Warburg, Aby

Warburg, Aby (Abraham Moritz Warburg), 1866–1929, German historian of art and culture, b. Hamburg, studied art history in Bonn, Munich, Florence, and Strasbourg, where he received a doctorate with a dissertation (1891) on Botticelli. The scion of a wealthy German Jewish banking family, he became interested in art, literature, and cultural history at an early age, and at 13 relinquished his interest in the firm in exchange for the unlimited ability to buy books. He first traveled to Italy in the 1880s, and developed a strong interest in the Italian Renaissance. He conceived of the Renaissance as the recurrence of certain ancient ideas and images, the study of which he termed “iconology.” Enlarged and codified by his student and colleague Erwin Panofsky as the study of iconography, the concept dominated art history in the second half of the 20th cent. A trip to the American Southwest (1895) aroused his interest in Native American iconology, which deepened his ideas about the way images were transmitted across cultures. Warburg also developed the concept of “engrams,” the “memory traces” of humankind that recur through history as images. His final project, Mnemosyne [memory], unfinished at his death, was a kind of atlas that showed the interconnected meanings of visual images across time.

Warburg established the Warburg Library in 1900, and in 1909 it to a house in Hamburg; he soon hired young art historians to manage the collection. In 1921 the library became a research institution, now known as the Warburg Institute, and its sponsorship of lectures and publications expanded. With the rise of the Nazi regime (1933), the institute moved to London, becoming part of the Univ. of London in 1944. It has been directed by a series of distinguished art historians, most notably E. H. Gombrich. Specializing in cultural and art history and the history of ideas, the Warburg is organized in an idiosyncratic manner that encourages the discovery of unexpected connections. The future of its library was threatened in 2014 when the university began a lawsuit to merge the books into its library system, but the court ruled that the Univ. of London was required to maintain the Institute and its integrity.

See biographies by E. H. Gombrich (1970, repr. 2012) and F. C. Slovin (2006); studies by P. Burke (1999), R. Woodfield (2001), P. A. Michaud (2007), M. A. Russell (2007), C. D. Johnson (2012), and E. Cassirer (tr. 2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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