Abraham Moritz Warburg, known as Aby Warburg (June 13, 1866 – October 26, 1929), was a German art historian and cultural theorist who founded a private Library for Cultural Studies, the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, which was later moved to the Warburg Institute, London. At the heart of his research was the legacy of the Classical World, and the transmission of classical representation, in the most varied areas of western culture through to the Renaissance.
Warburg described himself as: „Amburghese di cuore, ebreo di sangue, d’anima Fiorentino” („Hamburger at heart, Jew by blood, Florentine in spirit”).
Aby Warburg was born in Hamburg into the wealthy Warburg family of German Jewish bankers. His ancestors had come to Germany from Italy in the 17th century and settled in the town of Warburg in Westphalia, taking on the town’s name as their family name. In the 18th century the Warburgs moved to Altona near Hamburg.
Two brothers Warburg founded the banking firm M. M. Warburg & Co in Hamburg, which today again has an office there. Aby Warburg was the first of seven children born to Moritz Warburg, director of the Hamburg bank, and his wife Charlotte, née Oppenheim. Aby Warburg showed an early interest in literature and history and the second eldest son, Max Warburg went into the Hamburg bank, younger brothers Paul and Felix also entered banking. Max Warburg established the Warburg family bank as a „global player”.
Childhood and youth
Warburg grew up in a conservative Jewish home environment. Early on he demonstrated an unstable, unpredictable and volatile temperament. Warburg as a child reacted against the religious rituals which were punctiliously observed in his family, and rejected all career plans envisaged for him. He did not want to be a rabbi, as his grandmother wished, nor a doctor or lawyer.
Against the resistance Aby Warburg met with from his relatives, he forced through his plans to study art history. Aby famously made a deal with his brother Max to forfeit his right, as the eldest son, to take over the family firm, in return for an undertaking on Max’s part to provide him with all the books he ever needed.
In 1886 Warburg began his study of art history, history and archaeology in Bonn and attended the lectures on the history of religion by Hermann Usener, those on cultural history by Karl Lamprechtand on art history by Carl Justi. He continued his studies in Munich and with Hubert Janitschek in Strasbourg, completing under him his dissertation on Botticelli’s paintings The Birth of Venus and Primavera.
From 1888 to 1889 he studied the sources of these pictures at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence. He was now interested in applying the methods of natural science to the human sciences. The dissertation was completed in 1892 and printed in 1893. Warburg’s study introduced into art history a new method, that of iconography or iconology, later developed by Erwin Panofsky. After receiving his doctorate Warburg studied for two semesters at the Medical Faculty of the University of Berlin, where he attended lectures on psychology. During this period he undertook a further trip to Florence.
Travels in the USA
Paul Warburg married Nina Loeb, daughter of Solomon Loeb in New York late in 1895, and Aby Warburg used the occasion to travel. His long American journey took him to Colorado in winter, to New Mexico and then to Pasadena and Mount Lowe. He met the San Francisco boheme Les Jeunes around Gelett Burgess and then went back to the Pueblos in spring, to the Hopi and Zuni. Before going west, he had met veteran anthropologists James Mooney and Frank Hamilton Cushing at the Smithsonian Institution. Cushing had lived for years with the Zuni in New Mexico and fascinated Warburg wanted to see the Pueblos for himself.
First stop in the west was Mesa Verde to see the Anasazi cliff dwellings. Then he went from Pueblo town to Spanish town, to Cochiti and the Palace Hotel in Santa Fe, to Albuquerque and Acoma, Laguna, and San Ildefonso, where he photographed an Antelope dance. In Cochiti Warburg spoke to a priest and his son and received a cosmological drawing with a snake at its center. The Hopi of Arizona were already famous for their snake dance and although April was too early in the year to see this tourist attraction, the time he spent with the Hopi was a most important part of his long journey. Warburg was fascinated with their still secluded culture, their architecture, ritual, their masks and their ages-old abstract painting on pottery Nampeyo had recently revived. Mennonite missionary Heinrich R. Voth shared his knowledge of Hopi religion. Voth and Warburg saw a Hemis Kachina dance complete with obscene clowning. Thanks to Voth he could also observe the preparations for this end-of-winter ceremony. The most famous photo of the trip shows Warburg holding a half naked dancer resting. Another snapshot is of Warburg wearing a Kachina dancer’ s mask. In New York the social life of the Schiffs and Loebs seemed empty and futile, and Warburg was very impressed with the dead seriousness of Hopi ritual. Writing up his field notes for a now famous lecture at the Kreuzlingen sanatorium Warburg stressed the kinship of religious thinking in Athens and Oraibi. Ancient Greece had its animal cults and dangerous rites. It and Italy in the Renaissance were not the safe places the complacent Übermensch on holiday in Florence sought. Harmony and perfection only hide terrible conflict and rationality is always in danger of deep seated irrationality.
In 1897 Warburg married, against his father’s will, the painter and sculptor Mary Hertz, daughter of Adolph Ferdinand Hertz, a Hamburg senator and member of the Synod of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hamburg. The couple had three children: Marietta (1899–1973), Max Adolph (1902–1974) and Frede C. Warburg (1904–2004). In 1898 Warburg and his wife took up residence in Florence. While Warburg was repeatedly plagued by depression, the couple enjoyed a lively social life. Among their Florentine circle could be counted the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, the writer Isolde Kurz, the English architect and antiquary Herbert Horne, the Dutch Germanist André Jolles and his wife Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, and the Belgian art historian Jacques Mesnil. The most famous Renaissance specialist of the time, the American Bernard Berenson, was likewise in Florence at this period. Warburg, for his part, renounced all sentimental aestheticism, and in his writings criticised a vulgarised idealisation of an individualism that had been imputed to the Renaissance in the work of Jacob Burckhardt.
During his years in Florence Warburg investigated the living conditions and business transactions of Renaissance artists and their patrons as well as, more specifically, the economic situation in the Florence of the early Renaissance and the problems of the transition from the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance. A further product of his Florentine period was his series of lectures on Leonardo da Vinci, held in 1899 at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. In his lectures he discussed Leonardo’s study of medieval bestiaries as well as his engagement with the classical theory of proportion of Vitruvius. He also occupied himself with Botticelli’s engagement with the Ancients evident in the representation of the clothing of figures. Feminine clothing takes on a symbolic meaning in Warburg’s famous essay, inspired by discussions with Jolles, on the nymphs and the figure of the Virgin in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The contrast evident in the painting between the constricting dress of the matrons and the lightly dressed, quick-footed Virgin serves as an illustration of the virulent discussion around 1900 concerning the liberation of female clothing from the standards of propriety imposed by a reactionary bourgeoisie.
Return to Hamburg
In 1902 the family returned to Hamburg, and Warburg presented the findings of his Florentine research in a series of lectures, but at first did not take on a professorship or any other academic position. He rejected a call to a professorship at the University of Halle in 1912. He became a member of the board of the Völkerkundemuseum, with his brother Max sponsored the foundation of the „Hamburger wissenschatflichen Stiftung” (1907) and the foundation of a university in Hamburg, which succeeded in 1919, and at which he took up a professorship. At this period signs of a mental illness were present which affected his activities as a researcher and teacher.
He suffered from manic depression and symptoms of schizophrenia, and was hospitalized in Ludwig Binswanger‘s neurological clinic in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland in 1921. There he was visited by Emil Kraepelin who did not confirm the diagnosis of schizophrenia and suggested Warburg was in a mixed manic-depressive state, a diagnosis with a more positive prognosis. Indeed his mental conditions improved also thanks to the support of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer who visited him in the clinic: “Warburg was highly relieved that Cassirer fully understood his plans to restart his research, that Cassirer highlighted the importance of Warburg’s ongoing scientific efforts, and felt he could contribute substantively to the art history discourse”  After his release from Binswanger’s clinic in 1924, Warburg held occasional lectures and seminars between 1925 and 1929, which took place in a private circle or in his library.
Warburg died in Hamburg of a heart attack on 26 October 1929.
Last project: Mnemosyne Atlas
In December 1927, Warburg started to compose a work in the form of a picture atlas named Mnemosyne. It consisted of 40 wooden panels covered with black cloth, on which were pinned nearly 1,000 pictures from books, magazines, newspaper and other daily life sources. These pictures were arranged according to different themes:
- Coordinates of memory
- Astrology and mythology
- Archaeological models
- Migrations of the ancient gods
- Vehicles of tradition
- Irruption of antiquity
- Dionysiac formulae of emotions
- Nike and Fortuna
- From the Muses to Manet
- Dürer: the gods go North
- The age of Neptune
- „Art officiel” and the baroque
- Re-emergence of antiquity
- The classical tradition today
There were no captions and only a few texts in the atlas. „Warburg certainly hoped that the beholder would respond with the same intensity to the images of passion or of suffering, of mental confusion or of serenity, as he had done in his work.” Mnemosyne Atlas was left unfinished when Warburg died in 1929.