Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School

Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School

by Emily J. Levine

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Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School by Emily J. Levine

Deemed by Heinrich Heine a city of merchants where poets go to die, Hamburg was an improbable setting for a major intellectual movement. Yet it was there, at the end of World War I, at a new university in this commercial center, that a trio of twentieth-century pioneers in the humanities emerged. Working side by side, Aby Warburg, Ernst Cassirer, and Erwin Panofsky developed new avenues in art history, cultural history, and philosophy, changing the course of cultural and intellectual history in Weimar Germany and throughout the world.

In Dreamland of Humanists, Emily J. Levine considers not just these men, but the historical significance of the time and place where their ideas took form. Shedding light on the origins of their work on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Levine clarifies the social, political, and economic pressures faced by German-Jewish scholars on the periphery of Germany’s intellectual world. By examining the role that context plays in our analysis of ideas, Levine confirms that great ideas—like great intellectuals—must come from somewhere.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226061719
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/16/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Emily J. Levine is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Born in New York City, she lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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Dreamland of Humanists

Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-06168-9


Culture, Commerce, and the City

The moment an artistic institution becomes dependent on municipal or state officials in the provinces it is lost: it falls helplessly into the reactionary mire of narrow-minded philistines; liberal men are fired, thrown out, overcome with disgust, and because one only occasionally finds a free-thinking local aristocrat, who has so often been the creator of rural culture, the provincial philistine rules absolutely. There are, of course, exceptions in the larger provincial cities.


The task of transforming Hamburg, the city "ruled by Banko," into a place of serious scholarship fell to its most famous banker-cum-scholar: Aby Warburg. Poised between a family of bankers and his own scholarly aspirations, Warburg played a special role in shepherding the mercantile city toward its new identity. Even as a child, Warburg had demonstrated a shrewd capacity for negotiating between banking and books. At Warburg's funeral, his brother Max recounted the amusing bargain that the two had struck when he was twelve years old and his brother only thirteen, a story that instantly became a family and urban legend. Aby, the eldest of the banker Moritz Max Warburg's seven children, stood to inherit control of the family's banking fortune. According to Max Warburg, Aby relinquished this right in exchange for Max Warburg's agreement to buy his brother's books for the rest of his life. Comparing the bargain to Jacob and Esau's similar negotiation over the privileges of the firstborn, Max Warburg noted that his brother obtained more than lentil stew. "In my naiveté, I imagined that my father's business would surely be good enough that I could afford some Schiller, Goethe, and perhaps even Klopstock," Max recalled. "This contract was certainly the most careless of my life."

The joke was on Max, for the children's contract laid the foundation for the establishment and cultivation of the sixty-thousandvolume Warburg Library. Max Warburg, for his part, became a shrewder businessman with age and transformed his local family bank into a significant player in the international financial scene. The storied pact between Aby and Max Warburg sealed the relationship between one of the most influential German-Jewish families and their eccentric, intellectual son, who viewed his library as an extension of the family bank and was known to call himself a "scholarly private banker" (wissenschaftlichen Privatbankier). But this fraternal negotiation, apocryphal as it might have been, also epitomized Hamburg's distinctive civic landscape—one in which merchant families supported the city's cultural life through their private wealth.

Without the royal court that characterized major nineteenth-century cities, and with no tradition of state-sponsored art or culture, Hamburg lacked any self-evident municipal art world. Instead, the city's merchants emerged as ersatz princely patrons in their overwhelming support of art, culture, and scholarship. In the last third of the nineteenth century, when Aby and Max Warburg were negotiating their respective familial obligations, Hamburg already boasted a general library, several scholarly societies, and two museums, all of which were the outcome of funding and initiatives from Hamburg's local burghers. As prominent members of the Bürgertum, the distinctively German class of economic bourgeoisie, the Warburgs possessed a substantial degree of control over this cultural scene. Especially as Jews, they participated in the civic scene in a way unmatched in the capital city, which featured a larger state-sponsored museum, wealthier patrons, and a more complicated political scene than in the provinces.

Warburg was not shy in suggesting that there would have been no university, and certainly no library, without his tireless support. Yet Warburg, too, benefited from his partnership with the city. Hamburg presented a landscape unburdened by tradition where he could pursue his intellectual passions unhindered. While he sometimes mocked the "philistine" cultural taste of Hamburg's burghers, it was this very lack of the state's dominant cultural influence and institutional hierarchy that permitted him to exert the control and creativity he did. In turn, this distinctive institutional infrastructure shaped the intellectual possibilities open to Warburg, both in his research on the Renaissance and in his vision for a privately funded scholarly institution of his own. This dual experience—both biographical and intellectual—confirmed that the disadvantage of Hamburg's loosely organized and homegrown cultural scene was also its advantage. Culturally speaking, Hamburg was an open book.

