“History is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another.” Jacob Burckhardt’s definition of history specific in that an historian must observe the facts and determine what is important, but it also implies that what each of these historians deems “worthy of note” is inevitably going to be an ever-changing thing. This idea of constant change is extremely apparent in each of Burckhardt’s works, as well as his lectures, which were published posthumously, and contributed greatly to the fame he has sustained for over a century. Burckhardt is considered to be the father of cultural history, something that is well known to historians today, but was a very new way of discussing history in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, most historians were generally concerned with keeping track of political facts, rather than critically reviewing civilization itself, something Burckhardt thought was the key. The question, then, is if true history is to be decided by the historian, then what did Burckhardt himself think worthy of note? One who reads Burckhardt will almost immediately see that he considered art and other forms of human creation to be the most important part of history, and his ideas on humanism and individualism led him to write extensively on the idea of cultural history.
To really understand how and why Burckhardt’s views on history eventually came to be, it is important to remember his background. Jacob Burckhardt was born Swiss, and was originally studying theology at the University of Basel in Switzerland (Burckhardt descended from a line of protestant clergymen), until he decided to move to Germany to study history. While studying at the University of Berlin under Ranke and Droysen, Burckhardt developed an extremely enthusiastic feeling toward Germany and Europe in general. He even says in one of his letters, “I often want to kneel down before the sacred soil of Germany and thank God that my mother tongue is German. I have Germany to thank for everything!” In 1858, Burckhardt went back to Switzerland to teach history at Basel, but he took his excitement of Germany with him. The irony of this is that, in time, his research led him not to write German history, but to move to the source of Europe’s greatness, which were Italy and the Mediterranean. Burckhardt recognized that to understand how and why Europe rose to such greatness at a specific time in its history, one must study the history of civilization itself. It is in this course of research that Burckhardt produced his most well known works; The Age of Constantine the Great, Cicerone (which was essentially an art traveler’s guide to Italy that he wrote in 1853), and especially The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Burckhardt did write exclusively on the Renaissance, or even Italy, as he would go on to focus many of his later thoughts on the Greeks of antiquity. However, in reading The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt argues for his ideas on how culture, and civilization itself can be the most important factor in the bringing of change, rather than just the politics involved.
The author describes the origin of six drinks that greatly influenced history and civilization around the world: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. He explains how each drink was the defining drink during a historical period from antiquity to present day. The fluids are vital because each had a role of shaping the modern world. They have been used as currencies, in religious rites, as a ...
Burckhardt begins The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by giving accounts of the various tyrannies, which occurred in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Throughout the work, Burckhardt has a tendency to keep discussing this despotism that plagued the civilization itself. Even though he keeps bringing up these tyrannical rulers, he does so in a way that is entirely different than other historians who had discussed the same time period, and indeed the same occurrences in general. Rather than simply collecting narratives on military leaders and various battles and conflict in the Italian history, he presents the progression of history as something seeded in the civilization at the time. Of course, this is what Jacob Burckhardt is most well known for, but in his works dealing with the Renaissance, he recognizes the culture and the ideals that Italians at this time had were the strongest factors in creating the Renaissance era in the first place.
The concepts of culture, civilization and humanity revolved around a society. In discussing societal issues, we inevitably stumble upon these concepts, as they are the building blocks of every community. Culture is the inherent collection of discernible characteristics of a group of people that comprise a society. Manifested in many ways, the culture within a society is reflected in the various ...
Burckhardt’s work shows us how art and human creation became extremely important to the culture of the people in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries in Italy. Obviously, art and various other forms of human expression were not new by any means. People have used images to portray certain aspects of society ever since the prehistoric era, but Burckhardt put a vast amount of effort into explaining what exactly set aside the Renaissance from other areas of history. A famous eighteenth century historian, Edward Gibbon, is most well known for his work on the Roman Empire. Indeed, the glory days of Rome have been considered to be the high point of any society, but Burckhardt takes this a step further. He points out that Italians during the Renaissance period not only created brand new art and sculpted their culture in this way, but they took ideas out of those of the ancient Romans, and used these works to assist in their own creation. It is apparent that they greatly revered the surviving classical works, and certain scholars spent a great deal of time scouring Europe for “new” works that had actually survived throughout the middle ages. For example, Burckhardt recounts that Poggio Bracciolini received five hundred pieces of gold for translating Xenophon’s Cyropaedia.
