The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy—The Life and Times of Jacob Burckhardt

A Professor’s Perspective on Current Events

Image of Professor Jennifer McNabb, Ph.D.
By Professor Jennifer McNabb, Ph.D.

The Renaissance is having a big year. Part of what’s fueling scholarly interest is an historical anniversary: 2018 marks the 200th birthday of Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), author of what is arguably still the most famous study of the Italian Renaissance, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860.

2018: The Year of The Renaissance

A conference at the British Academy at the end of May titled “Burckhardt at 200: The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance reconsidered” focused on the Swiss historian and his monumental work, although without the same fanfare as the numerous events scheduled in 2017 to commemorate another historical anniversary, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.[2]

The fact that Burckhardt’s bicentennial has garnered comparatively less attention than last year’s “Reformation 500” isn’t particularly surprising; Jacob Burckhardt is certainly less a household name than Martin Luther. But Burckhardt’s contributions are significant ones, worthy of renewed attention during this anniversary year. During the century and a half since its publication, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy has played a key role in shaping both academic and popular perceptions of developments in the Italian states during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, developments now relatively comfortably branded, with Burckhardt’s help, under the heading of Renaissance.

In fact, Burckhardt’s eloquent and compellingly crafted treatment of the Italian Renaissance can be credited with creating the powerful and enduring association of the Renaissance with the trio of what have become its most well-known, as well as its most controversial, characteristics: individualism, secularism, and modernity.

Jacob Burckhardt: An Academic Life

Profile portrait of Jacob Burckhardt
Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897)

Jacob Burckhardt was born in 1818, the son of Protestant minister from the Swiss city of Basel. Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the ministry, though, young Burckhardt instead turned his attention to the fields of art and history. His educational trajectory took him to Berlin in the 1830s, where Burckhardt studied with renowned German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886). Ranke’s careful methods and emphasis on sources helped designate him the father of history as a modern academic discipline, and his influence on Burckhardt would prove significant.

Also significant were Burckhardt’s trips to Italy. These Italian journeys shaped him even more profoundly than his time in Berlin. The peninsula became an object of enduring fascination, and its art and history became the chief subjects of Burckhardt’s published work. He produced a study of Roman emperor Constantine and a notable treatment of Italian art at midcentury before taking up a teaching post in Zurich in 1855 and then, in 1858, returning to Basel.

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The university in Basel, where Burckhardt enjoyed a celebrated teaching career as an accomplished and engaging lecturer, became his academic home until his retirement in 1893. He died just a few years later, having acquired a reputation as a solitary figure, the quintessential academic whose devotion to his work left little room for intimate personal attachments.

Although he influenced a generation of students in the classroom, it was Burckhardt’s sweeping and elegant essay on various dynamics of the Italian Renaissance, enriched by his expert knowledge of art, that represents his most significant scholarly contribution. Burckhardt’s wasn’t the first important exploration of the Renaissance as an historical episode; French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874) had done much to popularize the concept of rebirth, so much so that the French term – Renaissance – is the one that stuck, aided in no small part by Burckhardt’s use of it in his own text.

What was much more innovative about Burckhardt’s study was his focus on cultural history and his attention to sources that offered Renaissance people’s own perspectives of their world. He examined the opinions and attitudes expressed by political commentator Niccolò Machiavelli and by biographer and artist Giorgio Vasari, among others. It was Burckhardt who helped establish many of the now-familiar names of the Renaissance period as the leading lights of their age. With the help of the Renaissance writers themselves, Burckhardt identified the Renaissance as a distinct period in history, markedly different from its medieval predecessor and characterized in the Italian states by the first glimpses of the modern world.

In the second part of the work, titled “The Development of the Individual,” for example, Burckhardt makes the following bold claim:

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 prepossession, 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 of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.

Burckhardt argued that it was the unique political and cultural conditions of Italy that allowed the medieval veil to “melt,” meaning that the Italian was, in his estimation, “the firstborn among the sons of modern Europe.”

Burckhardt’s Legacy

Subsequent scholars have criticized Burckhardt for, among other things, taking the Renaissance far too much at its own word. If it can be said that the Italian Renaissance writers were selling a vision of their own times as a renunciation of the sterility of the medieval centuries and as an introduction of new and dynamic values, it seems they had an eager buyer in Burckhardt. Others have objected to Burckhardt’s description of the Middle Ages, pointing to the later medieval period’s own vibrancy and to key continuities that linked, rather than separated, medieval and Renaissance.

It’s also easy now to spot other limitations in the content and approaches of Burckhardt’s great opus. He left out many of the significant themes and topics that absorb the attentions of twenty-first-century scholars. Economic and social history, for example, receive little attention in his essay; his is a study of art and culture and politics that is decidedly elite and masculine in orientation in ways that feel distinctly antiquated now.

image of the civilization of the renaissance in italty bookAnd yet Burckhardt himself exposed and confronted his limitations in the opening to The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, with sentiments that read as refreshingly candid and much less dated: “To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a given civilization present a different picture; and in treating of a civilization which is the mother of our own, and whose influence is still at work among us, it is unavoidable that individual judgement and feeling should tell every moment both on the writer and on the reader.” Despite his confidence that “competent judges” would have grounds to criticize and challenge his work, Burckhardt turns to his task with the declaration, “Such indeed is the importance of the subject that it still calls for fresh investigation, and may be studied with advantage from the most varied points of view.”

Jacob Burckhardt was a man both in and out of step with his own times. Although known for his exploration of one of the most famous eras of the European past, Burckhardt lived and wrote during what was itself a period of remarkable change. The decades that marked the most productive period of Burckhardt’s career also witnessed the seismic intellectual shifts touched off by the work of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who was Burckhardt’s colleague at Basel during the 1870s. Nineteenth-century industrialism, imperialism, nationalism, and the formation of new nations – Italy and Germany among them – shared the stage with explosive new ideas about human nature, God, and science to create startling, and often unsettling, assessments about the modern world and the human condition.

Burckhardt, of course, commented on humanity and modernity as well, even if he did so by looking to the Renaissance past and beyond, to the values and lessons of antiquity. In seeking the roots of modernity by looking backward, Burckhardt changed the doing of history, and that’s part of the reason that current scholarship on the Renaissance still has to contend with Burckhardt’s own legacy.

The Renaissance has long been a seductive topic for academics and popular audiences alike, in part because of the captivating vision of change and dynamism Jacob Burkhardt created. It’s fitting, then, that the anniversary of Burckhardt’s birth is coinciding with another wave of enthusiasm for all things Renaissance. 2018 may be a year in which Leonardo da Vinci is one of the hottest commodities around, but it should also be remembered as “Burckhardt 200.”

Jennifer McNabb is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. Her course, Renaissance: The Transformation of the West, is now available to purchase at

Further reading:
Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. 1860.
Woolfson, Jonathan, ed. Renaissance Historiography. Palgrave Advances. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
[1] (published May 21, 2018) and (June 5, 2018)
Image of Burckhardt- Public Domain,
Image ofThe Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy -By Internet Archive Canadian Libraries – Scan of Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien by Jacob Bruckhardt, page 6, Public Domain,