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.
The Academy of Baccio Bandinelli, by Enea Vico, circa 1544. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Aby Warburg´s emphasis on the value of images as cultural conveyors and his Jungian acceptance of the irrational, including magic and myth, as an integral part of the Western collective mind worth studying, preserving and divulging let him devise the so called Mnemosyne Atlas as a complement to his beloved library. Both were meant to be a kind of repository, in words and images, of the Western humanistic tradition, conceived of not as a harmonious and static paradise where gods and men dwell peacefully, but as a Nietzschean struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian resulting in a permanent tension of irrational and rational forces that we try to suppress at our peril. The Atlas and the Library were also unique in the sense that they were not to be organized according to any orthodox system of classification but following what Aby called the “law of the good neighbor”. He arranged books, captions, paintings, photos or engravings neither alphabetically nor by subjects, but by original themes of truly Borgesque resonances, like “monsters”, “magic mirrors” or “miraculous birth”.
Basilisk in the Aberdeen Bestiary, XII Century. Aberdeen University Library.
The labels in the Mnemosyne Atlas are even more fanciful. What survives of the original and unfinished project are a number of photos of vanished collages with reproductions of recurrent classical motifs and their migrations in space and time– the Nymph and the Atlas were among Aby´s favourite time travelers- as well as excerpts from manuscripts, all assembled under headings like: Coordinates of Memory: Man and the Cosmos (the Tornabuoni family, Leonardo da Vinci, the Zeppelin); Re-emergence of antiquity. Engrams: defense, annihilation, apotheosis. The Mother, the Angel, the golf player (prints, stamps) or Migrations of the Ancient Gods: The wandering and disguise of ancient Gods between East and West (Baghdad, Toledo, Padova, Rimini, Ferrara; 13th-15th Century). Somehow, this apparently chaotic system mirrored Aby´s own unsettled mind – he was prone to frequent depressions and was confined to mental institutions more than once- but it was also premonitory of things to come. Modern cultural critics see in the Mnemosyne Atlas both a precursor and a clarion heralding the advent of the visual age we are now immersed in. Its seemingly serendipitous way of ordering images and texts, extended to the Warburg Library, is also related to the manner contemporary Internet search engines work. When we google any word or series of words we receive on screen a selection of entries and, say, Google Images that complement each other in ways that sometimes escape our comprehension but end up making sense. And there was, after all, a lot of sense in Aby Warburg´s projects though, admittedly, they were precocious for his time, were they not? Well, actually they were not. They were a belated attempt at reconnecting with a thread that goes all the way back through Early Modernity and Late Antiquity to the origins of the Western tradition when science and magic, reason and the subconscious, the numinous and the secular, the word and the icon coexisted without contradictions or, better said, were all accepted as complementary and necessary poles of reality and the human experience.
In an age of specialization and compartmentalization, Aby´s dream, and ultimate tragedy, was to celebrate and to recreate a world -and the knowledge of it- that was once whole.
That dream was not unique to him. It has been shared and sometimes it has been close to becoming real in different epochs thanks to a number of kindred spirits whose incarnations, though dwindling in number, are not extinct.
Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, attributed to Xie Huan, circa 1437.
Perusing through my own library, I recently found one of those devoted spirits in a not entirely unsuspected place, though embodied in a man not many people have heard of, shadowed as he was in life and still is in posterity by the fame of his father. I found, as I said, one of those rare spirits in the pages of a book on Ferdinand Columbus, Renaissance Collector, a topic about which the British Museum dedicated an exhibition and a catalogue in 2005.
Ferdinand (1488-1539) was Christopher Columbus’s natural son. In those times those were inauspicious beginnings in most instances, but the great discoverer took good care to advance his son´s career by securing for him a position as page at the service of Prince Juan, the heir to the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella. As a grown up, Ferdinand Columbus accompanied his father on his fourth and final voyage to America in 1502 and wrote the great sailor’s first biography, Historia del Almirante. Like his father, Ferdinand became a discoverer, though of a different kind. He was neither interested in opening up new oceans, nor in conquering distant lands and souls for Kings and Popes and Fame, but in collecting books and prints and in gathering knowledge. In a way, father and son represented those two quintessential figures of Early Modernity: the explorer and the humanist. Both opened up new avenues for the expansion of human agency, the intellect and the spirit, though, of course, critics would say that what they did and the way they did it inaugurated the era of Western imperialism at the expense of anyone else on the globe, but that is another debate.
After his father´s death in 1506 and thanks to his humanistic education at the Court and his first-hand experience of the New World, Ferdinand became a counselor to Emperor Charles V, whom he accompanied on numerous journeys and on whose behalf he conducted several sensitive diplomatic missions. In one of those trips he met and befriended the great humanist Erasmus and it is quite probable that he also encountered Albert Dürer, who was at the forefront of the burgeoning printmaking industry. Though there is proof of his passion for books and learning since he was an infant, it was during those journeys that Ferdinand accumulated what was, probably, the largest private library and print collection in his time, comprising more than 15.000 books and 3.204 prints. We know those numbers with accuracy because Ferdinand’s own inventory was rediscovered in Seville and made public in 1998. Unfortunately, this catalogue is all that remains of the original collection, which has all but vanished, as it was also the case with the library that contained it as part of Ferdinand´s mansion on the outskirts of Seville, known by his contemporaries as the new Mount Parnassus.
The Rhinoceros by Albrecht Durer, 1515, was one of the several prints by the German artist that were catalogued in Ferdinand Columbus´ visual Library.
