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TitleThe History of Warburg's Library (1886-1944)
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arburg's problem only in its current formulation as the 'history of the
'ssical tradition'l will here learn to see that Western civilization is one,
cl cannot be carved up into departmental concerns. Warburg's foundation
aId not have maintained its appeal had he not found disciples and suc­
,sors who adapted his ideas to the needs of successive generations of
)rking scholars. It was Fritz Saxl, above ail, who with the help of Gertrud
ng and the other early members of the team translated \Varburg's vision
such an instrument into reality. It is fitting, therefore, that this book

:)uld close with the memoir in which Saxl, some time during the Second
orld War, told the story from first-hand experience.

See pp. 16 and 27.




In 1886, at the age of 20, Aby Warburg started to keep regular accounts
for the purchase of books. His funds were then very moderate but the
fact that he made systematic entries shows that he was already library­
conscious. In later years Warburg used to tell his friends about the event
which had made him realize that his purchases had gone beyond the needs
of his own work and thus consciously to begin buying books for pupils
and successors. He wished to purchase two expensive series of volumes,
the publications of the Chalcographical Society and the luxuriously pro­
duced and learned year-book of the Imperial Collections in Viennal . He
asked his father for the necessary sums, explaining that this purchase meant
more than the acquisition of two grand series-it meant laying the foun­
dations of a library for future generations. The request was granted and
with financial help from his family Warburg began to collect books system­
atically. This was in 1901-2. By 1904 the library was sizable enough and
had taken a sufficiently definite shape for Warburg to make provisions
for it to be handed over to a learned institution in the event of his death,
with the proviso that it must be kept as a separate unit2• It was to go either
to the City Library of Hamburg or to the German Institute in Florence,
two institutions with which Warburg was closely connected in those early
years and to which he felt indebted all through his life.

An experience of his enthusiastic student years induced him to make the
experiment of founding a library. At Strasbourg University, when working

* This memoir was drafted around 1943, but apparently never finished or circulated,
since the last paragraphs only exist in pencilled notes. I have supplemented the text
at one point from Saxl's unfinished biographical sk etch of Warburg written in 1944.

1 For these early stages see now Warburg's letters quoted above, pp. 45f and 129f.
2 Diary, 23 March 1904.

Page 2

326 F. SAXL

on the subject of Botticelli's two mythological masterpieces, he realized
that any attempt to understand a Renaissance painter's mind was futile
if the questions were approached from the formal side only. At that time
the seminar building at Strasbourg consisted of a number of cells con­
taining specialized libraries and the student was given freedom to use
them all. Warburg, in his burning desire to unriddle the mystery of the
pictures, went from one of these seminar libraries to another, pursuing his
clues from art to religion, from religion to literature, from literature to
philosophy. To give the student a library uniting the various branches
of the history of human civilization where he could wander from shelf
to shelf was his resolve. The Government would, in his opinion, never be
willing to create such an instrument. The initiative must come from the
private sector and he persuaded his family to accept financial responsibil­
ity for this novel and costly enterprise. Such a project was highly unusual
at that time in Germany, where the Government normally provided the
funds for learned institutions. But Warburg's plan was unusual; it did not
fit into the official scheme which recognized only two categories, the small
specialized library or the big universal storehouse of books. He had been
to England and to the United States where two of his brothers lived and
had seen the workings of private enterprise in the field of learning in
these countries. In Hamburg, which had undergone such strong English
influence, there was a chance that the unusual plan might succeed. It was
a town of merchant-adventurers without a university and its hierarchy of
professors, but with an old- established tradition of learning. This was the
right soil for such a private foundation.

