Peter Burke

Peter Burke is an emeritus professor of cultural history at Cambridge. He has written more than twenty books, on subjects as diverse as the Annales School of history, the art of conversation, the Italian Renaissance and social media from Gutenberg to the present.

A Welcome for Foreigners

Peter Burke, 7 November 1991

‘I Judge that Spain is a pious mother to foreigners and a very cruel stepmother to her own native sons,’ complained the 17th-century painter Jusepe de Ribera, a Valencian who spent most of his career working in Naples. This variation on the theme of the prophet without honour in his own country will doubtless strike a chord for many writers and artists today, from Australia to Brazil. It also sums up the central argument of Jonathan Brown’s new book The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, which emphasises Spain’s cultural dependence on foreigners. The author claims that even in its so-called ‘Golden Age’, here defined as the period 1480-1700, Spain remained ‘on the periphery of European art’. Brown therefore refuses to write a history of Spanish painting, a category he demolishes in a few incisive introductory pages entitled ‘The Frontiers of Spanish Art’.

Like sociology and anthropology, the study of art and literature, especially the art and literature of the Renaissance, seems to be taking a historical turn in the Eighties. To a historian like myself this trend is obviously encouraging. Indeed, for a historian the problem is not so much to explain the rise of the so-called ‘New Historicism’ associated with Stephen Greenblatt and his friends and followers, as to account for the hostile reactions to it. Why should it be considered subversive to replace literary texts in their historical contexts? Is the movement dangerous because it is historicist or because it is new?

Grassi gets a fright

Peter Burke, 7 July 1988

One of the most intriguing features of the dramatic clash between Galileo and the Holy Office of the Inquisition is its apparently endless capacity to generate new hypotheses about the aims of the protagonists and even the minor figures in the cast. What was Galileo himself trying to do? Was he simply a disinterested investigator of nature, a man of science who found himself involved in theological controversy, more or less by accident? Was he a committed Copernican, as fanatical in his own way as his ecclesiastical opponents? Or was he a devout Catholic with his own ideas about the direction in which the Church should move? What were the aims of the Inquisitors? Were they disinterested investigators of deviators from orthodoxy, whoever these turned out to be, or were they trying to trap Galileo? If the latter, was anyone encouraging them from behind the scenes? What was the role of the Pope in all this – the pro-intellectual Urban VIII, in whose time Galileo was condemned, and the anti-intellectual Paul V, in whose time he received his first warning? What was the role of the Jesuit cardinal Roberto Bellarmino? It seems fairly clear that in 1616 Galileo was enjoined not to hold the proposition that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that in 1633 he was tried by the Roman Inquisition on a charge of ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’, and that he was condemned to indefinite imprisonment, later commuted to house arrest in his Tuscan villa. Beyond this small zone of clarity, however, many important points remain obscure.’

One of the most lively debates currently engaging the attention of historians, more or less the world over, concerns the so-called ‘revival of narrative’. Ought written history to concentrate on the story of great events, or is the description or analysis of structures an equally important part of the historian’s business? At a time when the pendulum seems to be swinging back to narrative, it is encouraging to find a scholar as gifted as Simon Schama moving in the opposite direction. His first book, Patriots and Liberators, published in 1977, told the story of a major episode in Dutch political history, the revolution of the late 18th century, in a fluent narrative divided into 12 chronological chapters. The new book, on the other hand, is not so much a story as a portrait. It offers, as the subtitle proclaims, ‘an interpretation of Dutch culture in the golden age’ (more or less the 17th century). The author seems to have experienced a conversion to cultural history. Not, as he is quick to point out, the history of Culture with a capital C – ‘theatre or poetry or music’. His concern is to describe and interpret what he calls the ‘social beliefs and behaviour’ of the Dutch, their ‘physical and mental bric-à-brac’, their cultural ‘furniture’. In other words, he is interested in culture in the wide, anthropological sense, or, as he sometimes puts it, in the ‘national personality’ or collective mentality’. A confessed eclectic, Schama has drawn some of his inspiration from social anthropologists (from Emile Durkheim to Mary Douglas), some from Freud, and some from the history of mentalities – the Dutch word is mentaliteitsgeschiedenis – as currently practised in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.’


Peter Burke, 15 October 1987

‘Patrons are patrons,’ a citizen of Florence wrote to the Grand Duke, Ferdinando de’Medici, in 1602: ‘the patron is accountable to no one.’ But what exactly was a patron in Florence or elsewhere in Renaissance Italy? Despite the existence of a large literature on art patronage, the question received few direct answers till the publication in 1981 of a book focused on England: Patronage in the Renaissance, edited by Guy Lytle and Stephen Orgel. Taking their cue from Lytle and Orgel, F.W. Kent and Patricia Simons have turned the proceedings of a conference held in Melbourne in 1983 into a valuable volume of essays on patronage in Renaissance Italy. What is particularly interesting about both collections is the fact that they discuss two kinds of patronage and, at least on occasion, the relations between them. The traditional investigation of artistic patronage has been juxtaposed with the study of ‘social patronage’ – the networks of ‘friends of friends’ familiar to social anthropologists (and indeed to classicists), but neglected till recently by historians of Italy.’

Born to Network

Anthony Grafton, 22 August 1996

Anyone who teaches the High Renaissance in an American university knows how distant it has become. On first contemplating the nudes that fascinated tourists and connoisseurs for centuries,...

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Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk, 24 September 1992

Among various worries I have about the degree subject English, the most serious is the decline (to near vanishing point in many universities) of historical language study. One accepts, of course,...

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Fallen Idols

David A. Bell, 23 July 1992

The French, a people normally not plagued by a lack of national pride, revere very few of their past leaders. Consider the following list: Richelieu, Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, Clemenceau,...

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Ancient and Modern

M.A. Screech, 19 November 1981

Does Luther explain Hitler? Oberman, an international Dutchman at home in Tuebingen, asks the question only to toss it aside: the Reformation was not a ‘German tragedy’. Into this...

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Good History

Christopher Hill, 5 March 1981

Professor Hexter made his mark in the learned world over forty years ago with an article in the American Historical Review called ‘The Problem of the Presbyterian Independents’. He...

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