You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Banker, a Scholar, and the Invention of Art History

The story of the Warburg brothers

Ernst Cassirer, Max Warburg, Aby Warburg, and Erwin Panofsky (Courtesy of The Warburg Institute)

A school photograph taken in Hamburg in 1879 shows thirteen-year-old Abraham Warburg among his classmates, conspicuous for his dark coloring and the mischievous, bemused expression on his face. Aby is obviously a handful. He dominates this solemn group portrait as definitely as he dominated his boisterous and numerous family, seizing attention with his quick wit and his tempestuous moods.

Aby knew his own mind. At thirteen, around the time the photograph was taken, he made a deal with his twelve-year-old brother Max: if Max would promise to buy Aby all the books he wanted for the rest of his life, Aby would hand over his designated position in the family bank. Both brothers were as good as their word. Max Warburg, the illustrious banker, would later declare that “this contract was certainly the most careless of my life,” and it would cost him dearly over the years. By 1914, Aby Warburg’s personal library numbered 15,000 volumes, many of them manuscripts or rarities from the earliest days of printing. Max and the three younger Warburg brothers, Felix, Paul, and Fritz, continued to subsidize their eldest brother’s bibliomania up to and beyond his death in 1929. Aby called the resulting collection his Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or Warburg Library of Cultural Science, and he intended the choice and the arrangement of the volumes on the library’s shelves to create bridges between disciplines that he himself saw no reason to separate. 

Bibliothek der Kulturwissenschaft, Hamburg, 1926
The Warburg Institute
Bibliothek der Kulturwissenschaft, Hamburg, 1926

Aby was also crazy. Today we would call him bipolar; he alternated periods of elation with dark despondency. Considering the circumstances under which he lived, a wealthy, hard-driven Jewish citizen of the German Reich and the Weimar Republic, he had much to be despondent about. Emily J. Levine’s book details the contradictions and confusions of Jewish life in Hamburg, with ancient religious traditions suddenly vying with modern currents of thought, and ancient caution competing with tentative hopes when Jews at last began to breach the barriers of anti-Semitism in German society. Focusing on Aby Warburg’s library and two of its most illustrious users, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and the art historian Erwin Panofsky, she reveals the ways in which the distinctive qualities of a single place conditioned the development of ideas in a larger sense to create a “Hamburg School” of thought, a school intimately connected with Jewish experience in Imperial and Weimar Germany. Her supremely well-educated, well-connected protagonists would eventually have the means to escape from Germany and the worst ravages of National Socialism, as, at the very last possible minute, did Aby’s books; but theirs is still a tragic story.

In arguing for the importance of place and social setting in the formation of ideas, Levine crosses as many scholarly disciplines as Warburg’s Library of the Science of Culture did in its heyday. Dreamland of Humanists begins by outlining the history of Hamburg (roughly between the revolutions of 1848 and the advent of the Nazis) together with its distinctive forms of cultural life. Through detailed analysis of Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School of thought that formed around them, Levine illustrates how this commercial city, for all its apparent limitations, turned out to provide a uniquely hospitable setting for the exchange of ideas. The novel propositions that this trio of thinkers would formulate about art, symbolism, and imagery have shaped more than the course of modern art history; they are also unwittingly responsible for Dan Brown’s improbable hero Robert Langdon, whose fictitious field of expertise, “symbology,” is a direct outgrowth of the “pathos-formulas,” “symbolic form,” and “iconology” developed by the Hamburg School of philosophy and history of art in connection with the Warburg Library of the Science of Culture. 

Hamburg was a rough, gritty northern European port, with rotten weather and a superb location. From the thirteenth through the seventeenth century, it belonged to the commercial cartel known as the Hanseatic League, and owing to those origins as an independent city-state it continued to go its own way after the political unification of Germany in 1870. At the end of the fifteenth century, Hamburg was one of the places where Sephardic Jews settled after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. There they were compelled to work as moneylenders because so many other professions were barred to them. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, Hamburg’s Christian community adopted an austere Protestantism that meshed with a correspondingly austere version of Judaism. For Christians and Jews alike, then, personal aspirations were kept in line by an overriding emphasis on community.