Aby Warburg and the Warburg family provide, then, a civic exemplar of Hamburg's unique urban landscape. Merchant families emerged as central to Hamburg's "grand bourgeoisie tradition," and this tradition came to be defined by a productive tension between money and ideas. In exchange for autonomy from the state, Hamburg's cultural crusaders often had to justify their projects through contributions to the city's international trade. And the mercantile spirit of their demands often set the terms for these projects. Moreover, while its loose institutional structure and amateur quality (in particular, the characteristic participation of women) were aspects of the community's strength, these features later became liabilities when its founders aimed to turn these young scholarly enterprises into respectable professions. Despite its flaws, however, Warburg continued to believe that the tension inherent in Hamburg's cultural life was also the source of creative energy, energy that nurtured Warburg's personal library and provided the forum for the protracted debate concerning the University of Hamburg's founding. These intellectual projects bore the influence of the institutional conditions of their birth.

Between Banks and Books

Warburg's bargain with his younger brother placed him at the center of those cultural and commercial interests, both in his immediate family and in the city of Hamburg, which the Warburgs had served for many generations. These relationships also began to define his early intellectual interests. Born in 1866, Warburg spent his early childhood in private schooling at the Warburg home at 17 Mittelweg and in Jewish and secular education at Hamburg's Talmud Torah School, the local Jewish school (generously supported by the Warburgs) that underwent major reforms in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. But his voracious appetite for intellectual life and his bifurcated path between, as he later recalled, "the stolid biblical tradition" and "modern European-German culture" first began to take shape when he was a schoolchild at the Johanneum. Founded in 1529 by a reformer who was a friend of Martin Luther, the Johanneum was the oldest and most renowned Gymnasium in Hamburg. In 1840, the school opened in a new Renaissance-style building in the center of the city, the so-called Hammaburg, where the city's main church stood for most of Hamburg's history. In this historic location, charged with the children of Hamburg's elites, Warburg read such German classics as Lessing and Schiller and cultivated what became his lifelong intellectual interest: the culture of antiquity.

But the Warburg family had another future in mind for their eldest son. As one of the most influential nineteenth-century German-Jewish families in both Germany and the United States, the Warburgs assumed that Aby would take over the family bank. The families in the Hamburg banking tradition followed a standard formula in child-rearing, as historian Richard J. Evans has recounted: after working in a nonfamily bank in Hamburg, sons were sent to intern in family banks in London or New York, and sometimes to manage maritime accounts in locations farther afield, places like South America. When they returned in their mid to late twenties, the sons began to cultivate their own fortunes before marrying a well-chosen daughter from a comparable business dynasty. Those sons who showed less interest in business and some aptitude for studies were encouraged to become lawyers, taking their degrees in Bonn and Heidelberg, since Hamburg did not, at the time, have a university, and then returning to the Hanseatic city to help secure favorable contracts for their family firms. All businesses required lawyers, and a certain number of seats were saved on Hamburg's Senate for those who followed this professional route, although, as Evans observed, within this civic function "there was seldom much doubt as to where the lawyer's family allegiances lay."

But art history was not the law. And as the great-grandson of the founding patriarch, Aby Warburg was poised to assume responsibility for the Mittelweg-Warburgs (so called for the street on which they lived) and join this wider urban tradition. Any plan that the young Warburg would continue his studies was a serious protestation of this fate. His rebellion began when he digested the entire encyclopedia before the age of twelve, as well as all of the books in the family cupboard, including those explicitly forbidden to him. When he expressed intellectual aspirations greater than those represented by a life in banking, his grandmother recommended that he become a rabbi. A religious path seemed the only acceptable alternative to redeem his familial apostasy.

Much to his family's dismay, Warburg announced his intention to become an art historian, a decision that, if nothing else, doomed any scholarly ambitions of his younger brothers; after Aby's rogue behavior, Max and Paul Warburg were bound to a more traditional course. Indeed, the eldest child's decision to pursue scholarship signaled that Hamburg's ruling families risked losing control over the vocational choices of their sons. It was also indicative of Warburg's fierce determination. Because the Johanneum offered no courses in Greek, he was required to spend an additional year after his graduation from the Gymnasium acquiring this skill in order to gain entrance to the university. One extra year of studies did not deter him from his chosen profession. When asked on a university questionnaire who he would be if he could be someone else, he responded, "Nobody else."

At the University of Bonn, where Warburg enrolled to study art history, his orbit of intellectual influence vastly expanded. Bonn was the first institution where Warburg experienced the Prussian academic tradition, one he later came to reject. Founded in 1819 as part of the Prussianization of the university system, the University of Bonn embodied many of the nineteenth-century German notions of humanistic reform as first outlined by the education reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the Prussian university came under increasing scrutiny for straying from these idealistic origins. In his studies, Warburg was most drawn to such outliers as the historian Lamprecht, with whom he shared an interest in the new cultural history and the field of the Renaissance. And he eventually developed his own idea of a scholarly institution as a corrective to the overspecialization he experienced there. If Bonn was, as one scholar suggests, an "act of state," the University of Hamburg's founding would reflect an entirely different relationship to the government. But when he arrived at Bonn, the young Warburg was not yet up to this enormous task. His student days were preoccupied with smoking cigars, drinking, and reveling at Carnival in nearby Cologne."

