Jacob Burckhardt Essay - Critical Essays

Burckhardt, Jacob


Jacob Burckhardt 1818-1897

(Full name Jacob Christoph Burckhardt) Swiss historian and art critic.

Burckhardt is remembered as the preëminent cultural historian of his era and the creator of the period concept of the Renaissance. His most important work, which gained a general as well as a scholarly readership, is Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860; The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy). A notable stylist, Burckhardt was also an art critic, and his work is characterized by vivid description and an appreciation for detail.

Biographical Information

Burckhardt was born in Basel in 1818, the son of a pastor. His parents hailed from families that had long been prominent in the history of Basel, and this fact is often invoked to explain his later anti-democratic outlook. After abandoning theological studies at the University of Basel, Burckhardt traveled to Berlin, where he attended lectures by the noted historian Leopold von Ranke and the art historian Franz Kugler. Training as a historian himself, he focused his attention on northern European medieval art. Burckhardt returned to Basel in 1843, taking a position as a newspaper correspondent and lecturing at the University. In the following years, he made several extended journeys to Italy and became fascinated with the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. His first major publication was Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen (1852; The Age of Constantine the Great). Burckhardt then turned his attention to the Renaissance, first writing Der Cicerone: Eine Einleitung zum Genuss Kunstwerke Italiens (1855; The Cicerone: A Guide to the Enjoyment of the Artworks of Italy) and then his acknowledged masterwork, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. In 1855 he was appointed professor of art history at Zurich, and in 1858 he became professor of history at the University of Basel. He subsequently focused all his energies on lecturing. Although he spent some time preparing his lectures for publication, he did not complete this project by the time of his death.

Major Works

The term Renaissance—referring to the revival of classical learning in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries in Italy—was already in use by the time Burckhardt wrote his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. However, Burckhardt was the first historian to attempt a broad description of Italian society, to capture the spirit of the age, to understand the lives and personalities of Renaissance men. His understanding of the Italian Renaissance, with its emphasis on unbridled individualism, has been attacked from many directions, but the modern conception of the period—both scholarly and popular—is essentially that formulated by Burckhardt. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and to a lesser extent the earlier Age of Constantine the Great and the posthumous Griechische Kulturgeschichte (1898-1902; The Cultural History of Greece), also laid the foundations for contemporary cultural history and social history. Rejecting prevailing chronological history, Burckhardt declined to reconstruct past events, providing instead an image of a society in a given age by examining conditions, customs, world views, and motivations. To this end, he relied heavily on original sources, which he prized more for their "flavor" than their historical accuracy. His training and continuing research as an art historian also allowed him to draw on the art and architecture of the cultures he sought to portray. He chose as his subjects mainly periods of transition, times of upheaval when an old order had given way to a new age. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Burckhardt did not believe in progress, and this fact most likely contributed to his lack of interest in historical development. He also stood out for his refusal to develop a philosophy of history or a system by which to explain everything that had ever happened. He claimed he had no head for philosophy and no use for systems, insisting instead on an immediacy of perception enabled by immersion in the source material and visible culture of the societies he studied. His informal, flexible style, his eye for vivid detail and telling anecdote, and his mastery in assembling his materials allowed his readers to share in that perception. Burckhardt described his historical method most extensively in Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (1905; Reflections on World History, a work also published as Force and Freedom), a posthumous publication prepared from his lecture notes.

Critical Reception

Although the works Burckhardt published during his lifetime generally received favorable notice, he was out of step with most of the historians of his own age. It was not until the twentieth century that his work, particularly the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, received widespread attention. This popularity resulted in the posthumous publication of lecture notes, letters, and other documents, most prominently the Reflections on World History. Not only his scholarship but his pessimism appealed to disillusioned audiences throughout western society. One unforeseen result was an almost equally widespread misreading of Burckhardt's conception of the Italian Renaissance. The popular version of his findings came under sharp attack. Among other things, he was accused of having ignored continuities between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, of having misrepresented Renaissance attitudes to religion, and of having misunderstood the economic conditions that enabled the flowering of Renaissance culture. However, by the mid-twentieth century, in part through the work of such eminent Renaissance scholars as Wallace K. Ferguson and Hans Baron, a more balanced assessment in large part vindicated Burckhardt's scholarship. His historical method has fared less well. Philosophers Benedetto Croce and Reinhold Niebuhr have attacked his position, while a generation of scholars has identified a range of philosophical biases in what Burckhardt professed to be an approach free of philosophy.

