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Jacob Burckhardt
Cultural history

Jacob Burckhardt ~ Historian
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Jacob Burckhardt, later famous as a Renaissance Cultural historian, was born in Basel, where his father was a minister in the Reformed church, in May 1818. He himself embarked upon a theological course in 1837 but changed to historical studies being educated therein at the universities of Basel and Berlin (1839-43).
Whilst at Berlin he attended lectures delivered by Leopold von Ranke. He also spent some of 1841 at Bonn where he was influenced by the Art Historian Franz Kugler.
With the exception of three years (1855-58), during which he taught at the Zürich Polytechnic Institute, he spent the following half century (1843-93) as lecturer and, (from 1858), as professor of the history of art and civilization at the University of Basel. It was in this later period that Burckhardt lost his faith but did not advertise this out of respect for his pious family.

Burckhardt is known to posterity as the Father of Cultural History. While earlier historians had concentrated on political and military history, Burckhardt discussed the total life of the people, including religion, art and literature. He wrote "And all things are sources - not only books, but the whole of life and every kind of spiritual manifestation." At the age of nineteen Burckhardt had made a trip to into the Italian peninsula and subsequently maintained that he had found there "a core of commitment around which his fantasies could crystalise." His later career as an historian was to reflect this early fascination with aspects of the history of the Italian peninsula.

Burckhardt's first important work was The Age of Constantine the Great (1852; trans. 1949), a study of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, in which he analyzed the decay of classical civilization and the triumph of Christianity.
"What was intended was not a history of the life and death of Constantine, nor yet an encyclopedia of all worth-while information pertaining to his period. Rather were the significant and essential characteristics of the contemporary world to be outlined and shaped into a perspicious view of the world."

Burckhardt's Age of Constantine was followed by The Cicerone: A Guide to the Works of Art in Italy (1855; trans. 1873), which became extremely popular, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860; trans. 1878), his most famous work, and the History of the Renaissance in Italy (1867).

It is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy on which his reputation chiefly rests. In this work Burckhardt traced the cultural patterns of transition from the medieval period to the awakening of the modern spirit and creativity of the Renaissance. He saw the transition as one from a society in which people were primarily members of a class or community to a society that idealized the self-conscious individual. The term Renaissance suggesting a re-birth of individualistic accomplishment after a long intermission since the Classical Age. The term itself had been coined in this regard by the French historian Jules Michelet circa 1855-8.

A much quoted passage from The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy depicts a dramatic alteration in the outlook of many persons:-
"both sides of human consciousness - the side turned to the world and that turned inward - lay, as it were, beneath a common veil, dreaming or half awake. The veil was woven of faith, childlike prejudices, and illusion; seen through it, world and history appeared in strange hues; man recognized himself only as a member of a race, a nation, a party, a corporation, a family, or in some other general category. It was in Italy that this veil first melted into thin air, and awakened an objective perception and treatment of the state and all things of this world in general; but by its side, and with full power, there also arose the subjective; man becomes a self-aware individual and recognises himself as such."

At the time Burkhardt wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy there was little in the way of accepted knowledge about what we today regard as "the Renaissance." His work was accepted as demonstrating that the shift from corporate medieval society to the modern spirit occurred in "Renaissance" Italy in the 14th and 15th century and, to a great extent, moulded the modern concept of the European Renaissance as a necessary and positive break with the outlook and society that preceded it.
Burckhardt's work remains one of the most important on the subject of the Renaissance. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga called it, "that transcendent masterpiece." The first three parts of the book are held to be especially good - readable and interesting, profound and philosophical.

Whilst certain people flourished as individuals during the Renaissance and, in cases, were responsible for artistic, literary or scientific achievements that are recognised as representing advances in their fields it was often the case that other people were somewhat socially displaced by the advent of the new, individualistic, milieu and found it to be something they were effectively "compelled to endure."

The new tendency to cultivate an individualistic personality and to seek to achieve, as an individual, resulted in many kinds of self-expression some of them aggressive. It was in these times that the Italian peninsula featured a number of "tyrant rulers" and bands of often ill disciplined mercenary soldiers known as condottieri who participated in diverse local wars contested between the rulers of Italian states.

It often happened that an individuals desire to achieve greatness as a ruler or to become famous as a condottieri tended to disrupt the chances of a peaceful existence being enjoyed many other persons. Several historians had opportunity to record "striking and terrible" enterprises that were embarked upon because of a "burning desire to do something great and memorable."

Individuality reached its zenith, according to Burckhardt, in the Renaissance humanists, who turned their backs on Christianity, revered the ancients, and tried to live and write like the ancients.

Similarly in the visual arts for most of the next three hundred years, the great artistic personalities of the sixteenth centuries [Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian] loomed so large that their predecessors seemed to belong to a forgotten era. When they were finally rediscovered, people still acknowledged the high Renaissance as the turning point by referring to all painters before Raphael as 'the Primitives.'

Burckhardt established the thesis that Renaissance art represented a break with the past, wherein representation became scientific, realistic, individualistic and humane; the visual analogue to the birth of the modern sensibility, one which left behind the superstitious mindset of the Dark Ages. With qualifications, that thesis remains more or less the rule in the present, and is one reason that museums, such as the Uffizi in Florence, generally display works of art chronologically: so multitudes of students and aficionados can follow, with their own eyes, the elevation of art from its Gothic, one dimensional, iconic forms to its Renaissance, three dimensional, individualistic representations.

If qualified historians no longer speak of the Dark Ages, they still refer to the period before the fourteenth century as the Middle Ages or the Mediaeval Era - with most of the pejorative connotations of the Dark Ages still implied. They echo the writers and historians of the early Renaissance, of Dante and Petrarch and Alberti, who argued that the Renaissance generation broke with the superstitions of the past, recovered the best of the Classical world, and ushered in a new dawn of modernity.

Despite his interest in the dramatic, often extravagantly violent or sensual, Renaissance era Burckhardt himself lived a life of quiet routine in Basel. He refused many flattering invitations to take up academic appointments in other Universities and also declined invitations to give lectures. He showed no particular enthusiasm for the encouragements that were sometimes offered by family or friends that he enter into married life.

Jacob Burckhardt retired from teaching in 1893 and died in Basel, August 1897.

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Jacob Burckhardt quotes

"Thus what the word Renaissance really means is new birth to liberty—the spirit of mankind recovering consciousness and the power of self-determination, recognizing the beauty of the outer world and of the body through art, liberating the reason in science and the conscience in religion, restoring culture to the intelligence, and establishing the principle of political freedom."

"It is the historian's function, not to make us clever for the next time, but to make us wise forever."

"The biggest mischief in the past century has been perpetrated by Rousseau with his doctrine of the goodness of human nature. The mob and the intellectuals derived from it the vision of a Golden Age which would arrive without fail once the noble human race could act according to its whims."

"The more recently power has originated, the less it can remain stationary - first because those who created it have become accustomed to rapid further movement and because they are and will be innovators per se; secondly, because the forces aroused or subdued by them can be employed only through further acts."

"To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a great civilization present a different picture. In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for my work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead to essentially different conclusions."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.

In the later eighteen-twenties Ralph Waldo Emerson read, and was very significantly influenced by, a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.

A key section of Cousin's work reads as follows:
"What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man : evidently man and human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. …
… Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations."
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1829)

Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness. (Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization. (Journal entry of December, 1824)

Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books … (This dates from January - February, 1828)

The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II

Plato, Socrates and Shakespeare endorse a 'Tripartite Soul' view of Human Nature. Platos' Republic

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.