And it is precisely thanks to the surviving catalogue that we can have a glimpse at Ferdinand´s success as an innovative collector. It was an exploit that was mainly made possible thanks to his father´s legacy, partially secured after years of posthumous litigations on his behalf, since the great discoverer had fallen into disgrace at the Court before his passing away in Valladolid. Like it was the case centuries later with Aby Warburg, Ferdinand´s grand humanistic project was only feasible thanks to his having access to a regular and sizeable source of income during his mature years. This should not be considered as an indictment against him, or against Aby W. to that matter. On the contrary, both men could have frittered those rents away as so many idle inheritors have done throughout the ages. Instead, they chose to invest their riches in collecting and advancing knowledge, not only for them but for future generations as well.
One thing that relates Ferdinand Columbus´ own project with the one envisioned centuries later by Aby Warburg is the same importance both men attached to the written book and the recorded image as cultural transmitters from the past to the present and into the future.
Another similarity is their capacity to discover, as Goethe would have put it, elective affinities in the vast variety of things and to find the visual representation that best could reveal those mostly hidden but far from impossible connections among them (let us here remember Warburg’s “law of the good neighbor”).
Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531), The Peoples of Africa and India, 1508, one of the prints in Ferdinand Columbus´ visual Library related to the Age of Exploration.
Both men were also alive and active amidst epochal changes. In the case of Ferdinand, Early Modernity provided the ideal context for his vision. It was the perfect time for speculating and exploring, physically and intellectually. At a practical level, the arts and crafts were benefitting from dramatic innovations in technology. Woodblock and intaglio printmaking, along with book- printing, exploded in the West at the time of the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. Both the rediscovered legacy from Classical Antiquity and the novelties unveiled by explorers and conquerors could be multiplied and distributed to vaster audiences than in the past thanks to the new techniques of reproduction and the emergence of markets for books and prints all over Europe. It was a symbiotic process that embraced both technological progress and the expansion of subject matters both for the creative and the inquisitive minds, thus radically changing and widening the human experience. It also made it possible for men like Ferdinand Columbus, humanist scholar and wanderer, to have the world, literally, before his eyes and at his desk even when he was not on the move. But it was not enough to enjoy such a privilege, unheard of just a generation before. It was also essential for the new brand of Early Modern men to prevent the chaos that could ensue from such a dramatic encounter of times and spaces, hence the need to find new ways to catalogue words and images and also to establish meaningful relationships between them. In those efforts undertaken by librarians and collectors the taxonomic reorganization of the world through books and prints went hand in hand with its reinterpretation, its comprehension and, ultimately, with the desire and will to possess it, intellectually and materially.
what Ferdinand had in mind was, literally, a Universal Library befitting a Universal Empire inspired by Humanistic principles.
In a Memorial he wrote to the Emperor Charles V asking for a regular endowment to finance his plan, he stated that his aim was to create a place where ‘all the books will be gathered, in every language, and concerning all the sciences and the arts”, in a manner reminiscent of the famous and long extinct Library of Alexandria created in ancient times by Ptolemy Soter. A fellow scholar and friend, the Flemish humanist Nicolas Cleynard, also saw in Ferdinand’s project a political purpose when he wrote addressing the Spaniard: “As your illustrious father has planted in the new World Spanish might and civilisation, out of a surprising prodigy, so you, as a fair compensation for the benefits provided by your father, gather the wisdom of the whole universe in Spain”.
El Escorial Library, Spain.
Ferdinand Columbus’ Library was devised not as an enclosed and static realm where books and prints would just be collected and embalmed, but as an institution of learning with librarians and scholars in residence and a staff of professionals devoted to its care as it expanded. Its functioning was governed by a Regla inspired by those of the monastic orders, though adapted to a scholarly life. Furthermore, the Library was to be complemented with an Academy modeled on similar examples from Classical Antiquity. In Ferdinand’s original plan, this Academy was to be mainly specialized in Mathematics, seamanship and navigation, those practical areas of knowledge most beneficial to an enlarging Empire. Unfortunately, Ferdinand Columbus died before his plans were completed. The contents of the book and the print collections, disputed by his inheritors, were dispersed and the dream of a Universal Library vanished with them. What remains is the epitaph devised by the man himself to describe his vision, which he equated with that of Ptolemy and his Library. A vision that had as its source of inspiration the Muses who dwell in the Castalean Springs as keepers of the various realms of knowledge: “Behold what one brings forth having sweated through all the globe/ And three times travelled through the New World of his father/ What one had only imagined upon the lovely banks of peaceful Baetis/ Riches after I had had my inspiration/ So that I might engender for you the approving nods of the fountain of Castali/ and offer treasures together with those which Ptolemy did (…).”
Aby Warburg’s Library, though, still exists and is housed in the University of London, in Woburn Square not far from the British Museum, where it moved from its original headquarters in Hamburg during the dark ages of Nazism. The Warburg Institute associated with the Library still carries on conducting studies on the transmigration of cultural forms in words and images. Its staff of scholar-librarians together with its students and researchers form a community devoted to the cult of the humanities in their broader and ever broadening meaning. I am inclined to think that, though far away from his beloved Seville, Ferdinand Columbus would have felt at home in their midst. They are part of a community and a tradition that transcend time and space and that this magazine will try to perpetuate, rooted in our Classical past, open to the bewildering variety of the present and always hopeful about the future.
Emblem of the Warburg Library and its system of classification.
 McDonald, Mark P. Ferdinand Columbus. Renaissance Collector. London, edited by the British Museum Press, 2005.
 About the origins of the Library and its current status within the University of London see: Gopnik, Adam, In the Memory Ward, The New Yorker, March 16, 2015 Issue. Accessible in http:// www.newyorker.com/ magazine/2015/03/16/in-the-memory-ward