Principal Works

Die Zeit Constant ins des Grossen [The Age of Constantine the Great] (history) 1852

Der Cicerone: Eine Einleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens [The Cicerone: A Guide to the Enjoyment of the Artworks of Italy] (guidebook) 1855

Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien [The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy] (history) 1860

Die Geschichte der Renaissance (history) 1867

Griechische Kulturgeschichte [The Cultural History of Greece] (history) 1898-1902

Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen [Force and Freedom: Reflections on World History] (essays) 1905


Reinhold Niebuhr (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "Jacob Burckhardt: Force and Freedom: Reflections on History," in A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader: Selected Essays, Articles, and Book Reviews, edited by Charles C. Brown, Trinity Press International, 1992, pp. 138-40.

[Niebuhr, considered one of the most important and influential Protestant theologians in twentieth-century America, is the author of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944) and Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953). In the following excerpt from a review originally published in the Nation in 1943, Niebuhr summarizes Burckhardt's philosophy as an historian and its significance to the modern world.]


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Wallace K. Ferguson (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Burckhardt and the Formation of the Modern Concept," in The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948, pp. 179-94.

[In the following excerpt, Ferguson, a noted Renaissance historian, describes the structure and argument of Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and evaluates the continuing validity of Burckhardt's portrait of the age.]

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt's masterpiece, was planned as an investigation of the inner spirit of Italy during the Renaissance.… Its subtitle, "An Essay," was not merely the product of his accustomed...

(The entire section is 2353 words.)

Arnaldo Momigliano (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Introduction to the Griechische Kulturgeschichte by Jacob Burckhardt," in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, Wesleyan University Press, 1977, pp. 295-305.

[Originally published as the introduction to an Italian edition of The Cultural History of Greece, the following essay places Burckhardt's book in its contemporary intellectual context.]

An inspired teacher with a natural aptitude for collecting together his researches and reflections and presenting them clearly and calmly, Burckhardt was able, as were few other historians, to express his ideas in courses of lectures. This is particularly true of the Griechische Kul...

(The entire section is 3221 words.)

Karl Löwith (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Burckhardt," in Meaning in History, The University of Chicago Press, 1957, pp. 20-32.

[In the excerpt below, Lowith discusses Burckhardt's understanding of political continuity, with special reference to Reflections on World History.]

The proper purpose of Burckhardt's lifelong study and teaching of history was neither to construct "world history" philosophically nor to promote technical scholarship but to develop the historical sense. His course on history was intended as an introduction to the study of "the Historical," in order to stimulate the genuine appropriation of those periods of our history which may appeal individually. For to him history was not an...

(The entire section is 2463 words.)

Karl J. Weintraub (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Burckhardt, 1818-1897," in Visions of Culture: Voltaire, Guizot, Burckhardt, Lamprecht, Huizinga, Ortega y Gasset, University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 115-60.

[In the excerpt below, Weintraub discusses Burckhardt's approach to art and art history.]

Burckhardt's reluctance to theorize must not be confused with dislike for generalization or structuring principles, nor should he be compared with the hesitant factual historian who makes a meager virtue of accurate detail at the cost of any larger vision. Burckhardt had a pronounced love for details, but he criticized the busy piling-up of more and more unwanted facts.… As art historian he sought to rise above...

(The entire section is 3547 words.)

Hayden White (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Burckhardt: Historical Realism as Satire," in Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, pp. 230-64.

