We have been in Hamburg for four months now, living above the shop – in the attic of the Warburg-Haus, where I am the visiting professor for Wintersemester 1998-99. This is the original home of what is now the Warburg Institute in London, the interdisciplinary centre for research in the history of the classical tradition created early this century by the brilliant, haunted cultural historian Aby Warburg. After more than half a century, the Warburg-Haus has come back to life as a centre for scholarship of a different kind, and in a different Germany.

Warburg’s story is well known. He was born into a Jewish banking family and is said to have sold his birthright in the family firm to his younger brother Max, after reaching 13, the Jewish age of maturity, in return for a promise to buy him all the books he wanted. Aby rebelled against the family’s Orthodox and mercantile tradition; and like other German Jews from similar backgrounds, he decided to study art history at university – at Bonn, Munich and Strasbourg, where he handed in his dissertation.

In 1889, he joined a group of German students in Florence, where he discovered what became two lifelong passions: the art of the 15th century, the style and setting of which he investigated with meticulous attention, and the young painter Mary Hertz, whom he eventually married. The citizen of a dark mercantile city in the far north developed an elaborate second identity in the sunlit south, becoming – as he liked to say – ‘Florentine in his soul’.

From the first, he did more than look. Inspired by Jacob Burckhardt’s dazzling work on the Renaissance he found himself repelled by the art history of the time, with its long, gushing appreciations of the Quattrocento. Like his teacher Hubert Janitscheck, he was interested in looking at the methods of particular artists in the context of the economic, social and spiritual history they lived through, and came to be fascinated by the ways in which Renaissance artists learned from ancient art and literature to express strong feelings and rapid movement. Like Nietzsche and the great historian of ancient religion, Hermann Usener, Warburg saw that the ancient world was not the harmonious paradise evoked by Winckelmann and embodied in the plaster casts on bourgeois mantelpieces, but a world of formidable passions, formidably expressed.

Humanists like Alberti read ancient texts and ancient art in search of powerful ways to express emotion and portray movement – for example, by the violent motion of what Warburg called ‘bewegtes Beiwerk’, hair and garments. Botticelli, Dürer and others interpreted ancient works of art in much the same way. Warburg pursued this theme in a dazzling doctoral dissertation on Botticelli.

As a Jew and a citizen of Hamburg, a city without a university, he remained a private scholar rather than embarking on a university career. But he became an expert on the art and archives of Italy and the owner of what soon grew into a spectacularly rich library. An expedition to New Mexico, where he studied the art and ritual of the Pueblo tribes, gave him a sense of what it meant to live in a pagan world (a sense he renewed at the end of his life in Mussolini’s Rome).

At 38, Warburg returned to Hamburg, where he started to expand his library. In his own villa, next door to the present Warburg-Haus in prosperous Eppendorf, where even the U-Bahn station has a stone façade with handsome caryatids, Warburg assembled books and photographs which illustrated the history of the classical tradition. He plunged into what were, to him and most others, unexplored fields like the history of astrological images – the development of which became, in Warburg’s hands, a fascinating detective story about the life and afterlife of mythical thought and its visual embodiments. The books crowded into every inch of space, in kitchen and bathrooms as well as the first-floor rooms set aside for them. Warburg began inviting colleagues to work in his collections, which he now saw as the nucleus of a new kind of public institution. He engaged an erudite young Viennese, Fritz Saxl, to help him. A lecture on the astrological frescos of the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, at the 1912 international Congress on the History of Art at Rome, made Warburg and his interests famous.

The new institute developed slowly. Warburg took obsessive pains with what seemed, to many others, minor problems – notably the placement on the shelves of each new acquisition. World War One and the emotional problems which it inflicted on this lover of Italy slowed his work: after the war he spent years in a sanatorium – on completing a brilliant study of the role of political prophecy in another age of turmoil, the German Reformation. In the Twenties, however, Warburg and Saxl finally managed to create the present, purpose-built structure. In its elliptical reading-room and stacks, the books were grouped by Warburg’s brilliantly eccentric ‘good neighbour principle’, which made law part of anthropology and put science and magic together, and by doing so shattered many traditional assumptions about the independence of intellectual disciplines. Ernst Cassirer, Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind and many others who joined the new university in Hamburg in the Twenties did remarkable research work here before 1933, when the Institute’s members fled, along with its books, to London. Warburg himself had died in 1929, the bulk of his writings surviving only as massive, endlessly fascinating fragments.

For many years after 1945, Warburg and those who worked here were largely forgotten in Germany. In London and elsewhere ‘the Warburg method’ continued to be applied, developed – and, at times, reduced to a formulaic, library-based style of art history that had little, if anything, to do with Warburg himself. In the Seventies, however, younger German students of art history and other subjects found their way to Warburg and his circle. They began to study his published writings; to compare them to the unpublished notes and unfinished projects discussed by Sir Ernst Gombrich in his massive, and controversial, biography of Warburg, which appeared in 1970; and to set them in their historical context, from the Hamburg of Warburg’s youth and maturity to the worlds of German scholarship and international art history in the Fin-de-Siècle. As Warburg discovered the Florentine archives, so they discovered the rich archives of the Warburg Institute in London. The notes and letters assembled there document not only the development of Warburg’s thought, but also the fate of many émigré scholars, for whom the new Institute served as a rallying point.

Among the leaders of this movement was the Hamburg art historian Martin Warnke, who, in the Nineties, devoted much of the Leibniz Prize awarded him by the German state to refounding the Warburg as a place of research and teaching. With the help of the Warburg Foundation and the Hamburg social scientist and philanthropist Jan Philipp Reemtema, Warnke succeeded in buying back the house. It was set apart from the other villas on the street by its striking Art Deco brick façade, which bears three large letters, KBW (‘Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg’, or ‘Könnte besser werden’, ‘Could be better’, as many locals prefer. The interior – including Warburg’s famous elliptical reading room, with its severe brown woodwork and, for the time, remarkable projection facilities – had to be reconstructed from the original plans and photographs. Now the house is a piece of scholarship once more. In its basement and the lower stories, young researchers work away on a variety of projects, from editions of Warburg and Cassirer to an archive devoted to the work of the German art historians exiled in the Thirties, to a computer project for the storage and study of political imagery. Above them, in the attic guest apartment and a small study which used to form part of the stacks, a Warburg professor lives and does research, on a subject somehow connected with Warburg or his Institute.

Another who played a big part in the Warburg revival was Ulrich Raulff, a historian, and a powerful writer, who edits the Feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a daily miscellany in which children’s books and lyric poetry, rock music CDs and technical works of scholarship, thousands of pages long, are reviewed side by side. While still a freelance journalist, Raulff wrote about Warburg for a large public and edited the famous lecture on the Hopi serpent ritual – the long-delayed result of the expedition to the American South-West which proved vital to Warburg’s understanding of religion, magic and much else. The Warburg revival resulted, in fact, from a complex – and sometimes contentious – collaboration among professional scholars, specialised publishers and journalists, of a sort unimaginable in the English-speaking world. Detailed articles on Warburg, news of new texts or new secondary work, still appear almost weekly in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

A new complete edition of Warburg’s works is currently under way. The first volume – a reprint of the original two-volume collection of Warburg’s writings, edited by Getrud Bing and Fritz Rougemont in 1932 – has just come out. It will soon be followed by editions of the letters, the fascinating mass of Warburg’s atlas of images, and the diaries that recorded the library’s work, its acquisition of books and its visitors – as well as the communications of its habitués, who sometimes found it easier to write messages to one another (like ‘Saxl is lazy’, in big letters) than to speak. The last reprint of some of Warburg’s works, my copy of which long since fell apart from overuse, reproduced the first editions of a number of these, but omitted the corrections he and his close collaborators made for the 1932 edition. The reprint of the original edition is a great improvement. It makes Warburg’s relatively few finished texts, written in his almost phosphorescent German and Italian, reliably accessible once more.

Not all of those who now write about Warburg and his circle do justice to the other great cultural historians who were Warburg’s contemporaries in the German-speaking intellectual world. They seldom mention the Viennese art historian Karl Giehlow, for example, though his book-length article on Egyptian hieroglyphics in Renaissance art and thought is still, almost a century after its first appearance, the deepest study of its subject. Nor do the Warburgians always seem willing to treat Warburg himself as one powerful theorist of culture among many others – to use him, that is, in the way that he himself used earlier scholars. Some of the tributes paid to him, like those paid to Walter Benjamin, seem excessive. Like Benjaminomania, Warburgolatry in some of its modes has more to do with the pathos of the fragment, so appealing in an age that rejects grand narratives, and the powerful contemporary nostalgia for the lost world of the German Jews than with a critical drawing up of intellectual accounts.

