Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Warburg, Aby

Born: June 13, 1866: Hamburg
Died: October 26, 1929: Hamburg
  • Christopher D. JohnsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_596-1


Aby Warburg (1866–1929) dedicated his career to studying the Nachleben der Antike (afterlife of antiquity) in Renaissance art and thought. Inventor of iconology as an art-historical method, Warburg later explored other, more experimental methods of making visible what he called the “pathos-formulas” that fueled Renaissance culture. Warburg’s studies of astrological images in the Renaissance, together with his interest in images from Renaissance popular culture, are emblematic of his ambition to create a broad Kulturwissenschaft (cultural science). Warburg’s thought and methods have influenced thinkers in many disciplines, from art history to philosophy. The library he founded in Hamburg, now the Warburg Institute in London, is another crucial, vital aspect of his legacy.


“Ebreo di sangue, Amburghese di cuore, d’anima Fiorentino” (Jew by blood, Hamburger by birth, and Florentine in spirit) is how Aby M. Warburg described himself (Bing 1960). Though the eldest scion of a Hamburg banking family, Warburg chose the scholarly life instead. During his university career (1886–1891) at Bonn and then Strasbourg, he studied with the historian of religion, Hermann Usener, the art and economic historian Karl Lamprecht, and the art historians Carl Justi and Hubert Janitschek (Gombrich 1986; Lescourret 2014). An art history seminar in Florence with August Schmarsow in 1888 was also very influential. His dissertation on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Spring was published in 1893 to great acclaim due mainly to its novel iconological method. In 1895–1896, Warburg traveled to the USA and the Hopi pueblos in the Southwest to observe ritual dances. Upon his return he married the artist Mary Hertz. They lived in Florence from 1898 to 1902, where Warburg did art-historical research, filled notebooks and notecards with his writings, but published very little. Back in Hamburg by 1902, for the next 16 years or so Warburg wrote articles and gave lectures on Renaissance art history, letters, and, beginning around 1908, the history of Renaissance astrology (Warburg 2013; Lescourret 2014). He also curated his private library, which, with the help of Fritz Saxl (who came to Hamburg in 1913), became in 1921 the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (Warburg Cultural Science Library), an indispensable “organon,” as Warburg’s friend Ernst Cassirer dubbed it (Cassirer 2000, xiii). (With the Nazis’ advent, the Library was moved in 1933 to London where it eventually became the world-renowned Warburg Institute, which continues to foster research and teaching on all aspects of Renaissance culture.) Deeply disturbed by WWI, Warburg suffered from manic depression, which led to a six-year breakdown, most of it spent in Ludwig Binnswanger’s Kreuzlingen Sanatorium. Recovered and back in Hamburg by 1924, Warburg, with Saxl’s and Gertrud Bing’s assistance, continued to research and lecture on various aspects of the Nachleben der Antike (antiquity’s afterlife). He experimented also with new modes of presenting the fruits of his research, both to reach a wider audience and to obviate long-standing difficulties with academic writing. Warburg never took a permanent academic position; though he did give a few seminars at the University of Hamburg in 1925–1928. He died of a heart attack in October 1929, several months after returning from a nine-month sojourn in Italy made ostensibly to collect materials for his Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. Two volumes, containing all his published writings and some of his lectures, appeared posthumously in 1932. Yet his Nachlass, which includes the incomplete Atlas, is also an essential part of his legacy, as the ongoing-publication of his Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings) confirms.

