Life after the Warburg: Fabio Tononi
After completing his MA and PhD research at the Warburg Institute, alumnus Dr Fabio Tononi founded the Edgar Wind Journal, where he serves as editor-in-chief, and is now a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the Humanities (CHAM) in the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences (FCHS), NOVA University of Lisbon.
We asked Fabio to tell us more about his work as editor-in-chief of the Edgar Wind Journal, his new role as a Post-Doc in Lisbon, his experience at the Warburg Institute, and how studying at the Institute helped shape his research interests and career.
You are the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Edgar Wind Journal. Could you tell us more about the experience of founding a new journal and what your position entails?
The idea to found a journal on the works and research interests of Edgar Wind was presented to me by Bernardino Branca, who is writing a PhD thesis on Wind at the University of Kent. Starting an academic journal today is simultaneously a significant challenge and a very rewarding experience. Among the most important criteria, a journal has to meet international academic standards, organise an editorial board of specialists (in this case, we had to involve scholars who have worked on Wind or the Warburg circle), curate the website, and find contributors. We have already published two volumes, the first in October 2021 and the second in April 2022. We are now working on the third volume, which will be out in October 2022.
Wind played a critical role in the history of the Warburg Institute, inasmuch as he worked as a research assistant to Aby Warburg at the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg – Warburg’s private research library, which is dedicated to the study of the ‘afterlife of antiquity’ (Nachleben der Antike). For this reason and due to his affinity for Warburg’s way of thinking, Wind considered himself Warburg’s sole intellectual heir.
We hold the view that we need a new generation of scholars who are willing to assess Wind’s intellectual path in its entirety. There is extensive unpublished material in the Wind archive at the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford that should be investigated to obtain a better picture of Wind’s contributions to philosophy, cultural history, and art history. The antagonism between Wind and Ernst Gombrich and their different interpretations of Warburg’s thought and contributions should be addressed more deeply. Another vital aspect to address is the role of pragmatism in Wind’s thought.
You are also a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the Humanities (CHAM) within the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences (FCHS) at NOVA University in Lisbon. Could you tell us about this position?
CHAM – the Centre for the Humanities – is one of the largest Portuguese research units that focuses on the humanities. CHAM is a multi-cultural and collaborative environment that brings together researchers with training on different periods, disciplinary fields, and areas of history. In this sense, my experience at CHAM continues my path at the Warburg Institute, which also is distinguishable due to its multidisciplinary structure. CHAM is the ideal setting to continue my cross-disciplinary research on the aesthetic responses to works of art and images from an experimental aesthetic perspective. From September 2022, I will also teach aesthetics, metaphysics, and axiology to undergraduate students in a seminar that I have organised with Professor Sabina de Cavi, titled Metaphysics, Aesthetics, Axiology: Issues in Contemporary Art Theory and Practice. This pedagogical experience as a philosophy teacher will interconnect with my research activity.
In addition to the above, we know you are working on other research projects and activities. Could you tell us a bit more about them?
Together with Professor Jaynie Anderson and Bernardino Branca, I am co-editing a book on Edgar Wind that will be published by Peter Lang in 2023. It gathers the proceedings of the conference held at the Italian Cultural Institute of London in October 2021 on Wind’s works and intellectual career. My contribution investigates the contrasting interpretations of Warburg’s opus by Wind and Gombrich, particularly as it relates to the role that Robert Vischer’s notion of Einfühlung (empathy) played in Warburg’s research on the creation and perception of images. My argument is that studying the biological basis of empathy may shed new light on its role in aesthetic response, thus confirming Warburg’s insights and supporting Wind’s interpretation. In this respect, Vischer’s notion of Einfühlung and its application to the study of images by Warburg is at the core of my research, which is also a continuation of the new investigatory path established by David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese in their respective works on experimental aesthetics.
In parallel, I have been engaged in a major study on the aesthetic responses to static works of art and images, specifically those that include the representation of emotions, (suggested) movements, pornography, sound or noise (e.g. music, crying), and the appearance of the unfinished. This research aims to show the biological underpinning of the aesthetic responses to the visual arts to assess the role of emotion, empathy, imagination, and memory in these responses. I see this research as a continuation of the greatest books on the phenomenology of imagery ever conceived: Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, on the one hand, and Gombrich’s Art & Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, on the other. Furthermore, a reconsideration of Aristotle’s concept of Aisthesis (sense perception) underpins this research. In fact, a study of sense perception must take into account the biological functioning of the perceiver (as Aristotle himself indicated), the way in which the body-brain system reacts to specific images, and how nature and nurture interact in the creation, circulation, and perception of images in different cultural contexts.
