Aby Warburg

A Biographical Fragment

“Amburghese di cuore, ebreo di sangue, d’anima Fiorentino” (“By heart a native of Hamburg, by blood a Hebrew, in spirit a Florentine”) – with this motto Aby M. Warburg (1866-1929) neatly distilled the tripartite forces that animated his life and thought. Warburg was the firstborn son of a prominent Hamburg-Jewish family of bankers. When he was only thirteen years old and already determined to become a scholar, Aby is said to have passed his birthright to his brother Max in exchange for the promise that he would be able to purchase as many books as he needed for his studies. This promise to feed Aby’s bibliophilia would eventually provide the financial support for the founding of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) (Warburg Library of Cultural Studies) in Hamburg in 1926, which would later move to London in the face of the Nazi threat in 1933.

From 1886 to 1888, Warburg studied at the University of Bonn, under Carl Justi. And though Justi showed little enthusiasm for Warburg’s proposal to work on Botticelli for his dissertation, Warburg did attend there Hermann Usener’s course on comparative mythology—a crossroads in his intellectual formation that would have far-reaching consequences for his conception of art history and, more specifically, his ideas about morphology and symbols. He also attended the courses of the historian Karl Lamprecht, whose notion of historical change as partially driven by psychological factors would resonate everywhere in Warburg’s thought. Indeed, like many in his generation, Warburg was greatly influenced by Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, but especially Burckhardt’s notion that the viewer’s psychology was, more than aesthetics, the decisive factor in understanding the artwork.

In 1888 Warburg went to Florence for the winter semester to attend August Schmarsow’s seminar in art history. Thus he was also able to visit for the first time many of the works that would dominate his scholarly thinking over the subsequent decades. Here, too, he hit upon one of his primary insights concerning the “bewegtes Beiwerk” [animated accessory] that he found repeatedly in Italian Renaissance painting. As Warburg recounts in an autobiographical text written in 1927:

[B]y the end of my Italian semester . . . it became clear to me that the adornment of the figures—their hair and garments—which had been carefully discounted as the artist's decorative vagaries, must, all the same, originate in antiquity. A discovery (which, moreover, I made by virtue of how such images were translated in a German advertisement), namely, that the pursuit of Zephyr and Flora in Botticelli's Spring certainly must be a direct imitation of Ovid's Fasti, was thus decisive for me in choosing for my doctorate the theme of external, heightened movement beneath the sign of antiquity.

During this time, too, he read Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals – “a book that at last helps me,” he writes in his diary. Returning then to Germany, Warburg from 1889 to 1891 studied with Hubert Janitschek, at the University of Strasbourg. There, apparently, he also read Robert Vischer’s essay, “On the Optical Sense of Form” (1873), whose treatment of the concept of “Einfühlung” [empathy] would shape Warburg’s thinking throughout his career. More importantly, perhaps, he also enthusiastically read Friedrich Vischer’s “The Symbol” (1876), which as Edgar Wind was later to comment, “offers the best approach to the study of Warburg’s conceptual system as a whole.”

In 1891, Warburg completed his dissertation on Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and “Spring.” An Examination of the Representations of Antiquity in the Early Italian Renaissance. Printed in 1893, it contains the genesis of what would come to be called, rightly or wrongly, the iconographic and iconologic methods in art history; for here Warburg systematically interprets Botticelli’s painting by adducing classical and Renaissance texts that inform and contextualize them.

In the years immediately following the completion of the dissertation, Warburg seemed to be at a loss in regard to his career path, though he did publish “The Theatrical Costumes for the Intermedi of 1589” (1895), which would prove to be something of a landmark in cultural studies. In a retrospective essay, his assistant and later Director of the Warburg Institute in London, Gertrud Bing, even mentions “an abortive attempt to study medicine” during this period. Alternately, in 1895-86, Warburg undertook a trip to the American Southwest (with other stops in New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles) to study the Hopi Indians and their “serpent ritual.” Wishing to understand the vitality of mythic thought, he immersed himself in ethnographic studies of the Pueblo cultures. That this journey would only bear scholarly (and, by Warburg’s own account, misshapen) fruit decades later is also emblematic of his meandering, often abortive intellectual career.

