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Burckhardt, Jacob

Burckhardt, Jacob



Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) was born and died in Basel, Switzerland. He was the son of a Protestant pastor and a member of a patrician family long socially and intellectually prominent in the city. After an extended period as a student, during which Burckhardt self-consciously turned himself into a “European” and a spokesman for European culture, he lived most of his life in Basel as professor of history and the history of art. Alienated by Prussian nationalism and preferring his small cosmopolitan city, he refused the invitation to follow his old teacher Leopold von Ranke in the chair of history at Berlin.

Life in Basel may have contributed to Burckhardt’s Europeanism; a free commercial city since the Middle Ages, the town was a cosmopolitan center and a refuge for the dispossessed intellectuals of Europe. Burckhardt’s parents were persons of deliberate culture: from his mother, he took his interest in the visual arts, manifest in his lifelong sketching; from his father his sense of history and his early piety—the latter, however, he later rejected. His Gymnasium education insured his classical competence; during those years, he became much interested in early modern history, especially the history of the Swiss Reformation, and began his many trips abroad. In 1836 he entered the university at Basel, continuing his Greek studies and translating Greek drama into German; during this period he also perfected his French. To please his father, in 1837 he began the study of theology, receiving an excellent grounding in church history and comparative religion, which later stood him in good stead in his studies of Greek culture and the age of Constantine. By 1839 Burckhardt had come to reject pietism and the study of theology and was regarded as a nearheretic by his professors and his father; his anti-religious bias remained with him for the rest of his life and is manifest in his preference for secularism in The Civilization of the Renaissance inItaly (1860). He went then to Berlin, where from 1839 to 1843, with a short interval in Bonn to study ancient art, he studied history: under Franz Kugler (history of architecture), August Boeckh (comparative philology and Greek inscriptions), J. G. Droysen (modern history and historical method), and especially Ranke (medieval and modern history). Just at the end of this period he came in contact with Jacob Grimm, from whom he learned much about the “unthinking habits” of mankind and their place in “culture.” In 1843 he took his doctorate with a study of Charles Martel and returned to Basel to teach history and art history, lecturing à la Ranke and Grimm on all sorts of topics—the idea of Europe, ancient art, the history of architecture, seventeenth-century painting and literature. From 1837 on, Burckhardt summered in Italy, where he made those precise academic architectural sketches and city scapes which occupied him wherever he went and may have sharpened his eye for detail; his observations in Italy were as important to his development as a historian as was the formal instruction he derived from his teachers.

At the time of the Revolution of 1848 Burckhardt was in Berlin, helping Kugler prepare a series of art history handbooks; the revolution horrified Burckhardt, who then abandoned the little liberalism he had picked up from his friends, retreated to Basel’s security and remoteness, and concentrated on his own view of cultural history, stressing periods where tradition seemed especially ingrained and stable, like classical antiquity and the Renaissance. He continued to lecture, developing his courses in world history. He regarded these courses as propaedeutic for such studies as his own Age of Constantine the Great (1853), his first work in cultural history, a “pluralist” work, to use his own term, dealing with the political, social, religious, and artistic situation in Rome and the empire from Diocletian to the death of Constantine. His understanding of comparative religion enriched his work, but the book’s greatest originality lay in his use of visual and literary art forms to illustrate generalizations drawn, more conventionally, from political and social sources. In 1855 he published Der Cicerone, a guidebook to Italian art objects, and, from then on, Burckhardt himself was a kind of cicerone both for Italian culture and for the culture of the West in general. He was called in 1855 to the chair of history at the Zurich Polytechnic, where he worked on his two books about the Renaissance, the famous Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) and its by-product, the Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien (1867), a study of architecture omitted from the more general book. He then returned to Basel, lecturing on world history and on specific historical periods and problems and preparing the material for his posthumously published Griechische Kulturgeschichte (1898–1902) and Recollections of Rubens (1898).

Burckhardt wrestled with the relation of Kulturgeschichte to Kunstgeschichte. Although he pretended to regard them as separate disciplines, he welded them together in his own work. In The Age of Constantine the Great, art objects illuminate a style of life and a historical process; in Der Cicerone, history illuminates the disparate works of art scattered, regardless of time and relation to each other, over the Italian peninsula. Again, in Constantine, he demonstrated the decline of the empire—the bemused tolerance and eclecticism of the rulers, their self-aggrandizement, their whimsical warfare and arbitrary expenditure—from the art and architecture of the period even more precisely than from examples of political and social behavior.

