Johann Burchard

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Johann Burchard, also spelled Johannes Burchart or Burkhart[1] (c.1450–1506) was an Alsatian-born priest and chronicler during the Italian Renaissance.

Early life[edit]

He was born at Niederhaslach, now Bas-Rhin, Alsace, France. Of humble origins, he was educated by the collegial chapter of St. Florent in Niederhaslach and eventually became secretary to the vicar general of the Bishop of Strasbourg. Suspected of theft, he left his position with the vicar and went to Rome about 1467.[2] Burchard was ordained a priest in 1476.

Roman career[edit]

He became a Protonotary Apostolic in February 1481, and was appointed Master of Ceremonies to Pope Sixtus IV in 1483, having bought the office for 450 ducats.[3] He held it until his death on 16 May 1506, successively acting as Ceremoniere to Innocent VIII (1484–1492), Alexander VI (1492–1503), Pius III (1503) and during the early years of Julius II.

In Rome, Burchard joined the Confraternity of Santa Maria dell'Anima and quickly rose to become its provost. It was while he held this office that the decision was taken to rebuild the church of Santa Maria dell'Anima for the Jubilee of 1500. The church was built in the style of a Hallenkirche that was typical for Northern Europe. Andrea Sansovino was retained as architect by the confraternity. The facade was completed by Giuliano da Sangallo.

Burchard accumulated an array of ecclesiastical benefices in Alsace, including that of the provost of Moutier-Grandval (1475) and Provost of Strasbourg. He was also Provost of Basel, and then Dean of Basel (1501).[4] Among the significant events organised by Burchard as Ceremoniere were: the visit of Don Federigo de Aragon to Rome (December 1493 to January 1494); the coronation of Alfonso II of Naples (May 1494); the reception of Charles VIII of France in Rome (November 1494 to February 1495); the Papal Embassy to the Emperor Maximilian in Milan (July–November 1496); the Proclamation of the Jubilee (Christmas 1499); the visit of Alexander VI to Piombino (January–March 1502); and obsequies of Pope Alexander VI (August 1503). Burchard was also present at the laying of the foundation stone of the new Basilica of St. Peter on 18 April 1506.

Burchard's successor, Paris de Grassis, had already been nominated by the time of the conclave of 1503, in anticipation of Burchard's retirement. He was promoted Bishop of Orte on 3 October 1503 by Pope Pius III, in acknowledgment of more than twenty years of service as First Master of Ceremonies. He had been promised the bishopric of Nepi and Sutri, as Pius was reminded by Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, but the pope had already promised that diocese to Antonio de' Alberici. Orte was therefore substituted. Burchard retired in May 1504.[5]

Joannes Burchard died on Saturday evening, 16 May 1506.[6] He was buried in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo at the Flaminian Gate.[2]

Historical importance[edit]

Burchard's importance derives from his Liber Notarum, a form of official record of the more significant papal ceremonies with which he was involved. The first critical edition of this work was published by E. Celani in 1906 as Johannis Burckardi Liber Notarum ab anno MCCCCLXXXIII usque ad annum MDVI. Celani's edition collated various earlier printed editions of the work, and a collection of uncertain notations, with Burchard's original manuscript, thereby establishing an important critical edition of this account of the papal court at the end of the fifteenth century.

As Ceremoniere, he was responsible for the publication of a revised edition of the Liber Pontificalis in 1485 and for the publication of a new edition of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum in 1488. Perhaps Burchard's most enduring publication was the Ordo Servandus per Sacerdotem in celebratione Missae, published under orders from Pope Alexander VI. This book went through numerous editions before its substance eventually made its way into the Normae Generales of the Roman Missal.[7]

His diary records an alleged orgy known as the Banquet of Chestnuts purportedly held by Cesare Borgia in the Papal Palace on 30 October 1501. However, Picotti believes the diary should be regarded with some caution regarding entries concerning the Borgias, as Burchard makes clear his dislike of them.[2] Alexander Lee notes that, "The so-called “Banquet of the Chestnuts”, for example, attested only in Burchard’s memoirs, and is not only intrinsically implausible, but was also dismissed as such by many contemporaries.[who?][8]

Burchard's immediate successor as First Master of Ceremonies, Paris de Grassis, left a frank comment on Burchard's character at the beginning of his private ceremonial Diary:[9]

Granted however new and untried I may be, like an ass at the lyre, I shall try to do my duty satisfactorily through frequent efforts and entries year by year. And so I ask that at this beginning as I am recording and explaining the actions of so many prelates, ill-wishing detractors not laugh at my writings, especially my colleague Johannes Burchard, who is much more of an associate in my office than my friend in charity, of which there is none in him. For when he realized that I aspired to his job, from that point he tried everything against me that he had the power and the knowledge to do, and more, and strove to get me dismissed.

The Liber Notarum is still maintained by the papal Ceremoniere.

