One hundred and fifty years ago the Swiss art lover and historian Jacob Burckhardt published his master work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. I believe this anniversary is as important as last year’s of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. These two great 19th-century books are still at the living heart of their subjects. The study of the Renaissance can no more forget Burckhardt than biology can leave Darwin behind. Both classics began in journeys. Darwin sailed to the Galápagos; Burckhardt merely went to Italy. His book drips with love of Italy and Italians. It is, among other things, one of the most passionate homages ever paid by a northern European to southern Europe, and yet herein lies its strangeness. Northerners, from Thomas Mann in Death in Venice to Martin Amis picturing the gilded English young on holiday in a southern castle in The Pregnant Widow, have tended to imagine Italy as a languorous, sleepy, timeless and archaic place – the slow, hot unconscious of the European continent, drooping out into the Mediterranean like a surrealist appendage. Burckhardt saw things very differently. The fascination of reading his book is its vision of Italy as the birthplace of modern individualism, political calculation, science and scepticism. In 1860 Burckhardt looked at Italy and saw the shock of the new, secreted in sleepy ruins.
more from Jonathan Jones at The Guardian here.