Jacob Burckhardt

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Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (May 25, 1818, Basel, Switzerland – August 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).

Burckhardt's historical writings did much to establish the importance of art in the study of history; indeed, he was one of the "founding fathers of art history" but also one of the original creators of cultural history. According to John Lukacs, he was the first master of cultural history, which seeks to describe the spirit and the forms of expression of a particular age, a particular people, or a particular place. His innovative approach to historical research stressed the importance of art and its inestimable value as a primary source for the study of history. He was one of the first historians to rise above the narrow nineteenth-century notion that "history is past politics and politics current history."Burckhardt's unsystematic approach to history 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).

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 nineteenth 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 twentieth 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.

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