Aby Warburg, scholar with a true intellectual calling
Warburg‘s criterion of “passionate excitement of the soul“
Panofsky’s relation to Aby Warburg
German historian of art and civilization, Aby (Abraham Moritz) Warburg was born the first of seven children to a banking family in Hamburg in 1866. When Aby was 13 and his younger brother Max only 12, Aby sold his share in his family’s prominent bank to his brother, in exchange for Max’s agreement to buy him books for the rest of his life. With roots in the 16th century, M.M. Warburg & Company became an international commercial business in the last decade of the 19th century under the leadership of Aby’s brother Max. Aby Warburg, in turn, devoted himself wholeheartedly to his studies, producing scholarly writings that focused on the intellectual and social context of Renaissance art. His works such as Bildniskunst und Florentinisches Bürgertum (1902), Die Grablegung Rogers in den Uffizien (1903), and Francesco Sassettis letztwillige Verfügung (1907) were concerned with the relationship between classical antiquity and the Christian religion in the Renaissance. Later writings as Italienische Kunst und internationale Astrologie im Palazzo Schifanoja zu Ferrara (1912), Heidnisch-antike Weissagung in Wort und Bild zu Luthers Zeiten (1920) and Orientalisierende Astrologie (1926) revealed the importance of classical astrology in Renaissance art. In these works and in numerous essays, Warburg developed an interdisciplinary approach to art history, which investigated the psychological and cultural role of symbolism in general.
However, as Panofsky’s text makes clear, Warburg was hardly a traditional scholar, either in profession or temperament. He founded a privately-funded library that was critical to a vibrant partnership between cultural philanthropy and scholarship, a partnership that placed Hamburg at the center of the cultural map of Europe in the 1920s. In his text, Panofsky adopts a famous aphorism from Leonardo de Vinci to describe Warburg, “He who is tied to a star will not turn back.”, suggesting that his elder colleague was endowed with a special destiny and the burden that accompanied it. As Panofsky admiringly recounts, Warburg had a true intellectual calling to investigate the rich humanist tradition and its development over time. Panofsky opts for an unlikely choice of words since Warburg was never officially called (berufen) to a university as a professor but served the scholarly world, the new discipline of art history, and the newly founded university in an extra-university capacity his entire life. A half generation older than Panofsky, Warburg did not benefit from the new Weimar-era universities like that in Hamburg which was more open to hiring Jewish scholars. Instead, he relied for support on his childhood deal with his brother, which Max later recalled, “was certainly the most careless [business decision] of my life.” Namely, because Aby’s library, then a boyhood obsession, became the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW), which officially opened in Hamburg in 1926, and was funded on a yearly basis by the family bank. A collection of 60,000 volumes at its height, the KBW was quietly transferred to London in 1933 after Hitler came to power. In Panofsky’s telling, the library was an expression of what was possible for German and German-Jewish scholars through new spaces of scholarship and sources of income in interwar Hamburg.
At the young age of twenty-five, Warburg published his dissertation, Bildniskunst und Florentinisches Bürgertum (1902), which utilized a wide array of texts to analyze early Renaissance art. Here Warburg first introduced his characteristic category, “passionate excitement of the soul,” that paved the way for his scholarly path, which united research and formal analysis, iconographic meaning and exegesis. In his meticulous attention to details, Warburg read the properties of all human knowledge as the history of human emotions. Panofsky describes how Warburg traced the history of expressive formal tensions over time from the ancient through the modern periods where subversive tendencies were submerged, and “had to be forgotten, reclaimed, and overcome time and again” Amending Warburg’s well-known observation that “Athens wants again and again to be reconquered afresh from Alexandria”, Panofsky betrays the crucial distinction between the two: Warburg remained drawn to what Burckhardt called the “shadow” of human society while Panofsky focused on higher culture—a distinction that separated them as scholars and sent them on divergent intellectual paths and professional careers.
That Panofsky was asked to write the obituary is itself noteworthy. Other obituaries were written by closer friends, including Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing. For while Warburg was continuously overrun by his irrational demons—what scholars have identified as manic depresion—Panofsky was known to smooth over these tensions and elevate them in the presentation of artistic genius. To a certain degree, Panofsky was viewed as a “popularizer” of Warburg’s ideas, which were more complex, nuanced, but for that, also less accessible than those of his younger colleague. Given this contrast, it is interesting that Warburg’s lifelong struggle with mental illness receives a sensitive but honest treatment from a friend, a struggle that is glossed over in Ernst Gombrich’s seminal biography of Warburg. Panofsky’s account of Warburg’s life and work rightly recognizes what is unique about his contribution: its interdisciplinarity. Enabled by the private institute that was unhindered by what Warburg called the “Grenzwächterei,” Warburg began with a comparison of art works and poetry and extended out from “das Zentrum eines Kreises mit unendlich vielen Radien” until it included also occult, philosophy, language, mathematics, and science. Warburg’s investigation led him to place the study of art in a wider context, and to widen what was considered legitimate art.
At the center of this productive interdisciplinary partnership was Warburg’s library, which Warburg reminds us was “not just the instrument but also the vivid representation of his intellectual endeavour.” Indeed Warburg scarcely published more than 200 pages. His library was arguably his greatest life’s work, a representation of his vision, its collection, series, and the scholarly circle which he cultivated. Moreover, the library drew on its urban surrounding, as Panofsky observed, „without the same agony“ that accompanied Warburg’s written work. Warburg was known to have said that he was a “Hamburger at heart, Jew by blood, [and] Florentine in spirit.” One sees this urban affinity reflected in Panofsky’s delightful nod to the Hamburg port in his description of Warburg’s colleagues as the “crew for his Columbus ship.” Like its urban home, the library, too, was welcoming to outsiders and always looked to the Atlantic world rather than to German models for its organization as a privately-funded extra-university institute. In turn, what Panofsky called the “Hamburg School” responded with scholarship that highlighted the role that material conditions played for ideas and art, a contribution that would outlast its time and place even if many of these German Jewish scholars sadly would not.
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Emily J. Levine, Dr. phil., is associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In her research she deals with history of thought and science in 19th and 20th century-Europe and North America. Her first monography is titled "Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky and the Hamburg School".
Emily J. Levine, A Hamburg Friendship. Erwin Panofsky’s obituary on Aby Warburg, in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, February 02, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-25.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].