(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.