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  • Written by Jacob Burckhardt
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    Introduction by Peter Gay
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Published in 1860, Burckhardt’s great work redefined our sense of the European past, wholly reinterpreting what has since been known simply as the Italian Renaissance. With unsurpassed erudition, Burckhardt illuminates a world of artistic and cultural ferment, innovation, and discovery; of revived humanism; of fierce tensions between church and empire; and of the birth of both the modern state and the modern individual. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy remains the single most important and influential account of this crucial moment in the history of the West.


This work bears the title of an essay in the strictest sense of the word. No one is more conscious than the writer with what limited means and strength he has addressed himself to a task so arduous. And even if he could look with greater confidence upon his own researches, he would hardly thereby feel more assured of the approval of competent judges. To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a given civilization present a different picture; and in treating of a civilization which is the mother of our own, and whose influence is still at work among us, it is unavoidable that individual judgement 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. Such indeed is the importance of the subject that it still calls for fresh investigation, and may be studied with advantage from the most varied points of view. Meanwhile we are content if a patient hearing is granted us, and if this book be taken and judged as a whole. It is the most serious difficulty of the history of civilization that a great intellectual process must be broken up into single, and often into what seem arbitrary categories, in order to be in any way intelligible. It was formerly our intention to fill up the gaps in this book by a special work on the “Art of the Renaissance”—an intention, however, which we have been able to fulfill only in part.1

*1. Burckhardt’s History of Architecture and Decoration of the Italian Renaissance was first printed in 1867. His Notes on Renaissance Sculpture were posthumously published in 1934, as a part of Vol. XIII of his Collected Works. Of his intended History of Renaissance Painting three chapters only were finished: “The Art Collectors,” “The Altar-piece,” “The Portrait”; in fact, three very fine essays, published in 1898, a year after the author’s death.

The struggle between the Popes and the Hohenstaufen left Italy in a political condition which differed essentially from that of other countries of the West. While in France, Spain and England the feudal system was so organized that, at the close of its existence, it was naturally transformed into a unified monarchy, and while in Germany it helped to maintain, at least outwardly, the unity of the empire, Italy had shaken it off almost entirely. The Emperors of the fourteenth century, even in the most favourable case, were no longer received and respected as feudal lords, but as possible leaders and supporters of powers already in existence; while the Papacy, with its creatures and allies, was strong enough to hinder national unity in the future, but not strong enough itself to bring about that unity. Between the two lay a multitude of political units—republics and despots—in part of long standing, in part of recent origin, whose existence was founded simply on their power to maintain it. In them for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe, surrendered freely to its own instincts, often displaying the worst features of an unbridled egotism, outraging every right, and killing every germ of a healthier culture. But, wherever this vicious tendency is overcome or in any way compensated, a new fact appears in history—the State as the outcome of reflection and calculation, the State as a work of art. This new life displays itself in a hundred forms, both in the republican and in the despotic States, and determines their inward constitution, no less than their foreign policy. We shall limit ourselves to the consideration of the completer and more clearly defined type, which is offered by the despotic States.

The internal condition of the despotically governed States had a memorable counterpart in the Norman Empire of Lower Italy and Sicily, after its transformation by the Emperor Frederick II. Bred amid treason and peril in the neighbourhood of the Saracens, Frederick, the first ruler of the modern type who sat upon a throne, had early accustomed himself to a thoroughly objective treatment of affairs.

