It may surprise some readers, but the Italian Renaissance was invented in Switzerland exactly 150 years ago.
Have you ever wondered why English speakers use a French word, “renaissance” to refer to an event that apparently happened in Italy? Not an English word and not an Italian word but French. It is, one must surely admit, a question worth contemplating, though for some strange reason seldom raised. And the answer makes the situation even more perplexing. We use a French word in English to refer to an Italian event because it appeared in a book in German. The book in question was Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien by Jacob Burckhardt, published in the original German in 1860 and in English translation in 1878 as The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance. It gradually grew in popularity, eventually gaining Burckhardt near unanimous acclaim from his fellow historians and the adoration of the likes of a young Friedrich Nietzsche. (The philosopher and historian would become colleagues at the University of Basel and close friends.) Burckhardt had borrowed the term “Renaissance” from an 1855 article by the famed French historian Jules Michelet (hence the French word). Until this point the term “renaissance”, when used at all, referred to an artistic movement. Michelet however, saw it as an era that combined the voyages of Columbus, the art of Florence and the scientific discoveries of Galileo. Burckhardt now took the term and used it to name a period spanning the 14th to the 16th centuries in Italy during which, he argued, the modern world, the world of individuality and tolerance and reason, was forged.
There is no denying that something remarkable happened in and around Tuscany between the 14th century, with the poetry of Petrarch, the prose of Boccaccio and the paintings of Giotto, and the 15th century with the achievements in art, architecture and letters by the likes of Leonardo, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli. Vasari, writing in the 16th century, was convinced that the greatness of ancient Greece and Rome had been reborn in the work of his contemporaries, especially in that of his master, Michelangelo. He used the word “rinascita” to refer to this revival or “rebirth” of the ancient classics. But for the next 350 years few thought to bind the many disparate achievements of Italian civilization under one concept; no one declared that this had been a specific period of time that marked the beginning of the modern world. Yet today, in universities and schools worldwide, we start courses on Modern History with a unit on The Renaissance. It is there, we assert, in Florence to be specific, that we find the first rumblings of the modern mind, the seeds of modernity – individuality, secularism, reason, capitalism, even political science. This is the convincing myth that Jacob Burckhardt created in the mid-19th century.
The Burckhardt family could trace their lineage back for centuries and had been leading citizens in the city-state of Basel since the 16th century. Burckhardt himself spoke French, Italian and English fluently, as well as his native German. He was also fluent in ancient Greek and Latin, could read Hebrew and even some Arabic. He composed music, wrote poetry, dabbled in painting and drafted architectural drawings. One is tempted to say that he was a Renaissance Man. In 1855 he was appointed Professor of History of Art in Zurich’s brand new Polytechnic , today’s Federal Institute of Technology (the ETH), and he enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city, mixing with the likes of novelist Gottfried Keller, architect Gottfried Semper and composer Richard Wagner. Three years later he was made Professor at the University of Basel and, despite many offers from more prestigious universities, he would remain there for the rest of his career. But it was during the brief years in Zurich that he penned his greatest single work, The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance.
Perhaps it is not a mistake to say that the patrician Burckhardt despised many aspects of his own time. The 19th century, with its technological dominance, its ugly industrialization, its selfish materialism and vulgar bourgeois culture was an attack on everything that he held to be worthwhile. In Lionel Grossman’s summary of Burckhardt’s views the age “blunted originality, discouraged independence and forced all opinion to conform to the dominant opinion”. In Italy, especially the Italy of the 14th to 16th centuries, he had found his antidote. Grossman adds: “It is tempting to discern in the magnificent account of the city of Florence in Burckhardt’s book the ideal model of humanist Basel… of the early 19th century” and “Burckhardt’s Renaissance man, whatever his historical validity, has provided a model for a contemporary ideal of freedom that seeks refuge in the sphere of art.” Burckhardt defined 15th century Italy as one of individualism and modernity. In his own words: “In the Middle Ages human consciousness lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil… Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation”. But in Renaissance Italy “this veil first melted into air… man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such”. For Burckhardt the Renaissance had introduced greater freedom and greater tolerance, had brought about a scientific and a cosmopolitan outlook as well as a veritable explosion of artistic and literary genius. It is the image that most of us carry around in our heads, and we have received it, even if only second hand, from Burckhardt.
In professional (or professorial) circles Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance has taken a severe beating. Medievalists have attacked it by claiming the Middle Ages were not so backward after all, citing the Renaissance of the 12th century, the birth of universities and modern cities, the growth in trade and banking and the achievements of Gothic (the term itself a 19th century invention) architecture. On the other hand historians of the modern period claim that Renaissance Man was not so modern after all, with his obsessions with magic, astrology and the terrible witch-craze. In his A Study of History Arnold Toynbee famously attacked the uniqueness of The Renaissance, claiming that there were many renaissances, some of which weren’t even European. Joan Kelly emphasized the misogynist views of modern Renaissance Man, concluding that “there was no renaissance for women, at least not during the Renaissance”. Jerry Brotton has drawn attention to the non-western, particularly Ottoman roots of the Renaissance while post-modernist historians find Burckhardt’s work to be one of the worst examples of a grand narrative that forces events into a neat story while reality is messy and complex and is bound to always spill over the narrative designed to contain it.