Heritage and Breaking with Tradition

In all its forms, Warburg’s work was dedicated to explicating the Nachleben der Antike, particularly as it informed Renaissance imagery. His dissertation broke with the aestheticising and formalist art history of his time to invent what he eventually termed “iconology,” which interprets and historicizes the artwork by adducing contemporary textual sources from various disciplines. (In the 1920s, Erwin Panofsky adapted Warburg’s iconography/iconology to create a more systematic method of producing “synthetic intuition” about the artwork, a method that ultimately aimed for “synthesis.”). However, Warburg also aspired to a broader “Kulturwissenschaft” (cultural science) (Wind 1983; Villhauer 2002; Wedepohl 2005). Two essays (1902, 1907) centered on the late quattrocento Florentine patron and banker, Francesco Sassetti, and cast as supplementing Jacob Burckhardt’s cultural history, exemplify this aspiration, as do his studies, beginning around 1907, on the history of astrology. Drawing on an eclectic array of visual and verbal artefacts and borrowing methods and ideas from a wide-range of disciplines (the history of art, literature, science, philosophy, religion, myth, but also contemporary linguistics, anthropology, and psychology), Warburg scoured culture high and low for pathos formulas, symbolic expressions which diachronically and synchronically capture the “polarity” between immediate experience and formal abstraction. “[A]n indissoluble intertwining of an emotional charge and an iconographic formula” (Agamben 1999, 90), the pathos-formula (aka the dynamogram) was Warburg’s most innovative contribution to the theory of the symbol. He traced pathos-formulas expressing mourning, suffering, devotion, victory, etc. in Renaissance works, but also in classical, medieval, and contemporary ones. More particularly, Warburg highlighted the exceptional ability of works by Dürer, Mantegna, and Rembrandt to mediate “superlatives,” i.e., “expressive values” fueling a “language of gestures” which had become too exaggerated and so too subjective. He celebrated these artists for how they made style respond to ethical and psychological needs (Warburg 1999, 556–558). “Besonnenheit” (sophrosyne or prudent understanding), both in word and image, was the chief virtue of Warburg’s Renaissance (Warburg 1998, I.2.534). Or, as he wrote at the end of a 1927 lecture on Rembrandt: “Jede Zeit hat die Renaissance der Antike, die sie verdient” (Every age has the Renaissance of antiquity that it merits) (cited in Johnson 2012, 181).

Innovative and Original Aspects

In mapping the recurrence and variation of pathos-formulas in time, space, and across media, Warburg spurned disciplinary borders and adopted a discourse rich in metaphors and neologisms. A brilliant historicist, he assiduously investigated the contexts together with the efficient and material causes of artworks. For example, in an essay on Florentine intermedi in 1589 Warburg rejects Nietzsche’s account, in The Birth of Tragedy, as “fundamentally wrong in relation to the historical process” (Warburg 1999, 544). Yet, especially in his last years, Warburg also mined Nietzsche’s recursive philosophy of history. He gave a seminar on Burckhardt, with a final session on Nietzsche, at the University of Hamburg in 1927–1928. For Warburg, Burckhardt and Nietzsche were “catchers [Auffänger] of mnemonic waves” and “very sensitive seismographs” (cited in Pfotenhauer 1985, 311). Nietzsche’s Dionysian-Apollonian duality is subtly adopted to interpret not just Renaissance art history (Agamben 1999, 97), but also, as the draft Introduction to the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne urges (Warburg 2008a, 4), all Renaissance culture. More particularly, a Nietzschean Pendelbewegung (oscillation) informs his characterization of sixteenth-century Germany as “the age of Faust, in which the modern scientist – caught between magic practice and cosmic mathematics – was trying to insert the conceptual space [Denkraum] of rationality between himself and the object. Athens has constantly to be won back again from Alexandria” (Warburg 1999, 650).

