Rescuing the Past

Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography

by E.H. Gombrich
University of Chicago Press, 376 pp., $29.95

Over the threshold that leads to the library in the Warburg Institute at Woburn Square in London looms the word “Mnemosyne,” memory. The inscription reminds the visitor that the books awaiting him inside are not dead containers of neutral information but voices from the past, reminders of sunken and often faraway traditions. For more than forty years the Warburg Institute has been part of the University of London and its name ranks high today in academic life. But even now this astonishing collection of books and pictures—a sort of Noah’s Ark for Mneme in the deluge of modern forgetfulness—bears the mark of Warburg’s peculiar genius, of his imagination, his restless curiosity, and also his idiosyncracies. The word “Mnemosyne” written over the entrance door in London sounds an unintended but distinct biographical undertone. The long shadow of Aby Warburg remains very present among the shelves of the library, which had first been his personal instrument for exploring the secrets and above all the darkness of the past.

Aby Warburg (1866–1929) was well known as a scholar and collector, but—to use a phrase of Paul Valéry—his fame remained a sort of “presence d’absence.” Born into the prominent Hamburg banking family, Warburg refused to take up any conventional career—whether as a banker or as a professor; he twice rejected the offer of a chair for art history from renowned German universities. Yet his influence as a private scholar soon became immense and profound. After 1918 one of the most stimulating intellectual centers in Weimar Germany formed around the library he built in Hamburg. Not only did the library transform studies in the field of art history, but it was under the influence of the Warburg library that the “neo-Kantian” philosopher Ernst Cassirer began to reflect on myth and symbols and that the philologist Ernst Robert Curtius turned from his essays on Proust and Joyce to the tradition of the Latin Middle Ages. Even the young Walter Benjamin, when he wrote his book on “Das deutsche Trauerspiel,” seems to have been under the Warburg library’s spell.

But as magnetic as the stimulus of Warburg and his library proved to be in the nervous upheaval of the German Twenties, he himself published relatively little. Moreover, in what he did write his keenest ideas remain entangled in a dense network of antiquarian erudition. When he died at the age of sixty-three in the fall of 1929, Warburg was working on his “opus magnum,” an atlas of pictures called “Mnemosyne.” The project remained little more than an unfulfilled prophecy. So it was not astonishing that the memory of Aby Warburg lingered on as a kind of myth and the sinister course that German history began to take soon after his death made the fate of his fortuna even more poignant.

In 1932, three years after Warburg’s death, the library published two volumes of his collected essays under the title “Die Erneuerung der heidnischen Antike,” “The Revival of Pagan Antiquity.” All of Warburg’s published texts, from…

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