By profession, the citizens of Hamburg were sailors, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and merchants rather than landed aristocrats, and their city therefore lacked the kinds of cultural institutions that kings, bishops, and aristocrats tended to foster, amenities such as universities, opera houses, art collections. When cultural institutions finally came to Hamburg, they came late, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at which point they grew out of a different social stratum, the merchant class, and responded to different, more private stimuli, as expressions of personal hospitality and ancient Jewish traditions of self-help. As Levine shows, Jewish philanthropy played a fundamental role in creating the cultural life of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Hamburg, a cultural life that depended almost entirely on private patronage and aimed at a more egalitarian, practical audience than the elaborately stratified social layers of Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. At the same time, the Jews of Hamburg were carefully circumspect about their involvement in public life. A Jewish merchant or professor could move only so far within German social circles, although Hamburg’s Protestant burghers were more accommodating than most. Both Aby Warburg and Max Warburg belonged to the exclusive Patriotic Society, the point of reference for most of the city’s philanthropic efforts, but their father, Moritz, advised Max against both a military career (in a letter of marvelous brevity: “My dearest Max, meschugge, Your loving father”) and, later, against running for the city Senate (warning that he would never be considered an equal).

As one of Hamburg’s wealthiest families, the Warburgs felt the conflicting pressures of family and religious loyalty, hope, ambition, and frustration all with a particular intensity. They expressed these conflicts as fierce competition among themselves, a fierce drive to achieve, and an abiding awareness that on the whole it was wiser not to let the world know the full extent of their exuberance, their talents, and their accomplishments. Moritz Warburg competed madly with his brother, Siegmund, falling behind personally but triumphing through his five sons, four of whom (minus Aby) transformed a successful local bank into an international powerhouse that helped to finance such disparate projects as the Baghdad railroad and the U.S. Federal Reserve. The contest between the two Warburg sisters-in-law, Theophilie and Charlotte, was if anything more intense than that between their husbands. 

Since so much of Hamburg’s cultural life occurred in the private sphere, as Levine shows, it was conditioned significantly by women, although they usually participated on a private level as hostesses, amateur artists, amateur musicians, and amateur thespians rather than as professionals. Women may have exerted unusual influence for a German community, but they were still confined to a limited sphere of action. In the close-knit and closely guarded German-Jewish world to which the Warburgs belonged, a woman with Emily Levine’s scholarly talents (though she is too subtle a writer to say so outright) would have been compelled to expend all her energies, intelligence, and historical insight on counseling her husband, attempting to discipline her many children, and vying with her friends and relatives for little social victories. Even those women who fit with relative ease into a traditional wifely role, such as the regal Toni Cassirer, were still forced to deal with the endless succession of little injustices to which they and their husbands were continually subjected because of their religion, long before the extreme humiliations to which National Socialism would expose them.

Hamburg may have been a tight-knit, provincial city in many respects, but its immemorial merchant tradition also compelled its citizens to keep a close eye on the rest of the world. The civic art gallery, the Kunsthalle, opened as late as 1869, but its first director, Alfred Lichtwark, made an instant splash by collecting avant-garde work by the French Impressionists—foreigners!—and “rediscovering” German artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. As a newcomer to the cultural sphere, Lichtwark had nothing to lose by making bold decisions. As Levine notes, “Hamburg’s uncultivated cultural world could provide fertile ground for an ambitious visionary.” It certainly provided fertile ground for Aby Warburg, and through him for the people whose lives were transformed by his library and his ideas. (By a similar ineffable alchemy, several decades later, the clubs and brothels of Hamburg’s infamous red-light district would transform a grubby rock band from Liverpool called the Beatles into a quartet of serious musicians.)

Not long after making his pact with his brother, Aby Warburg decided to become an art historian. This was a brand-new profession in the late nineteenth century, a profession greatly facilitated by the new medium of photography, which enabled scholars to keep extensive, informative visual records of the things they had seen as a supplement to written notes. Aby collected photographs as eagerly, as imaginatively, as he collected books. He assembled his photographs for a specific purpose: he wondered how and why images could trigger such powerful emotions. Hamburg’s most famous Enlightenment intellectual, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, had addressed the same question in his essay “Laocoön,” a poignant meditation on the relationship between beauty and suffering that focused on an ancient marble statue group unearthed in Rome in 1506. The sculpture, signed by its three Greek creators, portrays the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons wrapped in the coils of two gigantic deadly snakes, slowly suffocating to death. Lessing marvels that the figures can provide such pleasure with their beautiful bodies and exquisite surface polish as they writhe and grimace in their private agony. (Lessing, amazingly, might have worked from engravings and a plaster cast of the sculpture rather than the real object.) 

