Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: The Birth of Modernity

Saturday, November 11th, 2000

Published 17 years ago -

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

Review By Dan Geddes

11 November 2000

Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy has achieved its now classic status because of the importance of its theses and its readability as a narrative. Burckhardt’s argues that the Italian Renaissance was the birth of both modernity and of the individual as we know it. These are strong claims, which have now become accepted by many historians. Burckhardt fostered the impression that the Middle Ages was a time of intellectual stagnation (he even uses the term “childish” for the Middle Ages), and the renaissance the rebirth, not just of classical civilization, but of human progress as well. Medievalists beg to differ, of course, locating the origin of the self-conscious individual in the 12th century rather than 14th or 15th, but Burckhardt’s formulation remains compelling.

Although Burckhardt wasn’t the first to argue for these ideas, he arranged his “essay” around them, as Peter Burke states in his introduction to the Penguin edition. Burckhardt’s thesis is best supported by his fine writing, which makes the reader want to trust his conclusions. Burckhardt fails to chart the development of the individual or modernity over time. He makes only passing remarks on these developments, locating their origins in figures such as Petrarch and especially Dante. Nor does Burckhardt attempt a formulation of modernity, without which his thesis lacks conviction.

Even so, much of Burckhardt’s essay is as compelling as any work of history. Part I, “The State as a Work of Art” is by far the best section of the work. Ostensibly Burckhardt’s account of the Italian princes’ realpolitick supports his thesis of the Renaissance Italy as the crucible of modern individuality. Burckhardt indeed links the new cult of personality among leaders as evidence of a new individuality; but he fails to demonstrate that this development was unprecedented, or was sustained from that time to the present. Despite this illegitimacy of so many Italian rulers, divine-right monarchy remained the model for much of Europe for hundreds of years. The death-blows to divine-right monarchy among Christian rulers were dealt by figures such as Martin Luther, Henry VIII of England, Oliver Cromwell, and Voltaire, among many others. As such, the anarchy of the Italian city-states stood out from the durability of dynasties such as the Hapsburgs in Austria and the Bourbons in France. After 1527, Italy itself lay prostrate to foreign depredations, and so was little able to influence the course of history in early modern Europe.

Burckhardt himself seems to revel in the machinations of the Italian pretenders, relating humorous anecdotes about their blood-thirstiness, faithlessness, paranoia, and vengefulness. Many of these stories are presented more for their own sake, for the interest they lend to the narrative, rather than to support Burckhardt’s rather general point about their personalities fostering the rise of individualism.

Later sections on the “The Development of the Individual” and “The Revival of Antiquity” make their points, but always leave us asking whether classical civilizations didn’t already exhibit so many of the traits Burckhardt credits renaissance Italy for originating. In “The Development of the Individual” Burckhardt traces the rise of the “all-sided man,” what we now call “renaissance men” or “well-sided individuals,” though he fails to acknowledge the debt this conception owed to that of knighthood.

Burckhardt acknowledges that the discovery of classical civilization, fanned by the “genius of the Italian people” combined to produce the glories of the renaissance. His lengthy description of the role of the humanists paints a vivid picture of their importance to the Italian courts, as well as the central place antiquities held in the cities, but does little to support his general thesis.

Burckhardt’s account of literature in the “The Discovery of Nature and of Man” does little to support his thesis, as he himself anticipates (199). In fact, most of the rest of the work (“Society and Festivals” and “Morality and Religion,” while interesting, seem included as attempts at rounding out his cross-sections of civilization. His theses are supported only in passing.

I heartily recommend Part I of Burckhardt’s work, “The State as a Work of Art.” Much of the rest might be more enjoyable to skim. One problem is that Burckhardt, although in favor of writing for literate readers from all classes, assumes a familiarity with the era that few American readers today will possess. Indeed, his work, because of its readability over so many other histories, may well be some readers’ introduction to serious history on the Italian Renaissance.

The portraits of the humanists, the festivals and other forms of “social history” are interesting in their own right. They form a captivating picture of the time. Burckhardt’s most effective argument for the Italy as the cradle of modernity may well be his portraits of the thriving, literate, civilized Italian city-states outclassing the mighty nations that surrounded them, and would soon engulf them.

11 November 2000

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