The Library includes various sections pertaining to the theme of laughter in subject areas as varied as Christian iconography, the iconography of death, caricature, Dutch and Flemish art, Literature and literary theory, religion, philosophy, psychology, festivals, music and rhetoric. These subject areas highlight the character of the Warburg Library as a library of problems rather than as a mere collection of books.


Workshop of Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Dance of Death, Schedel, Hartmann. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg 1493

Ancient to Modern Art (1st floor)

Many figures smile in Western art but comparatively few are represented laughing. Christian iconography does not contain many laughing figures, for Christ never laughs in the Gospels, although painters sometimes depict him laughing in the iconography of the Madonna and child. Laughter sometimes features in scenes of the mocking of Christ. Devils and demons are occasionally laughing in Hell (COK 145), or when attempting to disrupt saintly meditation in the theme of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Death likes laughing too. The theme of the Dance Macabre, rising from the great plague epidemics of the 14th century, often expands the natural rictus of the human skull into the expression of laughter.

Laughers might be spotted among the turbulent dwellers of the marginalia of medieval manuscript illumination, and in particular at section COH 192. Portrait painters seldom represent their subjects laughing - except in the case of fools. The section on caricature follows the rise of this genre from Leonardo to the twentieth century.  More literature on Leonardo's grotesque heads is shelved at CNM 46.

Laughing figures frequently feature in scenes of taverns, gambling houses and brothels, a genre associated with Caravaggism and profusely illustrated in Flemish and Dutch painting of the 17th century by artists such as Pieter Van Laer, aka BamboccioTerbugghen or Brouwer.

By this time laughter had become part of the range of expressions taught in art academies, as confirmed by the Expression des passions de l'âme by French painter Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), of which the Library holds several early editions in French, German and Italian.


Baldassarre Franceschini - One of Father Arlotto's Tricks. c. 1630. Florence, Palazzo Pitti

Language, Literature, Survival of Classical Literature (2nd floor)

The main section regrouping studies on laughter is under classmark EAC 900, a section on Humour and Irony in literature.

On this floor you will also find sources and studies on Greek Comedy (EKH 300 and EKK 510), and on the Philogelos at EKG 500  (Hellenistic literature), the oldest existing collection of jokes.

The reconstituted fragment of Aristotle's lost work on Comedy - the first part of the Poetics - is at EAN 30 while Roman Comedy is at EPH 705.

The NEH section examines the survival and transmission of tales and legends from Antiquity to early modern times. A section on anthologies of comic tales and jokes features at NEH 1415 lodged between books of fables, tales and exempla, and late Antique and medieval accounts of the Trojan war.

The very nature of facetiae is intertwined with laughter. The display holds texts from the Italian tradition, from Poggio Bracciolini and Lodovico Carbone to the Piovano Arlotto and Lodovico Domenichi.  

Have a look at our digitised copy of the classic work on Italian fifteenth-century comic literature, La corrente popolare nel Rinascimento by Domenico Guerri to find out more about, among others, the poet Domenico di Giovannni also known as Burchiello.

Sources and studies on the satirical poetry of the Wandering Scholars and on the medieval collection Carmina Burana are found at NAH 1325 and NAI 2880.  


Democritus from: The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 52, Netherlandish Artists: Cornelis Cort

Religion, Science, Philosophy (3rd and 4th floor)

Religion, science and philosophy are rarely considered breeding grounds of laughing matters. 

GMB 115 on the Old Testament includes a work on humour in the Bible.

BKF 440 is a section that focuses on the parody of prayer during Antiquity.

In philosophy laughter is principally associated with two figures: Democritus and Aristotle. Democritus was reputed to laugh at the world and is often represented in the company of Heraclitus, who was believed to cry at the world. Aristotle was never represented laughing but declared laughter to be a distinctive property of human nature (De Partibus animalium, III, 10), an assertion somehow radicalised by his medieval and early modern commentators who extrapolated that 'le rire est le propre de l'homme'.

Hippocrates' text on laughter is under DAC (4th floor, Psychology and expression). The traité du ris by French philosopher Laurent Joubert is shelved at EAC 900 (2nd floor), the main section on laughter and humour. In tristitia hilaris, in hilaritate tristis, a collection of texts on laughter from Giordano Bruno’s works, is on the third floor at ACH 165


Netherlandish (Possibly Jacob Cornelisz. Van Oostsanen), Laughing fool, c. 1500; Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College.

Social and Political History (4th floor)

The section on psychology includes under classmark DAC a collection of texts and studies on expression with sections on Physiognomy, Gesture and the Origin of Laughter (DAC 1530).

DCA 400 regroups works on seasonal and popular festivals, while fools, frequently represented laughing, are to be found at DCH 655 and DCA 1300 (sources and studies).

The section on theatre includes a subsection on the psychology of theatre (DEA). Placed between the origins of Tragedy and the origins of Shadow play the texts shelved at  DEA 200 focus on the origin of Comedy. DEN deals with the Italian theatrical stage and includes a subsection on the Commedia dell’arte  (DEN 50).

Music does not exclude laughter. We have recently digitised our copy of Le risa di Democrito, an eighteenth-century operatic libretto on the Laughing Philosopher.

If laughing at the enemy is a form of victory, making your adversary look risible and ridiculous is a classical rhetorical strategy expounded by Cicero (De Oratore, II, 236) and Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, VI, 31). These texts can be examined in the sections on rhetoric, placed with the sources of Roman history at HPH 600 (Cicero) and HPH 675 (Quintilian).