Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Aby Warburg in Brussels: Notes on a Historical Tournament, 1905


1. Affective Strategies

[1] In mid-August 1905, after attending a dress rehearsal and performance of a historical tournament in Brussels, which had been organised to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of Belgian independence, the historian of art and culture Aby Warburg (1866-1929) wrote home about his conflicting impressions. In a lettercard to his wife, Mary Warburg (1866-1934), he described what his amicable interaction with an officer of the Belgian army’s cavalry regiment at the rehearsal looked like, adjutant Baron de Trannoy (1880-1960), an Olympic equestrian and modern-day nobleman who played the leading role (fig. 1). In Warburg’s own words, ‘my contact with Charles the Bold’ [mein Contakt [sic] mit Karl dem Kühnen] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 12 August 1905). Warburg was eagerly looking forward to seeing the historical protagonist in action at the performance – described in his early 1900s unpublished manuscript, Festwesen als vermittelnder Ausbildner der gesteigerten Form, as the symbol of medieval knighthood whose early demise, clad in resplendent armour, contributed to chivalric festival culture’s downfall in fifteenth-century Europe (WIA.III.58.10.2, fol. 1). He signed off, ‘I am in the thick of it’ [[Ich] bin ganz bei der Sache] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 12 August 1905).

Figure 1: The latter-day Count of Charolais, adjutant Baron de Trannoy. Le grand hall du Cinquantenaire, Brussels. From: Rouvez 1905.

[2] In a nutshell, the 1905 event in Brussels promised nothing less than an immersion in the atmosphere of Northern Renaissance chivalric festivals: i.e., a re-enactment of mock fights at the Burgundian ducal court in the age of Philip the Good (1396-1467). Fittingly, Warburg’s field trip to the past appears to have been an expression of a ‘need to feel one’s way into the strange textures of past cultures’ that meshed well with the broader anthropological project of his cultural science [Kulturwissenschaft] (Grafton 2001: 261). More precisely, one of his primary objectives seems to have been tapping into the festive pleasures of life, or feeling an affinity of mood with, as he put it, ‘the uninhibited pleasure taken in the decorative chivalric festival’ [die unbefangene Freude an dekorativem Ritterspiel] (WIA.III.58.10.2, fol. 2).

[3] As Warburg wrote in his 1905 article ‘On Imprese Amorose’, published one week before his trip to Brussels, in his view, festive occasions and pageantry, specifically the standards upheld at tournaments, were key factors for gaining a deeper understanding of the Quattrocento’s artistic culture (1999: 177). In fact, from his 1891 doctoral dissertation onwards, he never let go of his central belief that festive performances possess an ‘intermediary’ quality that sheds light on how artworks came about in fifteenth-century Italy (Warburg 1999: 125). In keeping with this train of thought, he observed in his 1928 lecture, Bilder aus dem Festwesen der Renaissance:

We would perhaps more closely approach an adequate psychological understanding of Renaissance people, if we were to attempt to set them against the backdrop of coeval European festival culture [Wir kommen einer zureichenden Psychologie der Renaissancemenschen vielleicht näher, wenn wir versuchen, ihn vor dem Hintergrund der gleichzeitigen europäischen festlichen Kultur zu sehen] (Warburg 2012: 277).

Indeed, he saw the historical tournament as holding potential to enrich several aspects of his research endeavours on festivals in Flanders and Florence, and by contrast and comparison, vivify one specific object of his study (Wedepohl 2014: 155). This (fig. 2) is a fragment of a Florentine cassone (or a wedding chest) depicting a jousting tournament at Piazza Santa Croce, not accurately accounted for at the time, but now attributed to Apollonio di Giovanni (1414-65) or his workshop and kept at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, since 1871 (Stechow 1944; Gombrich 1955; Callmann 1974: no. 21).[1]

Figure 2: Warburg’s colour reproduction of the cassone panel by Apollonio di Giovanni or his workshop, Tournament at Piazza Santa Croce, ca. 1440. © The Warburg Institute Archive, London.