Though he only described musical details when in the context of innovations or mishaps, his account is an important source for details of papal choir singing. Among other details, he noted the use of polyphony in settings of the Passion, a practice apparently introduced from Spain, and the performance of the now-lost motet Gaude Roma vetus, written in honor of Pope Alexander VI to a text by Johannes Tinctoris.[1]

Burchard's residence, built in 1491, survives and can be seen at Via del Sudario 44, in Rome. Burchard was also known as "Argentinus" from the Latin name for Strasbourg, and the tower on his palace gave the name "Torre Argentina" to the district, still retained in the Largo di Torre Argentina and other names.

In popular culture[edit]

Johann Burchard is portrayed by Simon McBurney in the 2011 Showtime series The Borgias, by Victor Schefé in the 2011 French-German series Borgia, and by Shawn Shillingford in the 2018 CNN series Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History.


  1. ^ a b Richard Sherr. "Burkhard, Johannes". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.  (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b c Setton, Kenneth M. The Papacy and the Levant, 1204-1571, American Philosophical Society, 1978 ISBN 9780871691279[page needed]
  3. ^ Burchard, John. The Diary of John Burchard, (Arnold Harris Matthew, trans.), Vol. 1, London, Francis Griffiths, 1910[page needed]
  4. ^ Burchard, Diarium, II, p. 346.
  5. ^ The bulls of his appointment and installation were delayed by the death of Pius III, and actually issued by Pope Julius II on 29 November 1503, four weeks after his election. Eubel, II, p. 211, with note 4. Burchard, Diarium, III, p. 281. In the Roman Curia Burchard was a cleric of the Papal Chapel, an Abbreviator of Papal Letters, and Dean of the Cathedral of Basel at the time of his promotion to the See of Orte.
  6. ^ Burchard, Diarium III, p. 426 (by Paris de Grassis).
  7. ^ "How awful was Catholic life under those immoral Renaissance Popes!". Rorate Caeli. Retrieved 31 March 2014.  Quote: "At the beginning of the sixteenth century, John Burckard (+ 1506), a famous papal master of ceremonies, drew up -- using the Ordines of the Papal Court and the Vatican MSS. of Sacramentaries and Missals -- and published in 1502, by order of Alexander VI, an Ordo Missae. It is from this that some of the general rubrics of our present Missal are drawn, and the Ritus servandus of our Missal embodies the greater part of Burckard's Ordo."
  8. ^ Lee, Alexander. "Were he Borgias Really So Bad?", History Today, 1 October 2013
  9. ^ J.J.J. von Döllinger, "Das Pontificat Julius' II.," in: Beiträge zur politischen, kirchlichen, und Cultur-Geschichte III. Band. (Wien 1882), p. 364. Licet autem novus et inexpertus sim tanquam asinus ad liram, conabor sic per crebras actiones et per annales actiones evadere, ut officio meo satisfaciam. Sic quaeso, uti in hoc principio, dum gesta tantorum patrum exequar et describam, non irrideant mea scripta maligni detractores, praesertim ille meus collega Johannes Burchardus, multo magis socius in officio quam amicus meus in charitate, quae nulla est in eo. Nam cum me intellexit ad officum aspirasse, illico omnes conatus in me, quos potuit et quos scivit ac plus quam potuit et scivit, exasperavit, ut me ejiceret.


  • Tobias Daniels, Der päpstliche Zeremonienmeister Johannes Burckard, Jakob Wimpfeling und das Pasquill im deutschen Humanismus, in 'Deutsches Archiv für die Erforschung des Mittelalters' 69,1 (2013), pp. 127–140.
  • E. Celani, Rerum Italiarum Scriptores, Vol. XXXII, parte 1a, I, Città di Castello 1907-1913.
  • Burchard, Joannes (1883). Louis Thuasne, ed. Diarum sine rerum urbanarum commentarii (in French and Latin). Tome premier (1483-1492). Paris: Ernest Leroux. 
  • Burchard, Joannes (1884). Louis Thuasne, ed. Diarum sine rerum urbanarum commentarii (in Latin). Tome second (1492-1499). Paris: E. Leroux. 
  • Burchard, Joannes (1885). Louis Thuasne, ed. Diarum sine rerum urbanarum commentarii (in Latin). Tome troisième (1500-1506). Paris: E. Leroux. 
  • Eubel, Conradus (ed.); Gulik, Guilelmus (1923). Hierarchia catholica, Tomus 3 (second ed.). Münster: Libreria Regensbergiana. 
  • D. Gnoli, La Torre Argentina in Nuova Archeologia, 43 (1908, III), pp. 596–605.
  • J. Lesellier, Les méfaits du cérémonier Jean Burckard in Mélanges d'archeologie et d'histoire, 44 (1927), pp. 11–34.
  • L. Oliger, Der päpstliche Zeremonienmeister Johannes Burckard von Straßburg, in Archiv für elsäβiche Kirchengeschichte, 9 (1934), pp. 199–232.