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Jacob Burckhardt

Jacob Burckhardt Jacob Burckhardt[2†]

Jacob Burckhardt, born on May 25, 1818, in Basel, Switzerland, was a pioneering historian of art and culture. His seminal work, "Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien" (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860), is a foundational text in cultural history. Burckhardt emphasized the importance of art, literature, and architecture in understanding historical contexts. Educated in classical languages and literature, he earned a doctorate in history in 1843 but chose not to pursue a clerical career. His approach to history, influenced by pantheism, continues to shape the study of art and cultural history[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Jacob Burckhardt was born into an upper-class family in Basel, Switzerland[1†][2†]. His family was among the most respected in town, with some members earning wealth in international trade and the manufacture of silk, while others served the community as professors and pastors[1†].

Burckhardt’s education began at Basel’s excellent grammar school, which provided him with a humanistic education[1†]. His initial studies at the University of Basel were dominated by a devotion to Greek[1†]. However, before the philological and increasingly historical orientation of his interests could fully assert itself, Burckhardt spent three years in the study of formal theology[1†]. Although he never regretted this concession to the professional traditions of his father and grandfather, Burckhardt took up divinity without a calling and after a prolonged crisis abandoned it, together with the explicit profession of Christian faith[1†].

From 1839 to 1843, Burckhardt studied at the University of Berlin, where his talents were acknowledged by two eminent teachers of ancient history, August Boeckh and Johann Gustav Droysen[1†]. But it was under the influence of two other professors—Franz Kugler and Leopold von Ranke —that his appreciation of ancient and modern history came into balance in his efforts to comprehend the past as a whole[1†].

He finished his degree in 1839 and went to the University of Berlin to study history, especially art history, then a new field[1†][2†]. At Berlin, he attended lectures by Leopold von Ranke, the founder of history as a respectable academic discipline based on sources and records rather than personal opinions[1†][2†]. He spent part of 1841 at the University of Bonn, studying under the art historian Franz The

Early Years and Education

Jacob Burckhardt was born into an upper-class family in Basel, Switzerland[1†][2†]. He attended a high school that specialized in classical languages and literature[1†][3†][4†]. His education was dominated by a devotion to Greek[1†]. Despite studying theology initially, he chose not to become a clergyman[1†][2†]. His religious position, which can be described as a kind of pantheism, influenced his concept of history[1†].

From 1839 to 1843, Burckhardt studied at the University of Berlin, where his talents were acknowledged by two eminent teachers of ancient history, August Boeckh and Johann Gustav Droysen[1†]. But it was under the influence of two other professors—Franz Kugler and Leopold von Ranke —that his appreciation of ancient and modern history came into balance in his efforts to comprehend the past as a whole[1†].

He finished his degree in 1839 and went to the University of Berlin to study history, especially art history, then a new field[1†][2†]. At Berlin, he attended lectures by Leopold von Ranke, the founder of history as a respectable academic discipline based on sources and records rather than personal opinions[1†][2†]. He spent part of 1841 at the University of Bonn, studying under the art historian Franz Theodor Kugler, to whom he dedicated his first book, Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Städte (1842)[1†][2†].

He studied history at the University of Basel, receiving a doctorate in 1843[1†][3†]. He moved to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1855[1†][3†].

Career Development and Achievements

Jacob Burckhardt’s career was marked by a deep commitment to the study of history, particularly art history[2†]. After completing his degree, he went to the University of Berlin to study history, especially art history, then a new field[2†]. At Berlin, he attended lectures by Leopold von Ranke, the founder of history as a respectable academic discipline based on sources and records rather than personal opinions[2†].

He spent part of 1841 at the University of Bonn, studying under the art historian Franz Theodor Kugler, to whom he dedicated his first book, “Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Städte” (1842)[2†]. He taught at the University of Basel from 1843 to 1855, then at the Federal Polytechnic School[2†]. In 1858, he returned to Basel to assume the professorship he held until his retirement in 1893[2†]. He started to teach only art history in 1886[2†].

Burckhardt’s historical writings did much to establish the importance of art in the study of history[2†]. Indeed, he was one of the “founding fathers of art history” but also one of the original creators of cultural history[2†]. His best-known work is “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” (1860)[2†]. This work became a model for the treatment of cultural history in general[2†][1†][2†].

Sigfried Giedion described Burckhardt’s achievement in the following terms: “The great discoverer of the age of the Renaissance, he first showed how a period should be treated in its entirety, with regard not only for its painting, sculpture, and architecture, but for the social institutions of its daily life as well”[2†] 3[5†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Jacob Burckhardt’s first significant work was “Die Zeit Konstantins des Grossen” (1853), translated as “The Age of Constantine the Great” (1949)[6†]. In this work, Burckhardt presented a picture of a transitional age, teeming with religious and cultural activity[6†]. He recognized that the rise of Christianity was inevitable and necessary for the development of an original culture during the Middle Ages[6†]. However, his sympathies lay clearly with the waning forces of the ancient world[6†].

His next major work was “Der Cicerone” (1855), translated as “The Cicerone” (1873)[6†]. This comprehensive study of Italian art was geographically arranged in the form of a travel guide[6†]. It went through many editions, but Burckhardt reacted to the popularity of his work with growing aloofness[6†].