[3] In the years leading up the 1905 tournament, Warburg had worked intensely to piece together the cultural-historical context in which the object and image had been created and functioned (Wedepohl 2014: 149-56).[2] He never laid eyes on the cassone panel, nor had access to quality reproductions in the earliest phases of his investigation. Thus, detailed descriptions of the jousting scene by American acquaintances (such as Lewis Einstein (1877-1967)) were Warburg’s main sources until his expatriate brother in the United States, Paul Warburg (1868-1932), assisted him in getting hold of ‘the key’ that unlocked his case study (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 11 August 1905). This key was a costly set of high-quality images; a life-size black-and-white version of the panel, and a smaller but sizeable hand-coloured reproduction (which, like the tournament itself, Warburg termed a ‘surrogate’; Wedepohl 2020: 14; fig. 2). After these tools had enabled him to decipher pictorial clues by himself (e.g., heraldic shields, allegorical figures on banners, lettering on bridles) and turn them into telling historical details by joining them up with relevant facts developed from contemporary sources, he sought out the historical tournament to conjure a greater feeling of historical empathy.

[4] Taking the reproductions with him to Brussels, Warburg received an exclusive invitation to the dress rehearsal and an entry ticket to the performance after presenting his research to one of the event’s organisers in his quarters at the Grand Hôtel Britannique (for his invitation and ticket, see Warburg Rare Books DCH 5150). He also came prepared for the final step in his case study of the Yale cassone, armed with a new affective strategy to join ‘the ranks of those who keep alive the “experience” of the past’ (Wind 1983: 26). In short, he put the set of reproductions to use in an on-site comparative experiment with a re-enactment of a contemporary jousting tournament. The only visual proof of this analysis are two sketches of the Piazza Santa Croce’s floor plan (fig. 3, copied from a Baedeker Guide) containing the Hall du Cinquantenaire’s measurements (ZK 12: 012/006256; Warburg Rare Books DCH 5150).

Figure 3: Warburg’s sketch of the floor plan, ZK 12: 012/006256. © The Warburg Institute Archive, London.

[5] Warburg had high hopes that the cassone panel’s reproductions and the spectacle in progress would resonate with each other. For, conversely, the imagery of cassoni typically depicted ‘contemporary life in motion’ and revealed how ‘a self-regarding society presents itself, in all its pleasing detail, in the conversational tone of a court balladeer’ (Warburg 1999: 282). Yet, consistent with a popular superstition in the theatre world – good rehearsal, bad performance or vice versa – the performance fell short of his heightened expectations; no window to the past blew wide open. Rather, for him, the present muddled up the past’s evocation. Writing to his wife, Warburg gave a complete account – and even better, a thorough critique – of what he had observed, detailing the reasons why (despite strenuous efforts) the organisers, general state archivist Joseph Cuvelier (1869-1947) and Lieutenant Colonel Léon de Witte de Haelen (1857-1933), did not quite succeed in their ambition. This was, in the words of a celebratory publication in honour of the seventy-fifth Jubilee, ‘to bring the tournament to life’ [faire revivre le tournoi] (Rouvez 1905: 125). In his letter to Mary, Warburg also repeated the words of a disenchanted spectator whom he had overheard in the crowd in Brussels. ‘Isn’t all this nonsense?’ [“Ist des niet ne flaue Kohl?”] a Flemish woman had asked, and he seconded that ‘she was not so wrong’ [so Unrecht hatte sie nicht] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280). This is a kind of red herring. For, long after his initial disappointment had dissipated, the experiment with modern points of entry to the chivalric ambience of fifteenth-century tourneys, continued to preoccupy him.

