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Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897)


Swiss historian and art historian, best known for his works on the Italian Renaissance and on Greek civilization. Burckhardt's famous thesis in Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) was that Renaissance first gave the highest development to individuality. The early signs of "the modern European Spirit" were according to Burckhardt seen in Florence. Since the publication of his book, Florence has been regarded as the city where Petrarch's dream of revival took deepest root.

"In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness – that which was turned within as that which was turned without – lay dreaming or half-awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion and childish prepossessions, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation – only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and all things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such." (in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy)

Jacob Christoph Burckhardt was born in Basel, the son of a Protestant minister. His family, active in business, politics, and scholarly pursuits, was one of the most distinguished in the city – eleven ancestors had served its Bürgermeister. Also the family of Burckhardt's mother, Susanne Maria (née Schorendorf), had lived in Basel for generations. The death of his mother in 1830 was a terrible shock for Burckhardt, who at an early age learned how fragile human life is, but who found in music, art, and poetry the ultimate ground of all things. Musically gifted, he bound by the age of fifteen his compositions into a sketchbook, entitled "Composizioni di Giacomo Burcardo".

Following the wishes of his father, the chief minister of the state church, Burckhardt started to study theology in 1836 at the University of Basel, which was regarded as one of the most concervative theological outposts in Europe. After becoming under the influence of the German theologian and biblical critic, W.M.L. de Wette, Burckhardt abandoned these studies, concluding that the birth of Christ is a myth. 

In 1839 Burckhardt entered the University of Berlin, where he studied history and the history of art under Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), whose methods of historical study he adopted. However, he eventually rejected Ranke's vision of history as an organic, unified drama, in which God stood behind all phenomena of the past. Instead he tried to find meaning and continuity within history. Hegel's influence at the university was still enormous eight years after his death. Both Ranke and Hegel stressed that the historian should examine his subject in its own terms. "Each epoch stands immediately before God, and its values rests not at all on what comes from it but in its own existence, in its very itself", Ranke said.

During his student years, Burckhardt formed a friendship with Gottfried Kinkel, a Privatdozent and the future revolutionary. Through Johanna Matthieux he gained entry to the salon of Bettina von Arnim, where he sang lieder. Burckhardt may have met Karl Marx; they both contributed later on articles to Kölnische Zeitung. As a result of participating in a serenade honoring the liberal ruler of Baden, Burckhardt himself was listed in the Prussian police files as a "revolutionary".

Before publishing his first major work, Die Zeit Constantin's des Grossen (1853, The Age of Constantine the Great), Burckhardt revised and edited the Handbuch der Geschichte der Malerei (1847) and the Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte by his teacher Franz Kugler (1848). In The Age of Constantine the Great, which examined the transition between late pagan antiquity and the medieval world, Burckhardt rejected Eusebius' (c.264-340) portrait of the Byzantine Emperor as a devout Christian hero. Basically agreeing with the English historian and scholar Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), Burchardt argued that Constantine was indifferent to religion and in the last decade of his life the emperor gave indications of un-Christian, even pagan sympathies. Burckhardt traced the decline of Rome through the impoverishment of art and the emergence of early Christian artists, but did not conclude that Christianity bore the responsibility of the fall of the Roman empire. Burckhardt himself rejected the concept of a guiding Providence, and according to the poet Carl Spitteler, one of his students at the Basel Pädagogium, he often said: "The world is thoroughly evil."

In 1844 Burckhardt edited the conservative Basel Zeitung, at the same time complaining that the city was extremely boring, and eventually he resigned from his post. Friedrich Engels once described Basel as a "barren town, full of frock-coats, cocked hats, philistines and patricians and Methodists". Bonn and Berlin inspired Burckhardt more, Basel was still a small, provincial centre, ruled by centuries-old oligarchy. "I acknowledge the motherly embrace of our common German fatherland, which I once mocked and rejected like nearly all my Swiss compatriots," he wrote to a friend.

Between 1846 and 1856 Burckhardt made several long trips to Italy, partly to escape his feeling of loneliness and narrowness of the social circles – "Italy opened my eyes," he summarized his first impressions. Burckhardt's Italian teacher was Luigi Picchioni, who had participated in plots to free Lombardy from Austrian rule. Burckhardt dedicated to Picchioni the second edition of The Civilization of the Renessaince, though at that time he had already abandoned his liberal beliefs. Florence was for Burckhardt the "most important workshop of the Italian, and indeed of the modern European spirit." Burckhardt was a life-long bachelor, but it seems that he had an unsuccesfull courtship in the late 1840s. This experience perhaps was behind his two short volumes of poetry, Ferien. Eine Herbstgabe (1849) and E Hämpfeli Lieder (1853).

In 1848 Burckhardt taught at the Pädagogium in Basel and in 1855 at the Polytechnic Institute in Zürich, an expanding and progressive city, which became the center of Swiss liberalism. Burckhardt was happy in Zürich, but three years later he resigned from his post. After his father's death in 1858 he destroyed most of their correspondence.

From 1858 to 1893 Burckhardt held chair of history and art history at the University of Basel. "Having completed the writings he had begun in his early years," Burckhardt said in the obituary he wrote for himself around 1869, "he devoted himself exclusively to his task as a teacher..." At his late age Burckhardt associated the new middle-class culture and the Grossstadt with Jews; he lamented that the metropolis undermined the culture of old Europe he was committed to, the spirit that formerly existed in small centers of influence.

One of Burckhardt's students was Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), who suceeded him in the chair of art history at the University of Basel and become an editor of Burckhardt's work. In Renaissance und Barock (1888), Wölfflin made a clear historical distinction between these two styles. For Jacob Burckhardt, whose thought deeply influenced Wölfflin, Baroque meant degeneration and disruption of the classical Renaissance style. The Greek Civilization fascinated Burckhardt as much as the Renaissance.

In Griechische Kulturgeschichte (1898-1902) Burckhardt argued that myth is the underlying gived factor in Greek existence. "It illuminated the whole of the present for the Greeks, everywhere and until a very late date, as though it belonged to a quite recent past; and essentially it presented a sublime reaction of the perceptions and the life of the nation itself." As he analyzed the worldliness of Renaissance, Burckhardt wrote in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: "To the study of man, among many other causes, was due the tolerance and indifference with which the Mohammedan religion was regarded".

Except the time he spent in Zürich and his short visits to Italy, Germany, France, and England, Burckhardt lived in his native town, although it was not until the 1870s, that he felt there really at home. From Burckhardt's apartment, a few rooms above a bakery, was a short walk to the university. Though was considered "liberal" and "rather too much of a freethinker" he was also known affectionately as Köbi, and even a kind of patron saint of Basel. Carl Jung and other young students regarded Burckhardt as a part of the atmosphere of the city and his anti-modernism was not a serious issue – everybody read him.

Burckhardt lectured on both history and art history, and later he even abandoned the purely historical discipline. He also gave a number of public lectures, which served as a bürgerliche Akademie (citizens' academy). In 1871, when he was offered to succeed von Ranke as chair of history, he rejected. Although Burckhardt did not consider Basel intellectually stimulative, one of his reasons to stay there was his deep rooted local patriotism – he felt that as a Basler at the university he was "bound by sense of honor and duty."

At the university Burckhardt was Nietzsche's elder colleague and the philosopher attended some of Burckhardt's lectures. They had also some long conversations. Burckhardt had brought the inner tensions of Greek culture to his attention and later Nietzsche introduced the concepts of Apollonian and Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). When Nietzsche sent him a copy of his collected essays, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (1874), Burckhardt wrtote to him: "In the first place my poor head has never been capable of reflecting, at a distance, as you are able to do, upon final causes, the aims and the desirability of history."

As personalities, they were opposites – Burckhardt was outwardly more calm and reserved than Nietzsche, but they both were free from religious prejudices of the time. Some of their ideas, such as the interpretation of classical Greek culture, had similarities. Nietzsche first admired greatly Wagner but then turned his back to him. Burckhardt always disliked the composer. In his last works, Nietzsche paid his respects to the old professor. Just before he become insane, he sent a letter to Burckhardt, saying that he would rather have been a Swiss professor than God. Always reserved, Burckhardt forwarded the letter to Franz Overbeck, another friend of Nietzsche.

Burckhardt died in Basle on August 8, 1897. On his deathbed, he gave permission to print his historical-philosophical lecture notes. Werner Kägi, Burckhardt's successor in the chair of history, edited his letters. Among Burckhardt's friends was the writer Paul von Heyse; their correspondence was published in 1974. Heyse received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910, the first German to be so honored.

