The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

For nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, the Italian Renaissance was nothing than the beginning of the modern world - a world in which flourishing individualism and the competition for fame radically transformed science, the arts, and politics.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 3.95
  • Pages: 400
  • Publish Date: June 28th 1990 by Penguin Classics
  • Isbn10: 014044534X
  • Isbn13: 9780140445343

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How could I express the sheer pleasure I have had in reading this book? Burckhardt took up Michelets term of Renaissance and provided an exhaustive and brilliant analysis of what the term embodied in the Italy of the 13th- 16th Centuries. But in this study Burckhardt also created a new field of inquiry. His overall thesis is clear: during this time and place the Individual was invented and shaped in all its dimensions so that it could stand well on its feet and in all fields. With the individual as the basic unit, the writing of biographies took a new impetus and emphasis in this land and this time. Burckhardts emphasis on the individual does not mean that he forgets that this new kind of creature is a social one. As the son of a Calvinist priest, Burckhardt would have to leave for the end, and conclusion, how this new Individual, emerging after a long theocratical period, reconciled his existence with the realm of eternity, with immortality.

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.

Thus what the word Renaissance really means is new birth to libertythe 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. Finally, Burckhardt details the science, society and religion of Italy during those impressive years between 1350 and 1550.

Rather, Burckhardt gives us the pioneering work of cultural history, changing both our picture of the Renaissance and our ideas about how to write history. While Gibbon arranged all of his material into chronological order, searching for causes and effects in the ceaseless stream of history, hoping to finally solve that mystery of the agesnamely, why did Rome fall?Burckhardt is almost entirely unconcerned with causes. His book is not an attempt to explain the Italian Renaissance, but to describe it. For one, he wrote it for fellow scholars, not anticipating his book's popularity; thus he presupposes quite a thorough knowledge of Renaissance history, constantly making references without explanations. What is more, his approach of anthropological history rests on the presupposition, which he tries to justify, that the culture of the Italian Renaissance was uniform and constant enough in the centuries between Dante and Michelangelo that scant attention need be paid to chronology.

One has to be sure, of course, to find a copy that includes the photographic plates -- which are essential (the penguin edition includes only the text and so is incomplete).

Burckhardt piles up his anecdotes and, true to his word, gives you his own picture of the Italian Renaissance. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think I would've had a better time if I'd known that at the beginning. 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? Don't judge the whole nation of Italians.

The only creative and rebel exception is the one found in moralistic and thus religious art, like the ones from Dante (for whom Buckhardt has a huge crush), Bocaccio and Bosch, Brueghel and Rabelais among other european nations. There are moments of great beauty throughout the book, like when he describes italian geography as enchanted by it as the renaissance man newly found love for nature, or how he exceptionally chooses to analyze popular superstition.

Burkhardt's famous work on the Renaissance may seem difficult to read by modern sensibilities, but it truly started something very new. First, the idea that the Renaissance is the first time that humanity starts to recognize and celebrate individuality. For Burkhardt, the Renaissance is where modernity begins. Modern ways of thinking about science, philosophy, art, social relations, and politics all begins with developments in Renaissance Italy.

After reading it, I still don't feel like I have a handle on the Renaissance.