Aby Warburg: “Italienische Kunst und internationale Astrologie im Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara” (1912/1922)

Fig.1 “April” (detail) fresco by Cosimo Tura in the Salone dei Mesi, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara (ca. 1469-70)

The different modes that are brought together in this image may be summarized as “movement” and “stillness”, “tamed” and “untamed”, a central dialectic in the handling of falcons (Fig.1). On the one side, a hunting party is depicted with hooded and hence calm falcons, on the other a restless rider on horseback (note his garments, fluttering in motion), whose falcon almost flies away from his fist and is about to launch itself at the beholders of the artwork. Falcon and image are transformed here into a mirror of princes by shaping the courtiers’ actions and habitus. As is apparent from this image and also from another part of the Schifanoia fresco: (this is the allegory of the month of April, the preceding one was March, Fig. 2) in an interior a Falcon falls upon a heron (one has to admit a not entirely suitable place for such an action, thus underlining its symbolic aspect). On the vertical axis underneath, a young boy gently handles a falcon, whereas Borso is handling his businesses nearby. Falconry is a haptic-symbolic state act.

The art historian or, rather, “image” historian (as he preferred to call himself) Aby Warburg coined the concept of “image vehicle” (Bilderfahrzeug), which he conceived not only as a mobile object (in this case, the falcon itself or images of falconry) but also as a motif and symbol that brings new associations and meanings to the object and may either overcome or conserve certain ways of perceiving it.[1] Flying falconry images are “image vehicles” in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. And indeed, in his seminal text on Heidnisch-antike Weissagung in Wort und Bild zu Luthers Zeiten (1920) Warburg explicitly relates prints to birds flying between Southern and Northern Europe.

For Warburg, the European Nachleben of pagan antiquity and philosophy and the Mesopotamian or Arab adoption of these values were of crucial importance. Falconry belongs to this latter category, and its Nachleben is reflected in and through images that do not simply illustrate this practice but construct it in a certain way. 

Fig.2 “March” (detail) fresco by Cosimo Tura in the Salone dei Mesi, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara (ca. 1469-70)

In his seminal lecture, “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia” (1912), held during the international congress of art history in Rome, Warburg is considered as having laid the foundations of iconology, at least for a certain kind of iconological approach. He maintained that “symbols for the fixed stars … over the centuries, in their wanderings through Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Spain, . . .  have lost their Grecian clarity of outline.”(Fig. 3)[2] 

“Fixsternsymbole, die allerdings die Klarheit ihres griechischen Umrisses auf jahrhundertlanger Wanderung von Griechenland durch Kleinasien, Ägypten, Mesopotamien, Arabien und Spanien gründlich eingebüßt haben”.

Fig.3 “March” fresco by Cosimo Tura in the Salone dei Mesi, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara (ca. 1469-70)

Warburg mentioned hunting en passant, although the image he is referring to in this lecture clearly shows a falconry scene, as observed above, which can serve as the perfect example of a migrating image and its Nachleben. As Warburg explicated, the image shows “the worldly activities of the court of Duke Borso, who can be seen attending to official business or cheerfully riding out to hunt”.

“Jedes Monatbild besteht aus drei parallel übereinander angeordneten Bildflächen mit selbstständigem Bildraum und etwa halblebensgrossen Figuren. Auf deren oberster Fläche ziehen die olympischen Götter auf Triumphwagen einher, unten wird das irdische Treiben am Hofe des Herzogs Borso erzählt; man erblickt ihn, wie er sich in Staatsgeschäften betätigt oder zu fröhlicher Jagd auszieht […]”

It is important to stress here the fact that falconry actually accompanies almost all the lower part registers at Schifanoia, which shows that it is not just a random pictorial decision but rather a political-symbolic act (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2).

