- Aby Warburg’s Pentimento
in tenui labor
Georg. 4, 6
Aby Warburg’s1 first teaching engagement after his return from Kreuzlingen,2 the 1925 seminar on “The Significance of Antiquity for the Stylistic Change in the Italian Art of the Early Renaissance” (“Die Bedeutung der Antike für den stilistischen Wandel in der italienischen Kunst der Frührenaissance”), was also the first occasion on which he could claim the title of professor that he had been granted in absentia by the recently established University of Hamburg.3 The significance of this test can be understood both as a further confirmation of his full recovery4 and as the inaugural [End Page 140] moment of a new phase of his life, the last fruitful years of activity still granted to him, years he liked to refer to as his “haymaking in a thunderstorm” (“Heuernte bei Gewitter”).5 One may also understand how, at the end of the seminar, he could breathe a sigh of relief at having overcome the hurdle: “This part of my existence has gone—thus far—as desired.”6
On the opposite end, in preparing its opening meeting on November 25, 1925, Warburg had felt the need to put the proceedings under the auspices of two “guiding mottoes” (“Leit-Wahlsprüche”) that also served as “guiding principles” (“Leitsätze”) for the entire seminar:7 “[1.] We seek out our ignorance and attack it wherever we find it 2. God is in the detail” (“Wir suchen unsere Ignoranz auf und schlagen sie, wo wir sie finden 2. Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail”).8 On the next page of his notes for that meeting, Warburg underscores the importance of his idiosyncratic ars nesciendi9 before repeating his most famous motto, to which he appends, without elaborating further, the note: “Improvement of the method 1902” (“Verbesserung der Methode 1902”).10
As far as I know, Wuttke is the only interpreter who has commented upon this laconic remark,11 and he has taken it as a programmatic statement in nuce: in other words, what Warburg was aiming for with his 1925 seminar would be an improvement over the method of 1902, and the motto would hence be meant to sum up the new approach. It seems, however, to be more consistent with the overall retrospective tone of the entries and with the claim that the second motto had been inspired by the “example of the great German philologists”—above all Hermann Usener, whose lectures he had attended in Bonn12—to assume that the improvement of method to which [End Page 141] Warburg is referring actually took place in 1902, and that now, as he was pulling the threads of his life and activity together again, he would be arching back to that crucial moment. Either way, as Wuttke recognizes without attempting to answer, whether it is the improvement on a previously applied method or the very one that he intended to improve on in 1925, the question that begs to be asked is: what is the nature of Warburg’s 1902 method?
Before surmising an answer, it is important to realize that, at this juncture in which he throws a first retrospective glance over his life, Warburg singles out that year as marking a turning point. It is, however, a year that has been largely bypassed in most reconstructions of his activity, dependent as we are on a still incomplete edition of his writings.13 Two substantial publications of his were issued in 1902: the essay on The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie, in book form, and the one on “Flemish Art and the Florentine Early Renaissance,” in the Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen,14 which were to be the first in a series of installments meant to supplement Jacob Burckhardt’s posthumous essay on portraiture.15 In spite of their undeniable importance, however, I will argue that the defining moment that Warburg was eager to mark in retrospect is the writing of a text that is still virtually unknown to the public, as Warburg himself seems to have repressed its memory and neither his literary executors nor his biographers have come to...