Burckhardt, Jakob 1818–1897 Renaissance Historian
Jakob Burckhardt, who lived in Switzerland, was one of the most influential commentators on the Renaissance. His masterwork, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), shaped the direction of Renaissance studies for generations. It also inspired a popular fascination with the Renaissance period in the early 1900s.
Burckhardt's Life and Work. Born into an upper-class family in Basel, Switzerland, Burckhardt attended a high school that specialized in classical* languages and literature. He studied history at the University of Basel, receiving a doctorate in 1843 and a teaching position. He moved to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1855. Three years later he returned to Basel to become professor of history. He continued to teach and lecture in Basel until his retirement in 1893. He also traveled throughout western and central Europe, particularly Italy, to visit famous museums and monuments.
Burckhardt came up with the idea for his most famous work while in Rome in 1848. It took him another ten years to begin writing the book. Burckhardt approached history in a new and unconventional manner. Most historians of his time focused on strict, provable facts. Burckhardt considered it more useful to examine the way people saw and experienced the events of their time. Also, while most historians aimed to trace the causes and effects of specific events, Burckhardt chose to examine the overall trends that gave a period its unique character. His goal was to present a picture of an era, helping his reader understand the society and culture as a whole.
The Civilization of the Renaissance. Burckhardt divided his work into six sections. The first section focuses on forms of government during the Renaissance—princedoms (states ruled by one man, the prince*) and republics* (states ruled by many). Both forms encouraged individualism. In a princedom, the ruler had to rely on his own efforts. In a republic, the people were "subjects" of the government and saw themselves as individuals rather than as part of a group. The second section of the book explores this new concept of individualism. Burckhardt saw it as the key to the creative drive behind the greatest achievements of the Renaissance. He also believed that the new interest in individual works and deeds led to a renewed fascination with classical art and learning, which was central to the humanist* movement. He examined this topic in section three.
Section four discusses the Renaissance fascination with the world of nature. In Burckhardt's view, Renaissance thinkers drew connections between the laws of science, the beauty of the natural world, and the inner nature of humanity. His fifth section discusses Renaissance society and festivals. This section is not as well developed as the others. However, Burckhardt's discoveries later proved useful in developing the new disciplines of social history and sociology.
The book's final section, on morality and religion, is the most controversial. Burckhardt saw the Renaissance as the beginning of the modern world's departure from religious faith. However, this departure was not a deliberate, logical choice. Instead, it resulted from "wavering" between a Roman Catholic Church that had become corrupt and immoral and a new, human-centered worldview. In Burckhardt's view, neither of these forces produced true spiritual reform in Italy.
Burckhardt's work is far from comprehensive. It does not deal with economic conditions, and it devotes little attention to the art of the Renaissance. However, the book had an enormous influence on later historians. Even those who criticized Burckhardt's views praised his ability to examine so many aspects of the Renaissance in such detail.
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome
- * prince
Renaissance term for the ruler of an independent state
- * republic
form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living