The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton

By Lewis A. Coser | Go to book overview

The Myth of the Renaissance *

ROBERT NISBET


1

T HE Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century is unique among ages of claimed cultural efflorescence, the so-called golden ages, in that it is largely the creation of a single man, Jacob Burckhardt. His Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, published in 1860, almost immediately established the Quattrocento in Italy as a major period of intellectual as well as artistic history, as the seedbed of modernity, and as the most resplendent avatar perhaps since the Athenian fifth century B.C. of the Muse's visits to this world. Beyond this, I think it can fairly be said that Burckhardt's book, while it did not actually create, lent immense reinforcement to a periodization of European history that is even today among the most cherished idols of the Western mind.

Whatever the defects of the book, and they are many, however much Burckhardt owed to others, especially Michelet whose own work on the Renaissance and its origins in the Italian humanist mind carried with it even the celebrated phrase "the discovery of the world and of man" that Burckhardt was to feature, no one will take from Burckhardt's book the impact upon almost all readers that bespeaks originality and literary power in high degree. Rare to this moment is the reader who does not come away from the book with emotions akin to those that seized Keats on reading Chapman's Homer. Burckhardt's book remains today what it was almost immediately declared to be at the time of its publication, one of superlative imagination and, for that

____________________
*
This essay is an enlarged and revised version of a review-essay that appeared in Comparative Studies in Society and History ( October 1973).

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