Mankind Turns to Understanding Himself; Jacob Burckhardt’s “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” captures a dazzling era and its many contradictions

Mankind Turns to Understanding Himself


Nov. 1, 2013 7:10 p.m. ET

‘The most instructive of all the books on the Renaissance,” Lord Acton called Jacob Burckhardt’s “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.” The book was one of the few modern works that Friedrich Nietzsche admired. Burckhardt (1818-1897) and Nietzsche (1844-1900) were colleagues at the University of Basel, in Switzerland. Nietzsche claimed that Burckhardt’s were the only lectures he ever enjoyed, and the model for the kind he himself hoped one day to deliver. Burckhardt recognized the younger man’s genius, yet was slightly wary of him, knowing how different were their intellectual methods and points of view. Nietzche was of course a philosopher, of literary bent, trained in the classics. Burckhardt called himself “a contemplative historian.”What a contemplative historian does is on dazzling exhibition in “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,” the pre-eminent work of Burckhardt’s career and an unparalleled work of history. He also wrote an introduction to the art of Italy called “Cicerone,” as well as “The Age of Constantine the Great” and a little book on the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. Late in life he published his lecture notes under the title “Judgments on History and Historians.”

“The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,” despite its formidable title, runs to a mere 341 small pages in my Phaidon Press edition. Burckhardt claimed that he could easily have made it three times as long, and that a larger book would doubtless have earned him “more respect among a lot of people.” Instead, as he noted in the first sentence of the book, he had written “an essay in the strictest sense of the word.” By this he meant a work that did not aim to be either complete or definitive.

Burckhardt’s book is unlike any other historical work in being neither narrative in its construction nor devoted to unraveling historical problems. What it provides is a brilliant survey of those cultural tendencies—and “culture,” Burckhardt thought, “always precedes art”—that made the Italian Renaissance “the leader of modern ages.” Not least of the book’s attractions are its judgments of leading political and literary figures in the period, making it both a work of history and of astute criticism.

The book covers the period bounded by the birth of Dante (c. 1265) to the death of Michelangelo (1564). Although Burckhardt is best known as an art historian, visual artists do not feature prominently in his history. Raphael is mentioned almost in passing. The nature of Leonardo, the great universal genius of the period, is characterized as so rich that it “can never be more than dimly and distantly conceived.” Benvenuto Cellini is considered more as an autobiographer than as a visual artist. Giorgio Vasari, the contemporary and indispensable chronicler of Renaissance artists, is appreciatively noted: Without his “all important work, we should perhaps to this day have no history of Northern art, or of the art of modern Europe, at all.” Michelangelo goes unmentioned.

Ariosto, Boccaccio, Castiglione, Petrarch, Tasso and most prominently Dante weave in and out of Burckhardt’s pages. Savonarola, Cesare Borgia, Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli put in cameo appearances. So, too, do minor figures such as Pietro Aretino, thought to be the father of modern journalism, and as such “not burdened with principles, neither with liberalism nor philanthropy nor any other virtue.”

Burckhardt is less interested in biographical portraiture than in trying to capture the spirit of Italians during the Renaissance and how the Italian character, in all its variety, helped create the modern state. He does not scant the villainy of Renaissance despots, governing without morals or principles. Some of the most minor were the most cruel. Among this group was one Pandolfo Petrucci, who exercised power in Siena toward the close of the 15th century. “His pastime in the summer months,” Burckhardt writes, “was to roll blocks of stone from the top of Monte Amiata, without caring what or whom they hit.”

To grasp what marked off the Renaissance from all that came before, Burckhardt places heavy emphasis on the recovery of the literature and art of antiquity by the Renaissance Italians. “Aristotle,” he writes, “became the common property of educated Italians.” Cicero was the model among them for prose composition. Arabic and Hebrew texts were studied. The ideal Italian was l’uomo universale, the “all-sided man.”

The diminished prestige of the church in Italy was a help in freeing men from concentration on the purely celestial. Machiavelli blamed the church for the irreligion and corruption of the Italians. This was a period when popes formed their own dynasties, and dealt in favors and pardons the way a Venetian merchant dealt in glass and silver. With their minds no longer solely on the drama of salvation, mankind, as Burckhardt writes, was “here first thoroughly and profoundly understood. This one single result of the Renaissance is enough to fill us with everlasting thankfulness.”

Talent was esteemed more than high birth. Women emerged as more than helpmates. “To understand the higher forms of social intercourse at this period,” Burckhardt writes, “we must keep before our minds the fact that women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men.” The education afforded upper-class women was no different from that of men. The word “virago,” he notes, “then implied nothing but praise.”

Burckhardt is splendid on the Italian penchant for vengeance. Honor, which ranked high in the Italian scheme of virtues, was always in peril during the Renaissance. Honor must never be outraged. Burckhardt stresses through his book the role imagination played among Italians of the Renaissance, and writes that “it was to the imagination of the Italians that the peculiar character of their vengeance was due.” Avenging of blood was considered a duty. Vendette were “handed down from father to son, and extended to friends and distant relations.” Revenge “was declared with perfect frankness to be a necessity of human nature.” But vengeance must be undertaken with art, and satisfaction achieved through both “the material injury and moral humiliation of the offender.” One can find in Burckhardt’s pages on vengeance the roots of the modern Mafia.

A good part of the richness of “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” derives from Burckhardt’s ability to hold in exquisite balance the corruption and the glory, the squalor and the grandeur, the cruelty and the beauty of Renaissance life. Toward the close of his book, he writes:

“But the Italian of the Renaissance had to bear the first mighty surging of a new age. Through his fits and his passions, he has become the most characteristic representative of all the heights and all the depths of his time. By the side of the profound corruption appeared human personalities of the noblest harmony, and an artistic splendor which shed upon the life of man a lustre which neither antiquity nor mediaevalism could or would bestow upon it.” Burckhardt’s sophisticated prose, such as could be commanded only by a man of the deepest culture, brings this to life in the way that no contemporary academic could hope to do.

No one who has read Jacob Burckhardt’s masterpiece will ever think to call, say, Woody Allen or Steve Jobs a Renaissance man.

—Mr. Epstein’s latest book, co-authored with Frederic Raphael, is “Distant Intimacy, a Friendship in the Age of the Internet” (Yale).


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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