2. The rulers and their dependants were together called “lo stato,” and this name afterwards acquired the meaning of the collective existence of a territory. acquaintance with the internal condition and administration of the Saracenic States was close and intimate; and the mortal struggle in which he was engaged with the Papacy compelled him, no less than his adversaries, to bring into the field all the resources at his command. Frederick’s measures (especially after the year 1231) are aimed at the complete destruction of the feudal State, at the transformation of the people into a multitude destitute of will and of the means of resistance, but profitable in the utmost degree to the exchequer. He centralized, in a manner hitherto unknown in the West, the whole judicial and political administration. No office was henceforth to be filled by popular election, under penalty of the devastation of the offending district and of the enslavement of its inhabitants. The taxes, based on a comprehensive assessment, and distributed in accordance with Mohammedan usages, were collected by those cruel and vexatious methods without which, it is true, it is impossible to obtain any money from Orientals. Here, in short, we find, not a people, but simply a disciplined multitude of subjects; who were forbidden, for example, to marry out of the country without special permission, and under no circumstances were allowed to study abroad. The University of Naples was the first we know of to restrict the freedom of study, while the East, in these respects at all events, left its youth unfettered. It was after the examples of Mohammedan rules that Frederick traded on his own account in all parts of the Mediterranean, reserving to himself the monopoly of many commodities, and restricting in various ways the commerce of his subjects. The Fatimite Caliphs, with all their esoteric unbelief, were, at least in their earlier history, tolerant of all the differences in the religious faith of their people; Frederick, on the other hand, crowned his system of government by a religious inquisition, which will seem the more reprehensible when we remember that in the persons of the heretics he was persecuting the representatives of a free municipal life. Lastly, the internal police, and the kernel of the army for foreign service, was composed of Saracens who had been brought over from Sicily to Nocera and Lucera—men who were deaf to the cry of misery and careless of the ban of the Church. At a later period the subjects, by whom the use of weapons had long been forgotten, were passive witnesses of the fall of Manfred and of the seizure of the government by Charles of Anjou; the latter continued to use the system which he found already at work.

At the side of the centralizing Emperor appeared a usurper of the most peculiar kind; his vicar and son-in-law, Ezzelino da Romano. He stands as the representative of no system of government or administration, for all his activity was wasted in struggles for supremacy in the eastern part of Upper Italy; but as a political type he was a figure of no less importance for the future than his imperial protector Frederick. The conquests and usurpations which had hitherto taken place in the Middle Ages rested on real or pretended inheritance and other such claims, or else were effected against unbelievers and ex-communicated persons. Here for the first time the attempt was openly made to found a throne by wholesale murder and endless barbarities, by the adoption, in short, of any means with a view to nothing but the end pursued. None of his successors, not even Cesare Borgia, rivalled the colossal guilt of Ezzelino; but the example once set was not forgotten, and his fall led to no return of justice among the nations, and served as no warning to future transgressors.

It was in vain at such a time that St. Thomas Aquinas, a born subject of Frederick, set up the theory of a constitutional monarchy, in which the prince was to be supported by an upper house named by himself, and a representative body elected by the people. Such theories found no echo outside the lecture-room, and Frederick and Ezzelino were and remain for Italy the great political phenomena of the thirteenth century. Their personality, already half legendary, forms the most important subject of “The Hundred Old Tales,” whose original composition falls certainly within this century.3 In them Ezzelino is spoken of with the awe which all mighty impressions leave behind them. His person became the centre of a whole literature from the chronicle of eye-witnesses to the half-mythical tragedy of later poets.

3. Cento Novelle Antiche, ed. 1525. Despots of the Fourteenth Century

The tyrannies, great and small, of the fourteenth century afford constant proof that examples such as these were not thrown away. Their misdeeds cried forth loudly and have been circumstantially told by historians. As States depending for existence on themselves alone, and scientifically organized with a view to this object, they present to us a higher interest than that of mere narrative.

The deliberate adaptation of means to ends, of which no prince out of Italy had at that time a conception, joined to almost absolute power within the limits of the State, produced among the despots both men and modes of life of a peculiar character. The chief secret of government in the hands of the prudent ruler lay in leaving the incidence of taxation as far as possible where he found it, or as he had first arranged it. The chief sources of income were: a land tax, based on a valuation; definite taxes on articles of consumption and duties on exported and imported goods; together with the private fortune of the ruling house. The only possible increase was derived from the growth of business and of general prosperity. Loans, such as we find in the free cities, were here unknown; a well-planned confiscation was held a preferable means of raising money, provided only that it left public credit unshaken—an end attained, for example, by the truly Oriental practice of deposing and plundering the director of the finances.

Out of this income the expenses of the little court, of the bodyguard, of the mercenary troops, and of the public buildings were met, as well as of the buffoons and men of talent who belonged to the personal attendants of the prince. The illegitimacy of his rule isolated the tyrant and surrounded him with constant danger; the most honour- able alliance which he could form was with intellectual merit, with- out regard to its origin. The liberality of the northern princes of the thirteenth century was confined to the knights, to the nobility which served and sang. It was otherwise with the Italian despot. With his thirst for fame and his passion for monumental works, it was talent, not birth, which he needed. In the company of the poet and the scholar he felt himself in a new position, almost, indeed, in possession of a new legitimacy.

