Jacob 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.
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.’
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…)
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…
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.
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.