The Warburg Institute originated in the private collection of books and photographs of Aby Warburg (1866-1929). It began its life as the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg, which opened its doors in 1921. The institute migrated to London in 1933 and became incorporated into the University of London in 1944. Today, it forms part of the School of Advanced Study of the university and is situated in the university precinct of Bloomsbury in central London.
From its inception, The Warburg Institute has been one of the leading centres of research on the interactions between images and society across time and space. Over the course of its history, it has attracted the greatest humanist scholars and philosophers, including Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind, Ernst Cassirer, and Ernst Gombrich. It has transformed the histories of art, literature, and music, and in emphasizing fields such as astrology and magic anticipated many of the developments in the modern understanding of the history of science. One of the Warburg’s distinctive features has always been its engagement with what are often considered the superstitious, irrational and emotional elements of cultural phenomena. This has enabled some of its most significant contributions to the understanding of both the dynamics and forms of cultural transmission. The Warburg Library, famous for its powerful and suggestive system of classification, has unique strengths in all these areas, but particularly in the fields of Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance art, the history of humanism and the classical tradition, Italian history, Arabic, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, and the histories of religion, science and magic.
The Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute goes back to the collection of around 10,000 photographs assembled by Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl. Today, the Collection contains ca 400,000 photographs of works of art from all over the world, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia till the present day, albeit with a focus on Europe, and particularly Italy, and the period from Classical Antiquity till ca 1800. Several important art-historical projects have sprung from the Collection, among which the Census of Antique Art and Architecture known to the Renaissance and the Illustrated Bartsch are the most prominent. Special collections include the Eranos Archive of Jungian Archetypes and the Menil Archive of the Image of the Black in Western Art. The collection is expanded regularly through photographic campaigns, input of material from auction catalogues, and bequests (e.g. most recently, the bequest of photos of the Sacri Monti in northern Italy by Christina Roaf).
Photos in the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection are filed exclusively by subject. The Collection uses a unique iconographic classification system that was developed before IconClass and is more versatile and flexible than the latter. For example, Dürer’s Melencolia I is filed under Magic & Science – Four Temperaments – Melancholy – Female figure with putto(s) etc. Next to it in the folder there are photographs of other images of melancholy: manuscript illuminations, book plates, woodcuts, drawings, engravings and paintings, some high art, most low art, from all over Europe, produced during a period of about 500 years.
Since 2010, the Photographic Collection has also had a presence on-line: the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database (WI-ID). The WI-ID uses a variant of the Photographic Collection iconographic classification system, but is not an electronic carbon copy of the paper collection. It has been set up as a new resource in its own right, based on old principles applied in a new environment. So far, about 15% of the Collection has been digitised and entered into the database, but new material, for which there is no equivalent in the paper collection, has been added as well. The WI-ID is intended as the continuation of the Collection and it is envisaged that future expansion of the Collection will take in digital form only.