No prince was more famous in this respect than the ruler of Verona, Can Grande della Scala, who numbered among the illustrious exiles whom he entertained at his court representatives of the whole of Italy. The men of letters were not ungrateful. Petrarch, whose visits at the courts of such men have been so severely censured, sketched an ideal picture of a prince of the fourteenth century. He demands great things from his patron, the lord of Padua, but in a manner which shows that he holds him capable of them. “Thou must not be the master but the father of thy subjects, and must love them as thy children; yea, as members of thy body. Weapons, guards, and soldiers thou mayest employ against the enemy—with thy subjects goodwill is sufficient. By citizens, of course, I mean those who love the existing order; for those who daily desire change are rebels and traitors, and against such a stern justice may take its course.”

Here follows, worked out in detail, the purely modern fiction of the omnipotence of the State. The prince is to take everything into his charge, to maintain and restore churches and public buildings, to keep up the municipal police, to drain the marshes, to look after the supply of wine and corn; so to distribute the taxes that the people can recognize their necessity; he is to support the sick and the helpless, and to give his protection and society to distinguished scholars, on whom his fame in after ages will depend.

But whatever might be the brighter sides of the system, and the merits of individual rulers, yet the men of the fourteenth century were not without a more or less distinct consciousness of the brief and uncertain tenure of most of these despotisms. Inasmuch as political institutions like these are naturally secure in proportion to the size of the territory in which they exist, the larger principalities were constantly tempted to swallow up the smaller. Whole hecatombs of petty rulers were sacrificed at this time to the Visconti alone. As a result of this outward danger an inward ferment was in ceaseless activity; and the effect of the situation on the character of the ruler was generally of the most sinister kind. Absolute power, with its temptations to luxury and unbridled selfishness, and the perils to which he was exposed from enemies and conspirators, turned him almost inevitably into a tyrant in the worst sense of the word. Well for him if he could trust his nearest relations! But where all was illegitimate, there could be no regular law of inheritance, either with regard to the succession or to the division of the ruler’s property; and consequently the heir, if incompetent or a minor, was liable in the interest of the family itself to be supplanted by an uncle or cousin of more resolute character. The acknowledgment or exclusion of the bastards was a fruitful source of contest; and most of these families in consequence were plagued with a crowd of discontented and vindictive kinsmen. This circumstance gave rise to continual outbreaks of treason and to frightful scenes of domestic bloodshed. Sometimes the pretenders lived abroad in exile, and like the Visconti, who practised the fisherman’s craft on the Lake of Garda, viewed the situation with patient indifference. When asked by a messenger of his rival when and how he thought of returning to Milan, he gave the reply, “By the same means as those by which I was expelled, but not till his crimes have outweighed my own.” Sometimes, too, the despot was sacrificed by his relations, with the view of saving the family, to the public conscience which he had too grossly outraged. In a few cases the government was in the hands of the whole family, or at least the ruler was bound to take their advice; and here, too, the distribution of property and influence often led to bitter disputes.
Jacob Burckhardt|Peter Gay

About Jacob Burckhardt

Jacob Burckhardt - The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
Jacob Burckhard's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was first published almost a century ago, in 1860. Its forty-two-year-old author, professor of history and the history of art at the small Swiss university of his native Basel, was already known to the learned world as the writer of a highly original book, The Age of Constantine the Great (1853), and of the Cicerone (1855)* which was to guide generations of enthusiastic pilgrims to the artistic monuments of Italy. But the Civilization of the Renaissance became the real foundation of his world-wide fame.

The first English translation of the Cicerone was published in 1873, that of Constantine appeared in New York in 1949.

In his own lifetime Jacob Burckhardt published only one more book, which was of a more specialized character, on Italian Renaissance architecture. It appeared in the same year, 1867, in which he reissued his Civilization of the Renaissance in a revised edition. During the remaining thirty years of his life he did not publish any of his writings and even turned over the preparation of new editions of his books to others. He devoted himself completely to the teaching of history at the university and before public audiences of his fellow-citizens. In 1898, a year after his death, his great History of Greek Civilization appeared. It was followed in 1905 by his absorbing Reflections on World History,** originally a course of lectures intended to expose the fundamental pattern of historical development in its impact on man. Soon also the first collections of Burckhardt’s private correspondence came to light and revealed one of the most profound and perspicacious critics of the social political trends of his times. No other nineteenth-century thinker was as clairvoyant about the potential dangers of future totalitarianism hidden in the growth of modern mass civilization.

