It is the diaphanous title and about time that defines the work of art. It comes from a descriptive proposal about the Aby Warburg library that I published at the time, inspired by the emblem Per aspra ad astra of the old family business in Piccadilly. “If I do not reach the light from above, I will search in the darkness”, proclaimed the Virgilian imprecation towards the teacher. provocative challenge. Warburg was a privileged figure of nineteenth-century historiography, certainly, endowed with a remarkable capacity for synthesis and the persevering demand of the detective to interpret the “wuthering clouds” of the modern artistic experience. His style, however, was far from transparent, to the point that the extraordinary 20th-century art historian Gombrich came to the London Institute as a reliable interpreter of the Hamburg thinker’s writing.
Too much emphasis has been placed on the fact that Aby Warburg aspired to the narrative style of humanism, fascinated by the new conception of reality that was intuited as possible in the Renaissance. With a caution that distanced the thinker from those chimerical worshipers of beauty who described the idealistic aesthetics of the 1800s, he was addicted to scientific thought. He had been brought up in a kind of secular Judaism, in the messianic religion of renunciation and severe control of feelings, in an extreme economy of sensitive emotions, as suggested by a categorical maternal letter of admirable precision: “He checked things in the books, read aloud and little by little, only in this way was he able to transmit his knowledge to others”. The love of reading, of books, was the first passion of the historian, who after a fruitful life died unexpectedly in 1929. Not a trace of the wealthy dilettante, simply a venial neurotic, in clinical diagnosis. “Erudition and disciplined reading were well-regarded pursuits among gentrified Judaism at the end of the 19th century,” Gombrich asserted.
Warburg: “Art should be one more cardinal sign to clearly understand what we see”
However, and here lies Warburg’s first singularity, he did not access classical culture through the epic literature fantasized by academic rhetoric, but rather from the genuine Renaissance figurative plastic, sculpture in particular that admired the Laocoonte’s overexpressive Marienism and the contagious interpretation of Lessing’s Romanesque imprint. The nature of the sensitive image was the place of social ethics that guarantees personal morality in a decisive expression to understand the task of the historian.
Warburg was ironic about the philisterism of his contemporaries and angrily defended the romantic artists against the sumptuary period painting of the salons of rising capitalism. Nymphs, satyrs in naked dance that only invoke the degraded classical skill. Perhaps Böcklin had sensed the pagan imagination that Warburg was tracking in the Renaissance, and this was his historiographical commitment, the emotion of the “refreshing beat of wind and waves”. The daring gesture would consist of keeping one’s distance and trying to understand the artistic object through plastic comparisons that stimulate the field of vision, as Warburg demands when speaking of the sculpture of his time. “Art would have to be one more cardinal sign to clearly understand what we see”, the historian defiantly concluded in 1908.
Perhaps from this unprecedented confession stems the incorruptible scientific will that colors the revolutionary historiographical activity of Aby Warburg, with the complicity of his then fiancée Maria Hertz, as they imagined in Florence while planning various alternatives to understand Botticelli’s art in its dazzling totality. Maria, a young painter, stimulated Warburg’s willful foray into the Renaissance: rejection of the conservative canon of the Academy, of the workshops, but at the same time absolute distrust of the art of “la maniera”, so close to the contemporary controversy between realism and impressionism. , which isolated the supporters of new art in the Paris of the time into antagonistic factions. The Renaissance, then, seen not as a mere age of “artistic titans” but as the historical moment in which the scientific perspective found confirmation to trace the profile of modern man, as Leonardo had creatively shown.
Warburg’s fragments on Leonardo demonstrate this. And it was in this controversial climate that Warburg’s artistic intuition was formulated for the first time, when he envisioned a forceful intellectual revolution in January 1899. “He urges me to establish the foundation of my library and photographic collection…which represents a considerable and perhaps unattainable investment of audacity.” However, when he is embedded in Botticelli’s misty cosmos, Warburg gains the clear idea that the dimensions of humanism are complex and go beyond mythological legends and moralizing images. Good and evil were identified with the silent acceptance of religious beliefs, but beauty and good now illustrate the same thing, we read in a Warburgian fragment from 1899. A first full-fledged methodological requirement: weave into the artistic story the historical physiognomy of an era –artistic objects as part of the civil life of an era–, and here emerges the grateful admiration for Burckhardt’s work The Culture of the Renaissance, and the daring comparison between the nymph and Sarah Bernhardt, which dazzles to the young Warburg. “The posthumous life of the images of Antiquity” was the audacious project that would fill the life of the great historian and justifies his perennial artistic influence. A Hamburger at heart, a Jew by blood, a Jew by birth and a Florentine in spirit, this is how his contemporaries saw him.