During the time he lived in Bonn and, later, in Strasbourg, Warburg also developed his characteristic balance between outright rebellion from and unquestionable attachment to his family. In the face of new, liberating social and intellectual possibilities, Warburg increasingly defied his family's religious orthodoxy and, as he described it, "attempted to forge a way from medieval, Catholic dogma toward individual freedom, through, on the one hand, Lutheranism and the dissemination of the ideas of the French Revolution, and, on the other hand, through modern science. In a series of letters to his mother, he justified his decision to cast off Jewish dietary laws. "Since I do not arrange my courses of study according to the quality of ritual restaurants but according to the quality of teachers," he reasoned, "I do not eat ritually." Warburg's religious rebellion was further cemented when he proposed to Mary Hertz, the Protestant daughter of a Hamburg senator; he had met her while conducting research for his dissertation in Florence. Several years later, when Warburg refused to recite the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning at his father's funeral, he pithily explained, "I am a dissident."

The challenge was not only intellectual: it would take a nervous breakdown to fully free him of religion's grip. And in the meantime, despite his flirtations with social and religious noncompliance, Warburg remained dependent on his family for emotional and financial support. When taunted by anti-Semitic derisions from fellow students in Strasbourg, Warburg sought solace with his family in Hamburg, where he had indisputably enjoyed a safe and comfortable upbringing. Warburg remained further reliant on his family for financial support; he had expensive tastes and required his family in order to feed them. As a university student, he received an allowance but increasingly asked for more money, in particular, to support his costly bibliophilic habits. On one occasion, before he completed his studies, Warburg, who was wise to the ways of trading, requested five hundred francs from his banker father, presumably because the French currency could fetch more books and photographs in the volatile Alsatian market, and expressed frustration with his father when he did not oblige his request. Notoriously prone to histrionics, he once protested, "Because I have no more money, I cannot even afford to stamp this letter." But Warburg's family, whose business he eschewed, later found a way to turn their son's habit into a profession. Their solution came from a city where culture had a long-standing history of being supported by private wealth and their belief that family, and their own in particular, should play a central role in this urban tradition.

Hamburg Households

In December 1896, ten months before he was to marry Mary Hertz, Aby Warburg parodied the familial controversy surrounding their engagement in a short play entitled Hamburgische Kunstgespräche (Hamburgian art conversations). In the play, performed by the Warburg siblings in their home at 17 Mittelweg on New Year's Eve, a family convenes one summer Sunday afternoon in its house on the Alster River to discuss the upcoming visit of Uncle Edward. The family's daughter, Eva, is engaged to marry the painter Alfred Runge, but Runge's modernist tendencies clash with Uncle Edward's conservative aesthetic principles and complicate the upcoming marriage. The remainder of the play consists of a clever discussion among family members over the relative merits of modern art.

Hamburgische Kunstgespräche reveals many historical themes characteristic of the late nineteenth century, including the culture wars, the politics of modernism, and the role of public art in fin-de-siècle Germany. But the play is also extremely valuable as a starting point for an analysis of the centrality of the family for cultural and intellectual life during this same period. The notion of family in the play is more than mere metaphor but rather is intimately related to the debate over culture. Uncle Edward makes the link explicit, proclaiming that he is distraught over the effects of modernism because high-quality art is also a sign of a "good Hamburg family." Viewed from this perspective, the play shows how family is critical to understanding the distinctive urban landscape of Hamburg and, in particular, its productive tension between culture and commerce.

Historians generally agree that "if there was any single institution that was central to the cultural life and value systems of the nineteenth-century German bourgeoisie, it was ... the family." If this was true for Germany's fragmented Bürgertum at large, it was particularly the case in Hamburg, a city that shared more with the Anglo-French in its bourgeois tradition than it did with the rest of Germany. To a certain degree, Hamburg was exceptional, for it had a rare combination of both political autonomy and economic strength. This "foreign body in Prusso-Germany" consisted of a self-governing state and a constitution, an eighteen-man senate elected for life and ruled by its most senior member, the Bürgermeister (lord mayor), and a Citizens' Assembly, which was responsible for taxation, budget, and treaties.

Excerpted from Dreamland of Humanists by EMILY J. LEVINE. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
INTRODUCTION Dreamland of Humanists

1 Culture, Commerce, and the City
2 Warburg’s Renaissance and the Things in Between
3 University as “Gateway to the World”
4 Warburg, Cassirer, and the Conditions of Reason
5 Socrates in Hamburg? Panofsky and the Economics of Scholarship
6 Iconology and the Hamburg School
7 Private Jews, Public Germans
8 Cassirer’s Cosmopolitan Nationalism
9 The Enlightened Rector and the Politics of Enlightenment
10 The Hamburg America Line: Exiles as Exports

EPILOGUE  Nachleben of an Idea
Selected Bibliography

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