In his later years, Warburg experimented with a Bilderreihe-technique to make palpable the “Wanderstrassen” or digressive, migratory routes taken over time by pathos-formulas and mythological and cosmological motifs (Warburg 2012). A kind of belated ars combinatoria or memory theater that relied on metonymy and metaphor to present a wide variety of exemplary images, it was designed to bring historical “expressive values” before the eyes of both specialists and the general public. Drawing from an inventory of several thousand images (mainly from the Renaissance, but also including classical, medieval, and contemporary objects), Warburg would first select, arrange, and rearrange a handful of images (usually around 20–30) on a large black panel; then individual panels were set in sequences to indicate larger morphologies. In his best known, last, unfinished project, the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (1928–1929), Warburg mapped over the course of 63 panels two themes central to the Renaissance: “the attempt to absorb pre-stamped expressive values by means of the representation of life in motion” in visual art and the process of “Orientation” by which humanity came to understand and figure the cosmos (Warburg 2008a, 3–6). As the self-nominated “psycho-historian” who diagnoses “the West’s schizophrenia” through its images (Warburg 2001, 429), Warburg believed that his method could reanimate cultural memories in ways critical not only to the progress of Geistesgeschichte but also for his own self-understanding. This conflation of the objective and subjective is epitomized by a passage from his last public lecture in 1929 at the Hertziana library in Rome. In describing how Ghirlandaio in his paintings appropriated the past, Warburg is undoubtedly describing himself as well: “It is a wish-image of one who is burdened by the tradition, who confronts the question whether he can adequately spiritualize and internalize [einverseelen], on the one hand, the past’s legacy and, on the other, impressions from the living environment. How these wish images, arranged positively or negatively in relation to self-consciousness, selectively have an effect in the artist’s attempt at composition, one can only hope to ascertain where both legacy and impressions allow themselves to be demonstrated phenomenologically in their constituent parts of an artist’s work” (Warburg 1929, fol. 3).

To undertake this phenomenology, Warburg devised a Kulturwissenschaft that eclectically appropriated strands of Renaissance humanism. For instance, Poliziano’s Ovidian poems, Giostra and Orfeo, are the central documents in his interpretation of Botticelli’s paintings (Warburg 1999, 89–156), as they helped him formulate the cardinal concept of the “mobile accessory” (bewegtes Beiwerk), or how the quattrocento artist subtly reanimated classical expressive values by depicting the organic motion of hair and clothes (Papapetros 2012). Alternatively, the value of the artistic, but also phenomenological detail, underscored by Warburg’s famous motto, “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail,” may well lean on Leibniz’s notion of the “petites perceptions” that bind together past, present, and future (Warburg 2015, 115; Heckscher 1974).

Warburg’s early theoretical writings, especially the fragmentary Symbolismus als Umfangsbestimmung (1896–1901), are indebted to Neo-Kantian thought (Warburg 2015, 317). Yet the Neo-Kantian term Umfangsbestimmung (determination of scope), which appears throughout Warburg’s writings, concerns not an apriori act of understanding but rather a form of symbolic thought involving physical perception and memory: “Through conscious, subjective incorporation distance [Entfernung] is really destroyed, though it is regained in the mind as consciousness; consciousness of distance [Entfernungsbewußtsein] deposits itself in the brain as memory” (Warburg 2015, 315). Instead of leading to concept-formation, Umfangsbestimmung is a metaphoric act that fosters an “Entfernungsbewußtsein,” which rejects the earlier, magical “identification” of self and world. Warburg outlines three stages of distance-creating Umfangsbestimmung: “angleichende” (adapting, approximating), “ausgleichende” (balancing, compensating), and “vergleichende” (comparing). Each is an act of memory essential to culture in general and to Warburg’s hermeneutics more particularly. In the first instance humanity produces “ornament” and “instrument”; in the second it cultivates “pictorial art”; and in the third, it discovers the linguistic means to evaluate and critique (Warburg 2015, 311–316). Indebted also to Usener’s and Tito Vignoli’s Viconian histories of myth, Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s account of the symbol, Robert Vischer’s empathy theory, and Richard Semon’s account of the physiology of memory, Warburg’s symbol theory was as capacious as it was syncretic (Pinotti 2001; Zumbusch 2004, 220–224, 232–235).

In contemplating the historical tensions between astrological and astronomical imagery and thought, Warburg anticipated recent approaches in the history of science and science studies. Complicating the narrative of epistemological progress associated with the so-called Scientific Revolution are the essays, “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia Ferrara” (1912) (Warburg 1999) and “Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther” (1920) (Warburg 1999), a lecture, “Die Einwirkung der Sphaera barbarica auf die kosmischen Orientierungsversuche der Abendlandes” (1925) (Warburg 2008b), and many plates of the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. In these, enlisting Abu Ma’sûr, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Girolamo Cardano, Cornelius Agrippa, Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Kepler, and others, Warburg contends that classical astronomical thought was transmitted and distorted by Alexandrian, Arabic, and medieval astrological thought, before it regained classical clarity and “Besonnenheit” in the late Renaissance when empirical-mathematical thought successfully mediated “untethered” mythological-magical thinking. Exemplifying this is how Kepler straddled astrological and astronomical worldviews (Warburg 2008b, 123–125); tellingly, Kepler’s account of the ellipse in his second law of planetary motion had immense symbolic value for Warburg (Bredekamp and Wedepohl 2015). Similarly, in 1928 and 1929 during his Italian sojourn, Warburg became convinced that Bruno’s thought and imagery constituted a decisive moment in late Renaissance intellectual history. He met with Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce to discuss Bruno, before he seized upon the medieval notion of synderesis, or ethical intuition, to explain Bruno’s ability to negotiate the polarities of astronomy and astrology, word, and image (Johnson 2012, 194–229). For his part, Cassirer was convinced that Warburg’s interdisciplinary approach to a text like the Spaccio della bestia trionfante was far more promising than pursuing just the “philosophic history of the problem” (cited in Johnson 2012, 198).

Warburg’s wide-ranging interest in anthropological subjects and methods was crystallized in his “Images from the Lands of the Pueblo Indians in North America,” a lecture given while he was still in Kreuzlingen – as a test of sorts of his sanity and his readiness to return to Hamburg. Here, after contemplating the Hopi snake-dance, Warburg turns to medieval Europe and a Spanish astrological calender where the snake and the “infinity” it represents is transformed into a celestial constellation, into a “mathematical determination of scope.” “Cultural evolution toward the age of reason,” Warburg concludes, “occurs in the same way, as the tangible, coarse fullness of life fades into mathematical abstraction” (Warburg 2010, 554). Arguing by analogy and typology, in this manner Warburg traces the shift from religious ritual with masked dancers and “its monstrous concreteness” to an “invisible” and “systematic linguistic mythology” (Warburg 2010, 557, 565). That Renaissance European culture for Warburg struck the ideal balance between such monstrosity and abstraction remains perhaps his most provocative and fruitful idea.

Impact and Legacy

Given ideas like this one, together with his methodological innovations, and thanks to the ongoing republication of his work and the scholarly boom that has attended it, Warburg is now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most influential intellectual and cultural historians. But this verdict was already anticipated by E. R. Curtius, who co-dedicated European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948) to Warburg – this despite misunderstanding or misrepresenting his friend’s Kunstwissenschaft. For his part, Cassirer, who arrived in Hamburg in 1919 to teach at the University (while Warburg was still in Kreuzlingen), mined the library as he turned away from Neo-Kantian philosophy toward a broader, more contingent understanding of thought and culture (Habermas 1997). The result was his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923, 1925, and 1929), which endows the symbol and its mediating “functions” in language, myth, and mathematical science with all manner of phenomenological, cultural, and transcendental meaning. And though Cassirer, in pursuing his historical teleology, progressively strips the symbol of its affective force in ways that Warburg’s own thought resisted (Didi-Huberman 2002, 440), he was happy to borrow from Warburg when it suited him. Dedicating The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (1926) to Warburg, he lauds how the Warburg Library has forcefully upheld the “principles” governing “research in intellectual and cultural history.” Further, “[i]n 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” (Cassirer 2000, xiii). In the text proper, to explain how Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525) balanced ideas about freedom and necessity, Cassirer cites Warburg’s notion of inversion, or how in the visual arts the medieval concept of fortune is transformed, and “imbued with a new spirit and new life.” In short, Warburg’s method is exemplary: “In the realm of thought. .. new solutions are not immediately achieved. Before that can happen, it is necessary to create, so to speak, a new state of tension in thought. There is no real break with the philosophical past; but a new dynamic of thought announces itself, a striving – to speak with Warburg – for a new ‘energetic state of equilibrium.’ Just as the visual arts seek plastic formulas of balance, so philosophy seeks intellectual formulas of balance between the ‘medieval faith in God and the self-confidence of Renaissance man” (Cassirer 2000, 75–77). In a journal entry contemplating the Atlas and its aims, Warburg returned the favour: “Individual and cosmos: exactly my theme as well. Attempt at reformation of pagan ecstasy through metaphoric determination of scope [Umfangsbestimmung]” (Warburg 2001, 436). But while for Cassirer Renaissance philosophy was dominated by “the problem of self-consciousness” (Cassirer 2000, 123), for Warburg, Renaissance thought a more porous, capacious category was shaped most decisively by the symbolic struggle to establish contemplative “distance” from the world even while preserving the vital connections with the movements animating it.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Warburg’s most philosophically ambitious interpreter contends that with the Bilderatlas Warburg invented an ethical way of knowing the Nachleben der Antike in the Renaissance, a nonsystematic approach that is at once “inexhaustible” and “unfathomable,” and thus at odds with the systematic efforts of Cassirer or, for that matter, Panofsky (Didi-Huberman 2010). Seizing upon Warburg’s motto Per monstra ad sphaeram (which remakes Kepler’s motto Per asperaad astra) and his phrase Dialektik des Monstrums, both of which indicate how medieval and Renaissance astrological thought (to say nothing of Warburg’s own thinking) wrestled with the irrational and the unconscious, Didi-Huberman – drawing on Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Freud – resists any attempt to reduce Warburg’s thought to one or another form of critical Nachleben (2002, 2010); instead, for him Warburg offers what a 1929 notebook entry, referring to the Atlas, terms a “Kritik der reinen Unvernunft.”