Metaphysics and experimental metaphysics are also at the core of my current investigations. This research focuses on the essence and tasks of philosophy and science and the possible dialogue between the two. It is grounded on Aristotle’s definition of philosophy as the study of being, reality, and thinking and Martin Heidegger’s definition of philosophy as thinking and science as knowledge. A further contribution to this debate is offered by Slavoj Žižek, who adds that science, apart from being knowledge, is also capitalism, highlighting the social dimension of science and its ethical implications. Starting from these assumptions, I criticise Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s claim that philosophy is dead and, therefore, can no longer answer big questions. On the contrary, I maintain that – while philosophy must always take into account the most recent results provided by quantum physics, quantum cosmology, and cognitive science – numerous issues cannot be entirely addressed without the contribution of philosophy, including the following: the majority of the questions regarding the concept of being and the essence of reality; the notion of truth; the social consequences of scientific discoveries; and the ethical and moral questions that investigate what is good and evil in a particular community.
Finally, I am conducting a study on postmodernism and social media. More specifically, I am investigating the role of capitalism, consumerism, and liberalism in the production, circulation, and consumption of images on social media like Instagram. In my view, this new phenomenon has brought to the fore the extreme consequences of what Günther Anders called ‘iconomania’, a concept that can be applied to today’s worldwide image-sharing habit. In the age of social media, people spend their time posting images of the most banal actions of everyday life – from looking in the mirror to getting dressed, from eating to travelling, from having a shower to crying, from buying commodities to grimacing. This phenomenon has an important impact on the social life of an entire generation of people, with dramatic aftereffects in the psychological (e.g. increased anxiety, depression, and solitude) and political (e.g. the manipulation of voters and flattening of the political message) spheres. By applying Alain Badiou’s analysis of the concepts of ‘the disorientation of the world’ and ‘true life’, I intend to show the main features of today’s society as represented on social media and its decadence.
How would you describe your experience at the Warburg Institute?
My experience at the Warburg Institute started in September 2015, when I was enrolled in the MA course in Art History, Curatorship, and Renaissance Culture, in partnership with the National Gallery of London, and ended in February 2021, when I received my PhD. From the beginning, I was fascinated by the history of the Institute, the intellectual structure of the library, and the life and research of Aby Warburg. In particular, I was fascinated by how Warburg surrounded himself with a group of promising researchers and established philosophers from different disciplines to fulfil his study of das Nachleben der Antike (the survival of antiquity). A critical element that has changed my idea of scholarship was my encounter with a research tradition that applies a multidisciplinary approach to the study of visual culture. This line of research was established by Warburg, who put in dialogue art history, anthropology, psychology, and biology to investigate the survival of antiquity in later cultures. Also, Gombrich, the director of the Warburg Institute between 1959 and 1976, applied an interdisciplinary approach to the study of images, relying on experimental psychology to investigate the essence of the creation and perception of artworks and images.
Further, I was impressed by the intellectual calibre of Professor Freedberg (he was the director of the Institute from 2015 to 2017), with whom I soon established a close intellectual relationship (he supervised my MA thesis and later became my main PhD supervisor). In 2016, Freedberg established a scientific lab at the Warburg Institute, the Body & Image in Arts & Sciences (BIAS) project, led by Professor Manos Tsakiris. As described by Professor Tsakiris, BIAS ‘is an innovative interdisciplinary research programme that merges perspectives from cognitive neurosciences and psychology with those from the humanities and arts to study the performative power of images’. In line with Warburg’s original idea to build bridges between the humanities and sciences, BIAS was able to forge innovative synergies across those disciplines. BIAS played a pivotal role during my stay at the Warburg Institute. I was able to establish a fruitful collaboration with Professor Tsakiris’s lab, which enabled me to engage in cutting-edge research on experimental aesthetics as I developed my PhD dissertation, titled ‘A Neuroaesthetic Approach to the Study of Responses to Unfinished Works of Art of the Italian Renaissance’.
What are the most relevant features of studying at the Warburg Institute?
In my view, one of the most important aspects of studying at the Warburg Institute is the possibility of designing a multidisciplinary research project to understand the mechanisms underlying the functioning of some aspects of civilisations. A significant asset is the research library, which is freely accessible and organised according to Warburg’s idea of the ‘law of the good neighbour’, which allows scholars to make interconnections between (apparently) independent subjects such as the history of art, science, superstition, literature, religion, philosophy, and so on. Another essential research tool is the Photographic Collection, which holds an enormous quantity of images, catalogued according to iconographic motifs. Warburg’s image selection method is summed up in his most ambitious project, the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, which visually expresses his idea of the ‘Survival of the Classics’.
Furthermore, for those interested in Warburg’s thought or the so-called Warburg circle, the archive is a precious place that has conserved Warburg’s writings (and the writings of other scholars associated with the Institute). By consulting his notes, it is possible to understand Warburg’s thought process and methodological approach. Finally, another important feature of the Warburg Institute is the contribution that, during its history, many distinguished scholars and thinkers have left. I am thinking about Fritz Saxl, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Cassirer, Edgar Wind, Frances Yates, Ernst Gombrich, Arnaldo Momigliano, Michel Baxandall, David Freedberg, and many others. All of them left significant contributions based on the Institute’s resources, improving our understanding of the images and cultures of different ages, both at an historical and a theoretical level.
Could you please describe your research and activities during your time at the Warburg Institute?
During my MA, I investigated the representation of gestures and emotions in Luca Signorelli’s San Brizio Chapel of Orvieto (1499–1504), a topic I would like to approach from an experimental aesthetic perspective. I also studied the iconography of The Madonna and Child with Saint Joseph, Saint John the Baptist and a Donor (1517) by Sebastiano del Piombo, preserved at the National Gallery, and Moses Maimonides’s and Baruch Spinoza’s works discussing the imagination of the prophets. This topic is another line of research that I would like to develop further since the process of imagination is an important phenomenon that I am still working on. Another project considered the role of portraiture in the fresco cycle of the Room of the Months at Palazzo Schifanoia, a mural painting also investigated by Warburg.
Finally, my MA thesis was a first attempt to investigate the aesthetic responses to unfinished works of art like Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Slaves. I developed my first results on this topic during my PhD. I hypothesised that imagination plays a crucial role in the aesthetic responses of beholders to different types of incompleteness, which can be demonstrable empirically. To this end, among other types of incomplete figures, I focused on the depiction of human figures with missing faces, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Study of a Bust of a Woman. Then, I connected this visual pattern to Nancy Kanwisher’s studies on the face fusiform area, which is devoted to the perception (and imagination) of faces, and the so-called neural filling-in process, a phenomenon that occurs when we see incomplete forms, both in real life and in artistic representations. I have also connected these images to Gombrich’s concept of the ‘ill-defined area’ – that is, figures that distinguish themselves in their inclusion of a meaningful absence – and the neural mechanism underlying its perception. In this way, I explored the neural process through which beholders may complete in their minds the blank spaces present in incomplete figures.
During my PhD, I also organised three seminars: the Aby Warburg Reading Group and Seminar (2020) at the Italian Cultural Institute of London, the Seminar on Freedom and Free Will (2019–2020), and the Erasmus and Luther on Free Will Seminar (2018–2019), both at the Warburg Institute.
Why did you decide to start a project in experimental aesthetics, and why did you begin studying neuroscience?
My interest in experimental aesthetics and neuroscience started during an informal chat I had with Professor Freedberg a few days after starting my MA at the Warburg Institute. At that time, I was already aware of Semir Zeki’s and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s research in neuroaesthetics. However, Professor Freedberg directed me towards the research of the Parma team of neuroscientists who discovered mirror neurons, a class of neurons that perform a critical role in empathy. Afterwards, I started reading articles by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, and David Freedberg, and I realised that a new and fruitful line of research was opening up that continued the insights of Gombrich, a scholar I have always admired. Freedberg’s and Gallese’s research in experimental aesthetics mainly focuses on the aesthetic responses to emotions and movements in static artworks and the role of emotional and empathic responses in the (visceral) understanding of images.
In that same period, in 2016, I learned about an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York on unfinished works of art, the title of which was ‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible’. I immediately connected the phenomenon of the unfinished to the experimental aesthetic research, and I thought that I could broaden the research initiated by Freedberg and Gallese and before them by Zeki (who mainly focuses on beauty), investigating the aesthetic responses to unfinished works of art and the role of imagination in these types of responses. My subsequent readings of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sigmund Freud, combined with the most recent scientific research on imagination, reinforced my original idea, namely that the observer of incomplete figures tends to complete them in their mind due to specific brain activities. My study of Warburg’s works, mainly grounded in the anthropology of memory and the biology of images, further confirmed the direction I had chosen to pursue.
The dialogue between art and neurophysiology allows us to find emerging problems (e.g. How do people react to images? Why do we identify viscerally and bodily with what we see? Why are we happy when we see someone dancing?), provide novel interpretations to past research (e.g. the works of Lessing, Freud, Warburg, and Gombrich), and answer philosophical questions (e.g. the biological substrate of memory, imagination, and interoceptive empathy) that a traditional historical approach cannot. In this sense, it is crucial to understand how the brain works. However, this kind of research cannot be done by scientists alone because it is also essential to know art history, cultural history, aesthetic theories, and the artists’ motivations. Therefore, a fruitful collaboration between scientists and humanists is fundamental, a premise already understood by Warburg and Gombrich, for example. There is a level of understanding of images that is immediate, pre-reflective, visceral, and universal – it may be conscious or unconscious. Charles Darwin understood all this when he studied the expression of emotions in humans and animals. Recent empirical research has confirmed Darwin’s assumptions. From this, we deduce that biology is part of history.
Although much work remains to be done, it is clear that, in the near future, historical and philosophical research on the arts will increasingly have to take neuroscientific findings into account.
How did your experience at the Warburg Institute help to equip you for your career?
My experience at the Warburg Institute has been critical in allowing me to pursue my academic career. The MA programme is structured to equip students with the necessary skills to write essays, navigate archives, build an argument, contribute to the existing literature, and distinguish between primary and secondary sources. Moreover, the experience at the National Gallery, for those who choose the MA in curatorship, is crucial to understand the complexity involved in the structure and functioning of a museum. Regarding the PhD programme, a doctorate at the Warburg Institute brings students to a further level of competence by supplying them with the necessary skills to deliver a paper in front of an audience, organise conferences and seminars, and apply for funding and fellowships.
Furthermore, the close-knit environment of the Institute opens up many possibilities. For instance, it is easier to get to know your colleagues, leading to opportunities to organise and engage in collaborations, and the relationship with the staff is closer than at a large college. Finally, the fact that the Institute is not only a teaching centre but also a centre of research gives students a sense of what the job of the researcher entails.
Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place of study, and why?
One of the primary missions of the Warburg Institute is to promote interdisciplinary research to understand cultural history. Most of the time, it is at the intersection of disciplines that it is possible to answer the great problems related to, for example, the creation, dissemination, and perception of images. Therefore, to anyone interested in investigating topics in cultural history from a cross-disciplinary perspective, I strongly recommend the Warburg Institute.
What advice would you give to graduating students?
I suggest taking advantage of the research library. I also recommend integrating their research with the material contained in the Photographic Collection and, if possible, visiting the Archive. However, studying at the Warburg Institute does not mean that one has to rely only on the material preserved there. The Institute is situated in a strategic location, Bloomsbury, which is the intersection of many important libraries, bookshops, colleges, institutes, and museums. I am thinking about the Senate House Library, the British Library, and the British Museum, to mention a few. To conclude, my advice is to be curious, ambitious, and imaginative, absorbing the wealth of resources this place has to offer as much as possible.
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Fabio Tononi is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the Humanities (CHAM) of NOVA University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Social and Human Sciences (FCHS) and teaches metaphysics, aesthetics, and axiology at NOVA University of Lisbon’s Institute of Art History (IHA). He is the editor-in-chief of the Edgar Wind Journal and a steering committee member at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory within the Institute of Modern Languages Research, part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. His research interests include the essence and tasks of philosophy and science (particularly regarding the works of Martin Heidegger), the writings of Aby Warburg and Edgar Wind, the aesthetics of Sigmund Freud, the relationship between art and cognitive neuroscience (specifically as they relate to memory, imagination, empathy, the unfinished, motion, and emotion), the interconnection between art and ideology, and postmodernism.