Individualism and the separation of fields of study

Jacob Burckhardt and Ercole Ricotti 1

Authored by: William Caferro

The Routledge History of the Renaissance

Print publication date:  March  2017
Online publication date:  March  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138898851
eBook ISBN: 9781315226217
Adobe ISBN: 9781351849463


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There is perhaps no book more influential to its field than Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, 1860). No aspect of the book has received more attention than its emphasis of “individualism.” 2 Burckhardt famously depicted individualism (“Individualismus”) as the essence of the Renaissance in Italy. It created the “Renaissance man,” whose “thirst for fame” allowed him to succeed “by talent not birth.” 3 Burckhardt equated individualism with “unbridled egotism,” which was characterized by self-reflection and illegitimacy. 4 The traits were most apparent in the careers of condottieri, mercenary soldiers, who by dint of their cunning and skill established the Renaissance state as a “work of art.” 5 Felix Gilbert called Burckhardt’s construct the “central and distinguishing aspect” of the Swiss historian’s famous thesis. 6 Individualism allowed Burckhardt to make a sharp distinction between the Renaissance, which represented the “modern political spirit of Italy,” and the Middle Ages, which “lay dreaming or half-awake beneath a common veil … woven of faith, illusion, childish prepossession.” 7 Man was conscious of himself “only as a member of a race, people, party family or corporation, through some general category.” 8

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