From a review by Ingrid Rowland of Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School by Emily J. Levine (Chicago)
For more on Aby Warburg's fascinating life see here.
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.
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.)
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.)
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