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Daring to be different

October 24, 2009

A library established by Hamburg-born Jewish art historian Aby M. Warburg narrowly escaped destruction by the Nazis to become one of the most significant book collections in Europe to this day.

The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Barticelli
Warburg examined the influence of the Antiquity on later worksImage: Galleria degli Uffizi

He was "a Jew by birth, a Florentine in spirit, and a Hamburger at heart." That's how art historian Aby Warburg saw himself in his own words. One of his most outstanding achievements was the founding of the Warburg Cultural Studies Library, which was officially opened in 1926.

With four levels, the library was not exactly small, but it was designed in a space-saving manner. Narrow corridors and low doors awaited the visitors behind a red-brick facade. The library's infrastructure included the most modern technology of the time for transporting the books from one place to another, including special conveyor belts. There were 26 telephone connections, a pneumatic tube, and an elevator for books and for staff.

A costly blank check

Aby Warburg
Warburg was a great achiever, though plagued by mental instability

Warburg financed his library through his father's banking firm, and later through that of his brother's, who had moved to the United States.

"When Aby was 13 years old, he offered me his firstborn rights," said Warburg's brother, Max. "Since he was the oldest, he was meant to go into the family business. I was 12 at the time and agreed to buy his firstborn rights. But he asked me to promise that I would always buy him all the books that he needed. And, after short consideration, I agreed."

In this way, Warburg's brother closed the deal - without realizing that this "exchange" involved writing out what was probably the most expensive blank check of his life.

Behind the achievement of the library, there was a fragile human being. With his poor health and bouts of depression, Warburg from time to time underwent psychotherapy.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, he suffered a mental breakdown - a culmination of his phobias, obsessions and delusions. At the same time, however, he managed to gain widespread acclaim as an art historian, private scholar and researcher.

A non-traditional approach

Warburg was not interested in a purely aesthetic approach to art history. His personal focus was the debate over the legacy of Antiquity, which he approached with his portrayal of Sandro Botticelli's works, the art of Florentine painter, works by Albrecht Duerer and ancient pagan prophecies in written and visual representations.

"One day, I'm sitting in the library's lecture room with a newspaper from 1915," said Rene Drommert, a student librarian at the Warburg House in the 1920s.

"Suddenly, Aby Warburg appears and says, 'What are you doing there, Mr Drommert?' And I say: 'I'm interested in the World War I era.' Warburg then bends over the desk and points to an advertisement offering flour and potatoes in exchange for a carpet. And he says: 'Naturally, you have the include things like this to get a good idea of the cultural and social life at the time.'"

A French poster from the 1890s, advertising champagne
For Warburg, art was not just aesthetics, but the way people livedImage: AP

In Warburg's lifetime, the Cultural Studies Library was considered to be an intellectual center in the Weimar Republic - and it remained that way till after his death on October 26, 1929.

Many renowned scholars worked in the library's reading room, including Ernst Cassirer, Erwin Panofsky and Albert Einstein. According to Charles Hope, art historian and director of the Warburg Institute in London, what stands out is the prevalence of Jewish scholars at the library.

"In my opinion, these people did not think that their Jewishness had a large influence on their scholarliness," said Hope. "Their Jewish background was of limited importance to them."

Second start in England

This was until the rise of the Nazi party threatened the library's survival and forced it to move to London, which it did on December 12, 1933.

Thanks to generous support on the British side, the library was preserved. Today, with 350,000 books, it is called the Warburg Institute and it is still one of the most significant humanities-oriented book collections in Europe.

A reading room in the Warburg House
The Cultural Studies Library is one of Europe's most important book collectionsImage: Andre Beyer

The library gained its good reputation thanks to its unusual collection of books, as well as its interdisciplinary classification system, which links together very different subject areas: psychology and anthropology, theater, celebration and music, astrology and astronomy, chemistry and mathematics.

Warburg himself had arranged the books in an interdisciplinary manner, and even the library's architectural details reflected his educational motivations. In the center was an oval reading and lecture room, because "Warburg wanted an elliptical shape, as he believed that it helps people stay alert, whereas a circular room makes you sleepy," according to Hamburg art historian and Warburg scholar Martin Warnke.

"Also, it was because astronomer Johannes Kepler had proved that the earth and other planets followed an elliptical orbit," said Warnke.

Author: Michael Marek (ew)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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