Greatest Art Critics Series
Jacob Burckhardt

Swiss Historian, Author of "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy".

Jacob Burckhardt, Swiss Professor
of Art History, photographed
shortly before his retirement.

Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97)


Training and Early Career
The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Painting in Italy
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Louis Leroy (1812-1885)
Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1943)
Felix Feneon (1861-1944)
Roger Fry (1866-1934)
Apollinaire (1880-1918)
Herbert Read (1893-1968)
John Canaday (1907-85)
Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978)
Clement Greenberg (1909-94)


The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt ranks among the greatest art critics of the 19th century, and is best known for his study of Renaissance art in Italy. Indeed he remains an influential figure in the historiography of both the Early Renaissance (Florence) and High Renaissance (Rome). In essence, he did for the Rinascimento what Winckelmann (1717-68) did for Neoclassicism. He is remembered chiefly for his book "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" (Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien), published in 1860. (Note: the term "Renaissance" was first used by the French historian Jules Michelet, in his Histoire de France.) A contemporary of John Ruskin (1819-1900), Burckhardt was a Professor at the Technical School in Zurich (1855-58) and afterwards at the University of Basel (1858-93). The Swiss critic, Siegfried Giedion (1888-1968) praised Burckhardt for being the first art historian to treat a period in its entirety, and for examining the social institutions of its daily life as well as its painting, sculpture and architecture. Other important books by Burckhardt include "The History of the Renaissance in Italy" (Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien) published in 1867; Cicerone (Der Cicerone: Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens), published in 1855; and "Recollections of Rubens" (Erinnerungen aus Rubens), published in 1898. In addition to his expertise in the culture of the quattrocento and cinquecento, Burckhardt was also a noted scholar of Greek art and classical Greek architecture. Other Renaissance historians of the modern era include Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), Kenneth Clark (1903-83) and Leo Steinberg (1920-2011)



Training and Early Career

Born Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt, the son of a respected clergyman, at Basel cathedral, he followed in his father's footsteps and began studying theology in 1837, at the University of Berlin, in the expectation of taking holy orders. However, under the influence of the German theologian and biblical scholar Wilhelm de Wette (1780-1849), after completing his degree in 1839 he went to the University of Berlin to study history and philosophy. Here he attended history lectures given by Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), founder of modern source-based history, and Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884). In 1841, he spent part of the year at the University of Bonn, studying under the art historian and poet Franz Kugler (1808-58), to whom he dedicated his first book, "Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Stadte", on Belgian art and architecture, which was published in 1842. In 1844, after obtaining his doctorate from Basel University, he joined the teaching faculty as a Privatdozent, and in 1845 was appointed a lecturer in the history of art, although initially he taught the history of architecture.

"The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Painting in Italy"

In 1847 Burckhardt travelled in Italy, gathering material for new editions of Kugler's two great works, "Handbuch der Geschichte der Malerei" and "Kunstgeschichte". In his update of the Handbuch, Burckhardt revised Kugler's Romantic notion that the Germans were the real successors of Greek art. Instead, he made it clear that the Italian Renaissance was the true heir.

In 1853, following a departmental reorganization, Burckhardt lost his job, and turned to writing as a source of income, publishing his own book, "The Age of Constantine the Great" (Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen). He spent most of the next two years in Italy, researching his first major publication, entitled "The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Painting in Italy for the Use of Travellers and Students" (Der Cicerone: Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens). Published in 1855, and designed as a cultural guide for the art traveller in Italy, it covered Renaissance architecture as well as Renaissance sculpture and paintings, all of which were characterized not merely as a revival of antiquity but as a continuous tradition of civilization from classical times to the cinquecento.

In 1855, Burckhardt was appointed Professor of art history at the newly created Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, where he taught ancient art, Christian art and Renaissance architecture. His course on ancient art included a series of acclaimed lectures on "The Greeks and Greek Civilization" (Griechische Kulturgeschichte), which also included Greek pottery and Greek sculpture. In 1858 he returned to his alma mater, the University Basel, to take up the post of Professor of History.

"The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy"

In 1860 he published his masterpiece "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" (Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien), paying tribute to the spirit and culture of the Italian Renaissance in fine art painting and sculpture, as well as drawing and architecture. The book expressed his firm view that secular Renaissance humanism was a period of emancipation from medieval values, and led to the emergence of the modern individual. It certainly led to the emergence of a new type of artist - exemplified by Michelangelo - who created art, not simply as a way of representing external objects, but as a medium to express his spirit and angst. As well as Michelangelo, Burckhardt believed that Correggio (1489-1534), Tintoretto (1518-94), and Rembrandt (1606-69) had all been unable to control their need to create art. Still seen as one of the classics of Renaissance historiography, the book is divided into six parts: (1) The State as a Work of Art; (2) The Development of the Individual; (3) The Revival of Classical Values from Antiquity; (4) The Discovery of the World and of Man; (5) Festivals and Society; (6) Religion and Morality. A 2-volume English translation by S.G.C. Middlemore appeared in 1878.

Burckhardt followed this, in 1867, with "The History of the Renaissance in Italy" (Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien). In 1886 he became the first Professor of Art History in Basel, declining a separate offer to succeed the eminent Leopold von Ranke as history chair at the University of Berlin. (Earlier he had declined a similar offer from the University of Tubingen.) Burckhardt retired (still unmarried) in 1893 and died four years later. At his death, he was in the middle of a four-volume study of Greek civilization.

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