Jacob Burckhardt: Historian of Civilization

By Burckhardt, Olivier | Contemporary Review, November 1997 | Go to article overview
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Jacob Burckhardt: Historian of Civilization


Burckhardt, Olivier, Contemporary Review


Few modern historians have been concerned with mapping the spiritual horizon of our civilization. The hundredth anniversary of Jacob Burckhardt's death is an appropriate moment to pause and reflect on those vitalizing aspects of human existence which every civilization must struggle to keep alive.

Born in 1818 into one of the poorer branches of a prominent Basel family, Jacob Burckhardt began his studies in theology before moving on to Greek philology and ancient history. But it was whilst studying at the University of Berlin, under Franz Kugler and Leopold von Ranke, that Burckhardt discovered the fledgling discipline of art history which he was to pursue and develop throughout his life.

Burckhardt's fame as one of the first great historians of art and culture, rests equally on the insights which he brought to the subject and on his demeanour as a scholar. In Basel, if not elsewhere in Switzerland, it was common practice among old established families, for children to eat at a separate table, especially so at formal dinners and family reunions. The children's table in Basel dialect was nicknamed the Katzedischli (little cats' table). On August 8th, 1897, Jacob Burckhardt sat in his cherished chaiselongue (which, along with his piano, was one of the few furnishings which he possessed). Besides him on a small table lay a volume of Homer and Gotthelf, a pastor in the Emmenthal canton who wrote novels of Swiss village life. As Jacob Burckhardt expired his last words, spoken in Basel dialect, were Adie liebs Katzedischli -- farewell my dear little cats' table. Although what he meant, as with all dying words, will remain forever a mystery, those last words reflect his life.

Burckhardt lead a modest existence in the fullest sense of the word, except for the last few years, he lived in a single rented room, each autumn collecting dry leaves for his mattress. Declining till the last all homage or distinctions, he persistently refused invitations to the assemblies of the learned, the Viri Eruditissimi as he gently mocked them, stating that he was not interested to hawk his wares outside Basel, where he taught at the University and gave regular public lectures. Although his modesty has been described as tinged with irony, it was by refusing to eat at the head table of the academy that he was able to dedicate himself wholly to the matter at hand. Free of the controversies and squabbles, that so readily permeate the academic world and estrange understanding, Burckhardt forged his distinctive understanding of history and stubbornly cleaved to the quest for a knowledge which embraced both the material and spiritual world.

Burckhardt's key work on the Renaissance The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy continues to be a watershed work. Begun in 1855 while he was teaching art history at the polytechnic in Zurich and completed in Basel where he held the chair of History from 1858 until his retirement, The, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was first published in 1860 and translated into English by S.G.C. Middlemore in 1878.

In a letter of August 1860 Jacob Burckhardt described the work as `an altogether wild plant dependent upon nothing whatever already existing.' (The Letter of Jacob Burckhardt, edited and translated by Alexander Dru, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1955, p. 125, henceforward Letters). The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is unique in a number of ways. Unlike previous histories the work does not proceed in a chronological or narrative form but follows a series of transverse sections from different perspectives, revealing some of the facets which characterized the age.

Burckhardt was well aware that the isolation of a period or component of History is an arbitrary device. History is a continuum, but as with any horizon one needs to set a series of cardinal points by which to navigate. Jacob Burckhardt had planned to write a series of monographs which would span the Middle Ages from the time of Constantine the Great to the Renaissance.

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