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 Bishop of Strasbourg. Burchard was ordained a priest in 1476 and moved to Rome in 1481.
Nominated Protonotary Apostolic in 1481, he was appointed Master of Ceremonies to Pope Sixtus IV in 1483, having bought the office for 450 ducats. 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. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo at the Flaminian Gate.
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 impressive array of ecclesiastical benefices in Alsace, including that of the provost of Moutier-Grandval (1475) and Dean of Basel (1501). He was promoted Bishop of Orte in 1503 by Pope Pius III. The early death of the Pope meant that Burchard could not be consecrated until his nomination had been confirmed by the new Pope, Julius II. K. Eubel's Hierarchia Catholica, Vol. III, p. 211 describes Burchard as having been 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.
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.
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. He records the controversial orgy known as the Banquet of Chestnuts held by Cesare Borgia in the Papal Palace on October 30, 1501.
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 in 1495. This book went through numerous editions before its substance eventually made its way into the Normae Generales of the Roman Missal.
The Liber Notarum is still maintained by the papal Ceremoniere.
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
- E. Celani, Rerum Italiarum Scriptores, Vol. XXXII, parte 1a, I, Città di Castello 1907-1913.
- L. Thuasne, Oeuvres, Paris 1883-1885.
- D. Gnoli, La Torre Argentina in Nuova Archeologia, 43 (1908, III), pp. 596–605.
- J. Lesellier, Les méfaits du cérémonier Jean Burckard in Mélange 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.