Almost 130 years ago Hamburg experienced a cholera epidemic which took the lives of 10,000 citizens in a matter of six weeks. In response to this, a publication was produced with the proceeds going to those who had been affected by the outbreak. Aby Warburg contributed a text to be included which takes into account historical parallels and tells the story of the matriarch of the Strozzi family who lost her husband and four of her children to illness.

In this blog post, the Bilderfahrzeuge Project’s Johannes von Müller and Steffen Haug tell us more about the text and discuss the historical parallels drawn.

Aby Warburg’s first published text was penned in reaction to the cholera outbreak in Hamburg in 1892. While the epidemic was raging in his native city, Warburg was in Frankfurt. His family kept him informed about the developments by means of letters. His article, written away from home, appeared in the Hamburger Weihnachtsbuch, a charitable book project, the proceeds of which were meant to help the victims of cholera. The publication brought together texts and artworks by Hamburg authors, scholars and artists. Warburg, on the invitation of the publisher Otto Meißner, contributed a piece on ‘Matteo degli Strozzi. An Italian Merchant’s Son, Four Centuries Ago’.[1] He had already completed his doctoral dissertation on Botticelli at the University of Strasbourg, which was published around the same time as the Weihnachtsbuch. In this short text, Warburg turns to the Renaissance as a disease-ridden age seeking to process the affect caused by the health-crisis of his time.

Warburg discusses the fate of Matteo degli Strozzi, the prematurely deceased and less well-known brother of Filippo, the latter being one of the most prominent of the merchant princes of Renaissance Florence. To begin with, Warburg introduces the protagonists, a mother and her sons, carefully setting the scene of a moving family drama by emphasising the intimate nature of the particular source material his remarks rely on:

In her letters to her sons, so fortunately preserved and now printed, Alessandra degli Strozzi gives us a vivid picture of the domestic life of a Florentine mercantile Family in the Fifteenth Century. She returned to Florence as a widow in 1436; her husband, banished by the Medici in 1434, had died of the plague in Pesaro. She was left with five: [including] Matteo, born in 1436, after his father’s death.

While the elder brothers Filippo and Lorenzo were apprenticed in Naples and Bruges, Matteo stayed with his mother. Next to her husband, Alessandra had lost three children to plague and was accordingly protective of her youngest son. Warburg quotes her writing to Filippo on 24 August 1447:

‘I do not want to send Matteo out yet; […] I have not the heart to send him away; if he behaves well, I will keep him here. It is a hard life; he will not be equal to it until sixteen at the earliest, and he is only eleven now. […] this winter he is to go into the banking business; then we shall see what can be made of him.’

At the age of 14, Matteo finally joined his oldest brother to commence his apprenticeship. Warburg’s description of his departure is as sensitive as it is poetical:

So, one fine day the boy took leave of his mother and rode away, escorted by his cousin Niccolò. He wore a short purple doublet, and he had just been given a new cloak. We might imagine him as looking like one of the young horsemen who ride with the procession of the Three Kings in Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco in the Palazzo Riccardi, in Florence.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Journey of the Magi (detail), Magi Chapel, ca. 1449–1459, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence
Benozzo Gozzoli, Journey of the Magi (detail), Magi Chapel, ca. 1449–1459, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Matteo worked for seven years together with Filippo in Naples. In 1459, he died abruptly of a fever. On 6 September, Alessandra reveals to Filippo in a letter:

‘Although the pain I have felt is greater than any in my life before, two things console me in this grief: first, that he was with you, and that I am therefore sure that everything possible was done by way of physicians and medicines, and that nothing was left untried to save his life; for it was God’s will it should end so. The second thing that gave me peace was that in the face of death […] he repented his sins.’

Quoting this lengthy passage, Warburg gives account of the deeply religious worldview of Alessandra. Thus, he manages to allude to a transition from religion to art and therefore – according to his understanding – the medieval to the modern period when the text finally concludes with the return of the surviving brothers to Florence and the mark they have left on the city’s history:

It must have been a consolation that her two remaining sons were permitted to return to Florence from banishment in the following year. Filippo became one of the most respected citizens of Florence; his palace is still today an admired monument of that time.

Warburg seems eager to end on a positive note, presenting to the readers of the Weihnachtsbuch a story of disease and loss but framing it within a history of what he considers lasting cultural achievements. Despite its approachable nature, the text therefore encapsulates some fundamental characteristics of Warburg’s scholarly publications. For example, his familiar urge, even compulsion, to identify with the object of his studies, in this case the offspring of a banking family. Indeed, his focus on Matteo exemplifies an important aspect of his method: accessing a Zeitgeist through what he later calls the ‘curiosity’, the Kuriosum. It is not Filippo, the patron of the ‘admired monument’ (see image below), whose life Warburg addresses as a paradigm, but the tragic fate of Matteo who is quite literally overshadowed by the monumental legacy of his older brother.

Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, photography, ca. 1900
Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, photography, ca. 1900

Most remarkable though is Warburg’s particular perception – and use – of an ambiguity inherent to images, be it in literary or material form. For, when he imagines Matteo’s departure by referencing Gozzoli’s frescoes of the Three Magi, he does not only bring together art and Florentine life but he consciously chooses a splendid triumphal procession to describe a journey that will end with the boy’s tragic death. Warburg evokes in fact an allegorical genre common to the visual culture of that time: the danse macabre. Obviously, it is his intention to revive a conviction essential to this allegory: that death befalls everyone, high and low alike.

As Warburg’s own text shows though, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite his early death, Matteo is remembered as a member of his powerful, rich and famous family, unlike the anonymous majority of those who died during the same time. And while the 10.000 deaths in Hamburg in 1892 occurred almost exclusively in the Gängeviertel, the working-class districts of the Hanseatic city, Warburg himself was only affected by the events in empathetic terms. However, it is this empathy upon which he acted by his own means as a scholar when he commented on a contemporary crisis through historical comparison.

Steffen Haug and Johannes von Müller


[1] Aby Warburg, “Matteo de‘ Strozzi. Ein italienischer Kaufmannssohn vor 400 Jahren“, in: Hamburger Weihnachtsbuch, Hamburg 1892, p. 236; again in: Aby Warburg, Die Erneuerung der heidnischen Antike. Kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge zur Geschichte der europäischen Renaissance, neu herausgegeben von Horst Bredekamp und Michael Diers, Berlin 1998 (= Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. I.1-2), p. 159–163; English translation in: Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, Introduction by Kurt Forster, Translation by David Britt, Los Angeles 1999, pp. 263–264; on Warburg and the Weihnachtsbuch see: Michael Diers, “Tröstende Distanz. Ein Weihnachtsbuch in den Zeiten der Cholera”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22 December 1992, p. N 5.

The research project ‘Bilderfahrzeuge. Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology’ sets out to explore the migration of images, objects, commodities, and texts. It is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Visit the website for more information.

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