ABY WARBURG’S DREAM:
THE VISUAL LIBRARY OF FERDINAND COLUMBUS
Luis Francisco Martínez Montes
Fragment of Aby Warburg´s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne.
Anyone passionate about books and art associates the mythical Mnemosyne, the Greek personification of Memory, with the name of Abraham Moritz Warburg (1866-1929). Aby Warburg was a member of a Jewish banking dynasty with roots in Venice and Germany. From very early on he was very sure about what he wanted to do with his life and, above all, about what he did not want to do for a living. At the tender age of thirteen, and this is the stuff of history turned into legend, Aby sold his rights of primogeniture to his younger brother Max in exchange for a promise to buy him all the books of his choice during the length of his life, a truly bibliophile treat and a banker´s nightmare. Thus, after his marriage Aby renounced to run the family business and devoted himself to ethnographic studies among the Hopi in New Mexico and then became immersed in the world of Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance, travelling to Italy and settling for a while in Florence at a time when the city was attracting path-breaking art historians and connoisseurs, among them the forerunner of Renaissance studies and the most famous art dealer in the US, Bernard Berenson. In the meanwhile, the pragmatic Max rose to prominence as one of the most successful and innovative financiers of his turbulent times. Indeed, part of the Warburg family escaped from Nazi Germany and prospered as global investment bankers in London and New York. By then and before his premature death, Aby had fulfilled one of his ambitions: the creation of a library based in Hamburg. It was not an ordinary library, but one devoted to Aby´s obsession: the transmission and transformation of images and their meaning. In this regard, Aby considered visual motifs to be as important as words are in their role as vessels carrying the Western tradition from Antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond. He was, in a sense, the founder of Iconology, an approach to art history based on the study of visual representations within its changing cultural and social context. Iconology tries to derive meaning from the interaction between the work of art and its milieu as both co-evolve through time.
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