In 1897 Warburg married, despite the opposition of both their families, the sculptor Mary Hertz. They lived in Florence from 1897-1904, where Warburg was deeply engaged with the monuments and documents of the Italian Renaissance. During these years, Warburg began to elaborate in notebooks and manuscripts the theme of the “Nympha” that he had found in Renaissance painting and elsewhere, a theme that critics as diverse as Gombrich and Agamben see as central to Warburg’s vision of artistic expression, historical change, and the psychological forces that drive both. In 1902, Warburg published “The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoise,” which along with its companion, the 1907 essay, “Francesco Sassetti’s Last Injunction to his Sons,” traces how the cultural and artistic milieu of late quattrocento Florence, “produced a man who, in an age of transformed self-awareness, strove for a positive balance of his own.” Yet this man, arguably, is not just Sassetti, a Florentine Banker, but he is also Domenico Ghirlandaio, the painter, whose frescoes adorn the Sassetti Chapel in Florence, and Warburg himself who also throughout his life strove to attain “psychological balance.” Indeed, as Matthew Rampley notes in a recent essay: “Warburg clearly endorsed the intertwining of bourgeois enterprise and learning, and in so doing he articulated a central trope of liberal thinking of the time.”

In 1904, Warburg returned to Hamburg where he was to spend the rest of his life, save for his sojourn in Rome in the last year of his life. In 1905, he published “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” where his cardinal notion of the “pathos formula” first appears in print. Similarly, in “Peasants at Work in Burgundian Tapestries” (1907), Warburg finds in Northern Europe the same “language of gestures,” albeit in “degraded form,” that he celebrates in quattrocento Florentine art.

Warburg’s thinking then took a decidedly cosmographical turn around 1912, with his lecture (published later in 1922), “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrera.” Inspired in part by Franz Boll’s Sphaera (1903), a study of Ancient Greek astrology and astronomy and its effects on subsequent Western thought and imagery, Warburg here investigates the “significance” of astrology “in the stylistic evolution of Italian painting.” Another chapter in the history of what he came to call the Nachleben der Antike [afterlife (or survival) of Antiquity], here, too, Warburg points to his own predicament: “It is with this desire to restore the ancient world that ‘the good European’ began his battle for enlightenment, in that age of internationally migrating images that we—a shade too mystically—call the Age of the Renaissance.”

By 1913, Fritz Saxl, who had written a dissertation on Rembrandt, but was working then on a book about medieval astrological and mythological imagery, had become Warburg’s assistant. Among Saxl’s tasks was the daunting one of organizing Warburg’s books into a working library. Meanwhile, the savagery and chaos of WWI and its aftermath had a traumatic effect on Warburg’s mental health. Diagnosed now with schizophrenia, now with manic depression, Warburg stayed in various sanatoria from November 1918 to October 1920, and then for over three years in a clinic at Kreuzlingen, Switzerland under Dr. Ludwig Binswanger’s care. As he describes the factors leading to his breakdown in a 1923 letter to his family: “The goal of my work was then knowledge, enlightenment, [and the] law of cultural-historical development, through inclusion of the irrational drives in the investigation of historical development . . . Per mo[n]stra ad astra: the gods have placed the monster on the path to the Idea. The 1914-1918 War had unveiled to me the devastating truth that unchained, elemental man is this world’s unconquerable ruler.”

And yet by Spring 1923, Warburg, with the help of Binswanger, Saxl, and Ernst Cassirer (who was now teaching at the University of Hamburg, had become a dedicated user of the Warburg library as he labored on his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, and who visited Warburg at Kreuzlingen to discuss Kepler and other matters of common interest that might help his new friend regain his mental footing), had devised for himself and others a “test” of his sanity: a lecture given to staff and fellow patients about the decades-old materials (including photographs he had taken) on Hopi rituals from his trip to the American southwest. While excusing his talk’s provisional character, Warburg does not hesitate to juxtapose his own psychological struggles with the “the psychic life of the Indians”: “To us, this synchrony of fantastic magic and sober purposiveness appears as a symptom of a cleavage; for the Indians this is not schizoid but, rather, a liberating experience of the boundless communicability between man and environment.” Indeed, as the peroration of the so-called “Snake-ritual” talk confirms, Warburg had already discovered such “synchrony” in European Renaissance culture. In one of his longest and most complex published essays, “Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther” (originally given as a talk in 1918, but published with supplementary material in 1920, largely due to the efforts of Saxl and Boll), Warburg not only paints a vivid picture of sixteenth-century German as “the age of Faust, in which the modern scientist—caught between magic practice and cosmic mathematics—was trying to insert the conceptual space of rationality between himself and the object,” but he also prepares the way, now boldly, now with disarming modesty, for the work of future Kulturwissenschaftlern [“cultural scientists”]:

May the history of art and the study of religion—between which lies nothing at present but wasteland overgrown with verbiage—meet together one day in learned and lucid minds (minds destined, let us hope, to achieve more than the present writer); and may they share a workbench in the laboratory of the iconological science of civilization.

Back in Hamburg, during the last five years of his life, Warburg fervently experimented in the “laboratory” that he, Saxl, Bing, and others constructed to study and promote the Nachleben der Antike. To begin with, in physical and material terms, there was the KBW itself, which opened in 1926, and served as the engine behind a public research institute. This organon, now greatly expanded, and organized conceptually and metonymically to foster the “law of good neighborliness,” that is, to enable the researcher “to find not only the book that he wants, but also the one that he needs,” has rightly been seen by many as Warburg’s greatest achievement and legacy (see the recent issue of Common Knowledge cited in Selected Readings for essays on the Library’s genesis in Hamburg and vibrant afterlife in London). And with its oval reading room modeled after the Keplerian ellipse—a figure that Warburg regarded as mediating between an astrological-magical worldview and an astronomical-rational one—it also served as a lecture hall where scholars like Cassirer and the young Erwin Panofsky could present their work. As Cassirer asserts in dedicating his 1926 book, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, to Warburg:

. . . I could not have completed the work, had I not been able to enjoy the constant stimulation and encouragement of that group of scholars whose intellectual centre is your library. Therefore, I am speaking today not in my name alone, but in the name of this group of scholars, and in the name of all those who have long honoured you as a leader in the field of intellectual history . . . With a forcefulness that is rare, [the Library] has held up before us the principles that must govern such research. In its organization and in its intellectual structure, the Library embodies the idea of the methodological unity of all fields and all currents of intellectual history . . . May the organon of intellectual-historical studies which you have created continue to ask us questions for a long time. And may you continue to show us new ways to answer them, as you have in the past.

During these years, Warburg also taught at the University of Hamburg, offering a seminar there on Burckhardt in the summer semester of 1927 and the winter semester of 1927/1928. Also, tellingly, though Warburg had previously declined offers to assume a full-time academic position, he did increasingly charge himself with the task of promoting and popularizing—insofar as this was possible—the ideas and methods associated with the KBW. Thus to honor the memory of his friend, Franz Boll, Warburg gave a lecture in 1925 (whose text has recently been published) on “The Influence of the Sphaera barbarica on Western Attempts at Cosmic Orientation.” Here also, subject matter aside, Warburg inaugurated his Bilderreihe method, whereby he would deploy a sequence of images mounted on panels to accompany his discourse. Likewise, his use of Bilderreihen for his 1926 lecture on “Italian Antiquity in the Age of Rembrandt” and his 1927 talk for an exhibition of illustrated Renaissance editions of Ovid inspired him to refine his ideas about how to reconcile words and images in the presentation of art-historical and literary material.

All these efforts culminated in the Mnemosyne Atlas, Warburg’s last, greatest, and typically imperfect intellectual project, a summa of sorts that compelled a large share of his intellectual and spiritual energy from 1926 to 1929 (though, as Claudia Wedepohl and others have shown, the genesis of the project lies much further in the past). The Mnemosyne Atlas, with its immediate visual and psychological appeal, Warburg saw at once as a pedagogical instrument (he was greatly pleased when Einstein acclaimed its methodology) and as a solution to his own conceptual and scholarly difficulties, particularly with putting his broader, theoretical ideas about the nature of historical change, repetition, and reception into finished, publishable form. (As Bing wryly notes: “The circumstances of Warburg’s life do not account for his having left so much unfinished.”) By metonymically arranging sequences of symbolic images on a series of large panels, Warburg hoped the make immanent, palpable the “pathos formulas” that he saw as riddling Antiquity and its myriad afterlives in the West and the East, in Rome, in Alexandrian Greece, in ninth-century Baghdad, in quattrocento Florence, in Reformation Germany, in Baroque Amsterdam, and, ultimately, in his own Weimar-era Germany.

Yet even as Warburg labored on the Mnemosyne Atlas, he filled pages of notebooks with reading notes, sketches for new projects, aphorisms, diagrams, etc. He also, along with Bing and Saxl, regularly made now mundane, now portentous (if also frequently elliptical) entries in the Tagebuch [diary/logbook ] of the KBW (see Writings by Warburg). Meanwhile, in 1928, Warburg began mulling a return visit to the United States, but dissuaded by his doctors, he went instead to Italy, where accompanied by Bing, he stayed (mainly in Rome) from September 1928 to June 1929. There he worked on the Mnemosyne Atlas, but he also became obsessed by the thought and imagery of Giordano Bruno. Indeed, he eventually dubbed their journey the “Bruno-Reise.” During his stay in Rome, he also gave a lecture at the Hertziana Library, entitled “Antiquity in Ghirlandaio’s Workshop,” which, despite its title, was by all accounts a capacious, wide-ranging talk, and which accompanied by a series of panels closely related to the Mnemosyne Atlas, provided its attendees like Kenneth Clark and E. R. Curtius a decisive experience of Warburg’s interests and method.

