Burckhardt, Jacob

views updated Jun 08 2018


career and work
view of history and historiography

BURCKHARDT, JACOB (1818–1897), Swiss historian.

Jacob Christoph Burckhardt occupies a distinctive place among the great historians of the nineteenth century. He did not subscribe to the then widely held belief in historical progress, took a decidedly skeptical view of both liberalism and nationalism, and focused his attention on the history of cultures and the history of art rather than on political history and the history of nations.

Burckhardt was born on 25 May 1818 into a professional branch of a politically prominent merchant family in Basel, then an independent city-state within the Swiss Confederation—which, until 1848, was little more than a defensive alliance of small, independent polities, some rural, some urban, some democratic, some aristocratic, some, like Basel, dominated by their artisan guilds and commercial elites. His father was the city-state's Antistes, or chief pastor.


Burckhardt attended the local Gymnasium and the University of Basel. His teachers included refugees from the reactionary Germany of the Carlsbad Decrees, some of whom transmitted to their students the liberal spirit of Humboldtian neohumanism, with its ideal of individual freedom and personal development, while others introduced them to a form of textual criticism that undermined the historicity of many Biblical narratives. Burckhardt's Christian faith was shaken by this education and in 1839 he abandoned the theological studies he had been pursuing in deference to his father's wishes and switched to history. At the same time he transferred from the ancient but much diminished university of his homeland to the recently founded but already world-class University of Berlin. It was a natural move. Academic history at the time was often a secular narrative of redemption and Berlin was one of its centers.

Burckhardt's teachers there included Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) and the young Johann Gustav Droysen (1808–1884) in European and ancient history, August Böckh (1785–1867) in classical studies or Altertumswissenschaft, and Franz Kugler (1808–1858) in the new field of art history. From Ranke, for whose seminar he prepared his earliest published scholarly work—on topics of medieval history—and who thought well enough of him to propose him later, in 1854, for a Chair of History at Munich, he learned the importance for the practice of history not only of critical method and archival research but also of literary style, even though his own style, brusque and laconic, was quite different from Ranke's. From Droysen and Böckh he learned to question important aspects of the Winckelmannian, neohumanist vision of classical Greece that he had grown up with and to take an unbiased view of periods that, in comparison with Periclean Athens, had come to be labeled "decadent," such as the post-Alexandrian Hellenistic age and the age of Constantine—though his fresh approach to these periods was not inspired, as Droysen's was, by the conviction that theodicy is the highest goal of historical scholarship and that it is therefore the historian's task to discover the value of even the seemingly most unpromising times. To Kugler, who encouraged his interest in art, introduced him to the lively Berlin cultural scene, and invited him to take charge of a revised edition of his own Handbuch der Geschichte der Malerei seit Constantin dem Grossen of 1837 (Handbook of the History of Painting from Constantine the Great to the Present, 1862), he remained devoted all his life. Teacher and student dedicated works to each other, and Burckhardt modeled his first art history course at the University of Basel in 1851 on Kugler's 1839–1840 course in Berlin. In 1841 he spent a semester in Bonn where he formed a close friendship with Gottfried Kinkel (1815–1882), the future socialist and revolutionary hero, then a student of theology with a lively interest in the arts, and was drawn into Kinkel's circle of poetic and liberal-minded friends, the so-called Maikäfer. Through Kinkel's wife, Johanna Matthieux, he gained entrance to the fabled Berlin salon of Bettina von Arnim (1785–1859), where he pleased the hostess by his singing of lieder and may have encountered the young Karl Marx (1818–1883).

Burckhardt was multitalented. Like Droysen, he composed music and wrote poetry, and he sketched the buildings and paintings he saw on his travels with flair. Though he soon recognized that his true bent did not lie in music, poetry, or art, his intimate familiarity with all three was an invaluable asset to him as his focus shifted from political to cultural history.


For the first thirty years of his life Burckhardt was a political liberal in the sense that term had in early nineteenth-century Germany. That is, he identified with a common German fatherland, even though he was a citizen of an independent Swiss city-republic, and advocated a union of all the German-speaking lands on a liberal, constitutional basis. The fellow students to whom he became attached during the years at Berlin and Bonn were all restless, rebellious, idealist spirits. As for Basel, he complained constantly of the narrowness of its "purse-proud merchants" and of the "odious sympathy" of the ruling clique "for absolutism of every sort." His liberalism, however, was Humboldtian rather than Lockean. Its emphasis was less on the political freedom of the abstract individual subject than on the freedom of the concrete historical individual to develop his or her personality to the fullest extent possible without interference or obstruction from any external power. He was not an egalitarian and he was not a democrat.

