It may surprise some readers, but the Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries was invented in Switzerland exactly one hundred fifty years ago.
Have you ever wondered why English speakers use a French word, “renaissance” to refer to an event that apparently happened in Italy? Not an English word and not an Italian word but French. It is, one must surely admit, a question worth contemplating, though for some strange reason seldom raised. And the answer makes the situation even more perplexing. We use a French word in English to refer to an Italian event because it appeared in a book in German. The book in question was Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien by Jacob Burckhardt, published in the original German in 1860 and in English translation in 1878 as The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance. It gradually grew in popularity, eventually gaining Burckhardt near unanimous acclaim from his fellow historians and the adoration of the likes of a young Friedrich Nietzsche. Burckhardt had borrowed the term “Renaissance” from an 1855 article by the famed French historian Jules Michelet (hence the French word). Until this point the term “renaissance,” when used at all, referred to an artistic movement. Michelet however, saw it as an era that combined the voyages of Columbus, the art of Florence and the scientific discoveries of Galileo. Burckhardt now took the term and used it to name a period spanning the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries in Italy during which, he argued, the modern world, the world of individuality and tolerance and reason, was forged.
There is no denying that something remarkable happened in and around Tuscany between the fourteenth century, with the poetry of Petrarch, the prose of Boccaccio and the paintings of Giotto, and the fifteenth century with the achievements in art, architecture and letters by the likes of Leonardo, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli. Vasari, writing in the sixteenth century, was convinced that the greatness of ancient Greece and Rome had been reborn in the work of his contemporaries, especially in that of his master, Michelangelo. He used the word “rinascita” to refer to this revival or “rebirth” of the ancient classics. But for the next three hundred fifty years few thought to bind the many disparate achievements of Italian civilization under one concept; no one declared that this had been a specific period of time that marked the beginning of the modern world. Yet today, in universities and schools worldwide, we start courses on Modern History with a unit on The Renaissance. It is there, we assert, in Florence to be specific, that we find the first rumblings of the modern mind, the seeds of modernity—individuality, secularism, reason, capitalism, even political science. This is the convincing myth that Jacob Burckhardt created on the banks of the Rhine in 1860.
The Burckhardt family could trace their lineage back for centuries and had been leading citizens in the city-state of Basel since the sixteenth century. Burckhardt himself spoke French, Italian and English fluently, as well as his native German. He was also fluent in ancient Greek and Latin, could read Hebrew and even some Arabic. He composed music, wrote poetry, dabbled in painting and drafted architectural drawings. One is tempted to say that he was a Renaissance Man. In 1855 he was appointed Professor of History of Art in Zurich’s brand new Polytechnic , today’s Federal Institute of Technology (the ETH), and he enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city, mixing with the likes of novelist Gottfried Keller, architect Gottfried Semper and composer Richard Wagner. Three years later he was made Professor at the University of Basel and, despite many offers from more prestigious universities, he would remain there for the rest of his career. But it was during the brief years in Zurich that he penned his greatest single work, The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance.
Perhaps it is not a mistake to say that the patrician Burckhardt despised many aspects of his own time. The nineteenth century, with its technological dominance, its ugly industrialization, its selfish materialism and vulgar bourgeois culture was an attack on everything that he held to be worthwhile. In Lionel Grossman’s summary of Burckhardt’s views the age “blunted originality, discouraged independence and forced all opinion to conform to the dominant opinion.” In Italy, especially the Italy of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, he had found his antidote. Grossman adds: “It is tempting to discern in the magnificent account of the city of Florence in Burckhardt’s book the ideal model of humanist Basel… of the early nineteenth century” and “Burckhardt’s Renaissance man, whatever his historical validity, has provided a model for a contemporary ideal of freedom that seeks refuge in the sphere of art.” Burckhardt defined fifteenth century Italy as one of individualism and modernity. In his own words: “In the Middle Ages human consciousness lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil… Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation.” But in Renaissance Italy “this veil first melted into air… man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.” For Burckhardt the Renaissance had introduced greater freedom and greater tolerance, had brought about a scientific and a cosmopolitan outlook as well as a veritable explosion of artistic and literary genius. It is the image that most of us carry around in our heads, and we have received it, even if only second hand, from Burckhardt.
In professional (or professorial) circles Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance has taken a severe beating. Medievalists have attacked it by claiming the Middle Ages were not so backward after all, citing the Renaissance of the twelfth century, the birth of universities and modern cities, the growth in trade and banking and the achievements of Gothic (the term itself a nineteenth century invention) architecture. On the other hand historians of the modern period claim that Renaissance Man was not so modern after all, with his obsessions with magic, astrology and the terrible witch-craze. In his A Study of History Arnold Toynbee famously attacked the uniqueness of The Renaissance, claiming that there were many renaissances, some of which weren’t even European. Joan Kelly emphasized the misogynist views of modern Renaissance Man, concluding that “there was no renaissance for women, at least not during the Renaissance.” Jerry Brotton has drawn attention to the non-western, particularly Ottoman roots of the Renaissance while post-modernist historians find Burckhardt’s work to be one of the worst examples of a grand narrative that forces events into a neat story while reality is messy and complex and is bound to always spill over the narrative designed to contain it.
And yet, and yet… for most of us, most of the time, despite knowing better, we somehow believe there is an intrinsic truth in Burckhardt’s story; such is the persuasive power of his secular myth. And Burckhardt, more than many, realized that historical interpretations, like the works of fiction that they resemble, are simply suggestions to look at the world in a different way. In the opening page of The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance he wrote: “To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a given civilization present a different picture … and it is unavoidable that individual judgment and feeling should tell every moment both on the writer and on the reader… In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies, which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead also to essentially different conclusions.” With old truths being eroded in the middle of the nineteenth century, and old certainties discarded, he created a historical masterpiece that provides a metaphor in which we can find the roots of our modern predicament. It still resonates today. In this way, Burckhardt’s The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance is one of the most important books of modern times. Even if you have never heard of it, not to mind read it, it has helped to shape the modern mind, including yours. To a large extent modern consciousness was not born in Florence during the fifteenth century, it was created by a history professor in Zurich.