Burckhardt’s most famous work is “Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien” (1860), translated as “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” (1878)[6†][2†]. In this work, Burckhardt analyzed the daily life of Renaissance Italy, its political climate, and the thought of its outstanding minds[6†]. He used contemporary chronicles and tales as sources, which were often ignored by historians[6†].

Here are some of his main works:

Each of these works reflects Burckhardt’s deep interest in ancient civilization and his comprehensive approach to history[6†]. He not only considered painting, sculpture, and architecture, but also the social institutions of daily life[6†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Jacob Burckhardt was not just a cultural historian but also a serious political thinker[7†]. His work combined biographical information with an analysis of his major writings, challenging the notion that he was simply a cultural historian[7†]. The central teaching of Burckhardt’s life was that the intellectual in mass society can best serve the community, not by direct political participation, but by working for the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral cultivation of the individual[7†].

Burckhardt was renowned for his historiographical method known as Kulturgeschichte[7†][8†]. In the analysis of a historic moment, this method focuses on the moment’s inner aspects, such as the contemporaneous art and literature, the religious and moral habits, and the economical and social developments[7†][8†]. This approach allowed him to steer the analysis of history towards the inward conditions of society, highlighting the cultural transformations, which had caused the evolution of people and nations[7†][8†].

His work, “Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien” (1860), is considered a classic of the critical literature on the Renaissance and an excellent example of cultural historical studies[7†][8†]. In this work, he declared that modernity was born in Italy in the fifteenth century[7†][8†].

Burckhardt’s analysis and evaluation of history have left a significant impact on the field of cultural history. His focus on individuality, the relevance of contemporaneous sources, and the adoption of an all-embracing perspective have contributed to a deeper understanding of history[7†][8†].

Personal Life

Jacob Burckhardt was born into a prosperous family in Basel, Switzerland[1†][2†]. His family was highly respected in the community, with some members gaining wealth through international trade and silk manufacturing, and others serving the community as professors and pastors[1†]. Despite his family’s religious background, Burckhardt chose not to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by becoming a clergyman[1†][9†]. After a prolonged crisis, he abandoned his theological studies and the explicit profession of Christian faith[1†][9†].

Burckhardt’s religious position can be described as a kind of pantheism[1†]. His religious ideas, which were initially romantic, later revealed their classical inspiration and came to underlie his concept of history[1†]. These ideas, evincing a profound respect for human destiny, influenced his understanding and interpretation of historical events[1†].

Throughout his life, Burckhardt remained a bachelor[1†]. From 1858 until 1883, he regularly traveled to Italy and other places[1†]. Despite receiving offers for professorial chairs at German universities, including the University of Tübingen in 1867 and Ranke’s chair at the University of Berlin in 1872, he declined them all[1†][2†]. He chose instead to return to Basel in 1858 to assume a professorship, which he held until his retirement in 1893[1†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Jacob Burckhardt’s legacy is profound and enduring. He is recognized as one of the first great historians of art and culture[1†][2†]. His work, “Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien” (1860), translated as “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” (1878), became a model for the treatment of cultural history in general[1†][2†]. This work shaped the direction of Renaissance studies for generations and inspired a popular fascination with the Renaissance period[1†][3†].

Burckhardt’s historical writings did much to establish the importance of art in the study of history[1†][2†]. Indeed, he was one of the “founding fathers of art history” but also one of the original creators of cultural history[1†][2†]. His appreciation of ancient and modern history came into balance in his efforts to comprehend the past as a whole[1†][2†].

Sigfried Giedion, a notable historian, described Burckhardt’s achievement in the following terms: "The great discoverer of the age of the Renaissance, he first showed how a period should be treated in its entirety, with regard not only for its painting, sculpture, and architecture, but for the social institutions of its daily life as well"[1†][2†].

Despite his great scholarly and educational contributions, Burckhardt did not believe in modern research-work and mass-education[1†][10†]. He had much deeper insights into the real conditions of societies and states than many a political historian and sociologist without a philosophy of life in the background of their specialized interests[1†][10†].

Burckhardt’s influence continues to be felt today, with his work still being evaluated and his legacy discussed[1†][11†]. His approach to history, which stressed the importance of art, literature, and architecture as a primary source for the study of history, has had a lasting impact on the field[1†][2†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Britannica - Jacob Burckhardt: Swiss historian [website] - link
  2. Wikipedia (English) - Jacob Burckhardt [website] - link
  3. Encyclopedia.com - Burckhardt, Jakob 1818–1897 Renaissance Historian [website] - link
  4. Oxford Academic - A Renaissance Reclaimed: Jacob Burckhardt's Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy Reconsidered - Burckhardt, Religion, and the ‘Principle of Correction’: From Renaissance to Reformation [website] - link
  5. Wikiwand - Jacob Burckhardt - Wikiwand [website] - link
  6. Britannica - Jacob Burckhardt - Historian, Art Historian, Renaissance [website] - link
  7. Cambridge Core Journals - Jacob Burckhardt: The Cultural Historian as Political Thinker [website] - link
  8. Springer Link - Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy - Chapter: Burckhardt, Jacob [website] - link
  9. JSTOR - Jacob Burckhardt, Religion, and the Historiography of "Crisis" and "Transition" [website] - link
  10. Springer Link - Sämtliche Schriften - Chapter: Jacob Burckhardt: [website] - link
  11. Oxford Academic - British Academy Scholarship Online - A Renaissance Reclaimed: Jacob Burckhardt's Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy Reconsidered [website] - link
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