This post is the second half of meditations begun last week (Meditations on Tafel #61-64: Part I) on Tafel 61-64 of the Mnemosyne Atlas and offers thoughts about some of the specific sequences of images presented by Aby Warburg.
Sequence #1: Sixteenth-Century Neptune
This first sequence introduces Neptune, while it also furthers the task from previous panels of mapping the translatio, the migration of images from the South (Italy) to the North (France). Thus Fantuzzi’s ca. 1543 The Contest between Athena and Poseidon [#1] sees the Italian artist importing Rosso Fiorentino’s design to Fountainebleau and so while Neptune and Minerva are presented in rather loose, informal style, the allegorical message is clear: a city takes on the characteristics of its patron-god. Viewed, then, from a historiographic, diachronic angle, Warburg has a Viconian understanding (thanks to Usener) of this myth. Neptune is no longer the sea itself; rather, he is either reduced to mere ornament or represents the needs of instrumental reason and political control. And yet the flipside of Neptune’s mastery, the chaos of the watery elements he is supposed to control, is never far from the surface in these and subsequent images.
Meanwhile, an image of Vasari’s fresco depicting Cosimo I de’ Medici visiting the fortress on Elba, featuring Neptune as an allegory of securitas [#2], momentarily takes us back to Italy even as it introduces the theme of monarchical power which will inform other images in the panel. In fact, we linger in mid-sixteenth-century Italy with two images [#3.1, 3.2] of Sansovino’s monumental nude statue of Neptune from Venice’s Palazzo Ducale. Then, however, as if to anticipate the persistence of Baroque “superlatives” here and in subsequent panels—such unmediated or insufficiently modified “superlatives” were a favorite bugbear of Warburg’s—we see Neptune as part of Pietro Bracci’s mid-eighteenth-century Trevi Fountain. And while Anita Ekberg happily haunts an imaginary Fontana di Trevi, then Warburg’s agonistic view of the struggle between nature and art leaves little room in this panel for the redemptive power of the nymph—though there is, I’ll suggest below—at least one cameo appearance.
Sequence #2: Virgilian Neptune
A second sequence meditates directly on the Virgilian tag. The key image here is Marcantonio Raimondi’s atlas-like engraving [#5], which features a dramatic image of Neptune astride his hippocampi along with other images from the Dido episode in the Aeneid. That Raimondi adds a subscript to each image further increases the emblematic force of this composite image, which looks back intertextually to Virgil’s epic, but which also neatly anticipates our own graphic novels. In more historical terms, we know from Vasari’s account of Raimondi’s life, that Raimondi’s engravings closely imitated not just Raphael, but two of Warburg’s chief culture heroes: Mantegna & Dürer. Further, as images and artists circulated between Northern and Southern Europe, Raimondi profited greatly. In thematic terms, that the top image in Raimondi’s engraving transforms the Greco-Roman deities into masters of the zodiac invites us to link the depiction of Neptune’s mastery over the sea with any number of cosmological images in the Atlas. Finally, from a formal perspective, this atlas-within-the-atlas recalls 8.3, 8.4, & 48.20 and anticipates 76.4, 79.12, & 79.13. Another image by Raimondi, it’s worth noting, proves to be the key combinatorial element in panel 55 on Manet, where Warburg, via a discovery made by Gustav Pauli, underscores how Raimondi provides the prototype for Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
The immediate and then Baroque Nachleben of the Virgilian scene can be traced, first, in Bonasone’ engraving [#6], ca. 1540 (where, strangely, Neptune seems to be attacking the shipwrecked men more than calming the seas) and, second, in Rubens’s magnificent oil painting (and Thulden’s engraving after it) [#12.1-2]. As for the Rubens, it seems to signal “affektierte[ ] Gebärdensprachlichkeit” [affected volubility of gestures] or “die europäischen Superlative der Gebärdensprache” [the European superlatives of the language of gestures], which Warburg blames in his 1926 Rembrandt lecture (“Italienische Antike im Zeitalter Rembrandts”). One may thus ask the same question of Rubens that Warburg asked of Tempesta, namely, whether he “advocates the plaisir of the tied-off dynamogram with its pathetic discharge” [das Plaisir der abgeschnürten Dynamogramme pathetischer Entladung fördert]. But one also notes the absence of any pathos in the foregrounded nymphs; indeed, the one on the left seems more intent on gazing at us than expressing any emotions concerning the scene at hand. In this, she becomes Hans Blumenberg’s exemplary “spectator” who is able to philosophically stand apart from the tragedy at hand and so invite the viewer of the image to do so as well, but only by considering it from a purely aesthetic standpoint.
Sequence #3: Neptune as ornament and metaphor
This third sequence presents various geographic and material translationes of the Neptune metaphor/pathos formula, even as it seems to stress how diminished the belated god has become. Neptune risks here becoming here mere ornament, just fancy crockery. Thus in a variation on the metaphor, Neptune and Odysseus are depicted on a Gobelins tapestry [#7] that ends up in Philip II’s Escorial. Another Bilderfahrzeug is Galle/Collaert’s design for a plate or spice bowl [#8] in which Neptune seems to playfully rule over an aquarium of exotic fish and lesser deities. In other words, that Neptune is triumphant is at once indubitable and ironic, for he rules at the whim of mere mortals or, perhaps, as equals to those mortals. So in Francken’s Allegory on the Abdication of Emperor Charles V in Brussels [#10], Charles V cartographically divides up his empire between his brother Ferdinand (on the left) and his son Phillip (on the right) while the four continents and the ocean are allegorized in the foreground as awaiting the Emperor’s commands. The banderole with “Plus Ultra” pertains to Charles and not to Neptune, who is but a synchronic instrument of temporal power.