Burckhardt’s preference for “harmonious wholes,” deepened by his revulsion from modern democracy whose mass media dull the senses and reduce men to automata, was qualified by his historical interest in multiplicity and variety. Although he never adopted Ranke’s limited view of history as an archival enterprise, he rejected the prevailing Hegelianism because of its metaphysical predestinarianism, which, in his view, was too schematized to present the multiple activities of life and of history. Although Burckhardt was interested in “individualism,” he differed from Hegel in his view of great men. His famous notion of “the emergence of the individual,” developed in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, has nothing to do with Hegel’s notion of a great man “summing up” his period, a man “moved” by abstract historical forces to express the spirit of the age. Rather, Burckhardt’s great individuals, for better (Raphael) or for worse (Michelangelo), shape the period into which they are born; he used great men as pivots for his interpretation of their periods. Nonetheless, there are some Hegelian traces in Burckhardt’s work: the Zeitgeist certainly casts its shadow over his attempts to parallel manifestations in politics with those of art and of thought; and in his fragmentary historical lectures, he clearly preferred to present periods sub specie analogiae rather than sub specie anomaliae.

Burckhardt was more concerned for Kultur than for Geist. Thus, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, his most original if not his greatest work, he drew generalizations about life as it was actually led from all kinds of sources not usually awarded historical attention—the festivals, the music, the rules of etiquette of Renaissance Italy— although he did also draw heavily on literary sources —from Castiglione to Aretino, from Ficino to Cellini, from epics to epigrams. Even in his Griechische Kulturgeschichte, he did not see philosophy as a world of ideas autonomous and separate from the historical world, but he did use philosophy as historical evidence of cultural preferences, weights, and values. For him Kultur was no Hegelian abstraction, but a matter of living, breathing men.

Burckhardt’s bill held more than anyone’s belly can: intending to write a cultural history of all Western civilization, he left instead three large books: studies of antiquity, of Constantine, and of the Italian Renaissance. His Griechische Kulturgeschichte presents a narrative of political history, interlaced with moral comments by the author, and then devotes its great bulk to cultural matters: the paideia, religions and cults, philosophies, the natural sciences, rhetoric and oratory, literary and art forms. The mark of Vico is on this book, with its emphasis on language, poetry, and myth as the Urgrund of all culture (see also, “On the Historical Consideration of Poetry,” in Force and Freedom 1905); so also is the mark of Ranke evident in the work’s devotion to “facts,” although the facts are art forms, cultural habits, and ideas which for Burckhardt were as irreducible as Ranke’s archival “proofs.”

In Force and Freedom, Burckhardt reduced the main elements of history to the state, religion, and culture, discussing the hypothetical and actual supremacy of each over the other two. “Culture” comes out best, religion worst in his value system, but the state has its dangers too. For Burckhardt, culture is consciousness and, therefore, Bildung— as he stated, “that millionfold process by which the spontaneous, unthinking activity of a race is transformed into considered action….” In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt’s strongly secular preference is clear; to some extent, the same bias is visible in Constantine, where he plainly indicated his mistrust of the emperor’s conversion and the motives of the hierarchy that converted him. Burckhardt commended the emperor’s toleration, even though he also considered it evidence of weakening unity and conviction.

Burckhardt’s theoretical interests were slight and his theoretical writings weak; his practice, however, altered historical disciplines thereafter. He is one parent of the school of Geistesgeschichte—a name he would have deplored—which developed in the generation after his; yet his own view of cultural history was too hard, even positivist, to permit the concept of Geist (or abstract intellect), since, for him, ideas are significantly related to the culture which they serve. Further, cultural products have their own actuality and their own lives, develop their own traditions within their own disciplines (hence his interest in “styles”), and are only partially governed or influenced by abstract ideas. He preferred to make inferences from historical “facts” rather than to impose intellectual patterns upon such facts. In this he was a true historian; so also because he selected, for his three great works, periods in which change was crucial: the decline of Greek hegemony in the Mediterranean world, the grading of classical into religious culture in the age of Constantine, and the shift from that culture to a new secularism in Renaissance Italy. His proclivities are clear—he occasionally amplified his aestheticism by his choice of materials and by his organization of them, and he indulged his internationalism. In such societies as ancient Greece and Rome and Renaissance Italy, rather than in the narrow nationalisms of nineteenth-century Europe, he saw possibilities for humanism and culture: Greece, a loose collection of states and groups all calling themselves Hellenes; the Roman Empire, reaching from Africa to England and from Spain to the Byzantine hinterland; Italy, a warring agglomeration of political units of different structure, units sharing nonetheless a vision of a malleable and constructive antiquity and sharing a culture to which they made different contributions. His preference for these societies explains his prophetic pessimism about his own world. This pessimism has earned him, in our period, more admirers than it should have; his expansion of the legitimate activities of the historian is what makes him important.

Rosalie L. Colie

[See alsoHistory; and the biographies ofHuizingaandRanke.]


