[NetBehaviour] Mnemosyne Atlas question

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Fri Mar 26 20:36:42 CET 2021

Hi all,

This is a very interesting link, with a high-definition image of Panel 48 and a "guided tour" that includes some text and context.


Panel 48 addresses the theme of Fortuna, or the ancient deity Fortune.  Of helpful relevance is that it includes the Leonardo image I have been trying to study this month, Allegory with Dog and Eagle.  Just as Leonardo's image Woman Standing in a Landscape echoes Botticelli's illustration of Purgatorio XXVIII, the Allegory with Dog and Eagle strongly echoes elements of Botticelli's illustrations of Purgatorio II, III, IX, and XXXII.  Two such parallels do help affirm the likelihood of an intentional connection by Leonardo to the works of Dante.

Be that as it may, what Warburg's approach implies, it appears to me, is that the texts and images by various people are in a kind of recombinant dialogue wherein the meaning of each image is interwoven with the others, as in a kind of conversation, or the milieu of a city, or alternatively, a dream state.

From the site's description: "The panel [48] shows how the symbolization of Fortuna shifts from the medieval wheel, with its connotations of human helplessness, to an alluring female figure whose fluttering garments resemble a ship's sails and whose hand controls the tiller of fate."  This could relate to my hypothesis that in the figure of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo is attempting to integrate a wide range of meanings including Dante's representations of Fortune and Beatrice into an allegorized personification of his own design -- Esperienza -- who would correlate therefore with this overall context regarding Fortune.

Of course, in Allegory with Dog and Eagle, it is not a deity but a faithful canine whose paw is on the tiller as well as the compass.  (Another interesting image by Leonardo depicts a similarly-shaped compass with gears attached underneath, presumably a kind of steering mechanism.)  There is an imaginative and aesthetic logic to this choice if we consider Leonardo's definition of Esperienza as guide and teacher, not servant, to whom the artist and scientist owe respectful regard if their pursuits are to be sound and enduring.

The principle of Fortune is, especially viewed as Warburg presents it in a state of transformation, also potentially relevant to the present-day debates regarding experimental digital currencies and the related issues of concealment, authenticity, sustainable economics, and the like.

Looking forward of course also to reading the great links provided to Gombrich and more!

All very best regards,







From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Sent: Thursday, March 25, 2021 9:40 AM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Cc: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: [NetBehaviour] Mnemosyne Atlas question

Thank you for the great info and feedback Annie, Johannes, and Stefan!

I have noticed Warburg's name here and there in my reading about Leonardo, as I believe he wrote some influential essays (which I have ordered but not yet read).  In searching for resources about Dante's 700th year I coincidentally found the Warburg Institute's offerings, and noticed that their site also featured the online version of the Atlas (which I don't think I knew about previously).

From the little I've read, I think that the Bilderatlas may be unfinished and was meant to eventually include more panels as well as some explanatory texts (but I could be mistaken on this).  The method seems to have been for it all to blend together in some ways and not be reducible to normal presentations of images and texts.  This seems interesting in that while our books and archives can have any arrangement we want, our brains (and the world) have their own ways of integrating information which may or may not obey our archival designs.  Apparently the Warburg Library has a unique system of classification -- based not on periods or genres per se but on the concepts of Image, Word, Orientation, and Action -- and the Institute has an interesting "wheel" or knot design integrating these four words for their logo.

A major theme for Warburg and the Bilderatlas seems to have been how ancient texts and images percolated into medieval culture, causing a kind of chemical reaction that resulted in the Renaissance and began the modern age.  Or to use the metaphor of systems chemistry, there was a chemical ecosystem of the medieval and when ancient culture was dug up and re-encountered there were a vast range of system chemical developments set in motion.  Warburg's approach to understanding this set of processes seems to have had a "network" sensibility to it rather than a simply causal or sequential focus.

In a sense I find this relevant to the situations that Dante and Leonardo viewed themselves part of, and potentially to our own time of transition.

