chapter  20
Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Jacob Burckhardt, 1818–1897)
Pages 5

Burckhardt was the son of a clergyman, studied theology for a time, and lost his faith before he was 20. History soon filled whatever void there was. His student days included time in Basel, Berlin, and Bonn to study history and art history, the latter an emerging field in which he became a major player with a book on Renaissance architecture. For most of his career he was content to be professor of art history and civilization at the University of Basel. He turned down offers of professorships at Tübingen and Berlin, the latter vacated by Leopold von Ranke on his retirement, with whom he had studied earlier. In 1853 he published The Age of Constantine the Great, which

examines the decay of Rome’s empire and the success of Christianity.

The next couple of years were spent traveling in Italy to amass observations and materials for a renowned travel book, The Cicerone: A Guide to Works of Art in Italy, which displays unsurpassed knowledge of painting, sculpture, and architecture. It was his first trip to Italy at age 19, however, that first aroused an enduring affection for things Italian. He was unimpressed by the cultural depth of his time: “The age in which we live is loud enough in proclaiming the worth of culture, and especially of the culture of antiquity. But the enthusiastic devotion to it, the recognition that the need of it is the first and greatest of all needs, is nowhere to be found in such a degree as among the Florentines of the fifteenth and the early part of the sixteenth centuries” (161). Although published 150 years ago, Burckhardt’s account of the

Renaissance, like Gibbon’s work on the decline and fall of Rome, has not been rendered obsolete by later scholarship. The book is still widely read and regarded as authoritative and innovative. Its immediate significance is a focus on cultural history as a discipline within Western historiography. He explained that “sources” include the life of a people at all levels and not just what is found in books, and called for subject matter and perspectives beyond politics and warfare. In the title, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, the word “Kultur”

does not quite mean “civilization” as the idea was understood in his time. It implies a breadth of approach that includes aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological as well as material, political, institutional, and social developments. In German idealist thought of the period, a distinction was drawn between kultur and zivilization, the former referring to “higher” activities of mind and spirit, the latter to “lesser” issues of material life, institutions and politics. It is not clear that Burckhardt was influenced by that school of thought. His intention was to bring a historical period, the Italian Renaissance between 1350 and 1550, into focus as a whole, although he confesses frankly the problems of doing so: “It is the most serious difficulty of the history of civilization that a great intellectual process must be broken up into single and often into what seem arbitrary categories, in order to be in any way intelligible” (3). The fragmented Italian peninsula was nevertheless a scene of unique, fundamental change that involved many intertwined features without which “the Renaissance would not have been the process of world-wide significance which it is, if its elements could be easily separated from one another” (128). It is commonly believed and taught that recovery of classical

learning and art is central to the Renaissance. Burckhardt argues it

was only one of many developments: “We must insist upon it, as one of the chief propositions of this book, that it was not the revival of antiquity alone, but its union with the genius of the Italian people which achieved the conquest of the western world” (Ibid.). The essence of that conquest, proposed no less as inception of the modern world, was an enhancement of individual consciousness and a thirst for greatness at all levels of society and culture. In that sense, “ … the Italian Renaissance must be called the leader of modern ages” (416). The text is divided into six parts: The State as a Work of Art, The

Development of the Individual, The Revival of Antiquity, The Discovery of the World and of Man, Society and Festivals, Morality and Religion. Each part has from three to 11 sub-sections, such as War as a Work of Art, Personality, Propagators of Antiquity, The Natural Sciences in Italy, Equality of Men and Women, and General Spirit of Doubt. The style in translation from the German is lucid, eloquent without flourishes, and carries the reader along with confident ease. Scholarship is integrated into the text with frequent and specific allusions to sources, but without footnotes. Burckhardt displays measureless knowledge and experience throughout. He examined and mastered innumerable chronicles, treatises, histories, letters, poems, plays, and other documents. With regard to one instance of brutal conspiracy, he puts a reader in the chair with him by saying: “The way in which all of this is narrated by Caracciola and Porzio makes one’s hair stand on end” (31). He organizes a steady procession of despots, popes, cardinals, poets,

scholars, artists, and others. His grasp of Italian poetry and drama is applied to the unique unfolding of “inward life” (229 ff ). Unexpected but illuminating facts emerge on every page: “A constant invitation to parody was offered by the ‘Divine Comedy,’ and Lorenzo il Magnifico wrote the most admirable travesty in the style of the ‘Inferno’ (Simposio or I Beoni)” (119). Provocative judgments are delivered and justified without hesitation. Among Italian cities, for example, Florence and Venice were “of deep significance for the history of the human race” (51). Florence, made famous by its historians, Bruni, Varchi, Machiavelli, “deserves the name of the first modern State in the world” (61). Venice “at the end of the fifteenth century was the jewel-casket of the world” (51). It was “the birthplace of statistical science” and the state’s “supreme objects were the enjoyment of life and power, the increase of inherited advantages, the creation of the most lucrative of industry, and the opening of new channels of commerce” (57-58). For Burckhardt, “individualism” was pervasive during the

