The revival of ancient paganism - by Aby Warburg

The Rebirth of Ancient Paganism by Aby Warburg is an essential book for anyone studying art history, especially that of the Renaissance: Ilaria tells us about it in this review!

The book we are presenting today, The Revival of Ancient Paganism by Aby Warburg marked a turning point in Darte criticism and brought a new method to the field of iconography, as it moved from being a study of subjects associated with themes and concepts within the work of art to a study involving other sciences, especially the humanities. In fact, according to this new idea, the work had in itself principles characteristic of a particular culture, class, philosophical or religious belief. Distinction continued by Erwin Panofsky in his Studies in Iconology (which we will discuss shortly on the site... !), published in 1939 in the United States, which caused no less stir among conservative scholars.

Aby Warburg’sThe Rebirth of Ancient Paganism consists of a series of essays relating to studies made during his lifetime, brought together in a posthumous (1932) edition by his assistant Gertrude Bing, and then translated into Italian in 1966.

Warburg began by analyzing two of Botticelli’s most famous paintings, the Birth of Venus and Primavera, in which he observed a characteristic trait of antiquity, an element that persisted even in the Renaissance: both Warburg and his successor Panofsky spoke of the Renaissance as a rebirth of classical antiquity, as opposed to the Middle Ages, a period characterized by the absolute opposition between Christianity and paganism; by now in the Renaissance the common mentality had changed, there could be no going back to the paganism of antiquity and Roman and Greek art, so it was necessary to find a new form of expression that was as different from classical as it was from medieval, but related moon to the other: the reinterpretation of classical images, by means of lattribution of a new profane but not classical or Christian symbolic content. Only in this way could there be a symbiosis between paganism and Christianity. The hair and clothes moved by the wind in the manner of classical nymphs: this is the element found in Botticelli.

Another example of the presence of the ancient in the Renaissance is the comparison between the Arch of Triumph in Rome and the fresco of Raphael’s school in the Vatican Palace. Both depict the victory of Constantine over Maxentius under the sign of the cross (Piero della Francesca’s cycle of frescoes in San Francesco in Arezzo relating the legend of the finding of the wood of the true cross and the battle of Constantine, in which Maxentius drowns in the Tiber not because of the spear, but because of the sight of the small cross that Constantine holds in his hand; note also the mass effect achieved by Piero della Francesca by using only a few figures).

In the Arc de Triomphe there is a paganism yearning for glory, as in the scene in which a victorious knight impetuously rides over a fallen barbarian, while in Raphael’s Battle of Constantine there is the impression of a unified mass, the teams practicing all the evolutions as they were depicted on the triumphal arches and columns of victory.

If in the secular painting of the fifteenth century the influx of the ancients into the Renaissance was seen in the mobility of the body and clothing, on the Flemish tapestries the figures presented in the costumes of the Franco era could represent characters from pagan antiquity.

And again there is mention of the frescoes of the months in Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, which show elements of Arab and Indian derivation (the decans, that is, the tripartition of each month) mixed with Greek deities.

A book that is on the whole challenging because it presents a variety of interrelated aspects that do not even belong to the same period, but precisely because of this it is interesting in making us understand how the different epochs of art history are not a thing in themselves, but a continuum of elements that oppose and intersect. Moreover, as we mentioned earlier, it is a book that also incorporates the cultural, religious, philosophical aspects, without dwelling only on the exclusively artistic aspect of the works mentioned. Recommended for those who have at least a partial knowledge of art history.... !

The Rebirth of Ancient Paganism
by Aby Warburg
in the New Italy edition, 1996
438 pp.
18,08 €

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