Jacob Burckhardt (May 25, 1818, Basel, Switzerland – August 8, 1897, Basel) was a Swiss historian of art and culture, fields which he helped found.
The son of a Protestant clergyman, Burckhardt studied theology in Basel and in Neuchâtel until 1839, when he moved to the University of Berlin to study history, especially art history, then a new field. At Berlin, he attended lectures by Leopold von Ranke, the founder of history as a respectable academic discipline. He spent part of 1841 at the University of Bonn, studying under the art historian Franz Kugler, to whom he dedicated his first book, Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Städte (1842). He taught at the University of Basel, 1843-55, then at ETH, the engineering school in Zurich. In 1858, he returned to Basel to assume the professorship he held until his 1893 retirement. Only starting in 1886 did he teach art history exclusively. He twice declined offers of professorial chairs at German universities, at the University of Tübingen in 1867, and Ranke's chair at the University of Berlin in 1872.
See Life by Hans Trog in the Basler Jahrbuch for 1898, pp. 1-172.
Burkhardt's historical writings did much to establish art history as an academic discipline, and also have literary value in their own right. His innovative approach to historical research emphasized the value of culture and art when analyzing the social and political trends underlying historical events.
In 1838 he made his first journey to Italy, and published his first important articles, Bemerkungen über schweizerische Kathedralen ("Remarks about Swiss Cathedrals"). In 1847 he brought out new editions of Kugler's two great works, Geschichte der Malerei and Kunstgeschichte, and in 1853 published his own work, Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen ("The Age of Constantine the Great"). He spent the greater part of the years 1853–1854 in Italy, collecting materials for his 1855 Der Cicerone: Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens (7th German edition, 1899), also dedicated to Kugler. This work, which covered sculpture and architecture, as well as painting, became an indispensable guide to the art traveller in Italy.
About half of the original edition was devoted to the art of the Renaissance. Thus Burckhardt was naturally led to write the two books for which he is best known, his 1860 Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien ("The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy") (English translation, by SGC Middlemore, in 2 vols., London, 1878), and his 1867 Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien ("The History of the Renaissance in Italy"). The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was the most influential interpretation of the Italian Renaissance in the 19th century and is still widely read. Burckhardt and the German historian George Voigt founded the historical study of the Renaissance. In contrast to Voigt, who confined his studies to early Italian humanism, Burckhardt dealt with all aspects of Renaissance society.
Burkhardt considered the study of ancient history an intellectual necessity and was a highly respected scholar of Greek civilization. "The Greeks and Greek Civilization" sums up of the relevant lectures, "Griechische Kulturgeschichte", which Burckhardt first gave in 1872 and which he repeated until 1885. At his death, he was working on a four-volume survey of Greek civilization.
Friedrich Nietzsche, appointed professor of classical philology at Basel in 1869 at the age of 24, admired Burckhardt and attended some of his lectures. Nietzsche believed Burckhardt agreed with the thesis of his The Birth of Tragedy, namely that Greek culture was defined by opposing "Apollinian" and "Dyonisian" tendencies. Nietzsche and Burkhardt enjoyed each other's intellectual company, even as Burckhardt kept his distance from Nietzsche's evolving philosophy. Their extensive corresponded over a number of years has been published.
There is an interesting tension in Burkhardt's persona between the wise and worldly student of the Italian Renaissance, and the cautious product of Swiss Calvinism who had studied extensively for the ministry. The Swiss polity in which he spent nearly all of his life was a good deal more democratic and stable than was the norm in 19th century Europe. As a Swiss, Burkhardt was also cool to German nationalism and to German claims of cultural and intellectual superiority. He was also amply aware of the rapid political and economic changes taking place in the Europe of his day, commenting in his lectures and writings on the Industrial Revolution, the European political upheavals of his day, and the growing European nationalism and militarism. Events amply fulfilled his prediction of a cataclysmic 20th century, in which violent demagogues (whom he called "terrible simplifiers") would play central roles. Burckhardt the prophetic pessimist and cautious liberal, the German language counterpart to Tocqueville and Lord Acton, and the author of three volumes reprinted by the Liberty Fund, has some following among contemporary conservative political and moral philosophers. On Burckhardt the political and social thinker, see Sigurdson (2004).
Theodore Ziolkowski, in his Introduction to the English translation of Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, asserts that Hesse's character Father Jacobus is based on Burckhardt.
Burckhardt's face is printed on the Swiss 1000 franc banknote.
Liberty Fund reprints: