Online Event: “Rudiments and Revenants: Warburg, Darwin and the Biology of Gesture”

Online Research Seminar given by Bilderfahrzeuge Research Associate Matthew Vollgraff at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome.

Monday, 13th December 2021, 2pm – 4pm (CET)

Antonio del Pollaiolo, Hercules and the Hydra, ca. 1475, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

For more information and registration, pleases the website of the Bibliotheca Hertziana.

By analyzing Aby Warburg’s reception of evolutionary thought – both with and against Darwin – this research seminar offers a new reading of Warburg’s understanding of history, demonstrating how the circulation of images between art and science enabled the conversion of expressive gesture into a fossil of deep time.

Charles Darwin was hardly the first scientist to study the expressive movements of the body, yet his 1872 book on The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals radically redefined “expression” for all those who came after. In his book, the naturalist stripped away layers of metaphysics and reduced human and animal behavior to purely biological and physiological factors. For Darwin, emotional gestures were neither intrinsically social nor communicative, but rather concentrated indicators of evolutionary change. By studying the expressions of the passions, one could even retrace lost behavior patterns from the earliest developmental stages of the human species.

Aby Warburg first encountered Darwin’s book in 1888. Over the course of his scholarly career, he applied the naturalist’s understanding of expressive movement as a primitive ‘survival’ to the visual history of European culture. Through a creative appropriation of Darwinian thought, the Hamburg art historian studied gesture as the medium of unconscious cultural memory, following the ‘pathos formulas’ of pagan antiquity as they re-erupted in artworks of the Italian Renaissance. By analyzing his reception of evolutionary thought – both with and against Darwin – this research seminar offers a new reading of Warburg’s understanding of history, demonstrating how the circulation of images between art and science enabled the conversion of expressive gesture into a fossil of deep time.


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