[6] On closer examination, his correspondence, working papers and personal library indicate that this attempt to satisfy his ‘retrospectively directed lust for life’ [retrospektiv gerichtete Lebenslust] through modern popular culture held lasting significance for his comparatist approach (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280). Twenty years later, for instance, as an honorary professor at Hamburg University, teaching a seminar on his own ‘philological’ or ‘cultural-scientific’ method on the Yale cassone panel – ‘Exercises on the artistic culture of Early Renaissance Florence’ [Übungen über die künstlerische Kultur der Florentinischen Frührenaissance] (1925-6) – he told his students how he had observed this painted giostra and a Burgundian re-enactment in conjunction with one another (WIA.III.95.2.1, fol. 49). Invoking the spirit of his Bonn teacher, the classical scholar Hermann Usener (1834-1905) who maintained that, ‘a true philologist must be a fearless knight’ [ein rechter Philologe muss ein Ritter ohne Furcht sein] (1882: 32), one of the two mottoes of Warburg’s 1925-6 seminar, ‘we seek out our ignorance and fight it wherever we find it’ [wir suchen unsere Ignoranz auf und schlagen sie, wo wir sie finden], encouraged his students to make the most of every occasion for their own scholarly interpretations (Wuttke 1978: 41). Despite problems of historical representation (detailed in this paper’s third section), Warburg did just that in Brussels.

[7] On a different but related note, as becomes evident in Warburg’s Belgian episode, Vanessa Agnew points out: ‘re-enactment’s central epistemological claim that experience furthers historical understanding is clearly problematic: body-based testimony tells us more about the present self than the collective past’ (2004: 335). Hence, this article’s case study explores Warburg’s way of looking at a patriotic feast, where Northern Renaissance and present-day temporalities coalesced, as an early 1900s ‘specialist on the archaeological detail of fifteenth-century life’ in search of a pagan joie de vivre persisting in early modern and modern times alike (Saxl 1957: 337). By contrasting Warburg’s reflections with those of a Belgian colleague and lifelong friend of his, the seemingly anecdotal story told here explores feats and blind spots of his ‘capacity for historical empathy’, but also seeks to draw out how the obverse of this approach ‘furnished him with points of reference for the affairs of the present’ (Bing 1999: 83).

2. Brussels 1905

[8] One month before Warburg’s research stay in Belgium, the Brussels-born art historian, physician, and politically engaged writer with anarcho-communist sympathies, Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers (1872-1940) (who published under the pseudonym Jacques Mesnil), wished his friend safe travels but not without salutary warning. Although they had similar interests and methodological proclivities, Dwelshauvers (as befits an internationalist) steered clear of the Jubilee all together. As Dwelshauvers appears to have understood the historical reconstruction as nothing but a propagandist fig leaf, he anticipated Warburg’s disappointment. He wrote:

I wish you great pleasure in Brussels and I hope that the famous tournament does not amount to a deception. I have no wish to be there, especially at the moment when the seventy-fifth anniversary of Belgian Independence is being celebrated (taratata..!!) and when this country’s most stupid, dullest and most vile people are gloriously parading themselves and blurting out patriotic ineptitudes

[Je vous souhaite bon plaisir à Bruxelles et j’espère que le fameux tournoi ne sera pas une déception. Je n’ai aucune envie d’être là-bas surtout en ces temps où l’on célébrer le 75ième anniversaire de l’Indépendance belge (taratata..!!) et où tout ce qu’il y a le plus bête, le plus plat et le plus vil dans le pays ce parade glorieusement et éjacule des inepties patriotardes]

(WIA, GC, Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers to Aby Warburg, 6 July 1905).

Except for special anniversaries once every twenty-five years, Belgian National Day was not lavishly celebrated during the reign of Leopold II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1835-1909) (Beyen 2001: 74). In the summer of 1905, a triple Jubilee offered grounds for an exceptionally large national celebration of the sort (Programme général officiel des fêtes et cérémonies 1905). These revelries not only memorialised seventy-five years of national independence but also marked four decades of the king’s ‘power’ in his increasingly democratic homeland and two decades of his sole and private ownership of a colonised territory roughly seventy-six times Belgium’s size, the Congo Free State (1885-1908). As Leopold II’s ill-gotten gains were received as ‘a “gift” from the king to his (real) country’ [een ‘geschenk’ van de koning aan zijn (echte) land] (Verschaffel 2009: 68), he was addressed both as ‘King of the Belgians’ [Roi des Belges] and ‘Sovereign of the Congo Free State’ [Souverain de l’Etat Indépendant du Congo] during some ceremonial activities (Rouvez 1905: 96).