** An American edition was published in New York in 1943 under the title Force and Freedom: Reflections on History.

Still, Burckhardt never aspired to the role of prophet nor, for that matter, to any public role. The great range of his mind and imagination, the intensity of his feelings, he managed to express in the sublimated form of objective creations of written history. They became alive through his genius but, like great works of art, they can be enjoyed whether or not one knows anything about the author. This was amply demonstrated by the history of the Civilization of the Renaissance. Well received by scholars of history and art, early translated into Italian, English, and French, it was already widely read all over the world in Burckhardt's own lifetime, but the fast-growing number of new editions after his death proves that it was the following generation that took the book fully to heart. The general cult of the Renaissance in the early decades of the twentieth century, to which undoubtedly Burckhardt had contributed, assisted in this growing esteem, although Burckhardt himself would have been disquieted by this popular exaggeration. The emulation of Renaissance forms in contemporary architecture and home decoration to which this enthusiasm for the Renaissance led was not to the liking of a man who cherished only the genuine and historically rooted human expressions. Burckhardt was also pained by Friedrich Nietzsche's praise of the amoral Renaissance man as the model of the future superman, for the historian was a strict moralist who never tired of pointing out that power was evil and that whatever happiness human beings might acquire could not be found in amoral action, but only in pure-hearted contemplation of eternal ideals.

The experiences of wars and revolutions in our own times make us look at Jacob Burckhardt’s work with fresh eyes, and it is surprising to find that the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy has not lost any of its radiance under this new questioning. It has remained the greatest single book written on the history of Italy between 1350 and 1550--a period which proved so fateful for the development of Western civilization. It created methods of reviving the past which will have a lasting influence on the writing of history. Finally, it opened a deep view of the relationship between the human individual and the forces of history.

Only a year before the Civilization of the Renaissance was published, another significant historical book on the same period had appeared: Georg Voigt's The Revival of Classical Antiquity (1859) was undertaken in the belief that the great transformation of Western civilization in the epoch that reached from Petrarch to Michelangelo must be laid to the revival of classical learning. This interpretation of history stemmed from the early humanists themselves, who had been convinced that the study of the classics had enabled them to overcome the barbarous Middle Ages and to revive the life of antiquity. In a monotonous manner the view was repeated through the centuries down to Guizot. Voltaire took a different position. His brilliant conception of history as the history of human civilization, which had a great effect on Burckhardt, was an attempt to dislodge not only the supranatural explanations of world history but also the old annalistic historiography with its crude outward causes. Voltaire saw the interaction of the human spirit with political and social forces and he knew that it should be possible to discover a unifying pattern of every age. Such awareness gave him the first insights into the social and political conditions which had produced the age of the Medicis. But he lacked the historical erudition--and, for the fifteenth century, even the interest--to carry his ideas to fruition. Jules Michelet published in 1855 the seventh part of his History of France, dealing with the sixteenth century. It bore the subtitle The Renaissance. Again the Renaissance was conceived as the epoch of liberation, but now also as the setting of the stage for the age of reason. This prelude to the Enlightenment, however, was characterized not by the rebirth of classic antiquity but by man's 'discovery of the world and of man'--in other words, by a profound change in man himself.

Burckhardt's adoption of Michelets formulation of the discovery of the world and of man as the essence of the Renaissance movement indicated that French historical writing affected the Swiss historian. His own realistic style, too, shunning every pontifical tone, full of smiling and grave irony, and shedding rich light and color over the scene, could easily have gone astray if it had not learned so much from French literary discipline. Still, Michelet's ideas were rather an encouragement than an inspiration to Burckhardt's work. The conservative Swiss thinker was far from measuring the modern world in terms of reason. Michelet had also judged that the religious reformers of the sixteenth century, as well as Montaigne, Shakespeare and Cervantes, were actually the discoverers of the world and of man, and the only Italians who were given niches in his hall of Renaissance fame were Columbus and Galilei. In stark contrast Burckhardt proclaimed the Italy of 1350-1550 as the home of the Renaissance. Moreover, Burckhardt brought to his task the new methods of historical verification developed by the masters of the critical study of history, who had risen in Germany during the first half of the nineteenth century. Leopold Ranke had been his chief teacher and Burckhardt shared his conviction that history could not be deduced from philosophical assumptions and that it could not be reconstructed by mere intuition unless it was grounded on the most careful analysis of the sources of each individual phenomenon or event.

