Raymond Klibansky (1905-2005) is well known in the interdisciplinary world of twentieth century cultural history, philosophy, art, myth, iconography, and religion. For those familiar with this particular genre, Klibansky’s Saturn and Melancholy and the Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi series are classics in the field. The Warburg Institute, associated with the Courtauld Institute of Art after its move to London, especially through the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, was Klibansky’s intellectual home ever since its beginnings in the 1920s in Hamburg. Klibansky was also one of the founders of the Warburg Institute periodical Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which sporadically produced six issues between April, 1941 and November, 1968.
The Warburg Institute and Library moved to London in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution, eventually becoming a part of the University of London. It is noteworthy that a legal wrangle between the Institute and the University of London was decided in favour of the Warburg Trust Deed at about the same time as the anniversary conference on Klibansky which eventually spawned this volume. It seems that the Warburg Institute will now live on as will the legacy of Raymond Klibansky. There is also a significant Canadian connection for Klibansky made McGill University and the Institut d’études médiévales de l’Université de Montréal (1947-1968) his professional redoubt immediately after the Second World War until his retirement in 1975.
This volume grew out of a conference in 2015 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Klibansky’s death. The volume, drawing extensively on previously unpublished and uncited sources, is as much a tribute to Klibansky as it is a celebration of the history of the Warburg Library as an interdisciplinary cultural institution and his formative influence on its development. One of the more revealing historical facts in this volume is the role Klibansky played as a key instigator of the idea to move the Warburg Library to England at the outset of the Nazi rise to power. Gertrud Bing and the enigmatic Walter Solmitz are unsung heroes in this effort. Warburg confidant Fritz Saxl did the financial heavy lifting, but the whole transition was originally Klibansky’s intellectual offspring.
Part One covers the early years and exile to London of Klibansky and the Warburg Library. Part Two deals with Klibansky’s unique contributions to the continuity of the Platonic tradition in the Middle Ages, while Part Three is devoted to the somewhat tortuous foibles of the Saturn and Melancholy Project, with its intrigues of authorship and missed publication deadlines. The range of writers mentioned by the various contributors to the volume under review, from Aby Warburg, Ernst Cassirer, Edgar Wind, and Fritz Saxl in the early days of the formation of the Library Network to Erwin Panofsky, Frances Yates, Lotte Labowsky, and Ernst Gombrich in the later years, is panoramic to say the least. If one ever wanted to know how the iconic, the image, the symbolic, and the “engram” became such formidable forces in our culture, this is the book for you. If you are a devotee of the arcane science of creative library cataloguing, then Aby Warburg’s fourfold classification of books into “image, word, orientation, and action” can only agitate your curiosity. For those uninitiated into the Warburg library culture, the Introduction by the editors and Georges Leroux gives a good chronology of events and a serviceable gallery of scholars and library hanger-ons.
Part One has contributions ranging from the worthy survey of the Warburg Library Network by Elizabeth Sears to Jillian Tomm’s meticulous analysis of Klibansky’s personal library now archived at McGill University. There is an emphasis in this Part on the difficulties of intellectual German Judaism in the 1920s. It is only through the singular dedication of a minimal number of associates around Aby Warburg, who died in 1929, that the Warburg Network survived the diaspora of the 1930s. The Warburg circle embodied a pan-European secular humanism deeply receptive to history and thoroughly committed to painstaking, yet innovative, scholarship. They were more than bibliophiles. The scholars of the Warburg Network aspired to be transnational, multi-disciplinary investigators who envisaged the embodiment of their intellectual efforts in unique libraries and collections structured and shelved in specific formats and styles. In today’s world of digital humanities Warburg librarianism is musty, if not a shade cultish, but still a magnet for many.
Professional scholars of Medieval thought, especially Platonists, will find in Part Two, entitled “The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition,” some significant content. Klibansky early on in his academic career became aware of the need to develop a Platonic counterpart in the Middle Ages to the dominant Latin tradition of Aristotelian commentary. The essay by Regina Weber in Part Two traces this development from the Cusanus edition of the 1920s to the launch of the Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi with the publication of The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages in 1939. Weber points out that the Warburg circle was modelled very much on the fifteenth-century Platonic Academy in Florence. Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola were the pre-eminent philosophers and translators of this school, which represented a lost paradise for the scholars of the Warburg Institute.
