conception of an age of the Renaissance received a new content, a novel application and valid historical meaning. He explained the growth of the new individualism by the political and social developments of Italy in the later Middle Ages, while the rebirth of classical learning was an invigorating, but only subsidiary, element in the evolution of the new philosophy of life. Its manifestations in the life of the individual and society formed another major part of Burckhardt’s book. None of his predecessors had the learning and artistic power with which Burckhardt poured into his conceptual mold the unalloyed metal of pure historical information. He was a literary master both of the vignette and of the wide vistas. Burckhardt spoke of the Italian Renaissance as the first modern age–not a mere stepping-stone to the Enlightenment, but one of the high points in the historical development of humanity, to be studied for its own sake.

Jacob Burckhardt called his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy an ‘essay,’ and the book was an essay not only in historical interpretation but also in a new approach to history as such. Voltaire’s history of civilization had been too much of a philosophical construction and too amateurish in concrete historical craftsmanship to revolutionize the writing of history. The narrative political history had remained the recognized form of historical presentation. History of culture or civilization became an unorganic collection of intelligence about strange customs and curious habits of the human race. It was Burckhardt who lifted the history of civilization to a high level. His enormous and detailed knowledge combined with an equally strong capacity for synopsis and synthesis produced a work in which a vast variety of historical data was made meaningful by being woven into a general theme. There can be no question that the balance between the faithful reproduction of individual facts and the generalization of objective trends was often achieved by Burckhardt through literary-aesthetic composition rather than conclusive logical argument. Quite a few of the categories with which he aimed to capture the fullness of historical life were too wide-meshed to accomplish his objectives in every respect. For example, the central term of ‘individualism’ could stand much further refinement since Renaissance individualism must be more distinctly differentiated both from earlier and later forms of individualism than Burckhardt realized. We would also expect today a closely reasoned discussion of the relations between the economic forces and the social reality which Burckhardt described. And we may find that the structural unity of Renaissance civilization was exaggerated through neglect of the stages of political developments.

It is impressive, however, that any such criticism advanced during the last century would call only for some amplification of certain chapters and for a sharper delineation of philosophical terms and not for a radical revision of Burckhardt’s fundamental conception, which points to still another dimension of his thought. Burckhardt did not believe that the philosophy of history of the Enlightenment or Hegelian school had the right to assume that man’s ultimate destiny was revealed only in the total course of history, or that all former generations were merely faltering attempts in the direction of a final ideal state of man. History was not the judgment of God in the sense that in the successive crises of history the lesser causes were suppressed to give way to the further advancement of humanity. If this was the meaning of history, man was forever condemned to serve whatever forces and ideas happened to be in the ascendancy. And since the great crises of history were usually resolved by decisions of power, it was logical to center historical study around political history. Hegel had done so, but even Ranke in his undogmatic and individualizing treatment of universal history had his eyes chiefly on the development of the state through the ages.

Burckhardt knew as well as Ranke did that man was thrown into the maelstrom of history. Not the outcome of events, however, decided his worth, but his will to defend his patrimony, the faculty to produce civilization. Power is evil since it is by nature bound to demand universal recognition and thereby tends to suppress individual spontaneity, which is the real spring of civilization. Civilization comprises all the spontaneous human activities from the making of a material living to the ideal creations of art, poetry, and universal contemplation. In this realm the individual has freedom in spite of his
historical existence. How far he can express his creativity in lasting contributions to civilization depends on many historical circumstances, among them even sheer luck or misfortune. But the vital energy, breadth of vision, and moral character of each generation is always important in this perennial struggle.

The vertical construction of universal history and an organization of history around the course of political events could not provide the answers to Burckhardt’s urgent questions. Only by choosing a cross-section of history and making the birth of a historic civilization the subject of his study could he hope to elucidate what seemed to him the fundamental human problem in history. In spite of his disillusionment about universal history, Burckhardt had an abiding faith in the creative power of man, and where man proved himself equal to his historical circumstances, as in the Renaissance, Burckhardt himself turned from a sceptical onlooker into a worshipful visionary. It is the range of Burckhardt’s own human experience that makes his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy to the present day ‘an admirable book, the most complete and philosophical one that has been written on the Italian Renaissance,’ as Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1869.

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