BMCR 2000.01.18

The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity. Introduction by Kurt W. Forster. Translation by David Britt

, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity. Introduction by Kurt W. Forster. Translation by David Britt. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and Humanities, 1999. 868.

Aby Warburg’s name is now more often associated with the library in Woburn Square, London or with the prestigious Warburg-Courtauld journal than with the brilliant, diminutive, sharp-tongued and high-strung Weimar scholar, a Hamburg native from a wealthy Jewish banking family, a Renaissance Italy enthusiast and a tireless antiquarian book collector. Those who have heard of Aby Warburg’s scholarly contributions most often file them under one of two thumbnail categories: “the founder of iconology” or “cultural historian before his time.” This because the greater part of Warburg’s writing, spanning the years 1893-1929, has never been translated into English,1 although scholars like Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl and Edgar Wind brought his name into English-speaking circulation through their work, and more recently a whole host of German and American scholars have set these terms juggling in the service of what Kurt W. Forster calls a “self-sustaining academic industry.” (p. 1) The Getty Research Institute’s publication of Warburg’s collected works, translated by David Britt with an excellent introduction by Forster, thus comes not a minute too soon, finally allowing English speakers to read for themselves the complex, cantankerous, minutiae-driven scholarship which the two aforementioned tags only clumsily delineate.

As we discover, Aby Warburg belonged very much to his contemporary academic milieu. He studied culture, but within the parameters suggested by influential fields of the time like history, classical philology, anthropology and linguistics. Warburg began studying art history in Germany and Florence between 1886 and 1891, during those years when the field had begun to take off academically, impressing neighboring humanities with both the philological rigor of its museum-based scholarship and the theoretical daring of some of its formal analyses. The Italian Renaissance had reemerged as a historical and cultural phenomenon through Jacob Burckhardt’s writing, that “model pioneer,” as Warburg calls him, who “dominated the field he himself had opened up.” (p. 186) Warburg chose to study the same subject matter but never recreated his older Swiss colleague’s prolific, university-bound career.

He approached art history with a singularity of purpose; several biographers have remarked on how he managed his work in the spirit of a successful businessman, not straying far from his four successful younger banker brothers in style.2 Warburgian research meant having the proper tools: a private library so well equipped that within a matter of two decades (the inventory taken in 1920) it held roughly 20,000 books and served as an excellent research institute in its own right. Moreover scholarship meant a joint venture: one hired assistants, one mobilized library staff, one consulted experts, in the new age of photography one ordered reproductions and facsimiles. When Warburg resettled in Hamburg in 1901 to begin the library in earnest he decided against a teaching post but became increasingly involved in organizational roles, encouraging those scholars whom he admired to speak at and help run the international Congresses for Art History, and working behind the scenes to help found the University of Hamburg (officially inaugurated in 1919 with faculty members Ernst Cassirer in Philosophy and Erwin Panofsky in art history). Warburg was a witty, diplomatic and zealous letter-writer. His managerial skills have been widely acknowledged as as contributive to the last successful Congress of Art History in Rome, 1912, before the war brought international scholarship to a virtual standstill.

The war destroyed Warburg’s mental stability. He was unable to finished his monograph “Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther” as he had planned, entering the psychiatric clinic in Kreuzlingen in 1918. His assistant Fritz Saxl and friend Franz Boll saw the final drafts through to the printers. Warburg remained institutionalized for six years. Meanwhile Saxl mobilized Hamburg’s younger humanists to transform the KBW — Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg — into a research institute with lectures, publications and a self-declared focus on Warburg’s dominant question, the Renewal of Antiquity (“Nachleben der Antike”). Warburg returned in 1924 to an institute of new international acclaim. He again threw himself again into joint scholarly ventures but died leaving a last project unfinished.

The Getty volume of Warburg’s collected works carefully translates the posthumous 1932 German edition, edited in two volumes by Warburg’s assistants Gertrude Bing and Fritz Saxl, with addenda to the essays that flesh out Warburg’s later notes. The English translation adds Forster’s long introduction and unintrusively updates the original addenda. On first picking up and beginning to read this solid volume through either the lens of “cultural history” or “iconology” one is struck by the literary quality of the essays. We find ourselves in the presence of a philological mind for whom culture still often means high culture, or at the very least those products of society which help to illuminate stylistic principles. Expecting iconological analysis one might accordingly be surprised by Warburg’s emphasis on archival research, on manuscript lineage; in short those matters again familiar to the philological domain.

The 1893 dissertation on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, which remains the groundbreaking reading of these two paintings, uses an especially wide range of classical and Renaissance literary sources. Warburg claims it is possible to prove that Botticelli “turned to antique sources whenever accessory forms — those of garments and hair — were to be represented in motion” ([p. 89] his famously alliterative German coinage for “fluttering accessories” is “bewegte Beiwerke,” now a household word among Warburg scholars). He does so by arguing that Angelo Poliziano, humanist advisor to the Medicis, also instructed his patrons’ commissioned artist. Warburg juxtaposes lines from Poliziano’s Stanze narrating the birth of Venus with lines from the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite to show how the poet consciously embellished details of fluttering accessories from the ancient source, as well as borrowing (here Warburg’s literary comparisons grow in number) the energy of Ovid’s many wind-swept pursuit scenes. Botticelli’s painting incorporates, Warburg argues, Poliziano’s interpretations.

This reading of the ancients mediated through Renaissance poetry is not Warburg’s only stint as literary historian. His essays are peppered with literary connections: in “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” we are suddenly reminded that Dürer illustrated one of Poliziano’s Latin poems verbatim (p. 556) or in “Francesco Sassetti’s Last Injunction to His Sons” a discussion of the Sassetti family impresa segues into an examination of the book into which it is pasted — Argyropoulos’ new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (1458) — and an analysis of the impact Aristotelian philosophy had on Florentine humanists (p. 244). In the same essay Warburg gives a close reading of Francesco Sassetti’s will, unpacking the trope of Fortune with all its ancient and religious connotation until it lies unmasked as the wrestling of “two antithetical forces,” (p. 240) a symbol of Renaissance stylistic tension.

As one finds in reading more of his essays, Warburg writes painstaking analysis not only of literature but of any number of written sources. He scrutinizes private letters, marriage certificates, and tax returns with a philologist’s care, worrying out the most astounding familial or business relations to explain the subject of a portrait or propose the identity of a draftsman. Here Gertrude Bing’s grouping of the essays, by subject matter rather than chronological order of publication, helps to underline the way in which Warburg would plumb a document for all its myriad facts. Several characters become familiar. We repeatedly meet Alessandra degli Strozzi, for example, mother of a preeminent Florentine family, first gossiping about Lorenzo de Medici’s lover (p. 172), then mourning the loss of a son (p. 264), then later busy with marriage negotiations for her son Filippo (p. 288) in a manner that sheds light on marriage portraits; Warburg remarks in a footnote that her letters, “[t]hese early documents of ‘woman’s history,'” are classics of their time and should be required reading for any student of Renaissance history (p. 300 N29).

Yet is this the advice of a cultural historian before his time? To answer in the affirmative would to read an anachronistic ideological or political agenda into Warburg’s historicist project. His urgency to uncover new source material is driven not by a conviction that culture should be defined more popularly but by his desire to answer certain canonical art historical questions which he finds inadequately addressed by his colleagues. Simply put, he wants to describe Renaissance artistic style as a multifaceted evolution and finds the predominant formal apparatus incapable of doing so. For Warburg, style is the manifestation of a struggle between competing aesthetic beliefs and impulses; in this case reappropriated ancient components and the northern European tastes alla franzese, with astrology playing the intriguing role of safeguard for pagan imagery.

In the essay “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia,” which has been credited with the first use of the iconological method, Warburg uses the example of astrology to make his most polemical case about the state of his field. The paper he delivered at the International Art Congress in Rome to, as record has it, a galvanized audience,3 does plead for using a wider range of source materials — art historians should feel “no fear of border guards.” (p. 585) Yet, again this breadth is only a tool. Applied arts like astrology are “equivalent documents of expression” to be used in the ” — still unwritten — ‘historical psychology of human expression.'” (585) What does this mean? Art is more than a formal construct, Warburg remonstrates; it is a phenomenon almost synonymous with expression itself (the multifaceted German word “Ausdruck” can mean both rhetoric or spontaneous expressivity). It comes as no surprise, then, given that Warburg regards art as a form of utterance (a deeply revealing form) that he favors a philological or linguistic approach.

His first blueprint for iconological analysis, for example, relies on an erudite discussion of manuscript migration. It brilliantly decodes a puzzling fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia by showing that a row of figures painted below a train of Olympian gods represent the astrological characters associated with each deity, but depicted, surprisingly, in an Indian reincarnation. Warburg shows how a tenth-century astrological handbook including Arabic, Ptolemaic and Indian versions of the fixed star systems found its way back to the fifteenth-century Ferrara court. He argues that the first Indian decan of March is a bowdlerized version of Greece’s Perseus, and the metaphor he uses is telling: “One’s initial response … is to suppose that these are genuine products of the Oriental imagination (for, in all this work of critical iconology, we can unveil the Greek archetype only by stripping away layer upon layer of unintelligible accretions).” (p. 569) The iconological method thus approximates archeology or, more broadly, an etymological exercise in linguistics, tracing a parent language from the clues and remnants left in the modern one.

Observing Warburg at work with these images, as with his literary sources, we realize how close his methods come to neighboring nineteenth-century fields — archeology, anthropology (Forster argues this point persuasively in his introduction), philology and comparative linguistics. Critics have stressed the importance of Warburg’s professor Herman Usener, the great classical philologist and scholar of comparative religion, whose Götternamen investigated the etymologies of deities’ names in order to shed light on the changing psychology of religious beliefs;4 Warburg’s iconological project, with its ambition to illuminate historical psychology, strives for an analogous goal.

If anything, Warburg’s theoretical pronouncements are at their weakest precisely when they borrow from neighboring vocabulary, laying great weight on metaphorical statements. In the conclusion to “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” Warburg talks about Antonio Pollaiuolo’s “sheer, exuberent rhetoric of muscle.” (p. 555) He takes the writing metaphor further in his conclusion, describing “the route of the long migration that brought antique superlatives of gesture from Athens, by way of Rome, Mantua, and Florence, to Nuremberg… ” (p. 558) Artistic creation is analogous to linguistic contamination, Warburg suggests, linking two dissimilar processes in one impressive sweep of German compounds and genitives. Here one senses a theoretical imprecision hiding behind a bulwark of academic neologisms.

On the other hand Warburg, ever the student of expression, was capable of writing masterfully witty digs and asides. He had little patience for sentimental aesthetes and could be both sharp and funny. In “Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie” he laments what art appreciation has become: “the stimulus that rouses jaded but cultivated persons to tour an overfilled artistic bazaar in the hope that mere passive attention may thereby be converted into a buying mood… ” (p. 200) Earlier he counsels just such an imagined art-loving reader who might be taken aback by his academic approach that he may, at the very least, in reading, “console himself … in the contemplation of the masterpieces of Italian portraiture …” (p. 188)

David Britt’s English translation captures Warburg’s witty prose, bringing this engaging, zealous writer to life. For better or worse, Britt does unpack Warburg’s more thorny German sentence structures and neologistic compounds, giving shorter and pithier English equivalents. Clarity is gained at the expense of a certain stylistic verisimilitude. He tends to favor the active voice over Warburg’s passive constructions and takes the liberty of splitting some of the longer blocks of prose into shorter paragraphs. At moments the ornate old-fashion German sounds very contemporary; one stumbles, for example, at the verb “informed” in Britt’s version: “Its style is directly informed by the emotive gestural language defined by Greece… ” (p. 553) Yet the translation provides an undeniably valuable tool for English-speaking art historians and does an admirable job with an extremely tricky subject.

Forster’s lengthy essay introduces Warburg to the reader within a rich contemporary context. He rightly criticizes the tags and labels generated by the self-perpetuating Warburg industry while nonetheless stressing the modernity of Warburg’s project. He reminds the reader of other Botticelli enthusiasts of Warburg’s age, like Proust and Ruskin, and situates the windswept nymphs they all admired in the context of contemporary art — Arnold Böcklin’s frolicking naiads and the feminine ideals of Neoromanticism. Forster also discusses the role technological innovations played in Warburg’s modern library and writes at length about Warburg’s trip to the western United States in 1895, showing how his interest in anthropology, primitive religions and the occult colored his research. While describing Warburg’s at times mesmerizing personality, Forster is careful not to mythologize the man, as so much past scholarship has done. Of course the best way to avoid this trap is to read Warburg oneself, for his infectiously urgent search both for details and for theoretical frameworks is never without flashes of self-deprecating humor. A diary entry from 1907 once summed up his work with the wonderful German compound: “Trüffelschweindienste” — the services of a pig rooting up truffles.5


1. A recent translation of Warburg’s one essay not included in these collected works is Aby Warburg, Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America, translated with an interpretive introduction by Michael P. Steinberg, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).

2. For example, Gertrude Bing, “Aby M. Warburg” in Aby M. Warburg, Ausgewählte Schriften und Würdigen, hrg. Dieter Wuttke, third edition (Baden-Baden, Valentin Koerner, 1992) pp. 455-64; p. 456.

3. See Carl Georg Heise, Persönliche Erinnerungen an Aby Warburg, (New York: Eric M. Warburg, 1947) pp. 31ff.

4. Hermann Usener, Götternamen, (Bonn, 1896).

5. Quoted in E. H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986) p. 140.