Georges Leroux, in his essay on the Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi, provides a critical and measured discussion of Klibansky’s conception of what aspects of Platonism coursed through the Middle Ages, i.e. apart from the appropriation of the Timaeus for purposes of lending a scientific colouring to medieval cosmology. I would especially commend Leroux’s concluding remarks (pp. 175 -177) on the importance of viewing the transmission of this tradition from a wider cultural and philosophical perspective than one limited to the philological lens of Latin translations and critical editions. As a young scholar in the1930s Klibansky had a very ambitious and novel research agenda for the Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi. It envisaged a coverage of multiple Platonic paths through the Middle Ages by way of a three part series, a Plato Latinus, a Plato Arabus, and a Plato Byzantinus. The Plato Latinus project was the most crucial for Klibansky because it charted a direct tradition of Platonism through Western thought. Plato Arabus investigates an indirect tradition as it relates back to the Medieval Latin world, while Plato Byzantinus, which was planned in some detail but unfortunately never completed, saw a Platonic continuity in the East, from the closing of the Academy by Justinian to the new Academy of Florence, that was in many ways stronger than in the Latin West.
Klibansky’s early work, such as his first doctoral dissertation under Ernst Hoffmann on Proclus, was based on a manuscript he had discovered in Nicholas of Cusa’s library. Proclus was the main Neo-Platonic source for late medieval Platonism. It was the early Dominican theologian Wilhelm of Moerbeke in the thirteenth century who translated into Latin Proclus’s commentary on the Parmenides, which included the hitherto considered lost conclusion of the commentary in the last Part of Book VII. Klibansky’s principal thesis is that there is no definite break in the Platonic tradition from the medieval world to Renaissance Platonism. There is an opposition between a mystical and religious Platonism, which has its source in the Parmenides vis-à-vis the Proclean commentary and rooted in negative theology, and the physical cosmology of Medievalism which drew its inspiration from the Timaeus. Leroux, however, takes to heart the criticism of Paul Kristeller and Carlos Steel that Klibansky “exaggerated” the influence of the limited Latin translations on the period’s overall conception of Platonism. Klibansky contributed enormously to the accepted view that there is more to this tradition than one would think in light of the overbearing Aristotelian Latinus corpus, but the tradition is very complex, still very much elusive, and maybe will remain so.
Part Three, which contains five essays, is devoted to the Saturn and Melancholy Project which probably gave Klibansky more headaches than any other undertaking, mostly because of Erwin Panofsky’s antagonistic and elliptical engagement. Panofsky wanted basically nothing to do with the Project after the publication of The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer in 1943, but was nonetheless drawn into it well after the war. Figure 8.2 in Elisabeth Otto’s schematic overview of the “Melancholy Project” provides an excellent chronological graphic of this massive undertaking from Karl Giehlow’s work in 1903 to the Saturn und Melancholie of 1990. It is, however, the “melancholy” of Davide Stimilli’s essay in this volume that reveals the Project’s genesis despite an extended antagonism between Klibansky and Panofsky about authorship. Ultimately, the conflict of authorial attribution is apparently resolved when Panofsky and Klibansky co-sign the Preface to the Saturn and Melancholy in 1964.
The essay by Philippe Despoix, “Melancholy and Saturn: A Long-Term Collective Project of the Warburg Library,” is for this reviewer the most substantive contribution to Part Three. “The Melencolia is a cursed business from beginning to end,” Lotte Labowsky writes to Klibansky on May 25, 1949. And it probably remained that way until his death. Aby Warburg was keen to take on the project after Giehlow’s death in 1913. Warburg wanted to infuse Dürer’s famous engraving with his well-known formula of “humanistic comfort against the fear inspired by Saturn.” Seeing human fate in its relations to the gods and the cosmos was an integral mainstay of the Warburg program. The Melancholy theme became emblematic of Warburg culture. Klibansky was in the thick of this culture and Project for many decades as it catalogued the complex intersection of the history of art, literature, mythology, and philosophy.
Like just about any collection of essays, one will look in vain in this book for a comprehensive and explicit statement of Klibansky’s view of philosophy or scholarship in general. Where might all this toil in the vineyards lead? The Warburg Library Network may seem more like a concatenation of scholarly studies than a systematic school of philosophy. It is ecumenical in welcoming a vast array of academic undertakings. Indeed, there is even an essay in this volume on tolerance. Maybe this is good for the survival of the Network, and flourish it should. How much of its far flung empire will contribute to philosophy in the future, or what form this may take, remains to be seen. This volume is certainly a significant contribution to Warburg culture and its Canadian subsidiary.
The bibliography has three components: (i) a list of archives, (ii) the principal works of Klibansky in chronological order, and (iii) a general bibliography of primary and secondary sources. There is also a somewhat helpful general index of mostly proper names. A short Afterword by the editors serves as a conclusion which provides a new perspective on Klibansky’s contributions to the Warburg circle. That circle will undoubtedly continue to develop in different countries, such as Canada, with the contributions of the rising scholars in this volume in addition to the longstanding and well established support of people like Princeton historian Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger, the Harvard art historian.