Jacob Burckhardt Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Burckhardt, a uniquely gifted historian and literary artist, was a pioneer in the development of modern Kulturgeschichte, the study of nonpolitical aspects of civilization. His lasting contribution was in Renaissance historiography, where his work became a model for the treatment of culture in the study of civilization.

Early Life

Part of an influential, aristocratic Swiss family, Jacob Burckhardt recalled his early childhood in Basel as being very happy. For three centuries, Jacob’s ancestors utilized their financial abilities to amass a considerable fortune in the silk industry and international trade, which they parlayed into political power. The Burckhardts held one of the two burgomaster positions in the city for nearly two centuries, while other members of the family served the community as professors and clergymen. Jacob’s own father, one of the less affluent Burckhardts, studied theology in Heidelberg and was pastor of the Basel ministry at the time of his son’s birth. In 1838, the senior Burckhardt became the administrative head of the Reformed church in the Basel canton. Jacob recalled his father as being pleasant, a good scholar, and a capable artist. It was his father’s artistic ability that first stimulated the youth’s enduring love for art.

The joys of early childhood turned to sorrow with the unexpected death of his mother in 1830. This experience made a lasting impression on twelve-year-old Jacob, as he became painfully aware of the transitoriness of all living things. Throughout his adult life, Jacob experienced difficulty in establishing lasting relationships, and it may well have been memories of his mother’s death that influenced his decision to remain a bachelor.

Burckhardt’s patrician heritage instilled in him an aristocratic prejudice, a sensitivity to beauty and form, a deep, abiding respect for the dignity of mankind, and a Protestant morality, all of which would be reflected in his life as a teacher and scholar. As he matured into adulthood, however, his personal appearance seemed to belie his conservative nature. As a young man, he was notable for his uniquely stylish clothes, distinct coiffure, finger rings, and excessive taste for red wine and cigars. In later years, he dropped the foppish airs but retained his taste for wine and cigars.

The public school in Basel provided Burckhardt with an excellent primary education in the classics but left him undecided as to a vocation. After a brief stay in French-speaking Neuchâtel, where he wrote an essay on Gothic architecture, he entered the University of Basel in 1837 to study theology. Eighteen months later, he experienced a prolonged religious crisis that resulted in his abandoning his orthodox religious beliefs and rejecting the ministry. Because of the support and encouragement of his father, Burckhardt attended the University of Berlin from 1839 to 1843 to pursue his historical interests. While there, Burckhardt was praised by the renowned classical scholars August Boeckh and Johann Gustav Droysen for his extensive knowledge of antiquity, but Burckhardt ultimately took his degree in 1843 under the eminent scientific historian Leopold von Ranke. Burckhardt greatly admired Ranke and his seminars, but the two never established a close relationship. Although master and student have been used to illustrate two diametrically different approaches to historiography, it should be noted that Ranke had praise for his student, and in 1872 Burckhardt was offered the chair of history at the University of Berlin as Ranke’s successor—an offer that he refused because of his abhorrence of German politics.

Burckhardt’s closest association in Berlin was with the pioneer art historian Franz Kugler, who encouraged Burckhardt to combine his love for history with his love for art and directed the attention of the fledgling student to Italy and the Renaissance.

Life’s Work

In 1843, the University of Basel awarded Burckhardt a Ph.D. in absentia and the following year invited him to become a lecturer on history and art—a position he held with distinction for nearly fifty years. Because the university did not have an official vacancy until 1858, Burckhardt had to supplement his lecturing income with a variety of other jobs. For two years, he was the editor of the conservative Basler Zeitung, and he taught at the local grammar school for most of his career. In 1846, Burckhardt was given permission by the author to revise Kugler’s text on art history, which brought in some revenue, and he was offered a lucrative position at the Academy of Art in Berlin. Burckhardt had no desire to return to Berlin but did so out of friendship to Kugler. For the next twelve years, Burckhardt taught at Basel, Berlin, and Zurich, with lengthy visits to...

(The entire section is 1983 words.)