(b Hamburg, June 13, 1866; d Hamburg, Oct 26, 1929).
German art historian. His research interests ranged widely, including the art of the Renaissance, costume, festivals, medicine, astrology and magic, but his primary contribution to cultural history is the Warburg Institute.
Warburg was born into a wealthy Jewish banking family and was never obliged to seek academic employment. He trained at the University of Bonn with scholars such as Hermann Usener (1834–1905) and Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915), becoming interested in psychology, in a broad evolutionary perspective and in historical periods of transition. He continued his studies in Munich, Florence and Strasbourg, finally completing a dissertation in 1891 on how Botticelli’s Primavera and the Birth of Venus demonstrate the ‘afterlife of the Antique’. At this time Jacob Burckhardt’s interpretation of the Renaissance as a period of emancipation from medieval values and the rise of the modern individual was being challenged by scholars such as Henry Thode, who argued for an important role for Christian influences. Warburg can be seen as siding with Burckhardt in this disagreement; but whereas Burckhardt conceived of history as progress and the Renaissance as a cultural unity within that progressive movement, Warburg interpreted the Renaissance as a period of transition and uncertainty, viewing it as if abstracted from the course of time. For Warburg history was a vital and energetic tradition, communicated through images as well as words, but these documents could best be understood by looking for their non-temporal unity. Such themes were particularly evident in his dissertation and his writings of ...