The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy

9781108079945fc3dJacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy is one of those cultural monoliths which large numbers of people have heard of, but perhaps (A Brief History of Time, anyone?) fewer have read. One of my personal misconceptions about the work was that it is about art, when in fact it is more about politics than anything else (it isn’t illustrated at all), and another was that it is about the ‘High’ Renaissance, which it isn’t. Happily, our cover image (of which I had the excitement of seeing the original in the Duomo in Florence a few weeks ago), showing Dante between Florence, Purgatory and Hell, pulls us back into the thirteenth century, where Burckhardt begins his tale.

Dante between Hell, Purgatory and Florence, with the Starry Heaven above.

Dante between Hell, Purgatory and Florence, with the Starry Heaven above.

Carl Jacob Christoff Burckhardt (1818–97), was Swiss, from Basel, and originally planned and studied to become a Calvinist minister. Graduating in 1839, he went instead to the university of Berlin, where he entered the relatively new academic department of ‘history’, attending the lectures of Ranke among others. He also went to Bonn, to study the even newer discipline of art history, before returning to Basel, where (apart from a three-year period in Zurich) he spent the rest of his life, serving as a professor in the university from 1858 to 1893.

His 1860 Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien was preceded by new editions of the works of his Bonn teacher Franz Kugler, and books on the art and architecture of the Flemish cities and on the age of Constantine the Great. After travelling in Italy in 1853–4, he published a guide to the arts of Italy which was hugely popular, and he followed Die Kultur with Die Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien (in 1867).

Thankfully for us Brits (and others), in 1878, Samuel George Chetwynd Middlemore (1848–90) decided that ‘although Dr Burckhardt’s work … is too well known … for any introduction to be necessary’, nevertheless, in publishing a translation, he would be ‘meeting a want felt by some who are either unable to read German at all, or to whom an English version will save a good deal of time and trouble’. (I like to feel that I hover nicely between these two cohorts.)

I haven’t been able to find out anything about Middlemore except that he translated this book, and that a Mrs S.G.C. Middlemore published translations of ‘Spanish Legendary Tales’ with lurid titles such as ‘The Walled Nun of Avila’. A George Middlemore (d. 1850) ended up as governor of St Helena in 1836, and supervised the removal of Napoleon’s remains from the island in 1840. However, his only mentioned relative is a son, also in the army… There is also a philanthropic Sir John Throgmorton Middlemore (a friend of the Cadburys), but not apparently of the same family.

Anyway, Middlemore’s lucid and fluid prose style in his two-volume translation makes Burckhardt’s story a pleasure to read. Its tenor can be grasped by the chapter headings of Part I: The tyranny of the fourteenth century; The tyranny of the fifteenth century; The petty tyrannies; The greater dynasties; The opponents of tyranny; The republics: Venice and Florence; Foreign policy of the Italian states; War as a work of art; The papacy and its dangers.

As our blurb says, this is as much a work of political history as it is of aesthetic development. Burckhardt saw in the figures and events of the Italian Renaissance certain traits that he believed to be mirrored in the politics of his own day, notably some aspects of ‘an unbridled egoism, outraging every right, and killing every germ of a healthier culture’. He emphasised that statecraft and warfare were the drivers, and perhaps the necessary preconditions, of major artistic developments. (Think Orson Welles and the Swiss cuckoo clocks…)

Apart from the overarching narrative, there are marvellous titbits. ‘The envoys of Cardinal Bessarion [the great Greek diplomat and humanist whose library was bequeathed to Venice and forms the core of the Biblioteca Marciana], when they saw for the first time a printed book … laughed at the discovery.’

Cardinal Bessarion. Credit: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Cardinal Bessarion. Credit: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The Marciana Library, facing the Doge's palace in Venice

The Marciana Library, facing the Doge’s palace in Venice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino (warlord but also the ‘Light of Italy’), whose library rivalled that of the Vatican, ‘would have been ashamed to own a printed book’. (He employed between thirty and forty copyists…)

This famous double portrait of Federigo and his wife Battista Sforza is in the Uffizi, Florence. His profile portrait avoids the missing eye and other facial injuries acquired during his life as a condottiere

This famous double portrait of Federico and his wife Battista Sforza is in the Uffizi, Florence. His profile portrait avoids the missing eye and other facial injuries acquired during his life as a condottiere

Federico and his young son in his library Credit: Galleria nazionale delle Marche

Federico and his young son in his library Credit: Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or consider the young nobles of Venice, whom a visiting fifteenth-century lecturer could not get to talk about politics: ‘When I ask them what people think, say, and expect about this or that movement in Italy, they all answer with one voice that they know nothing about the matter.’ Walls, after all, have ears…

Young noblemen, from Carpaccio's marvellous 'Dream of St Ursula' sequence, in the Academia, Venice

Young noblemen, from Carpaccio’s marvellous ‘Dream of St Ursula’ sequence, in the Accademia, Venice

 

A letter box for Venetians who wanted to post anonymous accusations of treachery and other dangers to the state

A letter box for Venetians who wanted to post anonymous accusations of treachery and other dangers to the state

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blonde wigs made of yellow silk; gambling cardinals (one lost 14,000 ducats to another, and complained to the Pope that his opponent had cheated); the astrologically approved start-time for an army on the march frustrated by traffic jams – this is all about life, not just about civilisation.

Carpaccio's wealthy, bored women, in the Museo Correr, Venice. Is their blonde hair real, or silk?

Carpaccio’s wealthy, bored women, in the Museo Correr, Venice. Is their blonde hair real, or silk?

But the states of mind – as well as the state of politics – which gave rise to the Renaissance are displayed here, in a wonderful story encompassing superstition and humanism, morality and religion, ruins and rebuilding, Latin and vernacular poetry, murder and charity, which has influenced thought and writing on the period ever since, and which will probably never be done better.

Caroline

This entry was posted in Art and architecture, Classics, History, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy

  1. Stephen Barber says:

    I read it a couple of years ago – the little Phaidon hardback edition, with illustrations – and realized how much ideas about the Renaissance we all take for granted come from this book.

  2. Pingback: ‘Sagacity’ Middlemore, the man who gave us Burckhardt | bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

  3. bonaelitterae says:

    I have been able to come up with some more information on S. G. C. Middlemore. Here it is: https://bonaelitterae.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/middlemore-burckhardt/

  4. Hi David, thanks very much for this fascinating information! Always salutary when an expert is able to bulk out my rambling ignorance with such first-class material!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s