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Warburg’s Dialectics

Freedberg, David A.

I first set foot in the Warburg Institute at the end of 1969. Before I got there, I studied classical philology at Yale with Eric Havelock, teacher of Marshall McLuhan, and controversial authority on the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece. Then I became the assistant of Adam Parry, who continued the work of his father Milman Parry on the role of formulaic oral song in the origins of epic literature. I don’t know whether it was he who first stimulated my concern with the relations between so-called high and low cultures, or whether that began as a result of my upbringing in South Africa, where the distinction between vulgar and popular languages was a daily affair, and where from childhood on I saw the pictographs amidst the snakes. By the end of my Yale years I knew that I wanted to study the afterlife of antiquity, especially - but not only - in its popular forms. Arnaldo Momigliano, whom I also studied with there, wanted me to go to Switzerland to study Greek epigraphy - but I refused.

When I got to Oxford, Francis Haskell said, "this is no place for you: go to London to study with Gombrich at the Warburg Institute", and my classics tutor at Balliol, Oswyn Murray, said "no, go to London to study with Baxandall at the Warburg Institute. So I did, and learned from both of them. I loved the Warburg Library for all the obvious reasons, I knew that Gombrich had a reputation for being fierce, Baxandall for being taciturn, Gombrich for being anti-modern, Baxandall for being elliptical, but in fact they gave everything they could have to a young scholar: above all patience with a still rough young South African and tolerance for his immature - some of which may still be evident in the aspirational pleas I have been making for many years for what I think Warburg still represents, and what has been so neglected in his work.


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A Warburg Workbook

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Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
October 5, 2022