Aby Warburg marveled at this mystery, too. After studying art history at three different universities in Germany from 1886 to 1888, he spent a year in Florence doing research for his doctoral thesis on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera; he completed it in 1892 and it was published a year later. In 1898, he returned to Florence with his bride, the painter Mary Hertz. The couple would spend four and a half years in Tuscany, where Aby began, following Lessing’s lead, to search for what he would term “formulas for pathos,” Pathosformel, visual triggers that set off an automatic emotional response in viewers. He built his growing collection of photographs around this idea and called the collection “Mnemosyne,” the Greek word for “memory.”

The Warburg Institute
Aby Warburg 

Like his contemporary Bernard Berenson (they were born one year apart, Berenson in 1865, Warburg in 1866), Warburg took special delight in the sinuous lines of late-fifteenth-century Florentine painting and sculpture, aware that these works had been inspired in turn by the era’s reawakened interest in ancient art (including the remains of frescoed walls as well as works of sculpture in marble and bronze). Both men revered Botticelli, and Warburg also admired Botticelli’s contemporary Ghirlandaio. (Baroque artists such as Bernini, Borromini, and Caravaggio struck them both as monstrous corruptors of the classical ideal.) Warburg particularly loved a frescoed maiden by Ghirlandaio from the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, who virtually dances into a room with a tray of fruit on her head, her dress and veil billowing gracefully behind her. Unlike Lessing’s tortured Laocoön, with its agonized beauty, this nymph’s Pathosformel was Warburg’s formula for sheer bliss.

Both Berenson and Warburg hoped to give the study of art an objective, even scientific basis. For Berenson, the key to scholarly rigor lay in the close analysis of visual details: if an artist drew an ear in a certain way, then he would continue to draw an ear in that way, and his work could be identified by a series of these characteristic touches. Warburg, like contemporary classical scholars such as Jane Harrison and Francis Cornford, turned to the new field of anthropology. In 1895, he sailed to the United States to attend the wedding of his brother Felix (the three younger Warburg brothers all emigrated to New York, with triumphant success). Appalled by what he considered the barbarity of New York society, Aby escaped for two weeks in 1896 to the deserts of New Mexico. Clad for the occasion in cowboy hat and bandanna above his three-piece suit (all the Warburgs were dapper dressers), he visited several Hopi pueblos in New Mexico and watched a snake-handling ceremony. He recounted a fairy tale from the brothers Grimm to a group of Hopi schoolchildren and asked them afterward to draw a bolt of lightning. He was thrilled when two of them portrayed an arrow-headed snake, the traditional Hopi symbol, rather than a visually accurate zigzag. The eager young scholar could want no more vivid proof of the enduring grip that symbols had on the human mind.

In 1904, Aby and Mary Warburg moved into a new house at 114 Heilwigstrasse to accommodate their three young children and Aby’s nine thousand books (by 1926, however, the library required its own separate building). Ornamental brickwork traced out the letters K B W on the façade; and with the blessing of brother Max, the Kulturwissenschaftliche  Bibliothek Warburg came into being. Max Warburg is one of several unsung heroes in Levine’s epic. Since he stuck so steadfastly (and selflessly) to banking and public service, he is not essential to the intellectual history of the Hamburg School, but he was its bulwark all the same. (Ron Chernow’s The Warburgs gives Max his due.) Aby, small, in precarious mental and physical health, was always dependent on the help of others, from legions of household servants to his far-seeing, long-suffering wife, Mary, to the two people who eventually kept his library running for risible salaries: Fritz Saxl, an Austrian graduate student in art history with an abiding interest in astrology, hired in 1911 as librarian, and Gertrud Bing, a student of philosophy who came to Hamburg to work with Ernst Cassirer, the first professor to be appointed, in 1919, by the brand-new University of Hamburg.