Moreover, Burckhardt's sympathy with political liberalism declined drastically in the years 1844 and 1845 when Freischaren (volunteer brigades) from the Protestant Swiss cantons marched threateningly on the Catholic canton of Lucerne, which had abrogated legal restrictions on the Jesuits and invited them back to run its schools. Burckhardt was appalled and frightened by this demonstration of popular revolutionary force. He warned his romantic radical friends in Bonn that they were "political innocents" with no idea of the slavery they could expect "under the loudmouthed masses called 'the people'."

"Freedom and respect for law are indissolubly linked," he wrote in the Basler Zeitung, of which he had been appointed editor in 1843. The Swiss Civil War (between the mostly liberal, commercial, Protestant cantons favorable to an expansion of federal authority and the weaker, predominantly Catholic rural cantons fearful for their autonomy) aggravated Burckhardt's disillusionment with liberal politics. He had "quietly but completely fallen out" with "this wretched age," he told a friend, and "was escaping from it to the beautiful South, which has dropped out of history." History pursued him, however, for it was in the Eternal City that the Revolution of 1848 caught up with him. Burckhardt was convinced, like Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), that he was living in an Age of Revolutions, but unlike Tocqueville, he had come to believe that liberal policies were encouraging exorbitant popular demands that could be met in the end only by tyrannies of the Left or of the Right. The inevitable conflict between modern socialism and modern industrial capitalism, both of which promote uniformity and discourage independent thought, would destroy, he claimed, "the old culture of Europe." The moderate optimism of the years in Berlin and Bonn was lost for good.

career and work

The change in the political climate in the late 1840s and the change in Burckhardt's political views affected both his career decisions and his understanding of what history-writing was about.

In 1843 he had returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Basel, but had difficulty establishing himself in his homeland, where he was too familiar a figure not to be taken for granted. He got to teach occasional courses at the university, but failed to obtain a permanent position; he lectured on art to the general public; for a few years he served as editor of the Basler Zeitung; and he spent as much time as he could away from Basel, in Italy. Along with Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Städte (1862; Art works of the cities of Belgium), in which he first expressed his lifelong enthusiasm for Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), he added more publications: in 1847, a thoroughly revised edition of Kugler's 1837 Handbuch der Geschichte der Malerei, and a year later an augmented edition of Kugler's Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (Handbook of the history of art); in 1853, Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen (The Age of Constantine the Great, 1949), originally conceived as the first of a series of books on cultural rather than political history; and in 1855 Der Cicerone. Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens (The Cicerone, or Art Guide to Painting in Italy, 1873). In addition, he contributed hundreds of entries on art, among them several substantial short articles (for instance, those on Karl Friedrich Schinkel [1781–1841] and Johann Friedrich Overbeck [1789–1869]), to the ninth edition of the Brockhaus Conversations-Lexikon (1843–1848).

In 1855 Burckhardt was at last offered a permanent academic appointment—that of professor of art history at the newly founded Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, where his colleagues included Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), Gottfried Semper (1803–1879), and Francesco De Sanctis (1817–1883). Burckhardt's move to Zurich caused the Basel authorities finally to bestir themselves, and after three successful years at the Federal Polytechnic, the errant native son was brought back to his homeland to fill the Chair of History at the University of Basel. He occupied it until his retirement in 1886, and never again left Basel, except for trips to Italy or to museums in France, Germany, and England. He received offers from several far larger, more prestigious (and better paying) universities in Germany and in 1872 was sounded out about succeeding his old teacher Ranke in the Chair of History at Berlin. He turned everything down. "My business is simple," he declared. "It is to stay at my post."

