The Civilization of the Renaissance!
Our book today is The Civilization of the Renaissance, the brilliant 1860 masterpiece by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, but it’s not just any edition: I recently found (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) a copy of the beautiful oversized edition put out by the Phaidon Press in 1939 for the English-language book market in Vienna – and done up in typical lavish Phaidon style. The text of Burckhardt’s book, here given a great galumphing translation by S. G. C. Middlemore, can easily stand on its own, of course: Burckhardt is an endlessly interesting, passionate, intelligent guide. Every time I revisit this grand book, I’m struck again by how energetically good it is, how quicksilver-intelligent and how massively, almost effortlessly eloquent it all is. Burckhardt looks at the full spectrum of the ideological side of the Renaissance – the revival of letters, the seismic shifts in blind religious faith, the rise of both the state and the individual as new kinds of works of art, the growth of secular festivals and commerce in the cities and towns, all of it – and he moves through it all with such masterful skill as to put virtually all such histories, before or since, in the shade.
And like all great books on such a level, there’s a very pleasingly reassuring proportion of rum summaries and wry opinions. As with the works of Gibbon or Adam Smith, there are plenty of bits to spark arguments, bits that always make me smile for their sheer outlandishness, like this description of that magnificent brute, Pope Julius II, hardly one single detail of which is right:
Whatever may have been the private morals of Julius II, in all essential respects he was the saviour of the Papacy. His familiarity with the course of events since the pontificate of his uncle Sixtus had given him a profound insight into the grounds and conditions o the Papal authority. On these he found his own policy, and devoted to it the whole force and passion of his unshaken soul. He ascended the steps of St. Peter’s chair without simony and amid general applause, and with him ceased, at all events, the undisguised traffic in the highest offices of the Church. Julius had favourites, and among hem were some of reverse of the worthy, but a special fortune put him above the temptation to nepotism.
But such bits are just illicit titterings; the real enjoyment of Burckhardt’s book, its real rolling magnificence, comes from its intensely empathetic descriptions of every aspect of the Renaissance itself – the soldiers for hire, the ordinary people, the kings and doges, the merchants who were suddenly voyaging everywhere in the world, and, in a wonderful passage, the key administrators of the whole Renaissance itself, the new wave of humanists who were embracing and promulgating the new learning. When Burckhardt writes about them, you get the distinct impression he’s feeling a personal connection:
The career of the humanists was, as a rule, of such a kind that only the strongest characters could pass through it unscathed. The first danger came, in some cases, from the parents, who sought to turn a precocious child into a miracle of learning, with an eye to his future position in that class which then was supreme. Youthful prodigies, however, seldom rise above a certain level; or, if they do, are forced to achieve their further progress and development at the cost of the bitterest trials. For an ambitious youth, the fame and the brilliant position of the humanists were a perilous temptation; it seemed to him that he too ‘through inborn pride could no longer regard the low and common things of life.’ He was thus led to plunge into a life of excitement and vicissitude, in which exhausting studies, tutorships, secretaryships, professorships, offices in princely households, mortal enmities and perils, luxury and beggary, boundless admiration and boundless contempt, followed confusedly one upon the other, and in which the most solid worth and learning were often pushed aside by superficial impudence. But the worst of all was, that the position of the humanist was almost incompatible with a fixed home, since it either made frequent changes of dwelling necessary for livelihood, or so affected the mind of the individual that he could never be happy for long in one place.
But in addition to Burckhardt’s great text, this Phaidon edition has a glorious addition: its final hundred pages consist of a huge gallery of absolutely gorgeous high-definition black-and-white photos of paintings, tapestries, portraits, sculptures, building plans, building models, and sketches, all of the assembled and curated by Ludwig Goldscheider, the founder of Phaidon.
It’s an incredibly enjoyable assemblage of images, all in such exquisite detail. We can see a close-up of the heavy-lidded face of vicious condottiere Gattamalata, from the statue made by Donatello; we see Dosso Dossi’s infectiously happy portrait of a laughing jester sharing a close-up with a sheep; we see a cartoon caricature by Annibale Carracci that looks like it could be found in any satirical magazine today, and there are hundreds more such illustrations. Paging through that back portion of the book, I was struck by what a sumptuous way it was to experience Burckhardt’s work. I know I have a normal paperback of The Civilization of the Renaissance somewhere in my library, but I doubt I’ll even bother to look for it now.