True-Hamburg was remote from the recognized centres of learning.
Short as the geographical distance is from Berlin, a whole world of history,
customs, and thought divided the two cities. And how different was
Hamburg from any of the renowned smaller university towns such as
Gottingen, Heidelberg, or Jena. Hamburg'S interests lay overseas, her
administration was run on Hanseatic local government lines. At the be­
ginning of this century, on the other hand, Hamburg's schools were
progressive,' adult education was on a high level, public collections were
flourishing-and all these activities differed from those of the rest of
Germany. Hamburg was going ahead, but remained isolated in her progress
as well as in her intensely traditional attitude. \XTarburg's foundation shared
this isolation, and the young enterprise grew up undisturbed by the noises
of a flourishing university.


When I first saw the Library in 1911, it was obvious that
lived for a number of years in Italy. In spite of its compreh
work it was essentially German and Italian. It had at tha
15,000 volumes and any young student like myself must ha
bewildered when entering it. On the one hand he found an
lection of bibliographies, most of them unknown to him and a
his labours; on the other hand very detailed collections, partI.
like astrology with which he was hardly familiar. The arrang
books was equally baffling and he may have found it most pecu
that War burg never tired of shifting and re-shifting them. E
in his system of thought, every new idea about the inter-relation
him re-group the corresponding books. The library change
change in his research method and with every variation in
Small as the collection was, it was intensely alive, and Warburg
shaping it so that it might best express his ideas about the hi

Those were the decades when in many libraries, big and s
systematic arrangements were thrown overboard since the o.
no longer corresponded to the requirements of the new age.
was to arrange the books in a more 'practical' way; standardi
betical and arithmetical arrangements were favoured. The fil
the systematic catalogue became the main guide to the stu
to the shelves and to the books themselves became very rare
ries, even those which allowed the student open access (as
Cambridge University Library), had to make concessions to
age which increased book production from day to day ane
grouping the books in a strictly systematic order. The bool
file catalogue replaced in most cases that other and much me
familiarity which is gained by browsing.

Warburg recognized this danger. He spoke of the 'law (
neighbour'. The book of which one knew was in most cases
which one needed. The unknown neighbour on the shelf c
vital information, although from its title one might not have
The overriding idea was that the books together-each Ce
larger or smaller bit of information and being supplemented­
bours- should by their titles guide the student to perceive
forces of the human mind and its history. Books were for W
than instruments of research. Assembled and grouped, they {
thought of mankind in its constant and in its changing aspect

Page 12

337 F. SAXL

al was successful shows the reputation which it had won by

Iy months of 1933 it had become clear that our work in Ger­

ome to an endl . There was as yet no outside interference;

rere far too busy to care for such things as a private learned

[ndependent and privately organized research in the field of

ies would, however, never have been able to survive in a

alist Germany-quite apart from racial discrimination, which

Nuremberg days was not quite so patent and threatening as

ugh, as yet, many friends advised us 'to stay put'. Only a year

dy would have realized that this was impossible. When in

t volume of the Bibliography was published-an enterprise as

n-political as any humanistic institute could produce-the
bachter dedicated a full-page review to it, equally outstanding
e and insolence. Had we still been in Germany at that time
nt on collaboration with our old friends, the situation would
itical. Some of them would have quickly severed all connec­
s, while others more faithful would have bravely tried to
il they, too, were forced by law and suffering to submit against
nce .
.e memorable events of those days was a visit from a young
riend of the Institute, Dr. R. Klibansky. Filled with horror
he saw going on at Heidelberg University, where he was a
the teaching staff, he had conceived the idea of creating a
rning outside Germany where the old tradition of German
ould be preserved. We decided on united action. The mem­

nstitute's staff-irrespective of race-and the Warburg family
·gration. But emigrate to where? In Leiden some friends at

ty offered us excellent free accommodation and every oppor­
ork, but no Dutch funds were available and our financial
insecure once we left Germany. We could obviously not

ransfer of funds from Germany.
:ly summer months Dr. \X'ind, a member of the staff since
o negotiate in England where he had made friends in former
working on the English eighteenth century. There were a

ertrud Bing's 'Memoir', loc. cit., and Eric Warburg's account of the
Institute to England in the Annual Report of the Warburg Institute,


number of scholars in this country watching with compassionate anxiety
what was happening in German universities. A council had been formed
in order to inform English public opinion and to provide 'academic as­
sistance'. Two members of the Academic Assistance Council, Professor
W.G. Constable and Professor C.S. Gibson, both of London University,
went to Hamburg in order to investigate the position of the Warburg
Library on the spot. But no financial support was as yet forthcoming and
the German situation deteriorated from month to month. Then a third
visitor, Sir Denison Ross, came to Hamburg. He had the sharpened in­
stinct of a man who had travelled widely, always on the look-out for new
scholarly experiences. Above all he was an enthusiast. A few weeks after
his return to London a telegram arrived with good news and an invitation
to come over for discussions. A donor who wished to remain anonymous
had promised to supplement the reduced funds provided by the Warburg
family and Lord Lee of Fareham had consented to act on his behalf.

The transfer of the Warburg Institute from Hamburg to London in
1933 was an unusual event. One day a ship arrived in the Thames carrying
six hundred boxes of books plus iron shelving, reading desks, bookbinding
machines, photographic apparatus, etc., etc. Ten thousand square feet were
wanted to house the Library. Circumstances were favourable; Lord Lee of
Fareham had secured accommodation in Thames House, a large office
building in Millbank which, in 1933, was not yet fully occupied. Mr.
Samuel Courtauld and the Warburg family in America promised to provide
the funds.

But how could the six people who came over from Hamburg with the
books set to work? The language in which they wrote-even if the words
were English-was foreign because their habits of thought were un-Eng­
lish; and whom could one reach from this curious ground-floor Library
in a gigantic office building, who would read what these few unknown
foreigners produced? It was a strange adventure to be landed with some
60,000 books in the heart of London and to be told: 'Find friends and
introduce them to your problems'.

The arrival of the Institute coincided with the rising interest in British
education in the study of the visual documents of the past. The Warburg
Institute was carried by this wave, and its methods of studying the works
of art as an expression of an age appealed to some younger scholars. A
number of German refugees who had not belonged to its staff became its
collaborators and enlar2:ed the contact with En2:lish scholars.

Page 13

338 F. SAXL

In 1936 the University of London had agreed to house the Institute
until 1943, when all its financial resources were due to come to an end.
What would happen after that time was hopefully left undecided. When
war broke out the books were evacuated. One member of the original
staff was killed in an air raid and publishing became increasingly difficult.
Would anybody in 1943 be willing to continue supporting this skeleton?


Fritz Saxl would hardly have planned to conclude his memoir with
this rhetorical question had he not known at the time that the answer was
at least in sight: the most generous of all patrons was willing to take
over the whole responsibility for Warburg's heritage-the British taxpayer.
Among the factors which led to this decisive turn of events was a com­
parison that had been made by way of spot checks between the Institute's
Library and that of the British Museum. It showed that some thirty per
cent of the titles of books and periodicals brought over from Hamburg
were not to be found in that great treasure-house of books. On 28 Novem­
ber 1944 the Warburg Institute was incorporated in the University of
London. Subsequent developments may be found chronicled in the Insti­
tute's Annual Reports.




1. 'Matteo de' Strozzi. Ein italienischer Kaufmannssohn vor
Hamburger Weihnachtsbuch, 1893.

2. Sandro Botticellis 'Geburt der Venus' und 'Friihling'. Bine Unt.
die Vorstellungen von der Antike in der italienischen Fr
Hamburg and Leipzig, 1893 [see pp. 56-66, 100, 127, 18

2a. 'Vier Thesen', appendix to the above (see pp. 56, 66, 82
3. 'I costumi teatraii per gli intermezzi del 1589. I disegni

Buontalenti e il Libro di Conti di Emilio de' Cavalier
AccadeJlJia del R. Istituto Afusicale di Firenze, 1895: CO!?
della Riforma Me!odraJlJmtztica [see pp. 85-87, 266].