Still, Neptune remains itinerant and thus subject to interpretative permutations. For Warburg, we know from his correspondence with Saxl, was fascinated by the image, which lurks in the background of Titian’s oil painting Spain Succouring Religion (1575), of “Neptunsgespann” [Neptune’s team of horses] or “Neptuns als Rossbändiger in der Antike” [Neptune as horse tamer in antiquity] that yields the metaphor “Meereswoge gleich Ross” (ocean wave equals horse) [see “Wanderstraßen der Kultur,” 64]. In this sense, Bos’s 1532 engraving [#9] of Neptune as “Prachtexemplar” [resplendent exemplar] is also exemplary for the way that the Flemish artist helped bring classical images into the Northern repertory. More particularly, Bos gained fame by copying engravings by Raimondi; and, as fate and religious orthodoxies would have it, he becomes himself itinerant (ending up in Nuremberg). He also also associated with Virgil Solis (whose woodcuts for the Metamorphoses were widely copied). In these and other ways, Neptune’s mobility in the late Renaissance was ensured.
Sequence #4: Baroque Neptune
That Warburg had at best an ambivalent, and at worst an antagonistic view of the Baroque, is confirmed in many instances: from his 1905 essay on Dürer where he labors to distance the German artist from the “überlebendige Muskelrhetorik” (overly animated rhetoric of muscles) of Pollaiuolo, to his neglect of Benjamin’s book on the German Baroque Trauerspiel published in 1928, to his efforts in the Rembrandt lecture and in panels 60, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, & 75 to find “Besonnenheit” in art and, to much lesser extent, literature typically labeled Baroque.
More tangibly, this fourth sequence contains diverse images of Neptune gesturing with trident poised, calming or about to calm the waves, as Warburg would have it; yet the style of these images suggests often a dangerous lack of control either on the part of the God or the artist. In Moro’s etching [#11], the god seems almost drowned by a bacchic train of followers to say nothing of the acqueous, serpentine swirl of limbs and water that engulfs the scene and which suggests that despite Neptune’s power, the storm persists. In the Matham/Spranger engraving [#13], Neptune and Thetis ride on a sea chariot accompanied by a sensuous riot of putti, sea nymphs, nereids, and tritons. And if the inscriptions by the humanist Theodorus Schrevelius lends the image authority, still, his predilection for Ovid – he translated the Tristia – undermines the gravitas of Virgilian epic. (Schrevelius, by the way, boasted that the art of printing, cast as the keeper of all science, was invented in Haarlem in 1440.) Dallying with another marine deity, his wife, Amphitrite, in de Clerc’s tapestry (1670) [#14], and then abducting Psyche in del Po’s engraving (ca. 1650-70) [#15] and Europa in Jordaens’s painting [#18], Neptune seems hardly able to calm his own passions.
The pathos formula, that is, has been translated from the cosmographic to the amorous sphere, and with this transference, stretched over a century of imitations, we watch the loss of self-mastery that Warburg so dearly prized in his historical psychology of styles. These last images may also find a verbal analogue in Racine’s Phèdre (1674) where Théramène is dashed on the rocks by a sea monster sent by Neptune. These scenes are a far cry, in any case, from Virgilian sublimitas. Although Warburg’s combinatory, dialectical (il)logic does furnish, by way of Ghisi’s engraving (ca. 1550) [#17] a retrospective counterpoint, a naked, self-possessed Neptune, whose billowing cape is neatly matched by the curling manes of his hippocampi. Not quite a bewegtes Beiwerk, but it decorously shows reanimated classical life all the same.
Finally, Warburg charts a final permutation in the Nachleben of Neptune; in the Tagebuch [GS, I.1, p. 258] he exults: “Ein überraschend einleuchtendes Beispiel für die aktuelle Lebenskraft eines solchen nachlebenden heidnischen Natursymbols gibt der englische König in seinem von Seepferden gezogenen Triumphwagen an den heutigen Briefmarken von Barbados; das Vorbild dieses Neptun-Weltbeherrschers ist bei seinem Urahn Karl II. zu suchen, dem das gleichzeitige Festwesen ebenso wie die virgilianischen Kenntnisse seine Hofantiquare zu dieser eindrucksvollen machtpolitischen Metapher verhalfen.” [In recent postage stamps from Barbados, the English King in his triumphal car drawn by hippocampi provides a surprising, illuminating example for the living power in the present day of the afterlife of such a pagan symbol of nature. The model for this Neptune-world conquerer is to be sought with his ancestor Charles II, which contemporary festival culture as much as the Virgilian knowledge of his court antiquarians helped to establish as this impressive metaphor for political power.] This helps explain why the Neptune/Barbados postage stamp appears in panel 77, exactly where Warburg begins to supplement his network of historical images by contemplating more contemporary ones. As Warburg writes in a 1927 letter to Saxl, this image was also to mark the “Endpunkt der Bilderreise” [terminal point of the journey of images] for a private exibition of seven panels under the rubric “Die Funktion der nachlebenden Antike bei der Ausprägung energetischer Symbolik.” Omniously, morever, here Warburg wanted to juxtapose “die Briefmarke von Barbados (mythisch, griechisch, metaphorisch)” [the postage stamps of Barbados (mythic, Hellenic, metaphoric)] with “d[en] italienische Faszistenmarke (heroisch, historisch, römisch, tropisch) [the Italian Fascist stamps (heroic, historical, Roman, tropic)].” An always-ambiguous Neptune, in brief, continued to be appropriated even as Warburg reshuffled the pieces in his combinatory art.
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).