Renaissance because conditions were right. Elsewhere in Europe the

corporate institutions of feudalism held on even as centralized monarchies were being formed in England, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, while “Italy had shaken it off almost entirely” (4). The Papacy was strong enough to prevent Italian unity but not to achieve it. Between the great monarchies and the Papacy lay the rest of Italy: … “a multitude of political units-republics and despots-in part of long standing, in part of recent origin, whose existence was founded simply on their power to maintain it. In them for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe … ” (Ibid.). In this loose assemblage of Italian states, the idea of being a citizen of the world appeared first rather than in Voltaire’s France or Pierre Bayle’s Holland: “The cosmopolitanism which grew up in the most gifted circles is in itself a high stage of individualism” (103). In this arena of competing despotisms, whose rulers struggled to

survive and improve their advantages, the individual flourished. While servitude under the despots is a fact, it is also a fact that “political impotence does not hinder the different tendencies and manifestations of private life from thriving in the fullest vigour and variety … a municipal freedom which did not cease to be considerable, and a Church, which unlike that of the Byzantine or of the Mohammedan world, was not identical with the State-all these conditions undoubtedly favoured the growth of individual thought, for which the necessary leisure was furnished by the cessation of party conflicts” (102). Religious indifference and unbelief were evident and tolerated so long as the Church, as opposed to its officers, was not attacked directly. Whatever the excesses and shortcomings of tyrannies in Italy, ruled

by men undeterred by religious or moral scruples, “a new fact appears in history-the State as the outcome of reflection and calculation, the State as a work of art” (4). The “artists” who fashioned states like sculptors working marble were men like Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini, whose “unscrupulouness, impiety, military skill, and high culture have been seldom combined in one individual … ” (28). Relations of these despotisms to one another and to foreign governments were also a result of “reflection and careful adaptation” (71). Foreign relations were calculated works of art. Warfare also became a work of art. Italy first used mercenary troops

and exploited the new technology of firearms and advanced military engineering: “In Italy, earlier than elsewhere, there existed a comprehensive science and art of military affairs” (78). Generalship was valued for its own sake as a source of fame and power as well as conquest. The mercenary Condottiere who led troops were self-serving,

practical, rational, and “unsentimental,” respectful only of demonstrated personal merit. Individualism was promoted by despots and Condottiere who valued it in the men who served them, all of whom were gripped by a “desire to obtain the greatest satisfaction from a possibly very brief period of power and influence” (101). These passions overwhelmed the Papacy with “simony, nepotism,

prodigality, brigandage, and profligacy” (95). More was to be feared for Papal stability from the character of Popes than from the aggression of rival states. Cardinals paid huge sums for their hats, and were then murdered by some pontiffs so their assets could be confiscated: “ … all means of compulsion, whether temporal or spiritual were used without scruple for the most questionable ends, and to these all the other objects of the Apostolic See were made subordinate” (84). The result was nearly its extinction in the hands of Alexander VI and his menacing son, Cesare Borgia, a military-political prodigy who sought to protect Papal States at all costs, and feared by the Pope himself. As a sign of the times, Burckhardt includes their joint deaths as the result of carelessly ingesting a poisonous sweetmeat intended for a Cardinal (91). Salvation for the Papacy came with the Reformation. Burckhardt sees everywhere “frightful evidence of boundless

ambition and thirst after greatness, regardless of means or consequences … a burning desire to achieve something great and memorable” (114-15). Recognition through personal effort alone required a freedom of individual action that was not confined to despots, Popes, and generals, for artists, poets, architects, scholars, and engineers were similarly motivated. He notes “the increase in the number of complete men during the fifteenth century … When this impulse to the highest individual development … had mastered all the elements of the culture of the age, then arose the ‘all-sided man’—‘l’uomo universale’—who belonged to Italy alone” (104). Leon Battista Alberti, athlete, horseman, scholar, musician, architect, painter, sculptor, poet, author, is a model of fully developed individualism that “entered into the whole life around him” (106-7). The ideal courtier (Cortigiano) described by Baldassare Castiglione, and lived by Alberti, “was regarded by the civilization of that age as the choicest flower” (287). Women shared in this drive for personal achievement and distinc-

tion: “For, with education, the individuality of women in the upper classes was developed in the same way as that of men … There was no question of ‘women’s rights’ or female emancipation, simply because the thing itself was a matter of course” (103-4). Burckhardt’s argument that Renaissance individualism inaugurated

the modern world is rivaled by other candidates for priority-notably