Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

It’s good having the time and intellectual energy to reread some classic works, among them this study, which I last looked at when an undergraduate. Burckhardt was a Swiss German, and in this work, first published in German in 1860, he produced one of the major interpretations of Renaissance Italy. Basing his study on a close reading of many texts, he produced some memorable statements. He believed that in the Middle Ages ‘both sides of human consciousness – that which was turned within as well 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 in strange hues.’ Against this, the renaissance saw ‘the discovery of the world and of man.’  How do Burckhardt’s assertions look now?

Two observations occur to me. Firstly, a good deal of work by medievalists, both historians and literary scholars, suggests that, far from lying half awake, people in the middle were acutely aware of themselves as individuals and lived rich inner lives; that a good deal of this found expression in religious forms may have blinded Burckhardt to it, but the experiences of many participants in what more recent scholarship sees as the twelfth century renaissance, to go no further, tell against his claim. And more generally, living as we do amid what has tellingly been described as the collapse of the Enlightenment project, those strange hues may not seem quite so strange to us as they did to Burckhardt.

Secondly, I’m struck by how text-based his study is (the 100 illustrations added to the English translation of 1944 were not part of the original book). Some of his observations on music seem jejune, and more importantly he does not register the visual arts, central to the achievement of the period (see, for example, the absolutely crucial role Gombrich assigns to them in his Story of Art,with implications for his telling of that story that would be worth discussing.) There is scarcely any reference to Leonardo, and as far as I can recall not a single one to Botticelli. Perhaps this is not surprising in a work published before the big Botticelli boom took off, but it strikes me that the ideal of female beauty, of a kind I am tempted to describe as archetypal, seen in the Primavera and Birth of Venus, is something unknown in the Middle Ages.

In other words, were I trying to argue for the substantial novelty of the renaissance, I would be inclined to do so on the basis of evidence that Burckhardt does not use, and see it as residing in different things.