Attracting the internationally renowned Cassirer was a grand coup for Hamburg, a splendid way to announce a new school moving in new directions. A decade later, at fifty-five, he would become the first Jewish rector of a German university. But by then conditions for Jews were changing rapidly for the worse. Cassirer belonged to a group of German philosophers, many of them Jewish, who had begun to draw fresh inspiration from Kant, who conceived his transcendent ideas about the human capacity for reason and social justice while pacing the streets of his native Königsberg. By extending Kant’s rational philosophy, the neo-Kantians hoped to blaze a political “third way” between the extremes of Marxism and capitalism, an effort to which the stately Cassirer contributed by his manner as well as his ideas. A gifted writer with a bent for history, he made his reputation with a series of comprehensive books on large topics: The Problem of Knowledge (1906–1950), a multi-volume history of philosophy from the Renaissance to his own time, Substance and Function (1910), Freedom and Form (1916), and Kant’s Life and Thought (1918), all written as a private lecturer at the University of Berlin, the usual position for Jewish scholars in the German system of higher education. The invitation to take up a real professorial chair in Hamburg was thus a change of immense significance in his life, in the history of Hamburg’s university, and in the German world of higher education.

In the wake of World War I, Cassirer had begun to lose his faith in reason and the neo-Kantian rational view of human behavior. Inspired in part by his friend Albert Einstein’s explorations of physical relativity and in part by his own strong spiritual bent, he turned to the investigation of myth and what he termed “symbols created by intellect itself” to find a way to reconcile science and aesthetics. By 1921, he had coined the phrase “symbolic form” as a way of accounting for the distinctions between sense and intellect. It was in this restless, receptive state of mind that he came into contact with Aby Warburg and his remarkable library. 

He met the library first, through his acquaintance with Saxl; the savagery of the war had sent Aby into a deep depression and a series of sanitariums. In 1924, Saxl arranged a meeting between the two men, an occasion of tremendous significance for both. As the Warburg library provided Cassirer with a means to articulate his complicated thoughts, Cassirer’s compassionate companionship guided Aby back to health. The relationships were never simple. Warburg’s mental agitation had squelched his scholarly productivity, which led him to idolize Cassirer and resent Saxl, who had kept the library going throughout Aby’s stays in the hospital. Cassirer regarded the Warburg Library as a virtual portrait of his own mind, a place where Einstein, Freud, and modern anthropology could keep company with the ancient Greeks and Romans. 

Cassirer’s ideas about symbolic form galvanized another bright young scholar in Hamburg. He was Erwin Panofsky, who was appointed full professor of philosophy at Hamburg in 1926, an exceedingly rare honor for a Jew, followed by appointment as dean of the faculty in 1930–1931. A scintillating teacher, Panofsky applied Cassirer’s aesthetics to the Italian fifteenth century in an influential essay, in 1927, called “Perspective as Symbolic Form,” before moving on to a coin a term of his own—iconology—to refer to the systematic study of images. As short and homely as Cassirer was tall and stately, the merry Panofsky reveled in his nickname, “Pan,” the libidinous ancient Greek goat-god of high living and pan-like terror. In the University of Hamburg’s firmament, he really was Pan to Cassirer’s Olympian Zeus, as histrionic and capricious as a pagan god.

It is one of history’s dreadful ironies that Cassirer’s term as rector of the University of Hamburg, in 1929–1930, should have coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, the terrible German inflation crisis, and the growing power of jingoist and anti-Semitic elements in German politics. Ironically, he completed a book called Philosophy of the Enlightenment in 1932, as the clouds began to gather in Europe. In the spring of 1929, Cassirer accepted an invitation to debate the younger German philosopher Martin Heidegger at a conference in Davos, Switzerland. Levine provides a detailed analysis of this debate, which pitted the genteel, refined Cassirer against the blunt, brash Heidegger in a conflict of generations as well as philosophies (a subject on which Peter Gordon’s Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos deserves special mention). The students who attended this short course tended to side with Heidegger, whose blunt emphasis on studying concrete things (he described it as phenomenology) and aggressive relativism they found more attractive than Cassirer’s reasoned disquisitions on form and symbolism. The subsequent course of philosophy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries still reflects that choice, although the debate happened almost a century ago. Heidegger, of course, became a member of the Nazi Party, by whose efforts Cassirer and Panofsky would soon be compelled to escape from Germany and live out their lives in exile. Levine’s insightful account of this showdown suggests that the students’ reactions to the two debaters were conditioned not only by philosophical criteria but also by their own feelings about gentlemen of the old school and young men on the move, about Jews and German patriotism, about reasoned argument and emotive demagoguery. Heidegger’s intellect was immensely seductive, as a young Jewish student named Hannah Arendt discovered in spite of all the National Socialist cant.

