The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Revival of Civilization

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, London, Phaidon Press, 1960, 462 pp.

The Renaissance is a period of European history which is of interest to people for many different reasons. For art aficionados the Renaissance was the era of the great masters - Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, and so many others. For people who love political plots and schemes and intrigues the Renaissance was the age of the Medici, Sforzas, and of course the Borgias, and for those who take a more theoretical approach to politics modern political science was born in the Renaissance in the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. The rediscovery and emulation of the Greco-Roman culture of classical antiquity makes the Renaissance an essential period of time for classicists, and for those of a scientific bent, the Renaissance was a time of ground-breaking discoveries about the natural world. It is the historical backdrop to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

The Renaissance is also an important historical period because it is the transition period between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. An early stage of the spirit of the Modern Age is discernible in the intellectual and cultural movement called humanism which developed in the Renaissance. Today, the term humanism refers to secular humanism, a movement which believes that religion should be completely a matter of private belief and should not be part of the organization of society. This rabid hostility towards religion was not present in Renaissance humanism, which was born centuries before the Enlightenment Project began, but the earlier humanism involved a transfer of focus from God to man which was arguably one of the first steps in the development of what would eventually become the later, secular humanism. The blessings and curses of the Modern Age both have their roots in the Renaissance.

Despite all of this it is only quite recently that we began to think and speak of this period as “the Renaissance”. The term “Renaissance” signifies a re-birth and the concept behind the term was that of a renewing of the high cultural achievements of the civilization of the ancient world. While some art critics such as Vasari, who dismissed medieval art as barbaric (1) had considered the new classical style to be a re-birth it was in the 19th Century that historians began to regard the 14th-16th centuries as the distinct period of cultural achievement that we think of as “the Renaissance” today.

Although he was not the first to write about the Renaissance, credit for making it a firmly established part of our understanding history must be given to Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt. Jacob Burckhardt, who was born into a prominent family in Basel, where he lived and taught for most of his life, was the son of a Protestant clergyman who ministered at the Basel cathedral. Like the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, another parson’s son who would become his student and for a brief time his colleague (2), Burckhardt initially began his academic career as a student of theology. History, however, would come to take the place of the queen of the sciences in his heart, and especially the history of art. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of art history as a serious academic discipline

It is remarkable therefore, that his most widely known book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, is not about art and does not include a section on art. The author himself, on the very first page draws our attention to this fact by stating that he had intended “to fill up the gaps in this book by a special work on the ‘Art of the Renaissance’” but had only done so in part. That he did not complete this intended work is unfortunate for the history of art.

In the same context Burckhardt had lamented what he called “the most serious difficulty of the history of civilization”, namely, “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”. This is a description of the structure of his own book. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is divided into six sections the largest of which are the first “The State as a Work of Art” and the last “Morality and Religion”. The other sections are “The Development of the Individual”, “The Revival of Antiquity”, “The Discovery of the World and of Man”, and “Society and Festivals”.

His misgivings about breaking down the Renaissance into categories appear to have been groundless because a unifying concept of the Renaissance does emerge towards which each of the sections contributes. The Italian Renaissance, as Burckhardt conceived it, was the first modern civilization, in which the individualism, humanism, scientific pursuits, and other characteristics of the modern age are first born in a country where the political foundations of modernity had not yet been laid.

Therefore, in “The State as a Work of Art”, we find a multi-layered account of the political situation in Renaissance Italy. There is a faithful narrative of the misdeeds and achievements of the Borgias, Visconti, and all the other colourful characters of this time and place, the sort of thing most historians would be interested in both in Burckhardt’s own day and our own. There is a comparison of the two basic kinds of city-states which existed in Italy at that time. Then there is an account of a nation-state, struggling to emerge in a country where feudalism had not developed in the direction of national unity as it had elsewhere in Europe.

It is this last concept, of how the dream of national unity underlay the aspirations and ambitions of Signoria and republican theorists alike, that contributes the most to the overall picture of the Renaissance Burckhardt was painting and he introduced the theme early by writing:

The struggle between the Popes and the Hohenstaufen left Italy in a political condition which differed essentially from that of other countries of the West. While in France, Spain and England the feudal system was so organized that, at the close of its existence, it was naturally transformed into a unified monarchy, and while in Germany it helped to maintain, at least outwardly, the unity of the empire, Italy had shaken it off almost entirely.

In the absence of that unity, Italy consisted of a number of city-states, some of which were republics governed by a senate, others of which were dominated by families which had attained wealth and then power through the hired soldiers called Condottieri, the leaders of which Burckhardt calls “despots” to distinguish them from the governing houses which had emerged from feudalism elsewhere in Europe. These sought legitimacy and security for their dynasties and dreamed of uniting Italy. Poets like Dante and Petrarch sought to capture the spirit of a national Italy in verse. These dreams of a politically unified Italy went unfulfilled, however. Italy would not be united until a year after Burckhardt’s book was first published in the 19th Century.

If a modern nation-state did not quite materialize in Renaissance Italy, modern individualism did. This, according to Burckhardt, made the Italian “the firstborn among the sons of modern Europe”. The consciousness of the individual personality, developed in both types of city-states alike, as man who had previously “been conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category” began to separate his outward view of the world from his inward view of himself.

This sense of the individual, according to Burckhardt, took its highest form in the universalism of the Renaissance humanism, both in the cosmopolitan belief that the learned man is at home everywhere expressed by Dante and Ghiberti and in the ideal of “’l’ uomo universale’”, the man who possesses knowledge in many different areas. Dante, Leon Battista Alberti, and Leonardo da Vinci are given as examples of this ideal and today we still speak of someone whose expertise covers many areas in which most people concentrate and specialize on one as a “Renaissance Man”.

This new individualism manifested itself in a number of different ways. Glory and honour, previously attached to groups and classes, now took the individual form that we know today as “fame”. The pursuit of fame led to great achievements, but also created many problems. “The corrective”, Burckhardt wrote “not only of this modern desire for fame, but of all highly developed individuality, is found in ridicule, especially when expressed in the victorious form of wit”. The latter “could not be an independent element in life till its appropriate victim, the developed individual with personal pretensions, had appeared”.

Following the short but pivotal section on the individual, Burckhardt turned to the aspect of the Renaissance which gave it its name, the rediscovery and revival of ancient civilization. He began by criticizing the term as being “one-sided”, which today seems more than a little ironic in light of the extent to which this very book popularized the term. Burckhardt insisted that it is “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.”

This is how Burckhardt regarded history. A particular people in a specific time period would have a certain spirit which manifested itself in everything they did so as to lend its character to the era itself. In this case it was the spirit of the individualistic, non-politically unified, Italian people which manifested itself in the Renaissance. The renewal of the classical was a manifestation of that spirit, not that spirit itself. It was a spiritual movement, Burckhardt argues, in which the Italian people, no longer effectively ruled by either the Holy Roman Empire or the papacy, “awakened to self-consciousness, sought for some new and stable ideal on which to rest” finding it in the world empire of ancient Rome.

This vision of the ideal of ancient Rome inspired the study of ancient Rome, of the architecture of classical Rome still visible in a dilapidated form in the ruins of ancient buildings and roads, and more importantly in classical literature. Study of the classical languages, first Latin, a dialect of which had evolved into Italian, and then Greek became an important pursuit. People who had the wealth to do so (and some, like the monk who would become Pope Nicholas V, who did not) began to collect large libraries of classical manuscripts, and the science of textual criticism was born.

An awakened people, however, captured by the vision of an ancient civilization from which they could claim descent, was not satisfied and could not be satisfied, by treating that civilization as something dead to be viewed in a museum. The next step was to translate the Roman ideal into contemporary – for the 14th to 16th centuries – Italian. Enter the humanists. Dante (3), Petrarch, Boccaccio and their successors, imitated and built upon classical literary models, to give new life to Italian literature.

Humanism was not contained within the realm of literature, however, but spread throughout the universities, transforming existing disciplines and creating new ones, and laying the foundation for the modern approach to the humanities. The desire to discover the world gave birth to the exploration of men like Christopher Columbus and to a deep interest in the natural sciences. (4) This in turn led to new discoveries which provided inspiration for poetry and literature.

The renewal of civilization did not take place in an academic world cut off from the society around it. “Every period of civilization, which forms a complete and consistent whole manifests itself not only in political life, in religion, art, and science, but also sets its characteristic stamp on social life”. Social life in the Renaissance, as Burckhardt depicted it, was deeply affected by the fact that the nobles now lived in the cities, and so shared the interests of the burghers (enfranchised townsmen whose wealth was derived from commerce). One result of this was that birth had come to be of less importance in terms of social influence than wealth and education. This too is a distinctively modern phenomenon.

Overall, Burckhardt’s book is informative about many different aspects about the Renaissance, although it will undoubtedly be disappointing to those whose primary interest in that period is in its art. His depiction of the Renaissance, as the first modern civilization is a convincing one, even if some of the modern phenomena he describes, such as individualism and equality, meant something very different in their Renaissance context, then they do to us in the 21st Century – or for that matter than they meant for Burckhardt in the 19th Century. This has been one of the most influential books on the history of the Renaissance ever written and it is likely that its influence will continue.

(1) In the literal sense. Such art was dubbed “gothic”, i.e., of the Goths, the Germanic invaders who had sacked Rome.

(2) It was Burckhardt, as a matter of fact, who, upon receiving a postcard from Nietzsche after his mental breakdown, first realized that the philosopher had gone stark raving mad and notified the people who would arrange for him to receive the care he needed.

(3) Burckhardt regarded Dante, who “treats the ancient and the Christian worlds, not indeed as of equal authority, but as parallel to one another” as the first humanist. Subsequent historians have not followed Burckhardt in this.

(4) Here too Burckhardt pointed to Dante as displaying an early scientific interest in the natural world.


  1. This excellent review and synopsis led me to get the book.Very nice summation!

  2. Thank you! I hope that you enjoy the book as much as I did.