Paradoxically, these erudite scholars, inside and outside the German university, are finally carrying out part of the revolution that the now-despised ’68ers called for, when they cried ‘Unter den Talaren, Muff von tausend Jahren’ (‘Under the academic gowns, the fug of a thousand year Reich’). They are confronting German scholarship with what it lost – what it deliberately abandoned – in 1933: not just Warburg’s own methods and achievements, but his insistence on international scholarly collaboration, which found hardly any echoes in the stiflingly inward-looking German universities of the Bundesrepublik, and still find surprisingly few in those of a united Germany. The professors of the Fifties and Sixties, many of them ex-Nazis and many more traumatised by experiencing the defeat and the Zero Hour of 1945, refused to examine this history, much less to learn from it. Now the balances of these accounts will be drawn and settled, in detail.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 21 No. 9 · 29 April 1999

Anthony Grafton states that Aby Warburg ‘was interested in looking at the methods of particular artists in the context of the economic, social and spiritual history they lived through’ (LRB, 1 April). But Warburg – and his disciple Erwin Panofsky – could not develop a method for doing this. Instead they and their followers in Kunstgeschichte developed the iconological method, dominant in art history of the medieval and Early Modern eras, of grounding artistic images in written texts. This method is still pursued at the Warburg Institute in London and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. Warburg and Panofsky did not attempt the historical sociology of art, partly because the methodology for doing it was so ill-defined and partly because it smacked of Marxism – Grafton makes Warburg out to be much bolder than he actually was. Art history in both the US and Britain has followed the cautious, picture-to-text iconological approach ever since. Not that this method hasn’t been fruitful; it has, but it has become increasingly sterile intellectually and redundant in its achievements in the past two decades. Grafton’s history of art history is Whiggish – he posits what he wants to see in it.

Norman Cantor
New York University

Vol. 21 No. 12 · 10 June 1999

I don’t know where to begin with Norman Cantor and his confusions (Letters, 29 April). Aby Warburg’s work was indeed what Cantor denies it was: a broad attempt at the ‘historical sociology of art’; it was profoundly concerned with ‘the methods of particular artists in the context of the economic, social and spiritual history they lived through’, as Anthony Grafton so aptly put it. The notion of lumping together Warburg and Panofsky in the way Cantor does – let alone under the banner of what, for some reason, he chooses to call ‘Kunstgeschichte’ – would hardly occur to anyone with more than a superficial acquaintance with their work. To see the differences clearly, one need only read the great essays by Warburg on Botticelli, on the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinità in Florence, on the role of magic, astrology and divination in the Reformation, and on portraiture and 15th-century Florentine society. So, too, with his remarkable study – now much commented on – of the serpent rituals of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and northern Arizona.

Warburg’s work was of an entirely other order than the iconological research pioneered by Panofsky, though in attaching to Panofsky the label of ‘the iconological method’ Cantor seems ignorant of the good early Panofsky (e.g. the remarkable essay on ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’), and unaware of what was genuinely Warburgian in Panofsky’s thought.

Cantor’s knowledge of institutions is just as flimsy as his grasp of historiography. Most people who have spent more than an hour at either the Warburg or the Institute of Fine Arts are able to see the stark differences between the two. Following the departure of Gombrich and Baxandall, the art historians at the Warburg have indeed been engaged in rigorous – and often narrow – iconographical research; but those at the Institute of Fine Arts cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called either Warburgian or Panofskian.

It is true that American art history suffered for a long time from its fascination with Panofskian forms of iconographic interpretation (‘iconology’ is a different matter); and that much of the discipline in the US was barely competent enough, philologically and archaeologically speaking, to carry out such research. It is also true that the work of Warburg has lately come to be identified in many circles as deeply conservative. But ‘Marxism’ in this methodological context is a red herring.

David Freedberg
Columbia University

Vol. 21 No. 13 · 1 July 1999

I hesitate to intervene in learned differences of transatlantic opinion about Warburg, but I can confirm Anthony Grafton's observation (LRB, 1 April) that, as is evident from Gombrich's magisterial Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, there is a wealth of unexplored material relating to this exceptional scholar in the archives of the Institute that bears his name. It seems, to parody the man himself, that every scholar gets the Warburg he deserves. But perhaps I may be permitted at least to set the record straight on the Warburg Institute. Anyone who had spent more than a few minutes perusing the recent publications of my art-historian colleagues, or has attended any of our recent colloquia on art-historical topics, would know that there is no truth in the tired allegation that they are purveyors of narrow iconographical research. And the starkest difference between the Warburg Institute and the New York Institute of Fine Arts is that the Warburg's concerns, in keeping with its founder's notion of Kulturwissenschaft, and his central passion for the history of the classical tradition, reach far beyond the confines of fine art. There is not even a majority of art historians on the academic staff.

Nicholas Mann
Director, Warburg Institute, London WC1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences