Jan 15, 2006

Review: Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Left: Nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt, courtesy of University of Basel website.

Swiss-born Jacob Burckhardt, with his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), attempted to expand the discourse on the late medieval city-states that dominated the Italian peninsula. Burckhardt described his work as a “history of civilization” rather than the traditional collection of narratives on great men and military battles; it is no surprise that this effort – history as it really was – came from a former student and protégé of Leopold von Ranke. The book covers topics as wide-ranging as music, etiquette, and gender relations, and Burckhardt skillfully switched throughout the text from microhistorical vignettes to sweeping vistas.

Burckhardt began the book with a section entitled “The State as a Work of Art,” which provided a political backdrop to the rest of the work. He surveyed the major rulers of the Renaissance city-states, concentrating largely on those of the 14th through 16th centuries. Like his contemporary Karl Marx, Burckhardt utilized a quasi-Hegelian analysis to describe the larger forces that, in his opinion, moved history. Unlike Marx, though, economic forces were not the primary causative agents; one might argue that Burckhardt was a proponent of dialectic culturalism, rather than the materialist orientation of his esteemed counterpart.

The author, while certainly well-read, nonetheless made a number of overgeneralizations that do not hold up well to closer scrutiny. He argued that “[a] popular radicalism in the form in which it is opposed to the monarchies of later times, is not to be found in the despotic states of the Renaissance”; this statement patently disregards such popular uprisings as the Ciompi revolt (although, admittedly, Florence was a nominal republic at the time). He also argued that “the deliberate adaptation of means to ends” was a uniquely Italian phenomenon, and that “no prince out of Italy had at that time a conception” of such pragmatic politics. This suggests a cultural bias on the part of Burckhardt, who ignored the many examples of non-Italian Machiavellianism in this period, such as that exhibited by Henry VIII in his decision to completely sever ties with Rome in 1534.

Burckhardt next argued, in his section entitled “The Development of the Individual,” that the Italian Renaissance was a period in which individuals no longer saw themselves as members of a particular “race, people, party, family, or corporation,” and that the “the ban laid upon human personality was dissolved.” Perhaps this may have been true for the writers, artists, and politicians that Burckhardt cited to bolster this argument, and the author may be correct in his identification of the Italian city-states as birthplaces of nascent individualism, but what may have been true for the social elites did not necessarily hold factual for the Renaissance-era masses of the Italian peninsula. The “wealth and culture” and “municipal freedom” that Burckhardt proposed as influences on the growth of individualism were largely the province of those at or near the top of the social hierarchy, and such devices as sumptuary laws were wielded by aristocrats with considerable effectiveness to limit the ability of lower classes to express individuality.

Burckhardt made a stronger argument for the cultural contributions of Renaissance Italy in the section entitled “The Revival of Antiquity.” The author postulated that it was not merely the reintroduction of classic forms and philosophies, but “its union with the genius of the Italian people” that led to this cultural regeneration and its subsequent influence on Western European thought. This “modern Italian spirit” , argued Burckhardt, was a model for the rest of the Western world to emulate. He delineated in this section the vast contributions of the Italian humanists, and he believed that, unlike their Northern European contemporaries, the Italians did not engage in “mere fragmentary imitation” of the classics but rather an active dedication to “the special growth and development of the Italian mind.” The only real weakness in this analysis is Burckhardt’s faith in sources that claim there was “nobody in Florence who could not read” during the Renaissance; the brilliance of a Dante or a Ficino, however, would be lost upon an illiterate peasant or a merchant with a rudimentary education.

The book’s next section, “The Discovery of the World and Man,” describes the scientific achievements of Renaissance Italians. Part of this Burckhardt attributed to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Mediterranean, in which Italians were exposed to Islamic, African, and Asian influences. Burckhardt, however, considered this to be a matter of geography; there is little mention of the role of commerce in the development of “mental impulses different from those which governed people of the North.” Of matters scientific, Burckhardt acknowledged a lack of expertise, saying that “no one is more conscious than the author of the defects in his knowledge on this point.” He spent the rest of this section developing an interesting argument that the Italian fascination with the beauty of the external world was, in itself, an influence on the development of scientific inquiry.

In his fifth section, which Burckhardt titled “Society and Festivals,” the author argued that “social intercourse in its highest and most perfect form now ignored all distinctions of caste,” although he qualified this broad generalization later in the same paragraph with the caveat that any “mediæval distinctions” that manifested themselves were “a means of maintaining equality with the aristocratic pretensions of the less advanced countries of Europe.” He also exhibited a romantic naiveté with regard to the relations between men and women in Renaissance Italy, making claims that “women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men” or that “there was no question of ‘woman’s rights’ or female emancipation, simply because the thing itself was a matter of course.” To back up these claims, Burckhardt cited the examples of such illustrious Italian nobles as Vittoria Colonna and Caterina Sforza, women whose experiences can hardly be called typical. While Burckhardt was certainly a product of his times, this section in particular suffers from a dated patriarchal bias.

Burckhardt, in the sixth and final section, turned his attention to “Morality and Religion,” and he began his analysis of Italian morality with the stern remonstrance that “the more plainly in these matters our evidence seems to speak, the more carefully must we refrain from unqualified assumptions and rash generalizations.” Yet the author frequently fell into the very trap with which he warned others, claiming that in Italy “marriage and its rights were more often and more deliberately trampled underfoot than anywhere else.” According to Burckhardt, the noble Italian woman “disposes of herself with a freedom unknown in Northern countries,” and that “after the briefest acquaintance with her future husband, the young wife quits the convent or the paternal roof.” To his credit, Burckhardt acknowledged that “we may… be misled by the fact that we have far fuller details on such matters here [Renaissance Italy] than elsewhere.” Nonetheless, he summed up Italian morality as a function of the uniquely individual nature of the Italian Renaissance: “the fundamental vice of this [Italian] character was at the same time a condition of its greatness, namely, excessive individualism.” This individualism, according to Burckhardt, also carried over to matters of religion. He believed that religion, to the highly individualistic Renaissance Italian, was an “altogether subjective” proposition. In addition, its close proximity and relations with “Byzantium and the Mohammedan peoples” led, in Italy, to a “dispassionate tolerance which weakened the ethnographical conception of a privileged Christendom.”

Burckhardt’s work, in all fairness, should be recognized as a pioneering effort; while the book has shortcomings, it significantly advanced historical discourse. He foreshadowed Braudel and the Annales school with his attempt to present what would later be referred to as “total history.” He also brought the analysis of cultural, philosophical, and intellectual history to a more prominent place in historiography. Finally, his ideas of the state as a work of art and the Renaissance trend of the rise of individualism set him apart from his contemporaries.

This is an unpublished book review; there are many online transcriptions of Burckhardt's seminal work. Here is one of the better sites.


Anonymous said...

Never read his work. Thanks for the tip, Mike.

Bill White said...

We are watching you, Brooks.

historymike said...

Sorry, Bill White imposter. I track IPs, and you are not the real Bill White, unless he is posting from North Carolina today (doubtful, as he visited my site from his Roanoke computer just a little while ago without posting).

Nice try, though, in trying to create a flame war.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Love "Bill White's" profile...

historymike said...

Yes, there are at least three Bill White personas floating around, maybe more, Hooda.

Some only show up to stir trouble, so I make sure to check the IP and see if the "real" bozo showed up.