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Jacob Burckhardt, 19th Century Historian – THE EXPLOSION OF THE RENASSIANCE
Burckhardt established the thesis that Renaissance art represented a break with the
past, wherein representation became scientific, realistic, individualistic and humane; the
visual analogue to the birth of the modern sensibility, one which left behind the
superstitious mindset of the Dark Ages. With qualifications, that thesis remains more or
less the rule in the present, and is one reason that museums, such as the Uffizi in
Florence, generally display works of art chronologically: so multitudes of students and
aficionados can follow, with their own eyes, the elevation of art from its Gothic, one
dimensional, iconic forms to its Renaissance, three dimensional, individualistic
Although qualified historians no longer speak of “the Dark Ages,” they still refer to the
period before the fourteenth century as the Middle Ages or the Mediaeval Era - with
most of the pejorative connotations of the Dark Ages still implied. They echo the writers
and historians of the early Renaissance, of Dante and Petrarch and Alberti, who argued
that the Renaissance generation broke with the superstitions of the past, recovered the
best of the Classical world, and ushered in a new dawn of modernity.
At the time Burkhardt wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy there was little
in the way of accepted knowledge about what we today regard as "the Renaissance."
His work was accepted as demonstrating that the shift from corporate medieval society
to the modern spirit occurred in "Renaissance" Italy in the 14th and 15th century and, to
a great extent, moulded the modern concept of the European Renaissance as a
necessary and positive break with the outlook and society that preceded it.
Burckhardt's work remains one of the most important on the subject of the
Renaissance. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga called it, "that transcendent
masterpiece." The first three parts of the book are held to be especially good - readable
and interesting, profound and philosophical.
A much quoted passage from The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy depicts a
dramatic alteration in the outlook of many persons:
"…both sides of human consciousness - the side turned to the world and that
turned inward - lay, as it were, beneath a common veil, dreaming or half awake.
The veil was woven of faith, childlike prejudices, and illusion; seen through it,
world and history appeared in strange hues; man recognized himself only as a
member of a race, a nation, a party, a corporation, a family, or in some other
general category. It was in Italy that this veil first melted into thin air, and
awakened an objective perception and treatment of the state and all things of this
world in general; but by its side, and with full power, there also arose the
subjective; man becomes a self-aware individual and recognizes himself as
Peter Burke: The Myth of the Renaissance
Many historians attacked Burckhardt's interpretation and the legacy built up around it.
These historians argued that Burckhardt overemphasized how modern the Renaissance
was. They stressed how much the Renaissance, even in Italy, was still part of the
medieval world. Other historians have responded that criticism of Burckhardt go too far
In the following selection Peter Burke criticizes Burckhardt's idea of the Renaissance as
a myth and describes the main objections to it.
Jacob Burckhardt defined the period in terms of two concepts, “individualism” and
“modernity”. According to Burckhardt, 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-only through some general
The Renaissance Italian was, Burckhardt wrote, “the first-born among the sons of
modern Europe.'” He referred to fourteenth-century poet Petrarch as “one of the
first truly modern men.” He pointed out that the great renewal of art and ideas
began in Italy, and at a later stage the new attitudes and the new artistic forms
spread to the rest of Europe.
This idea of the Renaissance is a myth. Burckhardt's mistake was to accept
the scholars and artists of the period at their own valuation, to take this story of
rebirth at its face value and to elaborate it into a book.
In the first place, there are arguments to the effect that so-called “Renaissance
men” were actually rather medieval, steeped in traditional behavior, assumptions
and ideals than we tend to think. Hindsight suggests that even Petrarch, “one of
the first truly modern men” had many attitudes in common with the centuries he
described as '\”dark.”
In the second place, the medievalists have accumulated arguments to the effect
that the Renaissance was not such a singular event as Burckhardt and his
contemporaries once thought and that the term should really be used in the
plural. There were various “renaissances” which took place during the long
Middle Ages, notably in the twelfth century and in the age of Charlemagne,
during the era of the Crusades, and in the Ninth Century, during the era of
Charlemagne . In both cases there was a combination of literary and artistic
achievements, with a revival of interest in classical learning, and in both cases
contemporaries described their age as one of restoration, rebirth or “renovation.”
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