Aby Warburg and the Noble Tyrant (1452/1905)

On 10 August 1905, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) sent a cablegram from Brussels to his wife, Mary Warburg (1866-1934), which read ‘good journey, arrived safely.’[1] The twofold aim of this trip was for Warburg to work at the Royal Library of Belgium and to attend the re-enactment of a historical tournament, as part of his research on artistic and cultural exchanges between Flanders and Florence in the fifteenth century. Along with several other events, some of which he also attended, the tournament was organised to mark the 75th anniversary of the independence of Belgium during the reign of Leopold II (1835-1909). From Warburg’s letters to Mary, it becomes apparent that the tournament’s organisers did not quite succeed in their ambition to resuscitate the past or, as they put it, ‘to bring the tournament to life.’[2]

In this blog post, Stephanie Heremans, an Occasional Student at the Warburg Institute and PhD candidate at KU Leuven, tells us more about Warburg’s activities and encounters in Brussels, and offers us an impression of what he witnessed there.

As early as November 1903, in one of his letters to Belgian art historian and physician, Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers (1872-1940), who went by the pseudonym Jacques Mesnil, Warburg conveyed a longing to pursue research at the Royal Library of Belgium on the links between fifteenth-century Flemish and Florentine culture. Mesnil was a lifelong friend of his, a fellow Florentine in spirit, with whom he became acquainted in Florence around 1895. Warburg wrote,

It is rather a shame that you felt so ill-at-ease in the north, and especially in your own Belgium, because extracting more material from the Bibliothèque de Bourgogne would be, has to be, phenomenal for your art history. I profoundly regret that I cannot move to Brussels for ½ a year just once.[3]

In August 1905, Warburg eventually spent one week in Brussels, where he made use of the illuminated manuscript collection of the Dukes of Burgundy at the Royal Library. From his correspondence, we learn more about his own personal experiences there than about his scholarly findings. Again to Mesnil, he wrote, ‘there is a real need for improvement in the invigilatory staff; just like in Florence, all the trained staff disappear “al colpo di stomaco” at 12 o’clock.’[4] In two amicable letters to the library’s director, art historian, Henri Hymans (1836-1912), he criticised the poor work ethic and unprofessional conduct of the staff, mentioning a lack of organisation and watchful eyes in the reading room, as well as an employee’s alcohol-heavy breath after a long drawn-out lunch break. These specific – seemingly ‘petty’ – complaints were indicative of what seems to have frustrated him most, ‘I had the impression that it was insufficiently ingrained into the administrators just how precious the treasures are.’[5] In one of Warburg’s aphorisms, jotted down by his son Max Adolph (1902-1974), his annoyance about such malpractices in libraries wittily resounds, ‘The Bibliotheca Nazionale is no substitute for a bar.’[6]

Max Adolph Warburg, ABC Aby Warburg zu Ehren für 1926. © The Warburg Institute, London.

Together with Hymans and the painter, Karel Mertens (1865-1919), Warburg went to see several flag-waving exhibitions, some of which were part of the jubilee of national independence, presenting the region’s artistic production, ranging from fifteenth-century tapestries, carved altarpieces and applied arts at the Exposition d’art ancien Bruxellois to a retrospective of nineteenth-century Belgian art.[7] Today, the Warburg Institute Archive still holds guidebooks to nearly every exhibition and museum collection he visited during his trip.[8] From these annotated guides and the letters to his wife, we can gather that he especially liked paintings by Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) and Mertens. Before meeting the latter in person, he wrote to Mary, ‘This morning, I saw the marvellously ostentatious Palais de Justice, and a wonderful picture by Karel Mertens, Peasants from New Zealand [sic], at the Mus. mod. [Musée moderne]. The only thing you have missed out on so far.’[9]

Fig. 3. Karel Mertens, La famille zélandaise, before 1902. © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo J. Geleyns
Fig. 2. Salle Constantin Meunier at the Exposition rétrospective de l’art belge. Société royale des beaux-arts, Brussels, 1905.

