July 2019 saw the first edition of the Warburg Institute Summer School take place. The inaugural summer school was dedicated to the work of Aby Warburg and his picture atlas Mnemosyne.

Over the course of five days, participants were introduced to exemplary panels from the Atlas; they examined original material, familiarised themselves with the collections of the Warburg Institute and discussed relevant texts by Warburg and other scholars in order to unlock his inspirational and complex body of work.

In this blog post we hear from Francesco Mercuri, a participant from this year’s summer school, to discover more about what the group got up to and what he took away from his time at the Institute.

What are you currently studying, and where?

I read History of Art and Visual Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

What attracted you to the Warburg Institute Summer School?

I came across the person and the work of Aby Warburg rather early in my studies and, as many great discoveries are made, completely by chance. I was supposed to do a lengthy presentation about a small picture attributed to Ghirlandaio in the Berlin National Gallery. I soon got bored with the enumeration of positivistic fact-knowledge and provenance events and turned by chance to a small book I had borrowed in the library, thinking it may be helpful for my presentation. It was, of course, the edition of Warburg’s complete published works, and I was soon overwhelmed by his writing and ideas. To make it short, the presentation instead became one about Warburg. I spoke about his years in Florence, his concept of Pathos Formula and about the very interesting correspondence between him and his friend, art historian André Jolles, about what they called Ninfa Fiorentina, the figure of a young maiden with flattering draperies entering almost violently the pictorial space of many Renaissance pictures mostly depicting Christian scenes, like Ghirlandaio’s Nativity of St. John the Baptist in the Capella Sassetti, and bringing elements of ancient Dionysian passion into the order of the visual representation. 

Since then, I’ve developed a great interest for Warburg’s work and what we can grasp of his singular forma mentis, his way of thinking about the nature of images and the role they played in human life and societies. As I saw that the Institute was offering a summer school about Warburg’s last unfinished project, the so called Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, I was thrilled by the idea of getting the chance to get to know more about it and of putting my nose in the Institute’s archive, that I dared to apply for a bursary in order to participate. Most surprisingly I got one, which made it possible for me to participate.

Summer School participants viewing a book

Did you learn anything new or surprising during the Summer School?

First, I learned that more people than I realised are interested in Warburg’s set of ideas, which has not usually been the case in my university courses. These are people trying, like me, to make Warburg’s approach to visual culture fruitful for their own work. It was interesting to see, how his ideas can still appeal to people with so many different backgrounds and histories such as scholars and artists, and to see how his work informed their own way of thinking about the place of images in our present as well as in historical societies, and also, of course, about the interplay between images and other areas of human knowledge, thinking and life. The sheer scope of Warburg’s research makes it attractive for different disciplines. And then, last but not least, another surprising thing for me was the Warburg staff – the core academic staff as well as that of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project. They were so welcoming! I’ve never experienced that to such a degree in other academical contexts, there was a wonderful sense of support. I felt immediately at home at the Institute.

What was your favourite moment?

There were many, in fact. Let me pick at least two of them. The visit to the cast court of the V&A together with its curator Angus Patterson and Bill Sherman was surely a special moment. As you know, the courts are filled with casts of iconic sculptural works coming from different historical and geographical contexts such as Michelangelo’s David from Florence and the Puerta de la Gloria from Santiago Cathedral, but also non-European sculpture. One’s mind goes quickly to Owen Jones and his non-hierarchical appreciation of Ornament in human societies. All these casts were put together in the mid of the mid-19th Century as a sort of visual guide for artists to learn and exercise different historical styles and to subsequently improve contemporary taste through their own work.  I’ve always been fascinated by such enterprises, which tried to apply art and design to contemporary society in order to change it. It all started with the V&A, Prince Albert and the Great Exhibition. That shows you how governments and rulers were aware of the social power of images and art well beyond a simple matter of aesthetics or a display of power.