In Burckhardt's hands the conception of an age of the Renaissance received a new content, a novel application and valid historical meaning. He explained the growth of the new individualism by the political and social developments of Italy in the later Middle Ages, while the rebirth of classical learning was an invigorating, but only subsidiary, element in the evolution of the new philosophy of life. Its manifestations in the life of the individual and society formed another major part of Burckhardt's book. None of his predecessors had the learning and artistic power with which Burckhardt poured into his conceptual mold the unalloyed metal of pure historical information. He was a literary master both of the vignette and of the wide vistas. Burckhardt spoke of the Italian Renaissance as the first modern age--not a mere stepping-stone to the Enlightenment, but one of the high points in the historical development of humanity, to be studied for its own sake.

Jacob Burckhardt called his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy an 'essay,' and the book was an essay not only in historical interpretation but also in a new approach to history as such. Voltaire's history of civilization had been too much of a philosophical construction and too amateurish in concrete historical craftsmanship to revolutionize the writing of history. The narrative political history had remained the recognized form of historical presentation. History of culture or civilization became an unorganic collection of intelligence about strange customs and curious habits of the human race. It was Burckhardt who lifted the history of civilization to a high level. His enormous and detailed knowledge combined with an equally strong capacity for synopsis and synthesis produced a work in which a vast variety of historical data was made meaningful by being woven into a general theme. There can be no question that the balance between the faithful reproduction of individual facts and the generalization of objective trends was often achieved by Burckhardt through literary-aesthetic composition rather than conclusive logical argument. Quite a few of the categories with which he aimed to capture the fullness of historical life were too wide-meshed to accomplish his objectives in every respect. For example, the central term of 'individualism' could stand much further refinement since Renaissance individualism must be more distinctly differentiated both from earlier and later forms of individualism than Burckhardt realized. We would also expect today a closely reasoned discussion of the relations between the economic forces and the social reality which Burckhardt described. And we may find that the structural unity of Renaissance civilization was exaggerated through neglect of the stages of political developments.

It is impressive, however, that any such criticism advanced during the last century would call only for some amplification of certain chapters and for a sharper delineation of philosophical terms and not for a radical revision of Burckhardt's fundamental conception, which points to still another dimension of his thought. Burckhardt did not believe that the philosophy of history of the Enlightenment or Hegelian school had the right to assume that man's ultimate destiny was revealed only in the total course of history, or that all former generations were merely faltering attempts in the direction of a final ideal state of man. History was not the judgment of God in the sense that in the successive crises of history the lesser causes were suppressed to give way to the further advancement of humanity. If this was the meaning of history, man was forever condemned to serve whatever forces and ideas happened to be in the ascendancy. And since the great crises of history were usually resolved by decisions of power, it was logical to center historical study around political history. Hegel had done so, but even Ranke in his undogmatic and individualizing treatment of universal history had his eyes chiefly on the development of the state through the ages.

Burckhardt knew as well as Ranke did that man was thrown into the maelstrom of history. Not the outcome of events, however, decided his worth, but his will to defend his patrimony, the faculty to produce civilization. Power is evil since it is by nature bound to demand universal recognition and thereby tends to suppress individual spontaneity, which is the real spring of civilization. Civilization comprises all the spontaneous human activities from the making of a material living to the ideal creations of art, poetry, and universal contemplation. In this realm the individual has freedom in spite of his
historical existence. How far he can express his creativity in lasting contributions to civilization depends on many historical circumstances, among them even sheer luck or misfortune. But the vital energy, breadth of vision, and moral character of each generation is always important in this perennial struggle.

The vertical construction of universal history and an organization of history around the course of political events could not provide the answers to Burckhardt's urgent questions. Only by choosing a cross-section of history and making the birth of a historic civilization the subject of his study could he hope to elucidate what seemed to him the fundamental human problem in history. In spite of his disillusionment about universal history, Burckhardt had an abiding faith in the creative power of man, and where man proved himself equal to his historical circumstances, as in the Renaissance, Burckhardt himself turned from a sceptical onlooker into a worshipful visionary. It is the range of Burckhardt's own human experience that makes his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy to the present day 'an admirable book, the most complete and philosophical one that has been written on the Italian Renaissance,' as Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1869.

About Peter Gay

Peter Gay - The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, author of thirty-two widely respected books, and winner of the National Book Award for his definitive work on the Enlightenment.


“The greatest single book on the history of Italy between 1350 and 1550.”—Hajo Holborn

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