In his visitor’s guide to the Musée moderne, he noted one sentence in French – most likely something French-speaking Mertens had told him – which alluded to this painting as an image of the close relationship between nature and human life, ‘The earth offering up its golden children to life’s fleeting joy.’[10] In a letter to Mertens (dated 18 August 1905), besides thanking the artist for guiding him through an exhibition, Warburg once more expressed his admiration for the ‘intensity of the consistent attunement of human and nature’ in his early work and suggested that a temporary withdrawal from ‘modern life’ might have a restorative effect on the painter’s creative process.[11] One might say that Warburg was also looking for something of the sort in the historical tournament. To each his own: for the historian of art and culture, immersion in the atmosphere of a Burgundian courtly festival might enrich his research on exchanges between the North and South and cater to his ‘retrospectively directed lust for life.’[12]

When consulting the library of the Dukes of Burgundy, Warburg made the acquaintance of curator, Eugène Bacha (1864-1934). Through Bacha, he met the historian and archivist of the National Archives of Belgium, Joseph Cuvelier (1869-1947), one of the organisers of the historical tournament. Together they discussed the Flemish miniatures he was currently studying, and his research on a Florentine cassone panel (c. 1440) from the workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni (1416-1465), which depicts a jousting tournament in the Piazza di Santa Croce, of which he had brought a large (almost full-size) photographic reproduction with him to Brussels.[13] Cuvelier offered Warburg a ticket to the tournament (performed on 13 August 1905) and also invited him as a critical observer to the dress rehearsal, where he was able to speak with other key players behind the historical reconstruction, and examine up-close the costumes, armour, and weaponry used in it.

Cassone panel from the workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni (1416-1465), Tournament in the Piazza di Santa Croce, Florence, ca. 144

The opening scene of the tournament was the only part that involved a re-enactment of a historical event: a jousting tournament, held on Brussels’s central square on 20 February 1452, in celebration of the eighteenth birthday of the Count of Charolais, later known as Charles the Bold (1433-1477). Subsequent segments of the event were based on broader preparatory research on fifteenth-century tournaments undertaken by Cuvelier and his co-organiser, the army officer, Léon de Witte de Haelen (1857-1933),[14] and featured equestrian scenes (such as a passage of arms and a quintain), armed combat on foot with swords, lances, and hatchets, and a tournament with 531 participants as a grand finale.[15]

In letters to his wife, Warburg provided a complete account of what he had observed. As far as he was concerned, the organisers had failed to achieve their principal objective, that was ‘to offer a faithful representation of a chivalric festival at the court of Philip the Good.’[16] Characterising their attempt as scrupulous, yet naïve, and the outcome as ‘an illusion of the illusory,’ he wrote,

The fine, courteous colonel [Lieutenant Colonel de Witte], and the honest, clever archivist [Cuvelier], who so laboriously considers the illusion of an illusory world to be [the] ‘Renaissance,’ even down to the costumier and the banner painter, together display such refreshing verve in their attempts at reconstruction, that one grows fond of them precisely because they are so utterly incapable of authentically depicting the barbarically elaborate milieu at the court of Charles the Bold.[17]

A scene from the final part of the tournament. Le grand hall du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, 1905.
The impersonator of the Count of Charolais. Le grand hall du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, 1905.

Three key things impeded Warburg from travelling back in time: the benign representation of the Burgundian court’s milieu; the problematic depiction of historical dress; and the modern-day setting. Firstly, the measures put in place to avoid any serious violence (jousting lances were adjusted to bend at a certain point and, thus, their blows were blunted, for instance) resulted in an unsuitably good-natured atmosphere. Secondly, none of the female participants wore a hennin (a conical headdress); in other words, the symbol of the Northern costume style (which Warburg termed alla franzese) was absent. Thirdly, and allegedly for financial reasons, a large hall of iron and glass at the Parc du Cinquantenaire had been chosen as the backdrop for the tournament rather than the historic location of the joust of 1452 (the city’s central square). The hall had been commissioned under the auspices of Leopold II, as the park’s name suggests, for the fiftieth anniversary of Belgium’s independence.

Two days after the tournament, Warburg witnessed a grand historical parade passing through the streets of Brussels. The patriotic pageantry of the 75th jubilee was divided into two segments: the first part celebrated the region’s grandeur from the fourteenth century until Belgium’s independence in 1830; and the second part sang the praises of the country’s technological and infrastructural progress and its colonial expansion during the rule of its ‘philanthropic’ monarch.[18] In his correspondence, Warburg commented briefly on the event, which, he felt, had been ‘splendidly thought through and was effective in its overall impression.’[19]

Char de l’Afrique. Grand parade, Brussels, 1905. © KU Leuven Libraries, Teneo.
Postcard celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Kingdom of Belgium’s independence, 1905. © KU Leuven Libraries, Teneo.

Whilst Leopold II exercised only a limited amount of power in his increasingly democratic homeland, he was, until 1908, the sole ruler and private owner of the Congo Free State (1885-1908), a colonised territory roughly seventy-six times Belgium’s size. The national celebrations in 1905 proudly presented this colonial expansion as an integral part of the country’s history for the first time. Yet, during that same year, when reports and photographs of violence committed as part of the king’s brutal regime appeared in the international press more frequently, the Belgian government was forced by a commission of inquiry to recognise the atrocities.[20]

Although Warburg did not explain why, he remained ambivalent about his Belgian episode. After seeing the grand parade, he wrote, ‘I still do not actually know, whether I like Brussels or not.’[21] All the same, in his Brussels correspondence, in which he incisively critiqued the historical tournament as ‘a sham struggle over a romantic mock battle between princely tyrants,’ he did not mention the Belgian king, the other tyrant hiding in plain sight.[22]

Stephanie Heremans


Stephanie Heremans is a PhD candidate in Art History at KU Leuven. She is working on the project ‘Kairós, or the Right Moment. Nachleben and Iconology’ supervised by Professor Barbara Baert (KU Leuven) in collaboration with Professor Han Lamers (University of Oslo/KU Leuven). This research initiative deals with the reception of kairós in the visual medium from antiquity to the Renaissance by combining perspectives from classical reception studies and iconology.

* At the conference ‘Emotional Objects: Northern Renaissance Afterlives in Object, Image and Word, 1890s-1920s’ (April 2021, Warburg Institute), Stephanie Heremans will present a paper on Warburg’s comparative examination of the historical tournament’s re-enactment in Brussels (1452/1905) and the cassone panel (ca. 1440) from the workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni (1416-1465). A publication based on the conference is planned.

At the Warburg, we welcome applications from international students registered for a PhD in their own country to join the Institute as an occasional student. Find out more.


With many thanks to Helen Shiner for her translation of the excerpts cited from Warburg’s correspondence.

[1] WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 10 August 1905. ‘gut gereist und angekommen.’

[2] Auguste-Théodore Rouvez, Le jubilé national de 1905: Compte rendu des fêtes et cérémonies qui ont eu lieu dans les villes et communes de Belgique a l’occasion du jubilé national, Brussels: Vromant, 1905, p. 125. ‘faire revivre le tournoi.’

[3] WIA, GC [General Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Jacques Dwelshauvers, 9 November 1903. ‘Es ist eigentlich schade, dass Sie sich im Norden und speziell in Ihrem Belgien so unbehaglich gefühlt haben, denn was aus der Bibliothèque de Bourgogne noch herauszuholen wäre für Ihre Kulturgeschichte, muss ja unglaublich sein. Ich bedaure lebhaft, dass ich mich nicht einmal ½ Jahr nach Brüssel setzen kann.’

[4] WIA, GC [General Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Jacques Dwelshauvers, 8 September 1905 (Kopierbuch I, 77-78). ‘die Aufsicht ist aber sehr besserungsbedürftig; gerade wie in Florenz verschwindet das ganze gebildete Aufsichtspersonal “al colpo di stomaco” um 12 Uhr.’

[5] WIA, GC [General Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Henri Hymans, 22 August 1905 (Kopierbuch I, 62-63). ‘Ich hatte so das Gefühl, daß man bei den Beamten von der Kostbarkeit der Schätze nicht genügend durchdrungen sei.’

[6] WIA.III., fol. 13. ‘Die Bibliotheca Nazionale ist kein Ersatz für Nachtlokale.’

[7] WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 15 August 1905. See also Auguste-Théodore Rouvez, Le jubilé national de 1905: Compte rendu des fêtes et cérémonies qui ont eu lieu dans les villes et communes de Belgique a l’occasion du jubilé national, Brussels: Vromant, 1905, pp. 431-445, and pp. 451-476.

[8] See Warburg’s copies of Exposition d’art ancien Bruxellois sous le haut patronage du roi, Cercle artistique et littéraire de Bruxelles, s.l.: s.n., 1905; Catalogue de l’exposition d’art ancient Bruxellois sous le haut patronage du roi: Supplément, Brussels: G. Van Oest & Co., 1905; Alphonse-Jules Wauters, Catalogue illustré de l’exposition rétrospective de l’art belge, Société royale des beaux-arts de Bruxelles, Brussels: Librairie nationale d’art & d’histoire / G. van Oest & Co., 1905, pp. 52-58; Edgar de Prelle de la Nieppe, Catalogue des armes et armures du Musée de la Porte de Hal, Brussels: Émile Bruylant, 1902; Edgar de Prelle de la Nieppe, Guide du visiteur, Brussels: Émile Bruylant, 1903; Joseph Destrée, Tapisseries et sculptures Bruxelloises, Cercle artistique et littéraire, Brussels: Librairie nationale d’art & d’histoire / G. van Oest & Co., 1906 (acquired in 1906).

[9] Mertens’s painting portrays a family from the province of Zeeland rather than New Zealand, a less exotic region to the south-west of the Netherlands. WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905. ‘Ich sah heute morgen den prachtvoll protzigen Justizpalast und im Mus. mod. [Musée moderne] ein wunderbares Bild von einem Karel Mertens, Bauern aus Neuzeeland [sic]. Das Einzige was Du bis jetzt versäumt hast.’

[10] Warburg’s copy of the Catalogue du Musée moderne de peinture, Musées royaux de peinture et de sculpture de Belgique, Brussels: Imprimerie Ad. Mertens, 1903, p. 37, no. 255. ‘La terre offrant ses enfants ornés à la joie courte de vivre.’

[11] WIA, GC [General Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Karel Mertens, 18 August 1905 (Kopierbuch I, 59). ‘Intensität einer einheitlichen Stimmung zwischen Mensch und Natur.’

[12] WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905. ‘retrospektiv gerichtete Lebenslust.’

[13] Claudia Wedepohl, Bernard Berenson and Aby Warburg: Absolute Opposites, in Bernard Berenson: Formation and Heritage, Joseph Connors & Louis A. Waldman (eds.), (Villa I Tatti Series, 31), Cambridge, MA: Villa I Tatti: The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, 2014, pp. 143-171, passim.

[14] To accurately reconstruct the actions, costumes and decoration of a fifteenth-century festival, Cuvelier relied on sources in the national archives, such as the Burgundian court’s account books and illuminated manuscripts, as well as the writings of courtier, Olivier de la Marche (1425-1502), fifteenth-century chronicles, and René of Anjou’s (1409-1480) treatise, Livre des tournois (c. 1462-1465).

[15] Scénario du tournoi de chevalerie représenté dans le grand hall du Cinquantenaire Bruxelles juillet-août 1905, Jette-Brussels: L. Vandamme & Co., 1905, passim; Myriam Cheyns-Condé, Le pas d’armes bourguignon au XVe siècle et sa reconstitution à Bruxelles en 1905, in Publications du Centre Européen d’Etudes Bourguignonnes, 26, 1986, p. 15-29, passim.

[16] Scénario du tournoi de chevalerie représenté dans le grand hall du Cinquantenaire Bruxelles juillet-août 1905, Jette-Brussels: L. Vandamme & Co., 1905, p. 3. ‘représenter l’image fidèle d’une fête de chevalerie à la cour de Philippe le Bon.’

[17] WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905. ‘Der feine nette Oberst [lieutenant colonel de Witte], der biedere und kluge Archivar [Cuvelier], der mit so viel Anstrengung die Scheinwelt einer Scheinwelt für ‘Renaissance’ hält, bis zum Costümier und Fahnen Maler, zeigten eine so erfrischende Verve in ihren Rekonstruktionsversuchen, dass man gerade sie deshalb lieb gewinnt, weil sie so absolut unfähig sind, das barbarisch raffinirte Milieu am Hofe Karls des Kühnen congenial darzustellen.’

[18] Fêtes jubilaires du 75me anniversaire de l’Indépendance nationale 1830-1905: Album panoramique du Grand Cortège historique et allégorique, Brussels: Ville de Bruxelles, 1905; Jeroen Janssens, De Belgische natie viert: De Belgische nationale feesten 1830-1914, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001, p. 83-102, p. 179-202.

[19] WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 15 August 1905. ‘famos überlegt und wirkungsvoll im Gesamteindruck.’

[20] Vincent Viaene, King Leopold’s Imperialism and the Origins of the Belgian Colonial Party, 1860-1905, in The Journal of Modern History, 80, 4, 2008, pp. 741-790, p. 743.

[21] WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 15 August 1905. ‘Ich weiss eigentlich noch immer nicht, ob ich Brüssel mag oder nicht.’

[22] WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905. ‘dem Scheinkampfe eines romantischen Scheinkampfes der fürstlichen Tyrannen.’