According to Burckhardt, the political organization was based in Italy on the city-state rather than feudalism, and "in the character of these States, whether republics or despotisms, lies, not the only, but the chief reason for the early development of the Italian." There in the city-states the modern political spirit of Europe emerged first, "surrendered freely to its own instincts. Often displaying the worst features of an unbridled egotism, outraging every right, and killing every germ of a healthier culture. But, wherever this vicious tendency is overcome or in any way compensated, a new fact appears in history – the State as the outcome of reflection and calculation, the State as a work of art." This was a precondition to what Burckhardt and Michelangelo called "the discovery both of the world and of man". Pre-Renaissance times biographies did not have a real sense for individuality, inward and outward characteristics of the person they described. Renaissance man was a "spiritual individual and recognized himself as such." This was also one of Burckhardt's starting points in his criticism of the decline of modern culture and its values. Another was the French Revolution. In 1868 he opened a lecture, saying: "In the two months since our course began, militarism has so increased, the economic struggle entered into such a terrible crisis, that we have the right once again to look back at where the shaking began. We may thus once again examine the course of the French Revolution." Burckhardt's thoughts of the loss of individualism influenced among others the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), who called him a master of extra-philosophical view of history.

The Condottiere, the leader of a band of mercenaries, was the early embodiment of the era of unscrupulous brutes. According to Burckhardt, condottieres were "full of contempt for all sacred things, cruel and treacher", but at the same time "the genius and capacity of many among them attained the highest conceivable development". Burckhardt's portrayal anticipated Nietzsche's 'overman' (superman), who realizes his own unique individuality. "Are you the victorious one, the self-conqueror, the commander of your senses?" Nietzsche asked in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883).

Burckhardt emphasized the individual person as the starting point of historical study. "It is not hard for firmly united, clever, and courageous men to do great things in the world," he wrote in Judgments on History and Historians (1929). "Ten such men affect 100,000." Great personalities can give a direction to whole epochs, and determine the course of history. At the same time he saw pessimistically that like the organic nature, cultures spring into being, mature, and decline.

Burckhardt's distrust of historical progress was not in tune with the generally optimistic cultural-historical writing of the time. Later Oswald Spengler gave to the cyclic view of cultural epochs its most visionary expression in his famous work, The Decline of the West (1918-1922). Spengler did not see any divine plan behind history. Burckhard accepted the concept of a universal spirit expressed in culture. He believed that the process of growth and decay follow laws, which are basically beyond human understanding. Burckhardt rejected G.W.F. Hegel's (1770-1831) theory, in which history expresses the realization of Absolute Spirit, its coming to self-consciousness about itself.

For further reading: Jacob Burckhardt's Social and Political Thought by Richard Sigurdson (2003); Jacob Burckhardt and the Crisis of Modernity by John Roderick Hinde (2000); Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W. M. L. de Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness by Thomas Albert Howard (2000); Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas by Lionel Gossman (2000); 'Burckhardt, Jacob Christoph' by Albrect Classen, in Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1997); Bürgerliche Modernisierungskrise and historische Sinnbildung: Kulturgeschichte bei Droysen, Burckhardt, und Max Weber by Friedrich Jaeger (1994); Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis De Tocqueville by Alan S. Kahan (1992); Der Begriff der Kultur bei Warburg, Nietzsche und Burckhardt by Yoshihiko Maikuma (1985); Geschichtsschreibung zwischen Alteuropa und Moderner Welt: Jacob Burckhardt in seiner Zeit by Wolfgang Hardtwig (1974); Hegel und Jacob Burckhardt: Zur Krisis der geschichtlichen Bewusstseins by Eckhard Heftrich (1967); Jacob Burckhardt in der Krise seiner Zeit by Johannes Wenzel (1967); Jacob Burckhardt. Der Mensch inmitten der Geschichte by Löwith Karl (2. Auflage, 1966); Jacob Burckhardt als politischer Denker by Valentin Gitermann (1957); Jacob Burckhardt: Eine Biographie by Werner Kaegi (1947-82); Nietzsche und Burckhardt by Alfred von Martin (3rd rev. ed., 1945); Jacob Burckhardt und Nietzsche by Edgar Salin (1938); Weltanschauung und Geschichtsauffassung Jakob Burckhardt by Richard Winners (1929); Jacob Burckhardt als Geschichtsphilosoph by Joel Karl (1918)

Selected works:

  • Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Städte, 1842 (in Frühe Schriften, ed. Hans Trog and Emil Dürr, 1930)
  • Quaestiones aliquot Caroli Martelli historiam illustrantes, 1843 (dissertation)
  • Ferien: Eine Herbstgabe, 1849
  • Die Zeit Constantins des Großen, 1853
    - The Age of Constantine the Great (translated by Moses Hadas, 1949)
  • E Hämpfeli Lieder, 1853
  • Die Cicerone, 1855
    - The Cicerone; or, Art Guide to Painting in Italy (edited by A. von Zahn; translated by Mrs. A.H. Clough, 1873) / An Art Guide to Painting in Italy (translated by Mrs. A.H. Clough)
  • Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, 1860
    - The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878)
    - Italian renessanssin sivisty (suom. A.A. Koskenjaakko, 1956)
  • Geschichte der neueren Baukunst, von Jacob Burckhardt und Wilhelm Lübke: Die Renaissance in Italien, von Jacob Burckhardt. Die Renaissance in Frankreich, von Wilhelm Lübke, 1867
    - Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (edited by Peter Murray, translated by James Palmes, 1985)
  • Die Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien, 1869 [The History of the Renaissance in Italy]
  • Griechische Kulturgeschichte, 1898-1902 (4 vols., edited by Jacob Oeri, Rudolf Marx, 3 vols., 1955)
    - History of Greek Culture (abridged version, translated by Palmer Hilty, 1963)
    - The Greeks and Greek Civilization (translated by Sheila Stern; edited by Oswyn Murray, 1998)
  • Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, 1905 (edited by Jacob Oeri, 1905; Rudolf Stadelmann, 1949; Rudfolf Marx, 1955; Peter Ganz; 1982)
    - Force and Freedom: Reflections on History (edited and translated James Hastings Nichols, 1943) / Reflections on History (translated by M.D.H., 1943)
    - Maailmanhistorian näköaloja (suom. Eino E. Suolahti, 1951)
  • Briefe an einen architekten, 1870-1889, 1913
  • Erinnerungen aus Rubens, 1898
    - Recollections of Rubens (edited by H. Gerson, translated by Mary Hottinger, R.H. Boothroyd and I. Grafe, 1950)
  • Der Briefwechsel von Jakob Burckhardt und Paul Heyse, 1916 (edited by Erich Petzet)
  • Vorträge 1844-1887, 1918 (edited by Emil Dürr)
  • Das Altarbild. Das Porträt in der Malerei. Die Sammler - Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte von Italien, 1898
    - The Altarpiece in Renaissance Italy (edited and translated by Peter Humfrey, 1988)
  • aufsätze Jakob Burckhardt's aus Paris, Rom und Mailand, 1922 (edited by Josef Oswald)
  • Historische Fragmente, 1929
    - Judgments on History and Historians (translated by Harry Zohn, 1999)
  • Jacob Burckhardt-Gesamtausgabe, 1929-34 (14 vols., edited by Hans Trog et al.)
  • Briefe mit einer biographischen Einleitung, 1938 (3. Aufl., edited by Fritz Kaphahn)
  • Das antike Rom, 1940
  • Briefe. Vollständig und kritisch bearbeitete Ausgabe mit Benützung des handschriftlichen Nachlasses hergestellt von Max Burckhardt, 1949-1994 (edited by Max Burckhardt)
  • The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, 1955 (selected, edited and translated by Alexander Dru)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1955-59 (10 vols.)
  • Weisheit aus der Geschichte, 1968 (edited by Otto Heuschele)
  • Vorlesung über die Geschichte des Revolutionszeitalters, 1974
  • Die Kunst der Betrachtung. Aufsätze und Vorträge zur bildenden Kunst, 1984 (edited by Henning Ritter)
  • Jacob Burckhardt und Heinrich Wölfflin; Briefwechsel und andere Dokumente ihrer Begegnung, 1882–1897, 1989 (2., erweiterte Aufl., edited by Joseph Gantner)
  • Ästhetik der bildenden Kunst, 1992 (edited by Irmgard Siebert)
  • Die Skizzenbücher Jacob Burckhardts, 1994 (edited by Yvonne Boerlin-Brodbeck)
  • Jacob Burckhardt Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 2000- (edited by Wolfgang Hardtwig, Simon Kießling, Bernd Klesmann, Philipp Müller, Ernst Ziegler)
  • Begegnungen mit Jacob Burckhardt (1881-1897), 2003
  • Die Kultur der Renaissance, 2006 (Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Band 16; contains Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien; Die Malerei nach Inhalt und Aufgaben; Randglossen zur Sculptur der Renaissance)
    - Italian Renaissance Painting According to Genres (introduction by Maurizio Ghelardi; translation by David Britt and Caroline Beamish, 2005)
  • Geschichte des Revolutionszeitalters, 2009 (edited by by Wolfgang Hardtwig et al.)

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