Dante created a text that literally walked ancient poetry, in the form of Virgil, through the terrain of medieval cosmology and philosophy with an imaginative translator Dante who captured it all in vernacular Italian for the widest possible public.  Leonardo seems a couple of cycles of iteration later than -- and somewhat offset from -- Dante, but was interested in many of the same fields and worked in a similar overall environment (Italy 200 years later) though using a much higher proportion of visual media (drawing and painting) than Dante (who focused on verbal images with high visual content).  The verbal/visual interrelation seems to have been relevant for Warburg too, though I need to learn more.  Both Dante and Leonardo wrote often about how word and image relate and interact; and both, it seems to me, assumed that later artists and writers would create images to accompany the poetry (in Dante's case) and words to accompany the images (as I would argue, in Leonardo's case).

I think the Bilderatlas will be a helpful case study for me to try to understand the visual/verbal interactions in Dante, Leonardo, and the possible interconnections between the two, in the context of the Keister and Marmor essays on allegory.  I believe that Panel 48 could be helpful for me to study, as it includes the strange Leonardo drawing Allegory with Dog and Eagle which I've been recently trying to both sort out and if possible relate to Dante.  Warburg situates it with a range of images of Fortune, who has been central to my interpretation of the drawing so far (instigated by the fact that the only cases I could find of trees being carried by boats relate to Fortune).  The Bilderatlas also apparently contrasts Nike to Fortune which seems to me to resonate with the Leonardo drawing.  However, without some kind of text or guide I don't know if I could understand very many of the images -- though perhaps that is part of the intent?  If there is a panel that includes Leonardo's drawing of Woman Standing in a Landscape that would also be relevant to my hypotheses about Leonardo I think.

What this means for the world today I am not sure.  Perhaps since the Warburg Institute's wheel logo is derived from a diagram by St. Seville (?), and they claim that he was also the patron saint of the internet, the constellation aspect could have an influence on the evolution of sustainable, equitable, and restorative networks?  Yet Warburg did not have a tidy solution I don't think, and was very troubled by what the ominous destruction of WWI might portend (though he passed away in 1929).  Perhaps he meant to discover, invent, remember, or at least acknowledge an imaginative capability that had been lost or was endangered but was essential for humanity and the planet to develop and integrate the information necessary for long-term successful adaptation?

Perhaps such a capability could apply to our present dilemmas, with Warburg's example of the Renaissance not necessarily being a prescription about content (or period, genre, etc.) per se but just one contextualization among many possible to illustrate something which is not content- or period-specific.  In fact, if one follows the logic of bringing in and integrating it should arguably involve going beyond ancient, medieval, and renaissance Europe to all cultures including indigenous and non-Western.  Whether Warburg's methodology for integration, say of art and science, could be applied now and to other kinds of integration (such as economics and equality, technology and the environment, etc.) is perhaps a currently relevant question, as is whether it can be or is being replicated at all.

Again many thanks!









From: Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Sent: Wednesday, March 24, 2021 10:54 AM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Cc: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: Mnemosyne Atlas question

Hi Max

the Warburg ''Bilderatlas" (Mnemosyne), I remember, is a late work of this researcher/collector, and there are a number of panels now freshly reprinted (in an expanded book/catalogue) and also exhibited from the Mnemosyne Atlas. This last project of the German Jewish cultural scientist Aby M. Warburg (1866-1929), is an unfinished attempt to map the pathways that give art history and cosmography associated signifinces or, one might say, evoke constellations? . Warburg imagined as this visual, metaphoric encyclopedia, and I was fascinated that he just seemed to use the images, without text or explanations......

Bernd Scherer, who's from my home region in the Saarland and has been Intendant of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, talks wonderfully about the book in his video presentation: that video was produced on the occasion of the exhibition: "Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. The Original" curated by Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil in cooperation with the Warburg Institute, Hais der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (04.09.- 30.11.2020).


For a rich interpretive reading of the exhibit, I can recommend an article published in London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 21 · 5 November 2020
"At the HKW", by Chloe Aridjis

best wishes
Johannes Birringer

From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Sent: 24 March 2021 15:08
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
Cc: Max Herman
Subject: [NetBehaviour] Mnemosyne Atlas question

Hi all,

Is anyone familiar with this rather unusual, and unfinished, work by Aby Warburg?  I have just started looking at his career and this work as part of researching his lectures about Leonardo.


The Warburg Institute is also doing a series of lectures online to commemorate Dante's 700th:


All best,


PS -- Thursday March 25 is also International Dante Day.  🙂
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