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Tuesday29 July 2014

Building a Library 39: The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, by Jacob Burckhardt

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Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library

Burckhardt is an extremely attractive character. If his wonderful guide to Italian art and architecture (Der Cicerone) had been properly translated, it could appear at greater length here.

Though it is only a glorified list, an unquenchable enthusiasm and trust in the healing power of art run through every sentence. His letters to Nietzsche are models of generosity. Who is not charmed by details of his academic career: he never gave a lecture outside his native Basel and turned down offers of chairs at prestigious German universities because he didn’t like the ambitious scrambles he had seen there.

On second thought, since he also taught for a few years in Zurich, the detail I’ve copied out above cannot be strictly true. But he was firmly rooted in one place, and became a familiar figure carrying a big portfolio of photographs through the streets to the lecture hall.

The more you know about its author, the more surprising his Civilization of the Renaissance will seem. It begins with a host of lurid details about the murderous despots of places like Perugia where the bodies pile up in the streets. The most admirable rulers combine high culture with unscrupulousness and impiety of outlandish proportions.

Burckhardt tells these stories well and clearly revels in them. A powerful ambivalence about the Italian genius gives the book the strong electric charge which sets it apart from other writing on its subject.

Burckhardt is one of the first cultural historians, not a type much in vogue at the moment. He couldn’t rest content with the political intrigues that nonetheless fascinated him.

So powerfully drawn to art and literature himself, he argues that Petrarch climbing on ruins and Aretino penning scurrilous jibes have earned a place in histories of the period just as secure as the tyrants’.

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