Meet the Warburg: John Tresch, Professor of History of Art, Science, and Folk Practice
In this blog series, we introduce you to the people who bring the Warburg to life. From library staff to lecturers, find out more about the people working at the Warburg Institute.
In this interview, we chatted with our Professor of History of Art, Science, and Folk Practice, John Tresch. Read on to discover more about his career, what led him to the Warburg, what prospective students can expect from the Warburg's MA in Cultural, Intellectual and Visual History and more.
Please could you tell us a bit about your background and career?
I was born in the USA. I first studied anthropology at the University of Chicago. There was a totem pole in the lobby of the anthro department. I thought I would study shamanism in the Amazon. But I took courses in history, art, literature, philosophy, and when I won a fellowship to Cambridge, I switched to History and Philosophy of Science and did a PhD there. It’s an amazing department. I wrote about how the arts and philosophies of romanticism contributed to the industrial revolution in France and led to the 1848 revolution - and that became my first book, The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. During my PhD I was also enrolled at the Ecole Normale in Paris, a very intense place! I had fellowships in New York and Chicago, and started teaching in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. I was there for 12 years in the department of History and Sociology of Science. My next book was also about romanticism and technology, but focused on the horror writer, Edgar Allan Poe, and his relationship to science. Now I'm writing a new history of science focused on changing images of the universe.
What led you to work at the Warburg Institute?
I've always been interested in the connections between science and what now gets called magic or esotericism - how what we now call science was inseparable from theology, religion, and technology. And how “modernity” emerged out of all kinds of relationships between cultures, ideas, groups, practices. At Penn, I taught about Aby Warburg and always included work by Frances Yates in my history of science lectures, and I knew her work on the importance of “hermeticism” to modern science started at the Warburg. I spent some time at the Institute and was fascinated by the place; I was amazed to learn about Warburg's interest in Native American cultures. My wife is English and works in London, so when a new position as “Professor of History of Art, Science, and Folk Practice" came up at the Warburg it seemed like it was written for me. I've learned so much from my colleagues, students, the visiting fellows, and the library. The early modern period is incredibly complex and exciting; I'm also interested in making Warburg's connections to the 20th-century human sciences more visible.
Students who are applying to the MA can come to me with questions about the content; I often talk with them about what we do here and how it might fit with their interests. When they arrive I'm also someone they can talk to about their studies or if any issues come up. I was part of the committee that redesigned the MA several years ago and my colleagues and I make the decisions about curriculum, admissions, and overall direction of the MA. I co-teach in the core course, "Reviving the Past," and teach my own module, plus give lectures on alchemy and scientific images in "Methods and Techniques of Scholarship" and "Image to Action." Along with lots of other people here, I keep the MA on track and help students along the way.
What would you say to prospective students considering the Warburg’s MA postgraduate programmes?
To my knowledge there's no other programme like it - where you're intensely focused on Renaissance ideas and images, the history of exchanges of goods, people, and ideas across the globe, the history of scholarship, and current debates in intellectual and cultural history. You get an incredible amount of class time - in modules, in Latin, in paleography, in Techniques of Scholarship - and the chance to work closely with the instructors, especially for the dissertation, which lets you do original and independent research on a topic you choose. The students come from a lot of different backgrounds and have tons to offer each other, in shared experiences, support, and fun. But I also make it clear to prospective students that it's a serious program that takes a serious commitment: the first term in particular is demanding. Students learn a lot and it’s a unique and hugely rewarding programme— but it takes work.
Could you tell us more about the MA course module 'Cosmological Images: Representing the Universe' that you teach?
It takes on the history of science and ideas as a history of ways of understanding the universe as a whole - the relationships between humans, divinities, the earth, and all the domains of nature. It looks at how these views of the universe get realised in specific objects, artworks, buildings, epics, and how they change over time. So the course connects philosophy, religion, and history of art, in order to think about what people are doing when they represent the totality of the universe to each other, and how these kinds of representations orient their activities and are part of political struggles. It's also an introduction to the past 500 years of history of science and the hidden histories that feed into it.
Do you have a particular favourite moment whilst working at the Institute?
I think of the Institute as a kind of “synchronicity generator.” Lots of weird coincidences and fortuitous meetings happen here, between people, ideas, books - so I don't even think of them as weird anymore, they're just a normal part of life. My most recent thrill was discovering two books about exhibitions on "Cosmological Monuments" from the 1950s which connected a bunch of dots. I also have really fond memories of the "Contemplative Clinic" workshops and the "Eccentric Courtyard" meetings, with ice lollies, in the summer just before the construction began.
With the Warburg Renaissance building project in full swing what are you looking forward to about the new design?
I’m really excited to see workshops and lectures in the new elliptical auditorium. And looking forward to studying the Eranos Archive in the Photo Collection!