Jacob Burckhardt

Jacob Burckhardt
Jacob Burckhardt in 1892
Born (1818-05-25)May 25, 1818
Basel, Switzerland
Died August 8, 1897(1897-08-08) (aged 79)
Basel, Switzerland
Nationality Swiss
Alma mater University of Bonn
Known for The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien; 1860)
Scientific career
Fields History of art
Cultural history
Institutions University of Basel
Federal Polytechnic School

Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (May 25, 1818 August 8, 1897) was a Swiss historian of art and culture and an influential figure in the historiography of both fields. He is known as one of the major progenitors of cultural history.[1] 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] Burckhardt's best known work is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).


The son of a Protestant clergyman, Burckhardt was born and died in Basel, where he studied theology in the hope of taking holy orders; however, under the influence of Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, he chose not to become a clergyman. He was a member of the patrician Burckhardt family.

He finished his degree in 1839 and went to the University of Berlin to study history,[3] especially art history, then a new field. 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. 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).

He taught at the University of Basel from 1843 to 1855, then at the Federal Polytechnic School. In 1858, he returned to Basel to assume the professorship he held until his retirement in 1893. He started to teach only art history in 1886. He twice declined offers of professorial chairs at German universities, at the University of Tübingen in 1867 and Ranke's chair at the University of Berlin in 1872.

See Life by Hans Trog in the Basler Jahrbuch for 1898, pp. 1–172.

Burckhardt is currently featured on the Swiss thousand franc banknote.


Burckhardt's historical writings did much to establish the importance of art in the study of history; indeed, he was one of the "founding fathers of art history" but also one of the original creators of cultural history. According to John Lukacs, he was the first master of cultural history, which seeks to describe the spirit and the forms of expression of a particular age, a particular people, or a particular place. His innovative approach to historical research stressed the importance of art and its inestimable value as a primary source for the study of history. He was one of the first historians to rise above the narrow 19th-century notion that "history is past politics and politics current history."[4] Burckhardt's unsystematic approach to history was strongly opposed to the interpretations of Hegelianism, which was popular at the time; economism as an interpretation of history; and positivism, which had come to dominate scientific discourses (including the discourse of the social sciences).

In 1838, Burckhardt made his first journey to Italy and published his first important article, "Bemerkungen über schweizerische Kathedralen" ("Remarks about Swiss Cathedrals"). Burckhardt delivered a series of lectures at the University of Basel, which were published in 1943 by Pantheon Books Inc., under the title Force and Freedom: An Interpretation of History by Jacob Burckhardt. In 1847, he brought out new editions of Kugler's two great works, Geschichte der Malerei and Kunstgeschichte, and in 1853, he published his own work, Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen ("The Age of Constantine the Great"). He spent the greater part of the years 1853 and 1854 in Italy, collecting material for his 1855 Der Cicerone: Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens (7th German edition, 1899) ("The Cicerone: or, Art-guide to painting in Italy. For the use of travellers" Translated into English by A. H. Clough in 1873), also dedicated to Kugler. The work, "the finest travel guide that has ever been written"[5] which covered sculpture and architecture, and painting, became an indispensable guide to the art traveller in Italy.

About half of the original edition was devoted to the art of the Renaissance. Thus, Burckhardt was naturally led to write the two books for which he is best known, his 1860 Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien ("The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy") (English translation, by S. G. C. Middlemore, in 2 vols., London, 1878), and his 1867 Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien ("The History of the Renaissance in Italy"). The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was the most influential interpretation of the Italian Renaissance in the 19th century and is still widely read. In connection with this work Burckhardt may have been the first historian to use the term "modernity" in a clearly-defined, academic context.[6] Burckhardt developed an ambivalent interpretation of modernity and the effects of the Renaissance, praising the movement as introducing new forms of cultural and religious freedom but also worrying about the potential feelings of alienation and disenchantment modern men might feel.[6] These claims proved quite controversial, but the scholarly judgements of Burckhardt's History of the Renaissance are sometimes considered to be justified by subsequent research according to historians including Desmond Seward and art historians such as Kenneth Clark. Burckhardt and the German historian Georg Voigt founded the historical study of the Renaissance. In contrast to Voigt, who confined his studies to early Italian humanism, Burckhardt dealt with all aspects of Renaissance society.

Burckhardt considered the study of ancient history an intellectual necessity and was a highly respected scholar of Greek civilization. "The Greeks and Greek Civilization" sums up the relevant lectures, "Griechische Kulturgeschichte", which Burckhardt first gave in 1872 and which he repeated until 1885. At his death, he was working on a four-volume survey of Greek civilization.

