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The Influence Of The Burckhardtian Renaissance

Burckhardt claimed "the Italian Renaissance must be called the mother of our modern age" and described its six major characteristics: the vision of the state as a work of art in both princedoms breeding egocentric leaders and republics breeding new independent individuals; the development of the individual—newly subjective, conscious of fame, and multi-faceted; the revival of antiquity, especially ancient Latin culture; the discovery of the world and of humanity as evidenced by mapmaking, landscapes, natural science, poetry, biography, and social commentary; the equalization of society through festivals that expressed a common culture; and the advent of an immoral and irreligious age with revival of ancient pagan superstitions and an oscillation between religiosity and secularity. Medievalists sought to show that especially the first four Burckhardtian characteristics were already present in the medieval world, that in fact a rich Roman culture persisted more in the north than in the divided Italian peninsula. They documented individualism in Thomas Aquinas and Eleanor of Aquitaine and medieval advances in science and in naturalistic art. Scholars of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries in England, France, Spain, the Low Countries, the German lands, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere have likewise claimed Burckhardtian Renaissances, usually like the medievalists emphasizing the first four traits, although in French scholarship a secular, doubting French Renaissance had a vogue to which Lucien Febvre responded in The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (1982). In the expansion by later Burckhardtians, the Italian city-states were a model in miniature for the development of the nation-states (see Garett Mattingly on diplomacy, Hans Baron on civic humanism in Florence as a precedent for the United States), and individualism emerged not only from political turmoil but from the development of capitalist, middle-class occupations (Alfred von Martin, E. P. Cheyney).

Today the Burckhardtian Renaissance is evident in textbooks, in films on Renaissance individuals, and in art exhibitions. The term "renaissance" meaning a flowering of culture is positive and optimistic, and thus it has been extrapolated to other contexts, such as the "Jewish Renaissance" of Hebrew with the rebirth of Zionism in nineteenth-century Europe, the "Harlem Renaissance" of African-American culture in the 1920s, and numerous discussions of urban renewal as a "renaissance."

Burckhardtian scholarship continues to emphasize Burckhardt's first four characteristics of the Renaissance, finding isolated precedents in the medieval period. As social and economic historians and women's historians have made evident the hierarchies of rank and gender that marked the age, scholars have recognized that the fifth characteristic, "equalization," was limited to the mingling and rising of burgher to noble status and that a few daughters tutored along with sons and women's presence at courts did not add up to Burckhardt's "footing of perfect equality with men."

In claiming Burckhardtian Renaissances for other nations, generally scholars isolated the "immoral and irreligious age" to the Italians, although in some postcolonial interpretations (such as that of Walter D. Mignolo), point four—the discovery of the world and of humanity—provides the strongest evidence of point six—the immorality of the European colonialist, slave trader, and missionary.

Scholars of the Protestant Reformation have always emphasized the Christian characteristics of northern humanists. Criticizing Luther for authoritarianism and asceticism, Ernst Troeltsch (1906) contrasted medieval traits of the reformation with modern traits of the Renaissance; admiring Luther for redirecting Christian freedom to vocations in this world, Wilhelm Dilthey (1923) interpreted the Renaissance and Reformation together as the foundation of the modern world. Especially in the United States, where scholars specializing in the Renaissance and the Reformation often interpret the Reformation as a culmination of the Renaissance and focus on the humanist's inquiries into Christian antiquity, the term "Christian humanism" is applied to humanists of both the Italian and the northern Renaissance. Nevertheless, we must note that curious and daring humanists employed Jews and Greek Orthodox to explore texts in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and openly read and commented upon works written by ancient pagans; Jewish humanists in Italy brought about a renaissance of ancient Hebrew genres (see Cecil Roth and Arthur Lesley in Renaissance Rereadings).


Petrarch, Secretum, c. 1343: "When too many plants are sown in a narrow ground, namely that there growth is prevented by crowding, the same thing happens to you, so that no useful roots are put down in the soul that is too occupied and nothing fruitful grows."

Pierre Belon, Observation, 1553: "The minds of men… have begun to wake up and to leave the darkness where for so long they have remained dormant and in leaving have put forth and put in evidence all kinds of good disciplines, which to their so happy and desirable renaissance, all as the new plants after a season of winter regain their vigor in the heat of the Sun and are consoled by the mildness of the spring."

SOURCE: From Maryanne C. Horowitz, Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge, pp. 115, 297, n. 96; pp. 156, 309, n. 7.

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