After the appearance in 1860 of the work for which he is best known—Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien: Ein Versuch (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1878)—Burckhardt also stopped writing for publication, devoting himself entirely to his university teaching and to the public lectures he gave regularly to the citizens of Basel. With the exception of Geschichte der neueren Baukunst: Die Renaissance in Italien (The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance, 1985), which he allowed to be published in 1867 out of respect for his former teacher Kugler (it had been planned as volume four of Kugler's five-volume Geschichte der Baukunst [History of architecture]), all his other major works were put together from his lecture notes and published posthumously. These include Griechische Kulturgeschichte (1898–1902; The Greeks and Greek Civilization, 1998), Welt-geischichtliche Betrachtungen (1905; Reflections on History, 1943), the late essays "Das Altarbild" ("The Altarpiece in Renaissance Italy," 1988) "Das Porträt" (The portrait), and "Der Sammler" (The collector) in 1898, and his great tribute to Rubens, Erinnerungen aus Rubens (1898), the first two much edited, in the interest of readability, by his nephew Jacob Oeri. New works based on Burckhardt's lecture notes have continued to appear: in 1918 the well-attended public lectures he gave at Basel; in 1929, Historische Fragmente (Judgments on History and Historians, 1958), in 1974, Über die Geschichte des Revolutionszeitalters (On the history of the age of revolutions); and Aesthetic der bildenden Kunst (Aesthetics of the fine arts) in 1992. The year 2005 saw the publication, in English translation, of a manuscript as yet unpublished in German, Italian Renaissance Painting according to Genres. A complete edition of his works in fourteen volumes, with valuable introductions by a team of outstanding scholars, was published in Basel and Stuttgart from 1929 to 1934. Even so, philologically authentic texts of the lectures edited by Oeri are being issued in the early twenty-first century as part of a new edition of the Complete Works, the aim of which is to make Burckhardt's own voice more audible than in Oeri's smoothed out versions and to reveal the historian's thinking and writing processes.

Burckhardt's withdrawal to Basel and his decision to give up writing and publishing in favor of his teaching and public lecturing—that is to say, in favor of preserving authentic humanist culture, as he understood it, in at least one small but venerable European city—reflect not only his political disillusionment and a decidedly critical stance toward the modern world of mass communication, academic careerism, and institutionalized scholarship, but a well-considered and, at the time, original view of what the study of history is or should be about.

view of history and historiography

The lessons Burckhardt learned from the events of 1844–1845 in Switzerland and the 1848 Revolutions throughout Europe did not turn him into a radical pessimist. He no longer believed, as Droysen and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in their different ways both did, in a single movement of history toward freedom. He had simply ceased to believe in any underlying direction of history at all. If there was one, only the Divinity knew what it was. From a human perspective, history was constant change: it was by no means impossible, for instance, that the age of mass culture and mass politics would be followed by a new aristocratic age. The task of the individual was not therefore to try to second-guess a putative divine plan of history and then work to promote it. It was, first, by internalizing the literature, art, and experience of past humanity, to cultivate his own humanity and thus preserve in himself what had already been achieved; and second, to protect the cultural achievement of humanity as vigorously as possible, whatever the historical circumstances and the apparent "movement of history"—against these, in fact, if necessary—so that what had been achieved would not be squandered or destroyed but would continue to be available to succeeding generations. Each individual had to write his own historical role, in other words, in accordance with his or her moral and cultural values, not to fit a supposedly prescribed role. Similarly, both past and present actions and societies were to be judged in accordance with those same values, not measured and justified according to their contribution to some alleged "progress" of history.

Burckhardt's understanding and practice of historiography corresponds to this view of history. The aim of the historian, as he understood it, was not to promote ephemeral political ends, or to make his auditors—in his own case, the students and citizens of Basel—"shrewder (for next time)" but to make them "wiser (for all time)." The goal he set himself as a scholar-teacher was Bildung (which means the process of educating or forming a human being as well as the humane content with which that human being is informed), not Wissenschaft (positive or "objective" knowledge of external events and phenomena). Thus he turned away from the current practice of historiography as the establishing of facts and the narrating of events. Instead he devoted all his attention either to cultural history—the history of the ways in which human beings have organized their lives and made sense of their experiences—or to the history of art, one of the chief media, along with myth and literature, through which men and women have expressed their views of the world.

Through his teaching and writing on the history of art and on the history of culture (he taught art history at Basel in addition to his regular teaching of history, and in 1886 became the first occupant of a newly founded Chair of Art History at the university, a position he retained after he retired from the Chair of History and did not relinquish until 1893, four years before his death), Burckhardt hoped to develop in his audiences both the capacity for contemplative delight in the individual manifestations of human creativity and the habit of reflecting critically on the changing spectacle of human cultures, of weighing up the good and the bad, the losses and the gains, and of attending to the processes by which one culture is transformed into another, as during those periods of crisis or major transition that he especially liked to teach and write about (the Hellenistic age, the age of Constantine, the Renaissance). Contemplative delight (Anschauung, Genuss) was not, for him, a matter of pleasurable consumption. As well as a consolation in hard times, it was an essential transforming and humanizing activity. Similarly, coming to an understanding of historical processes was not a means of acquiring practical political skills for the here and now; on the contrary, it provided a degree of independence from history, an "Archimedean point"—similar to the city-state of Basel itself—from which the great pageant could be observed sine ira et studio (without bitterness or bias).

