Meditations on Tafel #61-64: Part I

Meditations on Tafel #61-64 in the Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne: Bilderatlas: Neptune as ancillary, “serving God.” Whom I now. “Virgil”.

This post offers a background to some of the tensions which can be unpicked in Tafel #61-64which will then be examined through the lens of individual sequences in the post ‘Meditations on Tafel #61-64: Part II’.

Tafel #61-64 in its digital presentation.

Tafel #61-64 in its digital presentation.

In his much-debated, “intellectual biography” of Aby Warburg, E. H. Gombrich discerns the “twin processes” structuring the Mnemosyne-Atlas: “The restoration of the Olympian gods and that of the restoration of expressive movement.” His analysis, though, is also occasion for this critique: “The link between these two areas of interest was clear enough for Warburg when he worked on the art of the Renaissance, but however much he regarded the restitution of these two forms of images as one, he groped in vain for a formula which might subsume the two” (p. 270). Panel 70 may be said to exemplify the search for such a “formula.” As Bing’s Überschrift hints, here the Olympian god is variously represented as moderating nature’s fury against humanity. Yet upon closer inspection, Neptune seems prey to the very chaos he would control. Thus by making palpable the ambiguous Nachleben of Neptune in the late Renaissance, it proleptically refuses any retrospective desire for a synthetic solution; instead, it ascribes various, contradictory Ausdruckswerte [expressive values] to the maritime god.

In the Tagebuch, Warburg calls the Neptune-calming-the waves image a “metaphor.” It may also qualify as a Pathosformel and as a literary topos in the sense that E. R. Curtius promotes in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. But rather than getting this pathway stuck in terminological-theoretical thickets, I want to begin with the slightly less thorny question of classical literary influences in the Mnemosyne-Atlas.

'Neptune Calms the Tempest' by Peter Paul Rubens

‘Neptune Calms the Tempest’ by Peter Paul Rubens

The polarity or combinatorial play between Ovid and Virgil riddles the Atlas in general and panel 61-64 in particular. Briefly put, the reception of Ovid was paradigmatic for Warburg in his own attempt to transform word into image, and image into word. From his dissertation on Botticelli in 1893, to the Bilderreihe he assembled for the 1927 Ovid Exhibition in Hamburg, to panels in the Atlas, such as 41 (Orpheus), 56 (Phaeton), 70 (Persephone), and 73 (Medea), Warburg subjects the Metamorphoses to multiple and often quite diverse iconographic and iconological treatments. In brief, even as he attends to the historical, material, and conceptual aspects of Ovid’s Renaissance reception, Warburg, in the Atlas, reimagines Ovid as a key element in his encyclopedic, combinatorial vision of cultural mobility and transformation. Still, such combinatory art rarely neglects Ovid’s predecessor, Virgil, whose epic constituted a model to imitate and subvert. So, for example, in panel 44 Warburg traces two Ovidian sequences of images concerning Phaeton’s crash and Nike’s (or the nymph’s) transformation, even as he/Bing has an eye on Virgilian “Siegerpathos” [pathos of the victor].

Similarly, Aeneid 2.199-267 is the primary literary source of the Laokoön theme explored in panels 6, 41, and 44. In these, Warburg presents (via sculpture, painting, engraving, and manuscript illustration) the death of Neptune’s priest, Laokoön, thereby making tangible, visible what Michael Steinberg calls “the shock of Virgil’s words”. Virgil (along with Dante and a host of others) may also be seen as informing the symbolism in panel 38 which depicts the afterlife of one of Warburg’s favorite classical motifs, the victor’s horse that leaps over a prone body (cf., Aen. 6.851-53: “. . . parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.”) Then, in panel 61-64, the Virgil tag, which Warburg slightly misquotes, is adapted from the episode in which Neptune, realizing that his favorite, Aeneas, is endangered by a storm at sea fabricated by a jealous Juno, addresses the winds: “Tantane vos generis tenuit fiducia vestri? / iam caelum terramque meo sine numine, venti, / miscere et tantas audetis tollere moles? Quos ego—! sed motos praestat componere fluctus” [Does trust in your birth move you so? Winds, do you dare now to mix earth with sky without my say, to raise such heights? Whom I—but it is better first to calm the moving waves!] [Aen. 1.132–35]. Here the pathos in the Pathosformel is neatly signaled by the rhetorical figures of prosopopeia (personification) and especially aposiopesis, or when one stops in midsentence to express wonder, outrage, and other extraordinary emotions. Unable previously to protect his priest from Minerva’s fury, Neptune upbraids the winds’ presumption and now proceeds to defend his charges, the exiled Trojans, from a violent storm. But just as such aposiopesis suggests psychological doubt or hesitation, the images in this panel tell an ambiguous tale of mastery over nature. Further, such aposiopesis may be read as indicating how individual images, or even whole panels, interrupt, perhaps even permanently disrupt, the neat Enlightenment, Kantian narrative of progress that some (Gombrich, Bauerle, et al.) have attributed to the Atlas.

