This authoritative study by a distinguished scholar presents a brilliant panorama of Italian Renaissance life, explaining how and why the period constituted a cultural revolution. Author Jacob Burckhardt chronicles the transition from the medieval concept of society as a conglomeration of classes and communities to the Renaissance focus on individual spirit and creativity. Burckhardt's comprehensive view of art, government, and aspects of daily life redefined both the Western world's understanding of the Italian Renaissance and future studies of cultural history. Historian Hajo Holborn praised this survey as "the greatest single book on the history of Italy between 1350 and 1550." First published in German in 1860, its exploration of art, fashions, manners, and philosophy traces the influences of classical antiquity on Michelangelo, Leonardo, the Medicis, and other thinkers and artists. As alive today as when it was written 150 years ago, this indispensable study chronicles the revival of humanism, the conflict between church and empire, and the rise of both the modern state and the modern individual.
The Civilisation of Renaissance Italy was published in 1860 and Jacob Burckhardt was one of the first historians who wished to provide more than just a series of events with an explanation of their cause and effect. His idea was to get under the skin of the culture of the period; to define the character of the society so that the reader is able to understand why people behaved the way they did. In short he wanted to provide as complete a picture as possible and in many ways he is successful. He is strong on the cultural history particularly literature, but also takes into account painting sculpture and architecture. He is also very good on religion, social institutions, society and daily life. What emerges is a real feel for the period and a presentation of the underlying circumstances that led to such rapid changes to the society in that small part of the world.
His approach has been labelled as unsystematic, but I would not agree. There are six parts to the book and each part introduces another subject that builds on what has gone before. He could be criticised for not drawing all the strands together at the end, but this is missing the point as there is plenty of guidance along the way and it is up to us to form our own conclusions. What we should keep in mind is that this is a Victorian perspective and so his central premise that it was the individuality of the Italian character and its unique place in history that was responsible for the renaissance would be challenged to some extent by modern historians.
Part 1 is a sort of gallop through the various political states that made up what we now know as modern Italy. Emphasis is on the individuality of these states and how they differed in character from the kingdoms prevalent in the rest of Europe. They were city states where it was said that “even a servant could become king”. There is a more detailed examination of Venice and Florence, two powerful states with completely different characteristics.
Part 2 starts to examine the character of the people within these states concluding that the absence of feudalism and the political culture led to the rise of the individual. Fame could be achieved in the arts as well as in politics, people began to revel in their own uniqueness, they could educate themselves, there was more freedom than in the more clerically dominated middle ages.
Part 3 discusses the huge importance of the rediscovery of antiquity. Particularly relevant to Italians as many of the Latin texts were felt to be their very heritage. This new found humanism was pagan in nature, which led to a discovery of a whole new approach to the world; one that did not involve such a close relationship with Christianity. Humanism and Christianity were viewed by some, as parallel viewpoints
Part 4 covers the outward bound Italians, emissaries to other states, explorers and adventurers and a more ready acceptance of the Muslim world with whom there was trade and cultural exchanges. This part also covers the great strides made in literature and the first hesitant steps in dealing with the inner man, there is also much here on daily life gleaned from poetry and novels.
Part 5 is entitled Society and festivals. Burckhardt is again at pains to point out how much this differed from life in the middle ages he says:
“Middle ages had courtly, aristocratic manners and etiquette differing very little in various countries in Europe….. Social life in the renaissance offers the sharpest contrast to medievalism, social intercourse now ignored all distractions of caste and was based largely on the existence of an educated class as we now understand the word”
Nobles and burghers dwelt together within the city walls. The church too was not to be used as a means of providing for the younger sons of noble families. Burckhardt claims that women stood on an equal footing with men and also examines costume and fashion, music and the cult of the festivals.
Part 6 delves into Morality and Religion and Burkhardt is at his best in this final section. The corruption within the church, the rediscovery of antiquity and the individuality of character all pointed towards men and women being able to think for themselves. Their religion; whatever form it took came from within rather than being hammered home by the clerical establishment. The old faith of paganism mixed with magic and mysticism also feature along with astrology. Immorality and the lawlessness that abounded in the city states is featured throughout the book but in this final chapter some explanation of this phenomena is given. Burckhardt indulges us with some of the more scandalous stories and I get the feeling that he is a little uncomfortable with some of these.
The book is free to download from The Gutenberg Project and although there are a few errors in the text, it is still very readable. Buckhardt writes well and the book seems to get stronger as it goes along with the authors portrayal of renaissance Italy coming together chapter by chapter and leaving the reader with a fine depiction of the period. A must read for anybody interested in the renaissance with the proviso that this is a somewhat outdated view, but then again there is so much here that feels exactly right to me.
I'm still not convinced that the Renaissance is a real event, but there's no denying that interesting stuff was going on in Italy from the 1300s to the 1600s. Burckhardt was not the first to notice — the Italians had not exactly been shy about pointing out their own greatness — but he was the first to periodize it and give it a memorable name, "Renaissance."
Why did Burckhardt give a French name to this Italian phenomenon? I believe it's a marker of Burckhardt's identity as an elite citizen of Basel, Switzerland. Basel is an independent-minded German-speaking city that shares a border with France, and the city's polyglot ruling class have traditionally dotted their German speech with French grace notes. Lionel Gossman's book, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, documents this habit in everything from business letters to the Église Française where all the "best" families worshipped God. So it's little wonder that Burckhardt never seriously considered naming what he considered a glorious historical epoch with any language but French.
The problem with this book is so obvious that it's almost silly to point it out: Burckhardt's picture of the Renaissance is, shall we say, a little partial. Everything the Italians did in the fifteenth century was wonderful and lovely; everything the 'Northerners' did before that was barabarous; everything the Spanish did after that - and boy, do the Spanish come in for a beating - was equally barbarous. The Muslims were okay, although they were a bit grasping and oppressive. In short, only in Italy in the fifteenth century was life lived properly.
So it's pretty amusing when he says, at the start of his final chapter on morality, "A tribunal there is for each one of us, whose voice is our conscience; but let us have done with these generalities about nations." He has to say this, though, so that we won't judge the Italians' morality too harshly All those murders, all that violence, the horrors? Just a consequence of the 'individualism' of the times. Can't be helped. Better that than a world in which men don't go around f'ing and killing whoever they want to. Don't judge the whole nation of Italians. Judge only all the other nations.
This is all nit-picky, of course. It's nicely written, and I'm sure everyone who's interested will find bits that appeal to them one way or the other. At least he doesn't try to theorize everything. But be aware that this book is basically a book about how the writers in the Renaissance saw themselves, and not, as the title implies, about the civilization itself. The middle ages weren't all that bad, and the Renaissance wasn't all that good.