Burckhardt's position has been criticized—understandably—as an aestheticizing of history. But he was by no means indifferent to politics. He was keenly aware that political conditions, like religious beliefs, might be more or less favorable to that development of human culture that was the highest value he knew; he was also convinced that the goals of the three Potenzen (powers, energies) he had identified as the primary moving forces in history—the State, Religion, and Culture—were not by any means always in harmony. Though culture, for instance, which was material as well as mental and included economic activity as well as the arts, was dependent on the security provided by the state, its development might in certain cases undermine the state and thus the very condition of its own existence; equally, however, the state could develop in such a way that it undermined the culture that it was ideally its proper function to protect. Burckhardt's classic Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and many of his other major works are in fact explorations of the relations between the three Potenzen. Living, as he believed he was, in a time of cultural change comparable to the Hellenistic age or the age of Constantine, it was inevitable that he would follow developments in contemporary European politics and society with great, even anxious, attention.


Burckhardt is the father of modern cultural history, even though his interest was generally directed more toward intellectual and artistic culture than toward the material culture that engages contemporary cultural historians, with the result that his sources were chiefly literary and artistic rather than archival or archaeological. While his histories are not without significant narrative elements, they resemble modern narratives more than those of the nineteenth century. Instead of a sequence of events laid out with assurance by an omniscient narrator, they are full of uncertainties and aporias and are composed of synchronic tableaux that have a considerable degree of independence of each other. His Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, though much contested in the light of new ideas and new knowledge, is still the point of departure of all reflection on that period. His vision of Greek culture as agonal rather than harmonious has influenced all later scholars, albeit chiefly through its expression in the work of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900), who was his colleague and disciple at Basel and who sat in on his courses on Greek cultural history. His contribution to the history and aesthetics of art is only now being properly evaluated, but many of his ideas and methods were disseminated through the widely read works of his student Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945). As an analyst of modern society and politics, a critic of modern state power, and a prophet of totalitarian regimes to come, the Burckhardt revealed to the English-speaking public only with the belated translation and publication, during World War II, of Reflections on History touched many of the leading minds of the twentieth century, from Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) to Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), Karl Löwith (1897–1973), and Leo Strauss (1899–1973). Burckhardt's influence as a political thinker was especially strong during the Cold War.

See alsoHistory; Painting; Ranke, Leopold von.


Bauer, Stefan. Polisbild und Demokratieveständnis in Jacob Burckhardts "Griechischer Kulturgeschichte." Basel, 2001.

Dürr, Emil. Jacob Burckhardt als politischer Publizist mit seinen Zeitungsberichten aus den Jahren 1844/45. Zurich, 1937.

Gossman, Lionel. Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas. Chicago, 2000.

Hardtwig, Wolfgang. Geschichtsschreibung zwischen Alteuropa und moderner Welt: Jacob Buckhardt in seiner Zeit. Göttingen, 1974.

Hinde, John R. Jacob Burckhardt and the Crisis of Modernity. Montreal, 2000.

Kaegi, Werner. Jacob Burckhardt: Eine Biographie. 7 vols. Basel, 1947–1982.

Löwith, Karl. Jacob Burckhardt: Der Mensch inmitten der Geschichte. Berlin, 1936.

Martin, Alfred von. Nietzsche und Burckhardt. Munich, 1941.

Maurer, Emil. Jacob Burckhardt und Rubens. Basel, 1951.

Meier, Nikolaus. Stiften und Sammeln für die Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. Basel, 1997.

Salomon, Albert. "Jacob Burckhardt: Transcending History." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 6 (1945–1946): 225–269.

Sigurdson, Richard. Jacob Burckhardt's Social and Political Thought. Toronto, 2004.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. "Jacob Burckhardt." Proceedings of the British Academy 70 (1984): 359–378.

Wenzel, Johannes. Jacob Burckhardt in der Krise seiner Zeit. Berlin, 1967.

Lionel Gossman

Burckhardt, Jacob

views updated May 14 2018

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.

Jacob Christoph Burckhardt

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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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