"Judgments on History and Historians" is based on Burckhardt's lectures on history at the University of Basel between 1865 and 1885. It provides his insights and interpretation of the events of the entire sweep of Western Civilization from Antiquity to the Age of Revolution, including the Middle Ages, History from 1450 to 1598, the History of the Seventeenth and the Eighteenth Centuries.[7]

Friedrich Nietzsche, appointed professor of classical philology at Basel in 1869 at the age of 24, admired Burckhardt and attended some of his lectures. Both men were admirers of the late Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche believed Burckhardt agreed with the thesis of his The Birth of Tragedy, that Greek culture was defined by opposing "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" tendencies. Nietzsche and Burckhardt enjoyed each other's intellectual company, even as Burckhardt kept his distance from Nietzsche's evolving philosophy. Their extensive correspondence over a number of years has been published. Burckhardt's student Heinrich Wölfflin succeeded him at the University of Basel at the age of only 28.


There is a tension in Burckhardt's persona between the wise and worldly student of the Italian Renaissance and the cautious product of Swiss Calvinism, which he had studied extensively for the ministry. The Swiss polity in which he spent nearly all of his life was a good deal more democratic and stable than was the norm in 19th-century Europe. As a Swiss, Burckhardt was also cool to German nationalism and to German claims of cultural and intellectual superiority. He was also amply aware of the rapid political and economic changes taking place in the Europe of his day and commented in his lectures and writings on the Industrial Revolution, the European political upheavals of his day, and the growing European nationalism and militarism. Events amply fulfilled his prediction of a cataclysmic 20th century, in which violent demagogues (whom he called "terrible simplifiers") would play central roles. In later years, Burckhardt found himself unimpressed by democracy, individualism, socialism and a great many other ideas fashionable during his lifetime.

He also observed over a century ago that "the state incurs debts for politics, war, and other higher causes and 'progress'.... The assumption is that the future will honor this relationship in perpetuity. The state has learned from the merchants and industrialists how to exploit credit; it defies the nation ever to let it go into bankruptcy. Alongside all swindlers the state now stands there as swindler-in-chief".[8]


In English translation
  • 1929. Judgements on History and Historians
  • The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt. ISBN 0-86597-122-6.
  • 1943. Reflections on History. ISBN 0-913966-37-1.


  1. Jakob Burckhardt Renaissance Cultural History
  2. In Space, Time and Architecture (6th ed.), p 3.
  3. The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, Translated by Alexander Dru, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955; Liberty Fund Inc., 2001, xxviii-xxxii.
  4. John Lukacs, Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge, ed. Mark G Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004, 215.
  5. Giedion, p. 4.
  6. 1 2 Josephson-Storm, Jason (2017). The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 91. ISBN 0-226-40336-X.
  7. Burckhardt: Judgments on history and historians
  8. Judgments on History and Historians (tr. Boston: 1958), p. 171 - cited in "Super Imperialism" by M. Hudson

Further reading

  • Bauer, Stefan (2001): Polisbild und Demokratieverständnis in Jacob Burckhardts "Griechischer Kulturgeschichte". Basel: Schwabe. ISBN 978-3-7965-1674-0
  • Gilbert, Felix (1990). History: Politics or Culture? Reflections on Ranke and Burckhardt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 109. ISBN 0-691-03163-0. 
  • Gossman, Lionel, 2000. Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-30500-7
  • Grosse, Jurgen, 1999, "Reading History: On Jacob Burckhardt as Source-Reader," Journal of the History of Ideas 60: 525-47.
  • Gossman, Lionel. "Jacob Burckhardt: Cold War Liberal?" Journal of Modern History (2002) 74#3 pp. 538–572 in JSTOR
  • Hinde, John R., 2000. Jacob Burckhardt and the Crisis of Modernity. McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Ideas. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1027-3
  • Howard, Thomas Albert, 1999. Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W.M.L. De Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65022-4
  • Mommsen, Wolfgang. "Jacob Burckhardt- Defender of Culture and Prophet of Doom," Government and Opposition (1983) 18#4 pp. 458–475.
  • Rüsen, Jörn. "Jacob Burckhardt: Political Standpoint and Historical Insight on the Border of Postmodernism," History and Theory (1985) 24#3 pp. 235–246
  • Sigurdson, Richard, 2004. Jacob Burckhardt's Social and Political Thought. Univ. of Toronto Press. ISBN 0802047807

Burckhardt at 200: The Civilization of the Renaissance reconsidered, British Academy, London 31 May - 1 June 2018

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