Another major moment was the close reading we did of Warburg’s text about Luther, the Reformation and astrological images with Claudia Wedepohl, Steffen Haug and Johannes von Mueller. I’ve read works by Claudia and Steffen before and I much admired them. Therefore, it was a real thrill to sit together and take apart some very complex Warburg lines and concepts. Such moments I would always wish for my studies!

Images of statues from the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection
Images from the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection

How did you contribute towards your group presentation?

I guess our presentation wasn’t brilliant like other ones but a bit messy instead. In our group we had a very intense and passionate discussion on what Warburg’s so-called method was all about, which took up the majority of the time. This demonstrates on the one side how Warburg’s multi-layered approach has something to offer for everybody. You don’t have to search for water with a stick in the desert, it is a fruitful landscape for ideas. On the other side, it shows also the extent of the still open and debated questions about how traceable Warburg’s own intentions and methods really are, given the relatively small amount of published works. What I mostly tried to do was to demonstrate to my colleagues that Warburg’s aim wasn’t confined to tracing iconographical parallels in a merely formal way, i.e. detached from all context, but that he was rather concerned with measuring the switches of meaning, which such formal appropriations of the past meant for modern artists and their public. This notion is what he very emblematically called “energetic inversion”.

What were your main takeaways / learnings from the Summer School?

First of all, as I mentioned previously, the acquaintance with the Institute, its staff and the material legacy of Aby Warburg itself. One important point we discussed extensively was the nationalistic orientation of Warburg’s work and persona during WWI, the scope and the implications of which I wasn’t aware of. Some very eminent Warburg Scholars avoid pragmatically to speak about that, and I therefore found the openness with which the Warburg staff spoke about this side of Aby’s life, personality and work, not only historically very illuminating but also exemplary.

Another takeaway was experiencing how the Warburg staff interact naturally with the students without having the sense of a rigid hierarchy imposing itself over the Institute’s community. It seemed to me that it’s all about personality, ideas, learning and exchange, which of course is ideal in helping prospective scholars develop their potential. The intellectual and personal exchange seems to be always ongoing and conversations with the teaching staff during lunch/tea time are something I really wasn’t used to with from my continental background and experience.

How will the Summer School inform your future plans and studies?

I guess, as somebody interested in visual studies and cultural history, once you’ve got hooked on the Institute and its library you don’t want to leave for anything else in the world. Even if I wasn’t able to do any research at all, given the short time of my stay, but just wandered around in the library, I felt under the spell of its Genius Loci. In this respect I would say that my future plans are concerned with coming back to the Warburg as soon as I can afford it, maybe to pursue a postgraduate research course. I will surely miss the open-mindedness of the Institute. Attending the summer school meant to me, not only following the wandering paths of the ideas and the books of a singular hanseatic mind and its collaborators, but also, as somebody coming from a German institution very rooted in its local traditions, to opening up to a whole English tradition of thinking and writing about art and society. A tradition embodied by such figures like Kenneth Clark and Michael Baxandall, both of whom in one way or another were linked to the Institute and to Warburg’s intellectual legacy, and at the same time were tied to the art criticism of Roger Fry and John Ruskin. The plurality of ways of seeing and writing about visual culture is something one is not always aware of, but which I find fundamental and very fascinating for my own practice. The Warburg, being an émigré institution implanted in a foreign country before the outbreak of WWII, opens up ideally for such cross-fertilisations of personalities and ideas, which are in my view more vital now than they ever were. Yes, I would say that this brief but very intense experience of England through the lenses of the Institute was very important for me and broadened immensely my personal intellectual horizons. I think of the Warburg and its Bloomsbury surroundings as a very vibrant place, with great potential to inspire people with the aims and the spirit not only of its founder but also of the many extraordinary figures linked to it from past to present. The new Warburg Renaissance Project, I hope, will effectively reach out and spread the spirit of an image-based cultural history well beyond the brick walls of the charming Gordon Square building.

Next year’s Warburg Institute Summer School will take place for two weeks from 13 July – 24 July 2020.

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