This essay first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Choice (volume 59 | issue 12)
The Italian Renaissance remains a vibrant and important field of study in an increasingly global world. Originally conceived of during the 1300s and 1400s, it gained its most common connotations during the latter 1800s. In The Civilization of Italy during the Renaissance, originally published in German in 1860, Jacob Burckhardt argues that the Italian Renaissance can be credited with the birth of the modern world, a case he makes by tapping into nationalist and philosophical ideas. In Burckhardt’s view, 15th-century Italians developed secularism, individualism, and a critical eye toward inherited authorities, mirroring the traits that Burckhardt envisioned for his own world. The Italians Wars, fought primarily by the Spanish and French for control over Italy starting around 1500, rolled back these elements of progress and reimposed a sort of medieval emphasis on religion, social groups, and authorities.
Decades later, scholars began to claim that the Italian Renaissance had led to the emergence of the sorts of political ideals prized in the United States and European democracies. Hans Baron, in The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, argues that the city-state of Florence faced annihilation by its northern neighbor Milan at the turn from the 14th to the 15th century. Baron presents this clash as a critical historical turning point, part of an existential conflict (he refers to it as a “tyranny”) between the republican government of Florence and the ducal government in Milan. Florence emerged victorious, leading to an outpouring of republican patriotism, an increased respect for the active life of a citizen, and a newfound appreciation for the Italian vernacular. J. G. A. Pocock builds on and expands Baron’s work in The Machiavellian Moment, connecting the birth of a republican ideal in Florence to the political foundations of the United States.
For both Burckhardt and Baron, the Italian Renaissance mattered a great deal. To them it was an essential component in the story of how the modern world, as each author defined it, came to be. Many of their ideas remained firmly rooted in popular conceptions of the period and for many years their arguments remained prominent in the field. Today, however, professional historians reject Burckhardt’s and Baron’s major claims and even most of their minor ones. Over the past four decades, specialists have largely moved away from the sorts of grand narratives that Burkhardt and Baron promoted. In their place, scholars have revealed a patchwork of different experiences, changes, and continuities in the Italian peninsula between 1250 and 1600. The field has moved on from Burkhardt and Baron, but, regardless of their particular importance, the significance of specialist study of the Italian Renaissance speaks for itself. As this essay endeavors to show, current scholarship still offers vibrant and important insights into the past for the 21st-century global community.
Brian Jeffrey Maxson is professor of history at East Tennessee State University.