And yet, and yet… for most of us, most of the time, despite knowing better, we somehow believe there is an intrinsic truth in Burckhardt’s story; such is the persuasive power of his secular myth. Burckhardt himself, more than many, realized that historical interpretations, like the works of fiction that they resemble, are simply suggestions to look at the world in a different way. In the opening page of The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance he wrote: “To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a given civilization present a different picture … and it is unavoidable that individual judgment and feeling should tell every moment both on the writer and on the reader… In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies, which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead also to essentially different conclusions.” With old truths being eroded in the middle of the 19th century, and old certainties discarded, he created a historical masterpiece that provides a metaphor in which we can find the roots of our modern predicament. It still resonates today. In this way, Burckhardt’s The Civilization of Italy During the Renaissance is one of the most important books of modern times. Even if you have never heard of it, not to mind read it, it has helped to shape the modern mind, including yours. To a large extent modern consciousness was not born in Florence during the 15th century, it was created by a history professor in Zurich.
Burckhardt walking to a lecture in Basel in the 1890s
Read more essays on Switzerland in my ebook.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Monday, August 30, 2010
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff has become a widely viewed video attacking our culture of consumerism. Now she has created The Story of Cosmetics, in which she takes the cosmetics or beauty industry to task for their cynical manipulations and unethical trade practises. Personally, I find the industry's trageting of young girls particularly reprehensible. You can also read my review of Harvard's Geoffrey Jones' uncritical study of the history of the Beauty Industry.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Saturday, August 14, 2010
An article that I published many years ago in the magazine History Today was only available online if you paid for it. But the magazine has just changed their website completely and made the article available online free of charge. I explain how today's Dutch culture (today meaning late 1990s) reacted to the so called "police actions" carried out by their army against Indonesian independence fighters during the late 1940s. I hope you enjoy reading Time for Dutch Courage in Indonesia
Thursday, August 12, 2010
The picturesque harbour village of Portoferraio, capital of Elba
Call me easy to please, but personally I would be more than content if the powers that be decided to give me a Mediterranean island, especially one as beautiful as Elba. But then again, I’ve never tasted the addictive pleasure of power and I’ve never been the ruler of most of Europe. In 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by a coalition of four great powers and then, as the historians say, he was banished to the island of Elba. In fact he was allowed to keep his title, given a small army and a tiny navy and was moved, together with a few hundred of his best pals and his mother and his sister, to Elba to become the ruler of this beautiful island, which was raised to the level of an independent state. Under the circumstances, I'd call him very lucky. True, he now the ruled a state of a mere 11,000 inhabitants, a far cry from being the boss of millions, but to a large extent he got off fairly easy. After all, his wars had killed millions, making him arguably entitled to the prize Greatest Widow Maker of the 19th Century. The Bourbon royals, newly returned to France after over 25 years exile, would loved to have seen him strung up, or at least banished to a lonely, far away island in the mid-Atlantic. So, to say that Napoleon was banished, and leave it like that, paints a false picture. Instead, in May 1814, the Emperor of Elba arrived amidst pomp and glory in his new statelet, very much a big fish in a small pond.
To arrive by sea today in his capital city of Portoferraio is a magical experience, for the town comes as a surprise; the old town has hardly changed since the Emperor’s time, only the giant yachts from the Virgin Islands making a significant difference. The old town must be one of the most picturesque harbours on the Mediterranean.
View from the old town, Portoferraio
The rest of the 140 square kilometers island is rugged and mountainous, with spectacular views, beautiful beaches and delightful little coastal villages. In some ways Napoleon definitely appreciated the beauty of his island kingdom and, with his characteristic capacity for work and organization he immediately set about improving the island and the quality of life for its inhabitants, building roads and hospitals, improving sanitation and housing, introducing street lighting, reforming the fishing fleet and initiating innovations in agriculture. Naturally, he also began to expand his army and navy and he established a court of great pomp and ceremony in his restored villa in Portoferraio.
Napoleon's main residence, the Villa Mulini
It would have been better for Napoleon, and the thousands more innocents who were to die in his final battle, had he been able to satisfy himself with such delights as the stunning view from his villa. Instead, less than 10 months after arriving on Elba, he made his way towards his Waterloo. After the battle the Bourbons finally had their way and he was banished, truly banished, to a lonely, far away island in the mid-Atlantic.
The view that Napoleon lost
Sunday, August 8, 2010
I have been offline for the past month as I was traveling in Tuscany, Italy - never read a newspaper, nor listened to the radio, didn't watch TV or approach a computer. I spent most of the time camping under a few olive trees on the outskirts of Volterra, reading and swimming. One day, when visiting the medieval town of San Gimignano, the sky grew cloudy and we were soaked by a heavy shower. Even my young children noticed the change in the sky and they agreed that it looked just like a painting. The scene reminded me of Joni Mitchell's lyrics:
These are the clouds of Michelangelo,
Muscular with gods and sungold
These are the clouds of Michelangelo,
Muscular with gods and sungold