[Below, White analyzes Burckhardt's work within the framework of a structuralist theory of historiography. He emphasizes the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer on Burckhardt's thought.]

The German philosopher and historian of ideas Karl Lowith argued that it was only with Burckhardt that the "idea of history" was finally liberated from myth, and from that nefarious "philosophy of history" spawned by the confusion of myth with historical knowledge which had dominated historical thought from the early...

(The entire section is 4882 words.)

Erich Heller (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Burckhardt and Nietzsche," in The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, pp. 67-88.

[In the excerpt below, Heller describes Burckhardt's approach to original source material, positing an affinity between that employed by the historian and by the poet Goethe.]

When in 1495 Raphael was apprenticed to Pietro Perugino at Perugia, this city was one of the many Renaissance centres of political strife, moral outrage and ruthless violence. Matarazzo, the chronicler of the Perugia of that time, relates in some detail the story of the two rival families, the Oddi and the Baglioni, interlocked in a deadly...

(The entire section is 2511 words.)

Russell Kirk (review date 1980)

SOURCE: "Irrational Behavior? No, Historical Experience," in The Birmingham News, March 2, 1980, p. E8.

[An American historian, political theorist, novelist, journalist, and lecturer, Kirk was one of America's most eminent conservative intellectuals. His works have provided a major impetus to the conservative revival that has developed since the 1950s. In the following excerpt from a review of Reflections on History, Kirk offers high praise for Burckhardt as a wise and prescient historian.]

[Reflections on History] is a handsomely produced edition of lectures delivered a century ago by the great Swiss historian [which] contains an informative...

(The entire section is 333 words.)

Hans Baron (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Limits of the Notion of 'Renaissance Individualism': Burckhardt after a Century," in In Search of Florentine Civic Humanism: Essays on the Transition from Medieval to Modern Thought, Vol. II, Princeton University Press, 1988, pp. 155-81.

[In the excerpt below, Baron evaluates Burckhardt's concept of the Renaissance, assessing criticisms of it and outlining two areas of weakness in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.]

September 1960 marked the hundredth year since the appearance of Jacob Burckhardt's Kultur der Renaissance in Italien. No other work has had a comparable influence on the formation of the historical concept of the...

(The entire section is 5313 words.)

William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Burckhardt's Renaissance," in The Idea of the Renaissance, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 3-35.

[In the following excerpt, Kerrigan and Braden analyze Burkhardt's understanding of Renaissance individualism and posit that, in Burckhardt's view, the concept of honor provides the only counterbalance to the destructiveness of unbridled individualism.]

In the offing [in the stories about the spiteful wit Pietro Aretino] is one of Burckhardt's most troubled points about the individualism that he is sometimes taken merely to celebrate. Emperors aspire to uniqueness. A private selfhood that adopts in metaphorical form the authority and autonomy of...

(The entire section is 3256 words.)

Felix Gilbert (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Burckhardt's Concept of Cultural History," in History: Politics or Culture, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 46-80.

[In the following excerpt, Gilbert describes Burckhardt's intended projects in his early career and one of his early works, The Age of Constantine the Great.]

When his years of study came to an end, Jacob Burckhardt decided to work in a particular field of history: in cultural history. What did that decision mean? What did he understand by this term? Did his conception of cultural history undergo significant changes in the course of his life? These are the questions with which this chapter is concerned.

In the early 1840s,...

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Further Reading


Kaegi, Werner. Jacob Burckhardt: Eine Biographie. 8 vols. Basel: Schwabe, 1947-85.

Standard biography, in German.


Gay, Peter. "Burckhardt: The Poet of Truth." In his Style in History, pp. 139-82. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Analyzes Burkhardt's literary style, with particular regard to The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

Jensen, De Lamar. "Burckhardt's Renaissance: A Centenary Appraisal." Western Humanities Review XV, No. 4 (Autumn 1961): 309-24.

Detailed discussion of the reception of The Civilization of the...

(The entire section is 190 words.)