(1838–1852) 1930 Jacob BurckhardtGesamtausgabe. Volume 1: Frühe Schriften. Stuttgart (Germany): Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

(1853) 1949 The Age of Constantine the Great. London: Routledge; New York: Pantheon. → First published as Die Zeit Constantin’s des Grossen.

(1855) 1925 Der Cicerone: Eine Einleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens. Leipzig: Kröner. → Partially translated as The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Paintingin Italy for the Use of Travelers and Students and published by Scribner in 1908.

(1860) 1955 The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. London: Phaidon. → First published as Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien. A paperback edition in two volumes was published in 1958 by Harper.

(1867) 1891 Geschichte der neueren Baukunst. Volume 1: Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien. 3d ed. Stuttgart (Germany): Ebner.

(1898) 1950 Recollections of Rubens. Translation of Burckhardt’s essay by Mary Hottinger. London: Phaidon Press. → Published posthumously as Erinnerungen aus Rubens.

(1898–1902) 1956–1957 Griechische Kulturgeschichte. 4 vols. Basel: Schwabe. → An abridged translation was published in 1963 by Ungar as History of Greek Culture.

(1905) 1943 Force and Freedom: Reflections on History. New York: Pantheon. → Contains lectures delivered between 1868 and 1871. First published posthumously as Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen. A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Beacon.

Briefe. Edited by Max Burckhardt. 5 vols. Basel: Schwabe, 1949–1963. → The volumes published thus far include letters dated 1820 to 1875.

Jacob BurckhardtGesamtausgabe. 14 vols. Stuttgart (Germany): Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1929–1934.

Judgments on History and Historians. Translated by Harry Zohn. Boston: Beacon, 1958. → Contains lectures delivered between 1865 and 1882. First published posthumously as Historische Fragmente in 1957.


Ferguson, Wallace K. 1948 The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gilbert, Felix 1960 Cultural History and Its Problems. Pages 40–58 in International Congress of Historical Sciences, Eleventh, Stockholm, 1960, Rapports. Volume 1: Methodologie. Göteborg (Sweden): Almqvist & Wiksell.

Kaegi, Werner 1947–1956 Jacob Burckhardt: Eine Biographic. 3 vols. Basel: Schwabe. → A multivolume publication in progress.

Kaegi, Werner 1962 Europäische Horizonte im Denken Jacob Burckhardts: Drei Studien. Basel: Schwabe.

Löwith, Karl 1936 Jacob Burckhardt: Der Mensch inmitten der Geschichte. Lucerne: Vita Nova Verlag.

Weintraub, Karl 1966 Visions of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Jacob Christoph Burckhardt

Jacob Christoph Burckhardt

The Swiss historian Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (1818-1897) was a philosophical historian whose books dealt with cultural and artistic history and whose lectures examined the forces that had shaped European history.

Through the use of eyewitness accounts, diplomatic documents, and the contents of government archives, the teachers and contemporaries of Jacob Christoph Burckhardt sought to reconstruct political events "as they had really happened." Burckhardt, however, viewed history as the record of the achievement of the human spirit. Politics was only part of that record. The highest expression of any age was to be found in its poetry, art, literature, and philosophy. The historian's task was to seek the spirit these works expressed, so the reader might be "not smarter for the next time but wiser forever."

Burckhardt was born in Basel on May 25, 1818. His father, a pastor at the Basel Minster, was elected administrative head of the Reformed Church in the canton in 1838. The year before, Jacob had begun theological studies at the University of Basel. Within 18 months, however, he lost his orthodox religious beliefs and turned from theology to history. He studied in Berlin for 4 years, attending the lectures of Johann Droysen, August Boeckh, and Franz Kugler, and Leopold von Ranke's seminar. Burckhardt formed close friendships with a group of poets and students of revolutionary liberal political views.

In 1843 Burckhardt returned to Basel, where he took a post as political correspondent with the conservative Basler Zeitung, and lectured at the university on art history. He immersed himself in the political crisis then shaking Switzerland, a crisis brought on by the return of the Jesuits to the Catholic canton of Lucerne. Then in 1846, disgusted by what he had seen, he left for Italy. His political views had turned to cultural and aristocratic conservatism. During the next 12 years he taught and wrote in Berlin, Basel, and Zurich, with lengthy trips to Italy in 1847, 1848, and again in 1853 to prepare the Cicerone.

"The Age of Constantine" and "Cicerone"

During the winter of 1847-1848 Burckhardt planned a series of cultural histories, beginning with the age of Pericles and ending with the age of Raphael. The first to appear was The Age of Constantine the Great (1852). The structure of this work was one that Burckhardt would use again in his later cultural histories and analyze in detail in his Reflections on World History: the "three great powers"—state, religion, and culture—and the ways in which they determine each other. The book is thus concerned as much with art and literature as with politics and religion.