4. 'Amerikanische Chap-books', Pan, Vol. 2, No.4, April

5. 'Sandro Botticelli', Das Museum, Vol. 3, No. 10, Berlin at:
1898 [see p. 97].

6. 'Die Bilderchronik eines florentinischen Goldschmiedes
A Florentine Picture Chronicle ... by Maso Finiguerra wit
and descriptive text by Sidney Colvin ... , London, 1898
AIIge1neinen Zeitung, No.2, 3 January 1899 [see pp. 98­

7. 'Ein neuentdecktes Fresko des Andrea del Castagno', Bet'
gemeinen Zeitung, No. 138, 20 June 1899.

8. 'Flandrische und florentinische Kunst im Kreise des Lor
urn 1480' (lecture summary), Sitztlngsberichte der KU11st:
Gesellschajt zu Berlin, 1901, VIII [see p. 133].

9. Bildniskunst tl11d florentinisches Biirgertum. Domenico Ghirlall,
Trinita: Die Bildnisse des Lorenzo de' iYfedici und seiner
Leipzig, 1902 [see pp. 128, 169-170].

10. 'Flandrische Kunst und florentinische Fruhrenaissance',
koniglich Preussischen Kunstsammlttngen, 1902 [see pp. 1
162 f., 166, 167 f.].

11. 'Die Grablegung Rogers (van der Weyden) in den Uffiz

Page 24


iy to sense in these words how deeply Warburg himself felt the
~ opposing psychological forces, how profoundly he experienced
£containing'the chaos of unreason' by a 'filter system of retro­
eRection'. It was this need that had given rise to his plan for a
of images in which each of the symbols was to be assigned

place. He continued to work on this magnum opus during the bare
ths that were still granted him. The description of this gigantic
belongs to a separate chapter.



The nature of the work which was interrupted by Warburg's fatal heart
attack on 26 October 1929 should be clear from the history of the project
which was partly traced in the last chapter. Its nucleus was formed by ex­
hibition screens arranged to illustrate the two main strands of Warburg's
scholarly concern-the vicissitudes of the Olympian gods in the astrologi­
cal tradition and the role of the ancient pathos formulae in post-mediaeval
art and civilization. These two interconnected themes were to provide the
material for the principal movement of a vast pictorial symphony to which
other themes were to be added which might have formed a scherzo and a
triumphant finale. Warburg had announced in December 1927 that he
proposed to compose such a work in the form of a 'picture atlas', the
title of which would be Mnemosyne. All the lectures and investigations
on which he was henceforward engaged were to be incorporated in this
large work of synthesis. In practice that meant that he pinned the relevant
photographs on the screens and frequently re-arranged their composition,
as one or the other of the themes gained dominance in his mind. On
Warburg's death there were forty such screens, most of them crowded
to capacity with photographs, large and smail, making a total of nearly
one thousand. There were no captions and no detailed commentaries by
Warburg, the only coherent texts he had written being passages he had
dictated to Gertrud Bing in Rome in connection with the lecture in the
Hertziana (pp. 272-3) and the study of Manet's 'Dejeuner' (pp. 273-7).
In addition there were, here as always, the many notes Warburg had jotted
down, planning screens and trying out titles for individual sections or for
the work as a whole.

To the reader who has had the patience to follow the development of
Warburg's thought through the four decades of his intellectual develop­
ment, these juxtapositions of pictures and these fragments of text will be
no more enigmatic than they were to Warburg and his immediate
environment. He will probably understand that a note on 'The Hennin as

Page 25

285 THE LAST PROJECT: Mnemosyne

ne between the old and the new style'1 refers to the symptom­
tance Warburg attached to the appearance and disappearance
dian fashions in Florentine prints, and he would expect such
:! shown on the screen. He would know that 'Neptune's chariot
'2 referred to Warburg's interest in the symbolism of power as
on a British stamp and in Mussolini's Italy (p. 265), and he would
)rised to find such items illustrated. A reader, on the other hand,
unged into this chapter without this lengthy process of initia­
: likely to feel as bewildered as did the author of this book when
eyes on the photographs made from the screens which were

1e plates of the so-called 'Atlas'. It was indeed my conviction
leas underlying Afnemosyne could be made accessible only by
ir growth in Warburg's mind that sent me back to the earlier
and ultimately led me to a genetic approach. For in the history
s's development lies the key, not only to his private language,
the form which he ultimately wanted to give to his life's work.
LxI presented Warburg with the screens for the arrangement of
as he must have known that this device was specially suited to
needs. The method of pinning photographs to a canvas pre­

:asy way of marshalling the material and reshuffling it in ever
:lations, just as Warburg had been used to re-arranging his index
his books whenever another theme became dominant in his
scholar who wrote with such difficulty and who felt the need
is formulations incessantly was here presented with a method
Id ease his labours.
) accident, moreover, that Warburg found writing such a pain­
[e was always so deeply convinced of the complexity of the
rocesses that interested him that he found it increasingly vex­
~ to string up his presentation in one single narrative. Every
work of the period he had made his own was to him not only
forward and backward in a 'unilinear' development-it could
:lerstood by what it derived from and by what it contradicted,
mte, by its remote ancestry and by its potential effect in the
:n in his early notes \Y/arburg had been fond of mapping out
lex relationships in diagrammatic form in which the work he
19 was represented as an outcome of various forces. It was in

ng, Notebook, 1927- 28, p. 15I.
e Idem, Notebook, 1927, p. 62.


these diagrams, in fact, that Warburg's private notation first appeared,
'Ny' signifying 'Nympha' and all that that figure embodied, while individual
images, standing for tendencies, were also abbreviated into shorthand

It was the philosophy of 'bipolarity' in particular which Warburg was
testing and developing in these kaleidoscopic permutations that go back
to his studies of Flanders and Florence. The fact that every image seemed
charged with conflicting and contradictory forces, that the same 'pathos
formula' spelt 'liberation' in one respect and 'degradation' in another,
made it most difficult for Warburg to present the complexity of his hist­
orical view in discursive language. We have seen that he gave up publishing
this particular body of material in an adequate form after years of struggle
that led to virtual paralysis.

It was in fact in this context that the idea of solving the impasse by
using illustrations first turns up in Warburg's notes. In 1905, at the height
of this crisis, there is a reference to an 'atlas' to be entitled 'The entry of
antiquity into the pathos-style of early Florentine Renaissance painting',
listing four areas which were presumably to form the subjects of such

Der Eintritt der Antike in den
pathetischen Stil der Florentiner Friih­
renaissancemalerei: der Triumphbo­

The cycle of the triumphal arch, the genkreis, die Riickkehr der Victo­
return of Victoria, the substitution of ria, die Substitution des hofischen Gen­
the courtly genre picture; the cycle of rebildes; der Bilderkreis der Lein­
images on Burgundian panni dipinti. wandbilder aus Burgund.

(Festlvesen, p.73).

But this psychological need to tell a complex story by means of pictures
was certainly reinforced by the existence of a precedent that must have
become of increasing relevance for Warburg as he turned from the study
of 'expression' to that of 'orientation', that is to the image of the stars.
For here there existed a model of such an 'atlas'.

The ethnologist Adolf Bastian, with whose work Warburg had come
into contact in his formative years, had accompanied one of his most
theoretical books, Die Welt in ihren Spiegeltmgen unter dem Wandel des Volker­
gedankens ('The World in its Reflections in the Changing Thought of the
Peoples')!, with an 'ethnological picture-book' in the form of an 'atlas'

1 Berlin, 1887.

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