Warburg’s more general influence on art history, cultural studies, and intellectual history has been remarkably widespread and continues to grow. Aside from the so-called Warburg Circle (Saxl, Panofsky, Bing, Edgar Wind, and Raymond Klibansky), Ernst Gombrich, despite great ambivalence, wrestled with Warburg long enough to write his “intellectual biography” (Gombrich 1986). As for philosophy, Giorgio Agamben has become arguably Warburg’s most influential reader. In grappling with the Nachleben der Antike, Warburg “aims to configure a problem that is both historical and ethical” (Agamben 1999, 92). Comparing Warburg’s “nameless science” to Leo Spitzer’s “historical semantics,” Agamben affirms that Warburg describes a virtuous hermeneutic circle or “a spiral that continually broadens its turns” (Agamben 1999, 92–96). Elsewhere, essaying the nature of the historical paradigm, Agamben considers Warburg’s “nymph,” as featured in plate 46 of the Bilderatlas, and argues that with the plate’s 27 images Warburg is neither searching for origins, nor undertaking iconology. Instead, in combination these images show that the nymph is “undecidable in regards to diachrony and synchrony, unicity and multiplicity. This means that the nymph is the paradigm of which individual nymphs are the exemplars. Or to be more precise, in accordance with the constitutive ambiguity of Plato’s dialectic, the nymph is the paradigm of the single images, and the single images are the paradigms of the nymph” (Agamben 2009, 29). In this manner, Warburg produces a vital, paradigmatic form of analogical knowledge (Agamben 2009, 31). Further, Agamben suggests that Warburg’s paradigm is grounded in Renaissance philosophy. Noting how Warburg’s “Schifanoia” essay leans on the thirteenth-century, Latin-Arabic Picatrix, he argues that Renaissance hermeneutics resembles a magical act of sympathy. By analogy, he concludes, in Warburg’s twentieth-century Bildertlas, individual images do not represent, “[o]n the contrary, they have value in themselves” (Agamben 2009, 55–56).



Primary Literature

  1. Warburg, Aby. 1929. Römische Antike in der Werkstatt des Domenico Ghirlandaio. Warburg Institute Archive, WIA III 115 (1): 2.Google Scholar
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Secondary Literature

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Warburg InstituteLondonUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Teodoro Katinis
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Literary StudiesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium