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The Library of Aby Warburg

A virtual exhibition based on an exhibition held 13 -17 June 2016 in the Warburg Institute Library

Curated by Michael Thimann and Thomas Gilbhard

Translation by Eckart Marchand

Warburg as a collector

The bookplate of Aby Warburg

The Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) originated from the private library of Aby Warburg (1866–1929). From the beginning, Warburg’s research interests were wide-ranging, encompassing art history, astrology, the afterlife of the antique, Renaissance festivals, the performative culture of trionfi, magic, symbolism, mythography and several other subjects. Many of these topics had only attracted his attention in and through the activity of collecting. The mere act of bringing together books (and images) in his private library allowed issues to be raised, contiguities to be revealed and borders between disciplines to be transgressed. Warburg, however, was a collector of knowledge rather than of objects; and although he was a keen owner of books, they were less important to him as physical items than as necessary instruments in a process of scholarly research. As he put it in 1918, his books served him as “working tools in a scientific laboratory”.

The origins of the library

A famous family legend has it that Aby Warburg, the oldest child of Moritz Warburg (1838–1910) and the expected heir to the family’s banking house, M. M. Warburg & Co., formally ceded his primogenitary rights to his younger brother, Max (1867–1946), who pledged in return that he would purchase any book which Aby desired. This deal, which was agreed in 1879 when Aby was thirteen years old, was important for the library’s history, as the financial security which it provided enabled him to turn his passion for books into a research instrument.

Warburg studied art history at Bonn, Munich and Strasbourg and belonged to the founding generation of the Kunsthistorisches Institut (German art historical institute) in Florence. He spent several years living and carrying out research in this city, initially in 1888/89, then again in 1894, and – most importantly – in the period between 1898 and 1902. Already as a student, Warburg had acquired books in great quantities, a practice which he had to give an account for to his parents; and as a young private scholar in Florence he continued to collect avidly. He bought large numbers of primary source publications and rare sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works, which in Italy at that time were still very cheap. When he returned to Hamburg, these books filled his private home and must have occupied every available corner, almost immediately causing a problem of space.  

The foundation of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) in Hamburg

The library at Heilwigstr. 114 (Italian Room)

The intention of founding an institute can be traced back to 1900, when Aby mentioned to his brother the idea of a “Warburg-Bibliothek für Kulturwissenschaft” (Warburg Library for Cultural Science). By 1905 the library already had statutes and consisted of c. 6,000 books. This was fairly typical for a private professorial library in the German empire of the time. These 6,000 books formed the basis of the later research library, but regrettably there is hardly any reliable information as to which books were bought at this stage. A current research project, however, funded by the Thyssen Foundation, aims to publish the catalogue of the Hamburg Library, and will also provide the first reconstruction of the private library of Aby Warburg.

From 1905 onwards, a register of new acquisitions was kept, and in 1908 Warburg started to employ assistants and then also librarians. In 1909 he wrote to his assistant, Wilhelm Waetzoldt (1880–1945): “I have now got a library for cultural sciences (with a focus on Italy) of ca. 9,000 volumes, to which 600 are added every year, several thousand photographs and a few hundred slides. The aim: a new methodology of cultural science based on the ‘reading’ of the pictorial work. Area: Europe in the fifteenth century. This library will now slowly become a laboratory that works like an institute and welcomes fellow researchers”.

Some facts about the library

The building site of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW)

In 1909 Warburg bought a house at 114 Heilwigstraße in the Hamburg district of Harvesterhude. It functioned both as a family home and as a research library. Here the collection’s character as a typical private scholar’s library still prevailed, but although it was situated in a private home, it was nevertheless professionally run. It was open to visitors and established its profile as a research library dedicated to the art and culture of the Renaissance. Books were kept in all of the rooms, arranged systematically according to different disciplines and research-related problems, and were regularly rearranged.

The library expanded continuously. Precise record-keeping from this period enables us to form a clear picture regarding the numerical growth, both of the overall collection and of the individual topics and scholarly disciplines which it contained. Already in 1911 the library consisted of some 15,000 volumes, but by the time it moved into the new library building in 1926 the number had reached 44,000. When the library left Hamburg on 12 December 1933 it consisted of nearly 60,000 books and 25,000 photographs. Warburg also acquired entire collections. In 1924, for example, he received the library of the recently deceased classicist and expert in ancient astrology, Franz Boll (1867–1924). Boll’s research on the transmission of classical ideas in the Arab world during the middle ages was fundamental to Warburg’s ground-breaking reading of the astrological frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.

The opening of the KBW in 1926

The vestibule of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg

Up until his death in 1929, Warburg himself was the institution’s principal collector. He would spend nights going through booksellers’ catalogues, and corresponded with both new and antiquarian bookshops. Considered as a collection of books, the library therefore represented his life’s work; but it was the art historian, Fritz Saxl (1890–1948), who was of most importance for the transformation of this collection into a semi-public research institute, a status it had gained by 1921. In 1929 Saxl became its first director and it was under him, with the support of Gertrud Bing (1892–1964), that the most important decision for the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg was taken, namely the construction of a new building on the neighbouring plot of 116 Heilwigstraße. This new building was equipped with a reading room, book-stacks on four storeys, state-of-the-art systems for communication and book transportation, offices, a book bindery and a guest room. The library was now a research institute with connections to the University of Hamburg, which had been founded in 1919. The KBW was open to the scholarly community and provided an extensive programme of lectures, had its own series of publications, and developed a strong reputation in the world of academia. This was the place where an interdisciplinary community of scholars came together, among them Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968), Edgar Wind (1900–1971) and Raymond Klibansky (1905–2005).

The arrangement of the books in the new library building

The Reading Room of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg

The inauguration in 1926 of the new library building, with its elliptical reading room, completed the institutionalisation process of the Warburg Library. Having previously been dispersed across Warburg’s private house, the books were now arranged systematically in store rooms. The new building’s layout over four storeys also supported a systematic arrangement of the books according to four categories:

1. Orientation (philosophy, religious studies and history of science)

2. Image (art history, archaeology and early cultures)

3. Word (mainly ancient and post-medieval literature)

4. Action (history, social history, history of festivals, theatre and technology)

Yet even this arrangement was conceived of as a dynamic system. For reasons of pragmatism, however, the books in the building remained in a static arrangement, so that in the Institute today they follow roughly the same order that was established around 1930

The place of the library in the history of scholarship

The Reading Room of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg

The significance of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) for the history of scholarship derives from its character as a research library clearly concerned with specific modes of enquiry. At the KBW the acquisition of books was not governed by any commitment to ‘universality’, but was instead considered carefully in relation to the institution’s research programme. What was entirely new in this context was the combined investigation into research areas and disciplines that had hitherto been studied separately, such as art history, religious studies, studies in literature and cultural studies, as well as theatre and festival studies, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, astrology, magic, studies of the occult, the history of astronomy and of science, and many other subjects.

The motivation for this new type of book collection can only be understood in relation to the personality of Aby Warburg. It is reflected in the interdisciplinary arrangement of the books according to the categories of “orientation”, “image”, “word” and “action”. Warburg’s remark about the “good neighbourhood of books” had its material manifestation in the dynamic arrangement which initially ordered the library’s collection. The KBW was not conceived simply as a library, but as a research tool. It was shaped like no other through the charisma of its founder and by the ‘leitmotiv’ of all his research: the ‘afterlife of antiquity’. By bringing together the sources and theoretical concerns of different disciplines, the library revealed the similarities which existed among each of the investigative approaches pertaining to these disciplines and promoted the insight that multiple problems cannot be solved by considering each of them in isolation.

Fritz Saxl on the library's research programme, 1930

Warburg and Bing in Italy, 1928-1929

“The Bibliothek Warburg is both a library and a research institute. It is dedicated to working on a single problem, which it addresses in two ways: firstly, by representing it through the selection, acquisition and arrangement of books and images, and secondly by publishing the outcome of research that concerns itself with this problem. The problem is that of the afterlife of antiquity. European and Middle Eastern civilisations of the Christian era have adopted the heritage of antique prototypes, and they have done so in all areas; in art, in science and in the fields of religious and literary forms. Our task is, on the one hand, to examine the historical facts of this transmission and to illustrate, as completely as possible, the migratory routes of this tradition. On the other hand, we aim to draw general conclusions with regard to the function of human social memory: what kind of ancient prototypes are these to be able to have such an afterlife? Why do certain periods have a ‘Renaissance’ of antiquity and why do others, while sharing the same cultural heritage, not make this heritage part of its active living culture?”  

An international Warburg Library network

From the 1920s the Warburg Library owed its unique politics of publication to a close-knit network. The great collective ventures of the Warburg Institute profoundly altered our perception of occidental intellectual history through publications like the Latin and Arabic Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi (1940-1962) or the belated but all the more famous Saturn and Melancholy (1964). This exceptional constellation of researchers—amongst others, Ernst Cassirer, Fritz Saxl, Gertrud Bing, Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind, and Raymond Klibansky—who, throughout the group’s dispersion and exile to England, the US and Canada, kept safe, and further developed, the Warburg Library heritage.