Located on the Rhine River in Switzerland, the city of Basel was a center of publishing and humanist* scholarship during the Renaissance. Basel had been part of the Holy Roman Empire* during the Middle Ages. However, in 1501 it declared itself a "free city" and joined the Swiss Confederation, a group of cantons, or states, that had banded together for defense. With a population of about 10,000, Basel was one of the largest cities in the confederation.
The famous scholar Desiderius Erasmus made his home in Basel in the 1520s. Thanks largely to his influence, the city became a major center of humanist scholarship. Erasmus had come to the city to work with his friend the publisher Johann Froben, who printed many of Erasmus's works. He and other humanists played an important role in Basel's publishing industry. They served as editors and proofreaders on books of history and literature in Latin, Greek, and German. Basel also dominated the field of religious publishing in northern Europe. It produced high-quality Bibles and works of biblical scholarship.
Most of the city's printers belonged to the powerful Safran guild*, an organization that included such workers as papermakers, booksellers, mapmakers, and even goldsmiths and jewelers. The publishing industry helped support a great variety of artists, who provided illustrations for books. Many of Basel's artists specialized in religious images for religious services or personal prayers. Hans Holbein the Younger, who lived in the city, was known for his paintings, engravings, and illustrations.
Turmoil broke out in Basel during the Protestant Reformation*. On February 9, 1529, a Protestant mob attacked the Roman Catholic cathedral and many other churches in the city. Their four-hour rampage destroyed most of the city's religious art from the Middle Ages. After the attack, members of the town council who supported Catholicism fled the city. Those that remained behind voted to support the Reformation. Most Catholics left Basel, and the city became a center of Protestantism in northern Europe. As a result, its production of religious images ceased. The city lost its prominence in the arts and did not recover it until the 1800s.
- * 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
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
- * guild
association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches
Basel (bä´zəl) or Basle (bäl), Fr. Bâle, canton, N Switzerland, bordering on France and Germany. It is bounded in the N by the Rhine River (which becomes navigable in the canton) and in the S by the Jura Mts. Although it has industries, Basel is mainly a region of fertile fields, meadows, orchards, and forests. Its inhabitants are German-speaking and Protestant. The canton has been divided since 1833 into two independent half cantons—Basel-Land (1993 pop. 248,500), 165 sq mi (427 sq km), generally comprising the rural districts, with its capital at Liestal, and Basel-Stadt (1993 pop. 196,600), 14 sq mi (36 sq km), virtually coextensive with the city of Basel (1993 pop. 175,500) and its suburbs.
Divided by the Rhine, the city consists of Greater Basel (Grossbasel, left bank), which is the commercial and intellectual center, and Lesser Basel (Kleinbasel), where industry is concentrated. Basel is a major economic center and the chief rail junction and river port of Switzerland. It is also a financial center. The city is the seat of the Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industry and of the Swiss Industries Fair; it also has an important publishing industry. Other products are machinery and silk textiles.
Founded by the Romans (and named Basilia), it became an episcopal see in the 7th cent. It passed successively to the Alemanni, the Franks, and to Transjurane Burgundy. In the 11th cent. it became a free imperial city and the residence of prince-bishops. The celebrated Council of Basel (see separate article) met there in the mid-15th cent. Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501 and accepted the Reformation in 1523. Although expelled from the city, the bishops continued to rule the bishopric of Basel (including Porrentruy and Delémont, which in 1815 became part of Bern canton and in 1979 part of Jura canton). The oppressive rule of the city's patriciate over the rest of the canton led to revolts (1831–33) and the eventual split into two cantons.
One of the oldest intellectual centers of Europe, Basel has through its university (founded 1460 by Pius II) attracted leading artists, scholars, and teachers. It was the residence of Froben, Erasmus, Holbein the Younger, Calvin, Nietzsche, and the Bernoulli family. Jacob Burckhardt and Leonhard Euler were born there. Among the city's noted structures are the cathedral (consecrated 1019), in which Erasmus is buried; the medieval gates; several guild houses; the 16th-century town hall; the Kunstmuseum with a valuable collection of Holbein's works; and the Fondation Beyeler, a modern-art museum designed by Renzo Piano. The city has many other art galleries and museums. Basel's St. Johann neighborhood is the site of a number of buildings by such outstanding contemporary architects as Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, and Yoshio Taniguchi.