This somewhat newfound reverence for the classics goes hand in hand with the Renaissance idea of Humanism. Burckhardt gives the example of Dante, someone who was so original that “…neither Italy nor Western Europe produced another Dante, and he was and remained the man who first thrust antiquity in to the foreground of national culture.” What Burckhardt means by this is in his Divine Comedy, Dante mixes together various Christian and pagan ideas “not, indeed, as of equal authority, but as parallel to one another.” This direct relationship between Christianity and paganism is one of the first times in history that the two were brought together in a positive way. Before the Renaissance and after the rise of Christianity, there was never an agreement between the two religious views, and Burckhardt thought that this parallel was not only what truly created the Renaissance, but also changed the Italian into “a modern man”, as Burckhardt calls those at the height of the Renaissance. On the importance of classical ideals, Burckhardt states:
In the essay “‘Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History” written by Jane Tompkins, an English professor at Duke University, the author criticized the history writers and described the issue of problems that are often created by different perspectives from the history on the topic, European -Indian relation, that cannot be determined from right or wrong. ...
“…Our intellect, no matter how independent of the past it may feel in matters of science and technology, is ever renewed and consecrated by the consciousness of its connection with the mind of the remotest times and civilizations…we shall never rid of antiquity as long as we do not become barbarians again.”
To Burckhardt, the “modern man” had a unique awareness of individuality, and it is this individualism that was the dominating feature of the Renaissance.
The discovery of “the individual”, to Burckhardt, is what really changed culture as a whole. He notes that man has an ever-increasing awareness of himself, and this lead to a cultural shift, that changed the way society behaved, as well as “moral assumptions and philosophical beliefs.” In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, he breaks up the idea of individualism into three sections; “a new idea of what man is and is able to do, the roots of this new image of man in the world of antiquity, and a shift from absorption in the world above to concern with the world below.” Essentially, the individualism that Burckhardt discusses is an emergence of curiosity about things like nature and various philosophical ideas, as well as an emergence of creation, which Burckhardt considered one of the most important parts of culture, especially in the Renaissance.
After The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was published in 1860, Jacob Burckhardt went through a period of intellectual change, brought about by the period of nineteenth-century industrialization. When Burckhardt began his life as an historian, he had a great sense of pride for Germany and Switzerland, and tended to have liberal sympathies when it came to art and politics. However, this changed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and Burckhardt grew much more conservative and developed an increasingly pessimistic view of the future of Europe. H.R. Trevor-Roper writes of this change in Burckhardt’s way of thought:
Western Civilization (history 101) The period between 1789-1918 is marked by struggle between three opposing philosophies: liberalism, nationalism and irrationalism, which often took form of armed conflicts. Our modern society is a result of those trials and tribulations that Western civilization went through during nineteenth and beginning of twentieth centuries. The French revolution wasnt just ...
“…Burckhardt’s philosophy now increasingly assumed: a character of conservative pessimism and profound distrust both of the masses and of the unthinking, materialist civilization whose rise he now foresaw.”
Burckhardt had come to consider the Renaissance in Italy to be the high point of European culture, because it embodied what he deemed important, historically speaking, and this is exactly the approach the Burckhardt himself says a historian must do:
“One does not include in the history of civilization what one likes, but what one believes one should or must include… what we really aim at is an understanding of all the more significant and effective forces in general, and thus of the more or less constant conditions created by them.”
It seems that because of Burckhardt’s own pride for Europe (based on the greatness of the Renaissance), he inadvertently doomed any hope for the rise of what Europe once was. He believed that because of materialism and industrialization, the future of Europe was inevitably headed toward despotism, never to return to the magnificence of the Renaissance period.
Regardless of his pessimism in his later years, Jacob Burckhardt is considered one of the greatest historians of the nineteenth century, and for obvious reasons. He clearly believed in the freedom of human will rather than discussing history systematically, and thought that it was the ideas of humanism and individualism that would eventually lead us to either grandeur or downfall.
Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
Burckhardt, Jacob. The Age of Constantine the Great. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1949.
Burckhardt, Jacob. Judgements on History and Historians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.
Gilbert, Felix. History: Politics or Culture?: Reflections on Ranke and Burckhardt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
[ 1 ]. Ibid., xii.
[ 2 ]. Ibid.
[ 3 ]. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (Harper and Row, 1958), 51.
[ 4 ]. Ibid., 212.
[ 5 ]. Ibid.
[ 6 ]. Burckhardt, Judgements on History and Historians, xxi.
In stark contrast with the role of women in society today, the role of women during the Renaissance period was very limited. For most women, the best they could hope for, and the only thing they were conditioned to aspire to was to marry. The destiny of most women were to find a man, marry him and bear his children. Women were often placed in arranged agreements to marry as early as the age of ...
[ 7 ]. Felix Gilbert, History: Politics or Culture? (Princeton University Press, 1990), 59.
[ 8 ]. Burckhardt, Judgements on History and Historians, xiv.
[ 9 ]. Ibid., xx.