Placing Antiquity's Afterlife:
Aby Warburg’s Survivals and Reappearances
For the Hamburghian scholar Aby Warburg (1866–1929), the “life” of culture was not just a figure of speech; it was also something profoundly real, something shockingly literal. This life, which Warburg spent his own life attempting to describe, was a life that always outlived itself, like a ghost. It was a life that had always-already died.
“O quae de cunctis foelix mortalibus una es, / Polia quae vivis mortua, sed melius.”
[O, you! uniquely fortunate among mortals: Polia, / You, who live dead — but better.]
Thus a poem introducing the anonymous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499) rejoices over the singularly happy fate of the nymph, Polia: hailed as “she who lives dead — but better.”
We will find that similar words make up the nymph’s Latin “epitaph” (Epitaphium Poliae) at the close of the cryptic book, contributing to its sepulchral tone and general, lapidary spirit:
“Foelix Polia, quae sepulta vivis, / Charo marte Poliphilus quiescens / Iam fecit vigilare te sopitam.”
[O, happy Polia! You, who live — though entombed; / Polifilo, now recovering from the harsh battle, / once made a sleeping-you wake.]
The Hypnerotomachia, the account of “Polifilo’s Love-Battle in a Dream,” reflects a new kind of lived relationship with Antiquity as it emerged in 15th century humanist and philosophical circles. Written in a strange and uniquely challenging Italian, paired with an abundance of enigmatic woodcuts, the beautiful book has been called everything from an “archaeological romance” to the “Finnegans Wake of the Renaissance.”
While the Hypnerotomachia clearly depicts a philological passion, it is still tricky to pinpoint exactly what our protagonist Polifilo (“lover of Polia”) is pursuing in his dream-quest. Who is Polia? What is Polia, this figure who lives despite her death? (And perhaps even because of it, if having died is what makes her “live better,” and better than other mortals…)
Giorgio Agamben suggests that Polia is not simply a figure of Ancient learning, a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of the past (in which case her name might derive from the Greek poli). In Agamben’s reading, Polifilo’s love instead takes her name from the Greek poliòs, polìa, “the grey lady” or “old woman” (“Il sogno della lingua,” Categorie italiane ). That is to say, Polia is a figure for Latin itself: a petrified memory of the “dead” language that haunts the Hypnerotomachia’s stony, tedious Italian.
Polia’s life is her afterlife in Polifilo’s uncomfortable, Latinizing vernacular: a language slowed down by the weight of her presence within it. Both focusing and disorienting our reading, we run into Polia word after word, like the marble ruins, tablets, and other structures the marveling Polifilo stumbles upon in his sleep. We note, too, that Polia’s resurrection is not properly a “renaissance,” i.e. a death followed by a rebirth. Instead, she has paradoxically survived her own death, waking spectrally for a moment (she is made to vigilare) in the wordy dream of the text.
If we want to understand this “grey lady” and her peculiar way of living, there is another reader of the Hypnerotomachia we should turn to. If asked What is Polia?, the German-Jewish art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) would have probably replied: “She’s a nymph.”
The “nymph” was Warburg’s lifelong obsession — the figure that for him most perfectly embodied the problem of the afterlife, or Nachleben, of Pagan Antiquity in the Renaissance. Warburg saw a particular kind of memory at work in the ninfa’s appearances, which came to inform his understanding of the way images are transmitted more generally. It was this kind of memory — this kind of time — that he would spend his career in feverish pursuit of, not unlike Polifilo’s own quest for Polia. Again evoking Polifilo’s beloved, for Warburg, the mode of life characteristic of the image was that of survival.
Warburg’s investigation of the nymph began formally with his doctoral thesis (1893), one of the most enduringly important studies of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera. The Hypnerotomachia, too, makes an appearance in the essay, when Warburg calls upon one of its woodcuts (a Venereal allegory of Spring, engraved on a stone altar) in illustrating the stylistic importance of “mobility” in the Renaissance. This mobility pertained especially to what Warburg called “accessory forms in motion”: the fluttering hair or garments that signaled the presence of the “Antique” for 15th-century artists and writers.