Considering falconry within a European-courtly context, it is clear why its transformation from a non-Western practice to an Occidental image remained for Warburg invisible, a kind of blind spot: A Western style of falconry derived from the Greek or Roman antiquity did not exist. The afterlife of European antiquity was, however, at the center of Warburg’s interests, as it is clear from his text on Ferrara. Indeed, Warburg mentioned the Mesopotamian and Arabian knowledge, especially in relation to astrological images (meaning the upper register of the frescoes), where he tried to trace the Ursprung of the respective motif (and hence its layers) that has been transformed in time and space.[3] There he explicitly uses the term Bilderfahrzeug. His fixation on European antiquity is well-known (see, for instance, Warburg’s unfinished Mnemosyne Image Atlas). There hardly appear any non-European images, and if so, they do so only in accordance to the main thesis already formulated about Ferrara. The Pueblo peoples with their rituals and dances, surprisingly do not appear in the Mnemosyne, although in the serpent ritual they are used as reminiscences and revenants of the “primitive” and Dionysian European antiquity.[4]

Interestingly enough, Warburg´s fixation on the origins of European motifs and symbols, be it from the Greek or Roman antiquity in his nevertheless groundbreaking rhizomatic kind of approach was not shared by everyone within the extended Warburg circle, such as, for instance Rudolf Wittkower. Wittkower, somehow moving between Panofsky and Warburg, pursued, in today´s vocabulary, the motif of the eagle and serpent from a global perspective.[5] He showed that there is not one origin but rather origins that are spread simultaneously all over the world, so that symbols are universal. The universality of symbols was of course of immense importance for Warburg. Even if Wittkower´s approach was more classical than Warburg´s the way he pursued his material was missing from the latter’s attempt in the Palazzo Schifanoia essay. 

On another occasion Warburg spoke of animals as kinetic symbols,[6] a view which finds a felicitous expression in the image of the falcon. Concerning falconry as an image vehicle a combination of Wittkower’s and Warburg’s attempts seems to be a fruitful mixture, without eclectic tendencies, to do justice to the very subject of falconry’s political iconology itself.


[1] Aby Warburg, “Mnemosyne Einleitung (1929)” [Mnemosyne introduction], in Aby Warburg, Werke in einem Band, ed. Martin Treml, Sigrid Weigel and Perdita Ladwig (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), 636–37. See also Bilderfahrzeuge. Aby Warburgs Vermächtnis und die Zukunft der Ikonologie, ed. by Andreas Beyer, Horst Bredekamp, Uwe Fleckner and Gerhard Wolf (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2018).

[2] Aby Warburg, “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara,” in Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity. Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1999), 565. See also: Italienische Kunst und Internationale Astrologie im Palazzo Schifanoja zu Ferrara (1912/22). In Warburg, Werke in einem Band, 373-400, here p. 376-377.)

[3] “Die Entschälung des griechischen Urbildes”, Italienische Kunst und internationale Astrologie, p. 381. This occurs, not without mistakes, as Kristen Lippincott has shown. Kristen Lippincott, Urania reduc. A view of Aby Warburg´s Writings on Astrology and Art, in: Richard Woodfield (ed.), Art History as Cultural History. Warburg´s projects (London/New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 151-182. Cf. Andreas Beyer, Hermetischer Kosmos: Aby Warburg und Roberto Longhi in Ferrara, in: Bild/Geschichte. Festschrift für Horst Bredekamp, ed. by Philine Helas, Maren Polte, Claudia Rückert and Bettina Uppenkamp (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2007), pp. 171-182.

[4] See recently Horst Bredekamp, Aby Warburg, Der Indianer. Berliner Erkundungen einer liberalen Ethnologie (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2018); Kurt W. Forster, Aby Warburgs Kulturwissenschaft. Ein Blick in die Abgründe der Bilder (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2018).

[5] Rudolf Wittkower, Eagle and Serpent. A Study in the Migration of Symbols, id., Allegory and the Migration of Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987). The text first appeared following in the table of contents the serpent ritual in the second volume of the Journal of the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes in 1938/9. Wittkower refers explicitly to Warburg´s text.

[6] Aby Warburg, “Eine Reise durch das Gebiet der Pueblo Indianer in Neu-Mexiko und Arizona (1897)”, in Aby Warburg, Bilder aus dem Gebiet der Pueblo-Indianer in Nordamerika. Vorträge und Fotografien, ed. by Uwe Fleckner (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2018).


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