Burckhardt's Cicerone (1854) was "a guide for the enjoyment of art in Italy." In form a traveler's guidebook, it was in reality a history of Italian art. In it Burckhardt first tried to solve the problem of systematic art history, tried, as he later put it, to get away from "the mess of art history as the history of artists," to go beyond biography to the analysis of historical and geographical styles.

"The Civilization of the Renaissance"

While still a student in Berlin, Burckhardt had come to the conclusion that the French Revolution had "pulled the historical ground from under the feet" of all European peoples. Just as in art the styles of every age now coexisted, "one beside the other," with no single tradition dominating, so with the state "the nineteenth century began with a clean slate." The individual now had free choice in politics, and nothing to fall back on but his own "inner truth." The application of this insight to the culture of Renaissance Italy resulted in Burckhardt's masterpiece, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).

In this work Burckhardt proposed that the conflict between popes and emperors had deprived 13th-century Italy of legitimate political rule, had left it with that "clean slate" he saw in his own times. This climate allowed political units to appear "whose existence was founded simply on their power to maintain it." But it also freed the individual of all traditional constraints, whether political, religious, or social. Expressed through artistic and literary forms revived from antiquity, this freed and self-conscious individualism, this "genius of the Italian people … achieved the conquest of the western world." In the Italian Renaissance, Burckhardt saw the major characteristics of the modern world, its evil as well as its good.

Later Years

Burckhardt explained his thesis in his lectures of 1868-1869, "On the Study of History," in the course of a wide-ranging analysis of the "three powers" at the heart of his historical vision. Culture, in contrast to the constants, state and religion, "is the sum of those spiritual developments that appear spontaneously." Its form and its vehicle— language—are the product of societies and epochs, but its source is always the individual. To study culture is thus to study the individual giving expression to his place and his age as well as himself.

After publishing his notes on Italian architecture in 1867, Burckhardt prepared nothing more for the press but devoted himself until his retirement in 1893 to lecturing at the university. His series of cultural histories was never completed, but his lectures covered the entire sweep of European history from the ancient Greeks to the European crisis of 1870. In an age of ever-narrower nationalisms, Burckhardt reached back to the universal humanism of Goethe.

After 1870 Burckhardt became increasingly pessimistic about the future of European culture. Though he hoped for another Renaissance, he feared the arrival of the "fearful simplifiers," the demogogues who would lead the "masses" to tyranny and destroy the European culture he loved. "The world is moving toward the alternative of complete democracy or absolute, ruthless despotism," he wrote to a friend in 1882. The day would come when "the military state will turn industrialist." He withdrew to two sparsely furnished rooms above a bakery shop and devoted himself to his work on Italian art, which he never completed. He died on Aug. 8, 1897.

Further Reading

The definitive biography of Burckhardt is in German. In English, analyses of Burckhardt's work on the Renaissance are presented in Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (1948), and Karl J. Weintraub, Visons of Culture (1966). George P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; 3d ed. 1935; with new preface, 1959), analyzes Burckhardt's life and work. Hans Kohn, The Mind of Germany: The Education of a Nation (1960), and H. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, 1830-1880 (1966), are recommended for general historical background. □

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Burckhardt, Jacob Christoph

Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (yä´kôp krĬs´tôf bŏŏrk´härt), 1818–97, Swiss historian, one of the founders of the cultural interpretation of history. He studied under Ranke at the Univ. of Berlin and taught (1844–53, 1858–93) art history and history at the Univ. of Basel. His best-known work is Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, available in many English editions). It remains the classic on the subject, although its primarily political and cultural interpretation of the Renaissance is controversial among historians. Believing in a pattern of culture peculiar to each age, Burckhardt found the shift from corporate medieval society to the modern spirit occurring in Italy in the 14th and 15th cent. The strife between empire and papacy had created a political and moral vacuum, leading to the birth of the modern self-conscious state and the liberation of the creative individual. Burckhardt saw Renaissance humanism as the revival of classical antiquity, and the era as one of man's joyous new discovery of himself and the world about him. He profoundly influenced his friend Nietzsche, and the work of J. A. Symonds is based largely on Burckhardt's synthesis. In The Age of Constantine the Great (1852, tr. 1949), Burckhardt analyzed the transition from classical times to the Middle Ages. Among his other works on history and art is Cicerone (1855), a guide to Italian art. Selections from his posthumously published lecture notes on ancient Greece have appeared in translation as The Greeks and Greek Civilization (1998). Burckhardt feared that spiritual and aesthetic human values were doomed to submersion by the rise of industrial democracy.

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