Warburg saw that this outward displacement of movement, localized in the nymph’s accessories, was also an emotive movement; something charged with pathos, and a pathos that had come from another time. He came to call these expressive inheritances “pathos formulas” (Pathosformeln), gestural memories of psychological states that repeated themselves throughout history, re-appearing in unpredictable ways. This is one of the many senses that Warburg’s understanding of cultural forms was also a kind of historical psychology, one that interrogated the vital energies contained by human artifices. Attributing to cultural forms a life of their own, he questioned how their repressed “memory-traces” were transmitted across time, as well as the “how”s and “why”s of their return.
Beyond his published writings, and a plethora of still-unpublished ones, Warburg left behind two incomplete opera magna. Both bore the name of the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne; both were technologies for storing and organizing “survivals.” One of these mnemothecae was Warburg’s famous library, which his students re-located from Hamburg to London in 1933 (today the library of the Warburg Institute). The other Mnemosyne, now surviving only in photographs, was Warburg’s great visual “atlas” (Bilderatlas Mnemosyne), a massive congregation of images — of Pathosformeln — arranged thematically upon large panels.
Though they did so in different ways, both of these projects reflect Warburg’s attempts at spatializing cultural memory. Either memory-bank was intended as an instrument of study — both for Warburg himself, and for others — designed to materialize unexpected historical connections and correspondences. But also meant, perhaps, to communicate something of Warburg’s unique way of perceiving the life of historical forms; his “seismographic” sensitivity to time, which culminated in a period of intense psychosis in the 1920s.
The Atlas was governed by its creator’s profound, and maddeningly sincere, apprehension of cultural “survivals” and “reappearances.” But Mynemosyne was also a sort of tool by which Warburg attempted to “diagnose” Western history through its phantoms — endeavoring to treat a kind of cultural schizophrenia that was also a mirror of his own insanity.
When Warburg once famously described the Mnemosyne Atlas as “ghost stories for the truly adult,” he did so quite seriously. This definition, like his concept of Nachleben, becomes progressively more chilling — and progressively more profound — the further we, ourselves, venture into the world of his own “archeological romance”; his own dream-visions of the waking nymph.
As he chased after the “grey lady,” Aby Warburg, like the pseudonymous “Polifilo,” left a philologist’s dream in his wake. Constructing the labyrinths in which he, himself, could seek and contemplate his elusive “survivals” — though never quite possess them — today these chambers remain open for the quests of others. Finding ourselves in the nooks of his library, or in the mnemotechnic spaces of his Atlas, we may even find that it is their enigmatic architect we are in search of.
To experience the Mnemosyne Atlas first-hand, check out Cornell University’s interactive website, which reproduces ten of Warburg’s panels, and also charts some “pathways” through them.
To learn more (online) about Warburg’s library and intellectual legacy, you can visit the website of the Warburg Institute. For readers of Italian, we also recommend the online journal Engramma, hosted by the Università Iuav di Venezia.
Warburg’s collected essays are published in The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity.
Some other good places to begin reading about Warburg include Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Surviving Image (L’image survivante ); Agamben’s Nymphs (Ninfe ) or the essay “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science” (“Aby Warburg e la scienza senza nome” ), published in English translation in the collection Potentialities (1999).
To flip through the 1499 Aldine edition of the Hypnerotomachia Polifili, click here, where you can continue to contemplate its linguistic and visual mysteries. This page by the New York Met also reproduces some of the book’s woodcuts.
Kristen Hook is a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley. She is writing a dissertation on Guido Cavalcanti’s afterlife in Renaissance philosophy. She is also teaching a Telepaideia class this fall on the Mnemosyne Atlas, which will experiment with different ways of using Warburg’s maps.
Sign in with