Burckhardt, Jakob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Oxford University Press, n.d.
Graceful, glancing allusions, indignant moral pronunciations, rapid summaries, lingering and loving familiarity: reading Burckhardt on the Italian Renaissance is like reading Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Bible: it inspires in equal parts admiration and despair. Burckhardt's work assembles what he sees as the significant elements of Italian national character, and answers why, as a whole, they adopted individualism as a way of thinking and living earlier than their European counterparts.
Burckhardt begins with the Italian state as a work of art, or in other words, "the state as the outcome of reflection and calculation." (2) The financial support of most states were derived from land taxes, taxes on consumption, duties on imports and exports, the personal wealth of the ruler, and "well-planned" confiscations.(4). Burckhardt argues that since most rulers were men of violence, who had seized power by illegitimate means, they surrounded themselves with men of talent, not birth: capable poets, scholars and condottieri served to legitimate a ruler. The calculated will to power that Burckhardt sees springing up in state after state --exemplified in Florence and Venice-- is, to him, the proof that a new way of thinking and living has arisen. "In the character of these states, whether republics or despotisms, lies, not the only, but the chief reason for the early development of the Italian." (70) Not only the despot, and his supporting administrators, but the also private citizen had a new space for individuality in the Italian states: "Wealth and culture, so far as display and rivalry were not forbidden to them, a municipal freedom which did not cease to be considerable, and a Church which, unlike that of the Byzantine or of the Mohammedan world, was not identical with the State -- all these conditions undoubtedly favored the growth of individual thought, for which the necessary leisure was furnished by the cessation of party politics." (71) The argument here -- that freedom of choice in personal life encourages freedom of thinking -- has stood unchallenged right up to the age of mass production and consumerism (in which personal choice is enormously expanded, without necessarily encouraging freedom of thinking); but surely, although the evidence for this new individualism is everywhere and nowhere, Burckhardt has in view the relevant factors: some ability to earn money, some ability to participate in local politics, and some freedom from large-scale oppression.
Burckhardt's following chapters review other aspects of Italian culture unique to the Renaissance. The renewed interest in the antiquity of Rome was, he argues, an upwelling of patriotism replacing the earlier impulse for religious pilgrimage (92). The rise of humanism was also reflected in the ability for a scholar to earn a good living as a Greek copyist and in the new printing presses of Aldo Manucci at Venice. Princely houses hired humanists and men of learning (not only priests) as speech writers for despots. During the counter-Reformation humanists were to fall into disgrace because their purported irreligious views, their well-known self-conceit and vituperative contention with each other, but they were an early and central support to the forming Italian secular states. How did the Italians see the larger world around them? Burckhardt reminds us that Christopher Columbus willed to his home, the Republic of Genoa, a prayer book -- precious to him -- given to him by Pope Alexander (of the Borgia family). This small incident is most a telling indication of centrality of Italian politics and Italian talent to the discovery of a new world. But Burckhardt focuses on poetry and history rather than geography or travel (although these latter are briefly glossed) because he sees in writing a new enthusiasm for nature as nature, not nature as symbolism. In some ways the writings of a man like Girolamo Cardano counterbalance the lack of a Shakespeare for the stage (a point which causes Burckhardt some pain). Burckhardt closes with a chapter each on "society and festivals" and "morality and religion."
Of Renaissance society he says "The fact was of vital importance that, from certainly the twelfth century onwards, the nobles and the burghers dwelt together within the walls of the cities." (186) Unlike the states to the north and west, caste did not take good root in Italian states; he argues that priests and humanists and Condottieri were recruited on the basis of talent, that money almost always spoke louder than birth, and that writers, at least, were alive to the faults of the aristocracy and the ridiculous depths to which chivalry could and did fall. He also assevers, perhaps a bit romantically, that the Italians were cleaner, that their women lived as equals, that they had a more advanced notion of the good life, and that they loved their language with reverence that kept it fresh and avoided narrow pedantry. Public life was ornate: they loved a good festival, and a long elaborately scripted symbolic procession was necessary for most public and political events. As he concludes with remarks on morality and religion he makes a pronouncement both Delphic and typically Burckhardtian: "For the people that seems to be most sick the cure may be at hand; and one that appears to be healthy may bear within it the ripening germs of death, which the hour of danger will bring forth from their hiding place." Italians, as would be any nation, are impossible to evaluate morally, and yet the task -- however self-assigned -- is to make that very judgement. Moving, then, to those things that stirred Italian society most deeply, he touches on revenge, on gambling, on brigandage, on superstition, on solidarity in family life -- in fact, to the very elements that give American Italian gangster movies their color and life. Again, a telling detail: he offers the image of a Condottieri, Werner Von Urslingen, "whose silver hauberk bore the inscription: The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy." (237) On this subject he continues "the fundamental vice of this [Italian] character was at the same time a condition of its greatness, namely, excessive individualism." (237) An occasional bonfire of the vanities in the city square was born of the same impulses: vanity, piety and publicity.
This burning, or melting, offers up a final image of Burckhardt's thinking on the Renaissance: "In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness -- that which was turned within as [well as ] that which was turned without -- lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation -- only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all things of this world became possible." (70)