Wednesday 22 June 2016

→ John Dee, Aby Warburg, library as a portrait and a bit about tomorrow.

With tomorrow approaching fast, I was intending to write something suitably pro-European. Unfortunately, I am not a very politically eloquent person. Even yesterday's BBC debate failed to inspire me with their power of speech on the subject.

As result, I was flicking though the notes from the events I had attended recently. (It is that time of the year, when there is a lot happening!). I was lucky to be part of two exceptional events in the past two weeks: a Book History Research Network study day Collections within Collections at UCL organized by Anne Welsh (trully the happiest librarian I have ever met!) and Aby Warburg 150: Work, Legacy, Promise conference at the Warburg Institute. The common thread that ran though those days was that of a collection, a unique curated group of objects and ways of approaching it, organizing it, working with it.

Aby M. Warburg, «Mnemosyne-Atlas», 1924 – 1929
Mnemosyne-Atlas, Boards of the Rembrandt-Exhibition, 1926 | Photography | ©

Book History Research Network is run by ever-amazingly organised Catherine Armstrong from Loughborough University. The study day Collections within Collections was attended by a small but enthusiastic international group of researchers from various libraries across Europe, speaking about book collections: some being as big as Hospitaller Order's Library in Malta, others being as small as a parochial English library with six books. I was interested in the collection as an identity, in particular. The common denominator in each private library is the collector, after all. Kate Birkwood (Royal College of Physicians) spoke about John Dee’s library and Alison Walker (British Library) spoke about reconstructing Sir Hans Sloane’s library. Each of them mentioned collection as a sense of self. There is currently an excellent exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians  Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee, which illustrates the idea very well: carefully selected and very heavily annotated books draw Dee’s life paths and interests. The exhibition is supplemented by three very informative films, which are certainly worth watching

Dee built, and lost, one of the greatest private libraries of 16th century England. He claimed to own over 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts, which he kept at his home in Mortlake near London, on the River Thames.
The authors and subjects of Dee’s books are wide-ranging, and reflect his extraordinary breadth of knowledge and expertise. They include diverse topics such as mathematics, natural history, music, astronomy, military history, cryptography, ancient history and alchemy.
These books give us an extraordinary insight into Dee’s interests and beliefs – often in his own words – through his hand-written illustrations and annotations.

Predictions of solar and lunar eclipses to 1606. Eclipsium omnium ab anno Domini 1554 usque in annum Domini 1606 accurata descriptio et pictura | Cyprian von Leowitz, published Augusburg, 1556 | Royal College of Physicians

Aby Warburg 150: Work, Legacy, Promise conference started a Tuesday later with screening of a wonderful documentary by Judith Wechsler  Aby Warburg: Metamotphosis and Memory. Aby Warburg was a book collector and his greatest legacy is his library now housed at Warburg Institute. The library represents Warburg's distinctive interdisciplinary vision not only though the type of works it contains, but also though the unique system of classification he envisioned:
The categories of Image, Word, Orientation and Action constitute the main divisions of the Warburg Institute Library and encapsulate its aim: to study the tenacity of symbols and images in European art and architecture (Image, 1st floor); the persistence of motifs and forms in Western languages and literatures (Word, 2nd floor); the gradual transition, in Western thought, from magical beliefs to religion, science and philosophy (Orientation, 3rd & 4th floor) and the survival and transformation of ancient patterns in social customs and political institutions (Action, 4th floor).
In other words the Library was to lead from the visual image, as the first stage in human's awareness (Image), to language (Word) and then to religion, science and philosophy, all of them products of humanity's search for Orientation which influences patterns of behaviour and actions, the subject matter of history (Action).

Warburg Library plan

The library is a joy to visit! Fluid intuitive system of filing images (for example) creates unexpected parallels, not unlike those in his Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. The idea of juxtaposition and layering seems to play an important role here. A small but curious exhibition on display illustrates Warburg’s interconnected way of working, when each of his projects was conceived as part of a greater totality.

Systems of Warburg Library.

Library recreates the collector behind it. Private or public, it is a representation of the mind, the individual, the society which curated it and found importance in certain titles, orders, systems, but not the others. Warburg’s or Dee’s collections are their portraits, in a certain way. What portrait does my library paint?


And the referendum?

"I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world." (Socrates)

"When life ends up breathtakingly fucked, you can generally trace it back to one big, bad decision. The one that sent you down the road to Shitsburg.” (Deadpool)

Fingers crossed for tomorrow


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