Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy is a totemic text for cultural historians.
Written in 1860, it sketches the sociological portrait of an extraordinary era in which giants of the arts and sciences reflected, created and flourished. Though often deemed outdated in terms of historical analysis and anthropological insight, Burkhardt continues to exert an enormous influence on our perception of the Italian Renaissance.
Born in Basel to a clergyman, Burckhardt studied history at the University of Berlin before specialising in the history of art at the University of Bonn. Returning to Basel, he went on to lecture at the local university. It was there that he famously met and befriended the young Friedrich Nietzsche.
Fifty years earlier, in 1847, Burkhardt had visited Rome. He was inspired by the intoxicating atmosphere of the ancient imperial city. This feeling compelled him to begin a formal study of Italy and ultimately Italy’s greatest moment after the fall of the Roman Empire – the Renaissance.
Although Burckhardt is ranked as one of the most formidable historians of the 19th century, he thought history was an imaginative kind of intellectual exercise, more “akin to poetry” than science. He disdained attempts to develop a system of history aimed to apprehend the objective truth of an epoch, instead, he wanted to assert his subjective sense of an intricately composed society.
To Burkhardt, cultural history meant a holistic explanation of a distinct period with art as its central concern. He identified three “powers” in history: the state, religion and culture. He described culture as a category which includes social etiquette, technological discovery, artistic and literary experimentation and scientific progress. He understood epochs to be primarily driven by either political, religious or cultural compulsions and saw the ancient civilisations of Mexico, Peru and Egypt as “culture(s) determined by the state”, Islam as a “culture determined by religion” and the Greek polis as an example of “the state determined by culture.” Crafting definitive categories for the sake of intellectual clarity invites criticism and in this case, criticism is arguably warranted. Nonetheless, many of his isolated arguments are as persuasive today as when they were first published.
The standard notion of the Renaissance as a revival of antiquity was considered insufficient by Burckhardt. He saw the Renaissance in Italy as the place where humanity discovered itself; where the modern individual was born. According to Burkhardt, the personality of the individual was awakened by the political activities of the medieval Italian state. The tyrants and condottiere provoked the individuation of themselves and their followers through their Christianity, love of knowledge and classically derived belief in perfection.
Before the Renaissance, Burkhardt argued that human consciousness “lay dreaming or half-awake beneath a common veil.” He wrote that that veil was “woven of faith, illusion and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hue”. The veil meant that most people were only aware of themselves as members of a class, race, party, family, corporation or other general categories. In Italy, Burkhardt writes, “this veil first melted into air.” The new desire to distinguish yourself from your neighbour formed the inward appetite to develop a unique demeanour. The outward urge was glory; new avenues of fame were being paved.
Processions would solemnly walk past the homes of lauded poets, tooting trumpets and burning tapers, to offer gifts and salute greatness. Artistic pilgrimages to the places where poets, painters and thinkers were born became a popular pastime. In short, the rites used to honour saints in previous centuries were applied to those attaining perfection in the arts and sciences. A community of extraordinary achievers began to exist in the collective imagination and a feeling of cosmopolitism, of belonging to a group with no fixed land, language or outlook started to spread.
Modern historians, though, have criticised Burkhardt’s poor understanding of medieval history. He has been accused of dangerously exaggerating and crudely generalising to solely advance his assumptions. Burkhardt himself admitted the absence of any economic analysis in his magnum opus and even in his final days he confessed that he no longer believed in his theory of individuality emerging from the Renaissance.
The veracity or falsity of his premise however does nothing to dampen his attractive prose and his writings on the genealogy of satirists and comedians through the tradition of court-jesters is delightful. Like his intellectual ancestors, Plutarch and Vasari, Burkhardt is a brilliant provider of apocryphal anecdotes and simply for that reason he is worth reading.
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