The Last Humanist


When Ernst Gombrich, the most celebrated art historian of our time, died last year at the age of ninety-two it seemed as though not just an individual career but a whole movement of thought and sensibility had come to an end. He was the last of the great Central European humanists who sought to realize the dream, first set forth by Jakob Burckhardt in the 1860s, of a Kulturwis-senschaft: a comprehensive, “scientific” study of Western high culture that was at the same time a defense of that culture against the terrible simplifiers of modern barbar- ism. Ernst Robert Curtius, Erich Auerbach, and Leo Spitzer in literature, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Pop- per, and Paul Oskar Kristeller in philosophy, and Erwin Panofsky, along with Gombrich, in art history, most of them refugees from Germany and Austria to Britain and the United States in the late Thirties and early Forties, produced a series of formidable works, synoptic, self-confident, and astonishingly learned, that sought to reclaim the heritage of European scholarship after the fascist catastrophe and reestablish it in the, as they saw it, thin and directionless postwar world. The words with which Curtius, who stayed behind in Bonn quietly writing his way through the horror, prefaced his grand, unbending study of Latin literature in the Middle Ages—begun in 1928, finished in 1948—could have served as motto for them all: “This book does not content itself with scientific purposes; it attests to a concern for maintaining Western civilization.”1

Gombrich’s recruitment into this extraordinary enterprise in cultural reclamation was effected through the agency of an odd, unclassifiable library-cum-research center moved bodily from Hamburg to London in the early Thirties: the Warburg Institute. Originally founded by the now nearly mythical figure Aby Warburg of the banking Warburgs, a follower of Burckhardt’s, a compulsive bibliophile, and a proponent of what he called alternatively “historical psychology,” “the psychology of style,” “the science of culture,” and “the afterlife of antiquity,” the institute formed a home for a wide variety of German-speaking humanists trying to continue or restart their interrupted careers in an Anglo-American environment—philologists, archaeologists, iconologists, epigraphers, stylisticians, ethnologists, psychoanalysts, mythographers, archivists, historians of science, painting, religion, and philosophy, exegetes, and rhetoricians. Gombrich, who left Vienna at twenty-six, a half-step ahead of the Anschluss, joined the institute as the editor of Warburg’s papers in 1936 and remained with it, eventually as its director, for the rest of his life. “I found myself in an entirely new milieu,” he said in an informal talk fifty years later, reflecting on his sudden passage from a staid, discipline-bound university system to the swirl of recondite studies (“the patronage of the Medici, the survival of Neo-Platonism, Vasari, astrology”) that was the Warburg. “Nobody quite knew what we were doing and why we were doing it…. It is not an art-historical institute and it never was.”2

Since the Warburg was not an art-historical institute, Gombrich, who had been quite traditionally trained, mostly in the typology of ornament, had perforce to…

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