Warburg died of a heart attack on October 26, 1929, only some five months after returning to Hamburg. Soon thereafter, Cassirer gave a speech memorializing his friend at the University of Hamburg:

[Warburg] had in himself lived and experienced what he saw in front of him—and he was only able to see truthfully what he could grasp and understand from the center of his own being and his own life. . . . The Orpheus-motif, the motif of the rape of Proserpina, the motif of Medea's murder of her children—all this signaled to him just the last and highest extremes of human pain and human suffering. He saw in all this only a symbol, a symbol for those unnamable, demonic powers, to which our existence is made vulnerable.

And yet, Cassirer goes on, Warburg heroically found ways to mediate and redeem these such symbols. One such way, he insists, was how Warburg, even in last hours, was contemplating “new, large comprehensive plans, which were supposed to constitute his work’s crowning conclusion,” that is, “his last studies” were aimed at understanding “Giordano Bruno’s personality and writings.” And so, after quoting a poem from one of Bruno’s syncretic texts, Cassirer concludes:

As Giordano Bruno pronounces it in these words, thus did Warburg live, and thus did he die. And thus will his image live on in us: not as the image of a mere scholar and researcher, who was allowed to die in peace, after he had brought his life's harvest home, rather as the image of a fighter and a hero, whose weapons, as death stole them from him, were not dented or broken, but remained equally strong, equally sharp, and equally pure from beginning to end of his life-long intellectual and spiritual battle.

More recently, if no less exorbitantly, Georges Didi-Huberman writes in a monograph on Warburg and the survivance of Renaissance images: “Warburg is our haunting; he is to art history that which an unredeemed ghost—a dibbouk—might be to the place where we live.” Warburg himself, in one of the last entries in the Tagebuch writes: “Nietzsche speaks once of the (intellectual), ‘diabolical courage of the Jews.’ Yesterday evening I really felt that one must already be possessed by it in order to engage with these problems of the spirit’s wandering. White Necromancy = historical perspective.” Thus even if his intellectual legacy is the main reason why Warburg still haunts us, surely, given such sentiments, his biography furnishes other reasons as well.

Yes, as Michael Ann Holly eloquently asserts in a recent book, art history for Warburg was “the melancholy art.” But it was also for him an ecstatic, redemptive one. As can be discerned in panel 79 of the Mnemosyne Atlas, Warburg urgently, if naïvely sought to reconcile what he called “polarities.” This panel is dominated by photographs of the signing of the Lateran Treaty in Rome on February 11, 1929, wherein the Holy See renounced claims of temporal power in recognition of its sovereignty. This was an event that Warburg witnessed with great fascination. In On Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Arnaldo Momigliano paraphrases a story often told by Bing:

There were in Rome tremendous popular demonstrations . . . Mussolini became overnight the 'man of providence,' and in such an inconvenient position he remained for many years. Circulation in the streets of Rome was not very easy on that day, and it so happened that Warburg disappeared from the sight of his companions. They anxiously waited for him back in the Hotel Eden, but there was no sign of him for dinner. Bing and others even telephoned the police. But Warburg reappeared in the hotel before midnight, and when he was reproached he soberly replied something like this in his picturesque German: 'You know that throughout my life I have been interested in the revival of paganism and pagan festivals. Today I had the chance of my life to be present at the re-paganization of Rome, and you complain that I remained to watch it.’

Alternately, in one of his very last entries in the Tagebuch, Warburg plaintively wonders: “Who will compose for me the anti-Saturnian paean on the late-ripening apple tree?” This literally refers to an old apple tree in the garden of his house, which everyone save Warburg thought was moribund. Warburg resisted having it uprooted and in the late summer of 1929 it unexpectedly began to bear fruit. Transformed here into an ambiguous symbol of his inventive intellectual efforts to reap the fruits of pagan antiquity, the apple tree seems tied to the fate of its saviour, who still seeks allies in his spiritual and psychic battles against Saturnian forces. But Warburg’s question summons, too, the specter of myth, as northern European superstition maintained that a late-blooming fruit tree was a sign of impending death. In this manner, even in his last hours Warburg metaphorically marries North and South, past and present, to express the hope that his fears would be redeemed.

Christopher D. Johnson