Front Page Titles (by Subject) 45.: Italy and the Rest of Europe - Judgments on History and Historians
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45.: Italy and the Rest of Europe - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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Italy and the Rest of Europe
Outside of Italy, the nobility and the middle class were separated socially and remained so for a long time. The two had different cultures, almost; and each class was incapable by itself of supplying the basis for a complete culture. Especially in Germany the nobility became brutalized and ran wild; the bourgeoisie was pressed hard from many sides, to be sure, but was already in possession of more varied enjoyments of life. All the princely courts outside Italy were at that time incapable of being social centers of their nations, something that the pompous Burgundian court had already been. In France only Francis I was to form the social center. A few courts knew only display and wild enjoyment, others had to or wanted to economize.
Written culture outside of Italy was still substantially dominated by scholasticism which was not really research but rather support of what was already established through logical operations. Thus scholasticism and its school books predominate in the incunabula of the presses outside Italy. In place of the natural sciences, the pseudo-sciences, astrology and alchemy, flourished vigorously while in Italy they were already close to extinction.
So-called schools for poets were just being started; there were also here and there at Northern universities Italian and, soon, Italian-trained teachers of poetry, rhetoric, and jurisprudence, occasionally under strong protest from their colleagues. Cicero and Quintilian had to be maintained by force as subjects of instruction.
As regards emotional life, religious feeling was still very strong, varying with the countries; in addition, there were excellent small mystic communities and pious individuals. The lyric poetry of the French and Germans, to the extent that it was part of literature rather than continuing folk poetry, seems to us mannered and tedious; furthermore, there appears a wooden mockery, by turns more didactic and more cynical. Did tender feelings hide behind this? The only present value of this literature is in the field of cultural history.
In the field of art, possibly the most vivid aspect of art outside Italy is the fading of the Gothic into a sumptuous decorative style. In sculpture and painting the former ideality of the great Gothic period is past and a harmonic synthesis has not yet been achieved. Flemish realism has stopped halfway in the shaping of the human form and in the narrative, and this lack becomes paramount precisely in its concern with the individual. But side by side with the awkward and even barbaric there appear here and there beautiful, profound, and spirited heads. From the beginning of the sixteenth century there appear in the North the great and still almost wholly independent advances.
Thus culture outside Italy is on the whole a disharmonious one, albeit one with great incomplete and latent forces.
Italy, however, is the country of a common culture which is at the same time one of inner harmony. The form of intercourse was a higher sociability independent of class differences, and its content was intellect.
Toward the end of the fifteenth century, that which to other Europeans was still conjecture and fantasy was already knowledge and a free object of thought to the Italians. Imagination was beautifully channeled into poetry and art.
The scope of the intellect, still a very close and narrow sphere among the other Europeans, is here enormously widened through the interest in an ideally conceived Greco-Roman antiquity, in a renaissance in a narrower sense, and in nature and human life; indeed, nature is expanded through a universal urge for knowledge, appreciation, and discovery that is no longer inhibited by the old scholastic system which still blanketed the rest of Europe.
And it is not only the intellect that recognizes the world and itself, but the soul, too, speaks to and about itself in a different way, and in so doing clothes or, rather, unclothes itself in beauty.
The despotism of most governments does little damage. There probably were other reasons why Naples (with Pontano, Sannazaro) and Sicily took but little part in the movement. Elsewhere there are enough tolerably independent positions, especially for frugal people. The tyrants themselves and even a few popes are at the head of the movement, e.g., Lodovico il Moro and others.
The republic of Florence is at the center as a focal point and exchange center of the first rank. Apart from the Florentine states as such, there takes place here a most complicated convergence of extremely dissimilar forces to produce a supreme, harmonious culture.
Its basis is, in addition to the favorable physical and economic conditions, the general conviction that everything could be done here and that one must possess the best. Without this conviction all the institutions in the world would have availed nothing. This was also expressed in the idea current in all Italy that if this or the other thing were not so excellent, non s’usaria a Firenze. There were the Medici, the many corporations and wealthy men who employed people and demanded works of art.
Thus scholars, poets, artists of high order were able to come together or grow up in Florence. One must add to this the Florentine colonies and individuals abroad as commissioners or creators. Even Boniface III called the Florentines the fifth element.
In literature, the Italian epic predominated from about 1450 as the main genre, just as lyric poetry had been the chief form of the fourteenth century. The drama ought to have become that of the sixteenth century. After Pulci the epic reaches for all tones and colors; it is high-heroic, semi-comic, topical, etc.
Italian humanism which was gradually filtering through was already making an impression upon Europe. Many Northerners studied in Italy and brought home the picture of a new science. Of poetry, however, they took home only the neo-Latin, and around 1500 nothing of Dante was known in the North, except perhaps De Monarchia, of Petrarch and Boccaccio only the Latin writings; Battista Mantovano was known, but neither Pulci nor Boiardo. Ariosto was only in his early period.
At the same time Italy’s modern political forms, commercial institutions, and travelers took effect.
But what the conquerors had yet to discover was the art of the Italians, combined with the remnants of antiquity:
An architecture which for once expressed and sheltered a majestic and comfortable worldly life, which was no longer capable merely of giving form to churches and mere castles, but shaped palaces and villas as well, according to a uniform plan, with beautiful rooms and noble, grand forms. In harmony with this there was an art of decoration which was the exact opposite of the highly refined Northern type and was completely adapted to the new building style, having grown and flourished to endless expansion with it. Its general character was grandiose serenity.
Then there were sculpture and painting, which could already boast of the most magnificent work of Leonardo and the early works of Michelangelo, and then during the occupations and interventions continued to grow in a wonderful way at passably protected places (Luini in a sanctuary at Saronno!).
Medieval art had achieved the full majesty of intentions, Flemish art had attained the reality of individuals in small compass. With Leonardo, this and still higher things fused into a perfect truth, that is, majesty, a stirring life on earth which appeared as a guise and expression of a life spiritually moved in the highest sense. Everything in one piece: perfect loveliness of form and nobility of intention in Raphael; perfect appearance in life, air, and light in Correggio; festive, majestic existence in Titian; finally, the realization of pre-worldly, extra-worldly, and supra-worldly figures and occurrences in the later Michelangelo—not to mention the innumerable minor masters who still appear great. And all this with almost complete independence of classical art!
Thus there came about the uniquely fortuitous case in art history that the highest beauty and truth of sensuous appearance persistently was striven for and captured as a revelation of the highest spiritual life and that one was aware of it. Here we should remember Michelangelo’s words: “True painting is noble and pious in itself, for the very wrestling for perfection lifts the soul to reverence by approaching God and becoming one with Him; of His perfections true painting is a copy, of His brush it is a shadow.”
And during the invasions and occupations Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Guicciardini were writing.