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Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (May 25, 1818, Baselmarker, SwitzerlandmarkerAugust 8, 1897, Basel) was a historian of art and culture, and an influential figure in the historiography of each field. He is known as one of the major progenitors of cultural history, albeit in a form very different from how cultural history is conceived and studied in academia today. Siegfried Giedion described Burckhardt's achievement in the following terms: "The great discoverer of the age of the Renaissance, he first showed how a period should be treated in its entirety, with regard not only for its painting, sculpture and architecture, but for the social institutions of its daily life as well." Burckhardt's best known work is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).


The son of a Protestant clergyman, Burckhardt studied theology in Basel and in Neuchâtelmarker until 1839 after losing his faith; he moved to the University of Berlinmarker to study history, especially art history, then a new field. At Berlin, he attended lectures by Leopold von Ranke, the founder of history as a respectable academic discipline based on sources and records rather than personal opinions. He spent part of 1841 at the University of Bonnmarker, studying under the art historian Franz Kugler, to whom he dedicated his first book, Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Städte (1842). He taught at the University of Basel from 1843 to 1855, then at ETHmarker, the engineering school in Zurich. In 1858, he returned to Basel to assume the professorship he held until his 1893 retirement. Only starting in 1886 did he teach art history exclusively. He twice declined offers of professorial chairs at German universities, at the University of Tübingenmarker in 1867, and Ranke's chair at the University of Berlin in 1872.

See Life by Hans Trog in the Basler Jahrbuch for 1898, pp. 1-172.


Jacob Burckhardt on a Swiss one thousand franc banknote
Burckhardt's historical writings did much to establish art history as an academic discipline, and also have literary value in their own right. His innovative approach to historical research emphasized the value of art, culture and aesthetic representation when analyzing the social and political trends underlying particular historical epochs. His approach to the study of history emphasized art, culture and the aesthetic/social existence of the people in a given period; as a historian he was strongly opposed to the interpretations of Hegelianism, which was popular at the time, economism as an interpretation of history and positivism, which had come to dominate scientific discourses (including the discourse of the social sciences).

In 1838 he made his first journey to Italy, and published his first important articles, Bemerkungen über schweizerische Kathedralen ("Remarks about Swiss Cathedrals"). In 1847 he brought out new editions of Kugler's two great works, Geschichte der Malerei and Kunstgeschichte, and in 1853 published his own work, Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen ("The Age of Constantine the Great"). He spent the greater part of the years 1853–1854 in Italy, collecting materials for his 1855 Der Cicerone: Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens (7th German edition, 1899), also dedicated to Kugler. This work, "the finest travel guide that has ever been written" which covered sculpture and architecture, as well as painting, became an indispensable guide to the art traveller in Italy.

About half of the original edition was devoted to the art of the Renaissance. Thus Burckhardt was naturally led to write the two books for which he is best known, his 1860 Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien ("The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy") (English translation, by SGC Middlemore, in 2 vols., London, 1878), and his 1867 Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien ("The History of the Renaissance in Italy"). The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was the most influential interpretation of the Italian Renaissance in the 19th century and is still widely read. Burckhardt and the German historian George Voigt founded the historical study of the Renaissance. In contrast to Voigt, who confined his studies to early Italian humanism, Burckhardt dealt with all aspects of Renaissance society.

Burckhardt considered the study of ancient history an intellectual necessity and was a highly respected scholar of Greek civilization. "The Greeks and Greek Civilization" sums up of the relevant lectures, "Griechische Kulturgeschichte", which Burckhardt first gave in 1872 and which he repeated until 1885. At his death, he was working on a four-volume survey of Greek civilization.

Friedrich Nietzsche, appointed professor of classical philology at Basel in 1869 at the age of 24, admired Burckhardt and attended some of his lectures. Both men were admirers of the late Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche believed Burckhardt agreed with the thesis of his The Birth of Tragedy, namely that Greek culture was defined by opposing "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" tendencies. Nietzsche and Burckhardt enjoyed each other's intellectual company, even as Burckhardt kept his distance from Nietzsche's evolving philosophy. Their extensive correspondence over a number of years has been published. Burckhardt's student Heinrich Wölfflin succeeded him at the University of Basel at the age of only twenty-eight.

There is an interesting tension in Burckhardt's persona between the wise and worldly student of the Italian Renaissance, and the cautious product of Swiss Calvinism which he had studied extensively for the ministry. The Swiss polity in which he spent nearly all of his life was a good deal more democratic and stable than was the norm in 19th century Europe. As a Swiss, Burckhardt was also cool to German nationalism and to German claims of cultural and intellectual superiority. He was also amply aware of the rapid political and economic changes taking place in the Europe of his day, commenting in his lectures and writings on the Industrial Revolution, the European political upheavals of his day, and the growing European nationalism and militarism. Events amply fulfilled his prediction of a cataclysmic 20th century, in which violent demagogues (whom he called "terrible simplifiers") would play central roles. In later years, Burckhardt found himself unimpressed by democracy, individualism, socialism and a great many other ideas which were fashionable during his lifetime.


  1. Jakob Burckhardt Renaissance Cultural history
  2. Siegfried Giedion, in Space, Time and Architecture (6th ed.), p 3.
  3. Giedion, p. 4.


Primary: Liberty Fund reprints:
  • 1929. Judgements on History and Historians. Translated by Harry Zohn. Foreword by Alberto Coll.
  • The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt. Selected, edited, and translated by Alexander Dru. Foreword by Alberto Coll, ISBN 0865971226.
  • 1943. Reflections on History. Introduction by Gottfried Dietze, ISBN 0913966371.
  • Gossman, Lionel, 2000. Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN0226305007
  • Grosse, Jurgen, 1999, "Reading History: On Jacob Burckhardt as Source-Reader," Journal of the History of Ideas 60: 525-47.
  • Hinde, John R., 2000. Jacob Burckhardt and the Crisis of Modernity. McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Ideas. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0773510273
  • Howard, Thomas Albert, 1999. Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W.M.L. De Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65022-4
  • Sigurdson, Richard, 2004. Jacob Burckhardt's Social and Political Thought. Univ. of Toronto Press. ISBN 0802047807

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