Aby warburg died on the eve of the stock-market crash in October 1929. He missed Cassirer’s tumultuous, difficult term as rector of the University of Hamburg, the Great Depression, the rise of National Socialism, and the elevation of anti-Semitism to German state policy. (Max Warburg, ever Aby’s alter ego, would experience them all.) Cassirer fled first to Sweden and then, with the outbreak of war, to the United States, where he taught first at Yale and then at Columbia. He died in 1945 at the age of seventy.

By 1931, “Pan” Panofsky, not yet forty, was already alternating terms at New York University with terms at Hamburg; when the Nazis came to power two years later, he simply stayed in New York, moving eventually to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, along with other Jewish exiles such as Einstein and the historian Felix Gilbert. Once he arrived in the United States, Panofsky wrote exclusively in English, which had the effect, Levine laments, of blunting the subtlety of his writing. Yet his English prose was sufficiently vibrant, persuasive, witty, and infectiously enthusiastic to make the diminutive Panofsky a giant in his field, with books that have become classics of art history: Studies in Iconology (1939), Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art 1960). All of these works are written in a lucid, delightful style that has been matched by few of his successors. Her assessment of Panofsky is the one aspect of Levine’s account that smells too much of the lamp and not enough of the aesthete.

In the American setting, Dora Panofsky also came into her own as a scholar for the first time. The couple was known among friends as “PanDora.” When Dora died, Pan married a beautiful Bavarian Gentile named Gerda Soergel and returned briefly to Germany, as he declared, simply to meet the in-laws. With its wide range of scholarly disciplines, notably including the sciences, the Institute for Advanced Study provided all the Panofsky family with an ideally stimulating environment; his two sons, Wolfgang and Hans, would become physicists. For his part, Pan was convinced that New York, not Europe, had become the real center for art history.

Aby Warburg’s library narrowly missed destruction, but through the joint efforts of Panofsky, Max Warburg, Fritz Saxl, and another Cassirer student, Edgar Wind, the books were moved to London in 1933, along with Saxl himself and Gertrud Bing. In 1944, the Warburg Library became the nucleus for a new academic center, the Warburg Institute of the University of London, under whose auspices the holdings have grown to 350,000 books, ten times the size of Aby’s original collection. Transplantation inevitably changed the library’s character. Saxl’s fascination with astrology encouraged research into other areas of Renaissance culture that diverged from modern science: topics such as magic, mysticism, what Edgar Wind called, in an important book, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance. Thus Aby Warburg’s efforts to find a scientific basis for aesthetic responses turned, in subsequent generations, into a more specialized search for the legacy of classical antiquity in the European Renaissance. Aby’s huge, unfocused collection of photographs, Mnemosyne, was difficult to use, and it exists now as a historical document; in its stead, in 1948, the young scholars Phyllis Pray Bober and Ruth Rubinstein created what would become the Census of Antique Works of Art Known in the Renaissance. Today, in many ways, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study probably comes closer to Aby Warburg’s vision for his library than the Warburg Institute itself.

The Warburg Library may have presented Ernst Cassirer with the map of his own mind, but for many student users, as Levine notes, it was a forbidding and incomprehensible place, the refuge of a select few. Like the marvelous library of Werner Oechslin in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, and David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California, it was probably most vibrantly alive in the presence of its inventor. (Happily, these latter-day tutelary geniuses are still very much in evidence in their creations.) A century after Aby’s heyday, it is not immediately apparent that a Warburgian arrangement of books, that is, a choice collection arranged alphabetically, will stimulate a more productive train of thought than, say, the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress; both these classification systems were also the product of brilliant and wide-ranging minds, and there, too, the physical rubbing together of book and book can ignite the spark of new ideas. The Vatican Library’s arrangement of books, for a variety of historical reasons, is simply weird—it has absorbed entire collections, each with its own cataloguing system based on such various principles as size, subject, and date of acquisition; but it is hard to imagine a more inspiring place to read, and think, and build castles in the air. Emily Levine shows how crucially time, place, and people can affect what we finally study and ponder; but in the end, if we are lucky, we all make our own Dreamland of Humanists with the materials at hand.