Review- Burckhardt, “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”

Jacob Burckhardt, “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” (1860) (translated from the German by S.G.C. Middlemore) – Do they even think there was a Renaissance anymore? I know referring to the “Dark Ages” is a big no-no amongst the medievalists I’ve known. I guess there could still be a relatively value-neutral “rebirth” of classical learning even if you reject the notion that the times before were especially dark and benighted… anyway, people still read Jacob Burckhardt’s history of the Italian Renaissance over a hundred fifty years later, or in any event Harvard Book Store keeps it in stock.

It’s a worthwhile endeavor even for an artistic philistine like me. Burckhardt was one of the progenitors of art history and of cultural history, the original version before theory-inflected cultural history 2.0 got its start in the late twentieth century. I don’t know nineteenth century historiography as well as I might, but Burckhardt seems to stand alone in his perspective: rigorously evidence-based, but free from the heavy systematizing of his historian brethren to the north in Germany (Burckhardt was Swiss). Matters unfolded according to a logic, but it was its own logic, if that makes sense, not that of a dialectic process or racial imperatives or the like.

But not unlike the other historians of the time, Burckhardt roots a lot in the state. Or, in Renaissance Italy’s case, the lack thereof; between foreign occupiers, Papal fecklessness, and city-states ruled by self-made tyrants and unstable republics, there wasn’t the same sort of emerging proto-state you got in England, France, and Spain (how Germany fits in to this scheme is an open question). Moreover, while religion as ritual continued to maintain its hold, religion as dogma and organizing mental principle was weakened both by the lack of a central state to enforce it and by the manifest self-interest and corruption of the Papacy. When the Pope is just another rival power-player, that tends to dampen his authority a touch. If Italy didn’t establish its own Protestantism, its because its energies were engaged elsewhere, and by the time Protestantism came about in Germany, the Spanish were able to firmly establish the Counter-Reformation in the Italian peninsula.

But above it all was the rediscovery of classical antiquity, as a model for art and for life- indeed, as a model for making life art in all of its aspects, from courtly conversation to mercenary warfare. This is what Burckhardt saw as the central result of the chaos reigning in Italy between 1350 and 1550- an exhilarating freedom from long-standing medieval arrangements in life and thought that produced much of what we think of as modern. Most spectacularly, Burckhardt claims the modern individual — self-contained, self-seeking, defined by their own traits instead of corporate ones, and living according to their own lights — first emerged en masse in Renaissance Italy. It was these individuals that brought about the flowering of art and culture that made the Renaissance a high point in civilization to those who thought/think in those terms.

I’m not sure what to make of this thesis. In some respects, it’s shockingly advanced, prefiguring theorists of the development of the self ala Foucault a century ahead of time. I’m not sure I buy the history- if anything, the Italians of the Renaissance were almost too individualistic to really be a model the modern subject, defined as they are by so many larger structural forces. But it’s a bravura concept nevertheless. It’s possible to get lost in the names and references to works of art (I had an illustrated version that broke apart at the spine, necessitating a visit to the bookstore for a new, non-illustrated copy) but the work retains its vitality. ****’

Review- Burckhardt, “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”

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