Books: ‘The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’

If you are fascinated by the Renaissance as I am, I would encourage you to read The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897)

“Civilization” is the epitome of a rare breed, the kind of book that, through the sheer power of its fresh perspective, can shape, for generations, perhaps forever our understanding of history, ideas, or experience. Written by a Swiss historian who fell under the spell of Italian culture during a tour made when he was 19 years old, the “essay”, as he modestly called it, defined a seminal period in the development of the West in a way previously unimagined. While other writers had characterized the period following the Middle Ages as a “Renaissance”, it was Burckhardt who gave the era from 1350 to 1550 the enduring Italian cast. One might even say that before the publication of his book in 1860, there was no Renaissance to speak of, at least not in the way we are accustomed to it.

Raphael (1483-1520), ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-11 (fresco)

The insightfulness of Burckhardt’s powerful vision is apparent in every chapter of his study, as he explores themes that have since become hallmarks of our understanding of the period: “The State as a Work of Art”, “The Development of the Individual”, “The Revival of Antiquity”, “The Discovery of the World and of Man”. His detailed treatment of public institutions, private life, fashion, science, superstitions, religion, and manners is fascinating in its detail. Yet, the enormous amount of information is conveyed in a literary style both elegant and engaging, inviting readers not only to recognize but also to savour the fruits of the author’s profound learning.

Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), ‘David’, executed between 1501 and 1504, Florence.

Rather than taking the conventional approach of chronicling strictly political or military history, Burckhardt considered the epic cultural transitions he studied as just that: cultural. By assessing the roles of religion, literature, art, and above all, the rebirth of individualism, along with the shift from superstition to science, he fashioned a comprehensive account of perhaps the most influential period in the history of modern civilization. In so doing, he introduced the world not only to the Renaissance, but to the idea of cultural history – in a book that would define the field.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), ‘The Last Supper’, 1490s, Fresco at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

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