bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

You can’t judge a Burckhardt by its cover

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 12 January, 2015

Can there be a less appropriate cover for Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy than this?

Burckhardt 2011

The cover to the audio book of Burckhardt, released in 2011

Admittedly, if this was an awards category, there would be stiff competition. There is, for instance, the image advertising an e-book version that seems to have mistaken Burckhardt for Huizinga: Image for Burckhardt e-bookOr there is the 2003 edition which appears to have read the first pages, where the ‘despots of the fourteenth century’ (in the English translation – the noun in German is ‘Herricher’) are discussed, and (perhaps assuming the rest would be similar) thought a detail from the Lorenzetti brothers’ mid-trecento frescoes on good and bad government for the Republic of Siena might be the thing:

Burckhardt 3Any anachronism here pales besides that perpetrated by the audio book that I am promoting as the prize-winner. Perhaps the designer thought an image of Venus rising from the waves – any image – would fit, forgetful of Burckhardt’s claim that what made humanism was the revival of antiquity combined with ‘the genius of the Italian people’. Or perhaps a tyro assistant was sent off to find ‘you know, that birth of Venus picture’ and on a quick search found William Bouguereau’s painting. Never mind that it was produced in 1879, nineteen years after Burckhardt’s ‘essay’ was published, and a year later than the translation – still standard – by Samuel G. C. Middlemore (on whom, more another time).

Of course, it might be suggested that there is a deeper truth, in that the image demonstrates a nineteenth-century classicising tradition which so clearly reached back to the fifteenth century. Perhaps it could be defended by saying that to use the painting which Bouguereau so clearly could not shake from his mind would have been too obvious – though that has not stopped other cover-designers.

Aonia Edizioni (2011)

Aonia Edizioni (2011)

As Botticelli’s painting was iconic for the nineteenth century, so has it been in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, from Warhol to Lady Gaga (there is a useful gallery of its reuses on-line, to which so many could be added, like Marvin Bartley’s Jamaican re-imagining, to name just one). It stands for successive generations as the epitome of the Renaissance celebration of beauty and of love: what, then, could be more appropriate for Burckhardt’s volume? There is, however, an inconvenient fact: Burckhardt himself never mentions this painting; indeed, in his text, he does not mention once Sandro Botticelli. For Burckhardt, the artist of ‘The Birth of Venus’ and the ‘Primavera’ played a less substantial role than he did for his contemporaries like Bouguereau. In other words, a cover like this – and there are several others which take a work of Botticelli’s to conjure up Civilization‘s subject – projects onto the ‘classic’ work rather different constructions of the Renaissance, however distant they may be from Burckhardt’s conception.

Nor, on this count, is Botticelli the only inappropriate reference-point. For British audiences, the best-known cover of the work is probably that on the Penguin Classic:

Burckhardt Penguin

The procession of richly dressed figures might seem to capture the extravagance of the Renaissance, and to be particularly apt when we remember this fresco of Bennozzo Gozzoli is in the chapel of the Medici family palace in Florence. What is more, the designer has taken a section from the cycle which includes the figure of the artist himself waving at the viewer – a symbol, if you want, of the painter’s individualism. Yet, this work too does not register in Burckhardt’s text and  both in this case and with Botticelli, the absence was not an accidental oversight. Neither artist was central to the Swiss historian’s encapsulation of what he saw to be the Renaissance, that paradoxical, Janus-faced movement which, in his depiction, has its heyday after Gozzoli was dead and Botticelli an old man – in the early sixteenth century, with the achievements of Leonardo and Michelangelo, each an embodiement of the ‘many-sided man’ whom Burckhardt celebrates as the apogee of Renaissance achievement.

This is to say that when The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is dressed up in any of the covers that we have seen, it comes in disguise. It gives a sense of what ‘speaks’ to the designer and the publisher of the Renaissance or of artistic achievement more generally, but there is little dialogue with the work of Burckhardt itself. Civilization certainly gave Europe a distorted, mis-shapen Renaissance, so maybe there is some justice in it being distorted itself in its many reprints, e-books and audio versions. The worry, however, is that it is not being done consciously and that there is a failure to recognise how different ‘our Renaissance’ is from his. Is the distance so great, in fact, that it is impossible for a publisher now to provide a cover which is appropriate to the work?