Laokoon and his Sons, sculpture in marble, Vatican Museum, Rome.

Laokoon and his Sons, sculpture in marble, Vatican Museum, Rome.

Put another way, even if panel 61-64 features Neptune as a Renaissance allegory for taming nature’s force, still an ambiguous Ovidian frame remains in place. Neptune as “tamer of horses” – a metonymy for his control of the sea (hippocampi were the horses that drove his chariot over the sea) – becomes an object here of extreme Baroque stylization. Indeed, Warburg consistently regarded the Baroque with ambivalence, if not antipathy. Moreover, while the Nachleben and transformation of the pagan gods remain fundamental concerns here, there does not seem to be any Christian inversion of the motif. Instead, the motif or metaphor is ironized, as the sea deity – enveloped in mannerist waves, hair, and by various, often monstrous mythological figures – and the cosmological power he represents become synchronically subservient to Christian rulers.

Seen from another (geographic, spatial) angle, panel 61-64 continues to map both the cosmographic concerns and translatio of ideas and styles that inform so much of the Atlas. More immediately, panels 57, 58, & 59 track how “ancient superlatives,” first imitated and mediated in Italy, are transformed by Dürer in the North. And whereas Dürer seems to have mastered, or at least masterly appropriated the antique legacy in panel 57, in panel 58 the astrological-monstrous remains palpable (in the form of Tarot cards that Dürer illustrated); there syncreticism rather than synthesis rules – though the presence of Melancolia I emblemizes a possible, if far from ecstatic solution (see Gesammelte Schriften I.2, p. 530). Further, panel 59 sketches the survival of pagan planetary gods in images from sixteenth-century German calendars, images influenced by Northern Italian tarot cards. In panel 60, then, Warburg turns to the survival of pagan gods in Baroque courtly festivals [Festwesen]. Specifically, Neptune is represented as directing the Venetian fleet that defeats the Turks in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – and so by metonymy he becomes an instrument of the Christian God. And though Bing’s Überschrift [“Festwesen Norden, höfisch. Seebeherrschung – Zeitalter der Entdeckungen. Vergil. Fortuna des Seefahrers, brutales Ergreifen (Rubens).”] does not correspond exactly with the panel’s contents, the implication is clear: the cultural, historical violence associated with the Baroque and the voyages of discovery is justified only with enormous allegorical effort.

Unlike Walter Benjamin, though, Warburg himself generally resisted allegorical solutions. He assayed, instead, to perfect a metonymic, (re)combinatory art. More to the point, he invites viewers of the Atlas to do the same. Thus like W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, who spends countless hours in his London flat rearranging photographic memories on a table in search for Wittgenstein-like “family resemblances,” Lisa Robertson recounts how, in order to grasp, inhabit Warburg’s Denkräume: “… I keep moving ideas on a surface until there’s a fit, an energy, an engram-like stimulus. But the fit isn’t about a collapse of ideas into one another, nor is it a chain of causation or even influence. It’s about the charge of a distance, a tension” [pp. 39-40]. In will follow in the next post, then, is a brief description of Warburg’s Neptune energy field.


Suggested further reading:

Aby Warburg, Bilderreihen und Ausstellungen. eds. Uwe Fleckner and Isabella Woldt, in Gesammelte Schriften, II.2 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, Warburg, 2012), esp. 115-33.

Aby Warburg, “Italienische Antike im Zeitalter Rembrandts,” in Nachhall der Antike: Aby Warburg. Zwei Untersuchungen, ed. Pablo Schneider (Zürich: Diaphanes, 2012).

Lisa Robertson, Thinking Space (Brooklyn: Organism for Poetic Research, 2013).

Roland Kany, Mnemosyne als Programm. Geschichte, Erinnerung und die Andacht zum Unbedeutenden im Werk von Usener, Warburg und Benjamin (Niemeyer: Tübingen, 1987).

Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, tr. Stephen Rendall (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997).

David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994).


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