[9] In paying tribute to this momentous crossover of anniversaries, no expenses were spared. At the tournament’s location (the Parc du Cinquantenaire building complex), the construction of a grandiose arcade, whose arrested development had been a personal grievance of the Roi-Bâtisseur since the golden Jubilee, was finally completed at the hands of over 400 workers who toiled around the clock (cf. Deltour-Levie and Hanosset 1993: 12-21). Owing to generous funding from the Fondation de la Couronne, a trust that funnelled money from Leopold II’s ‘civilising mission’ in the Congo Basin to his prestigious urbanist projects at home, the Arcade du Cinquantenaire eventually emerged, twenty-five years late but in time for the festivities of 1905 (Couttenier 2005: 239-40).

Figure 4: Postal card in honour of the Jubilee. © KU Leuven Libraries, Special Collections.

[10] Governmental bodies of internal affairs, public education, and the fine arts had appointed committees to organise a wide array of events in and around the capital, the most prestigious of which (for example, the historical tournament’s première) were captured on film by local cinema pioneer, Charles Belot (1860-1935) (Convents 1999: 48-9; idem 2005: 65).[3] Together with the tournament, which had been a ticketed event,[4] a more widely accessible parade with an unambiguous Belgian nationalist message had been one of the absolute highlights of the festive programme (Janssens 2001: 83-99). All three causes for the celebrations were brought to the fore in this public spectacle, a cultural memory-making extravaganza which aimed to imbue spectators – Francophone and Flemish-tongued Belgians alike – with stronger patriotic and royalist sentiments of national pride.[5] The ambition was to raise a collective consciousness of the country’s illustrious deep past and present colonial power in personal union with the Congo Free State. Hence, the cavalcade was divided into two segments: a historical prelude and a more central allegorical part.

[11] The first section, constructed as a showcase of origins, espoused a shared distant past from the fourteenth century until national independence in 1830. The second part promoted a bright vision for the Belgian people’s future, singing the praises of their namesake monarchs, and celebrating the latest infrastructural, technological developments, and the colonial expansion by Leopold II (Boghaert-Vaché 1905; Fêtes jubilaires 1905; Rouvez 1905: 229-64). In this way, as Marnix Beyen puts it, ‘the politics of commemoration were the meeting point par excellence of the cult of the past and the cult of creation’ [la politique commémorative fut le lieu de rencontre par excellence du culte du passé et du culte de la création] (2001: 73). Though the Belgian State did not formally annex the colonised territories until three years later, imperialism became another tool to bridge national – class and linguistic-territorial – divides. Despite growing press coverage of the atrocities committed under their ‘philanthropic’ monarch’s brutal regime, the 1905 Jubilee’s parade presented the king’s colonial project as an integral part of national history for the first time (Verschaffel 2009: 66-70; Van Ginderachter 2019: 80-5).[6] The parade’s Char du Congo, for example, showed a subjugated Congolese woman reaching out to the allegory of Belgium, carrying the torch of civilisation, to free her from the chains of ‘Arab’ slave-traders (fig. 5).

Figure 5: Char du Congo, designed by Adolphe Crespin. Grand parade, Brussels. © KU Leuven Libraries, Special Collections.

[12] In celebratory publications for the seventy-fifth anniversary of national independence, the existence of a shared national identity and the legitimacy of the Belgian State’s claims of historicity were also burning topics (Rouvez 1905; La nation belge 1905; La patrie belge 1905; Le patriote illustré 1905). Writing in a journal in honour of the celebrations,[7] the historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) weighed in on the ‘relatively’ young country’s conflicted present by explaining one of the fundamental premises of his longitudinal reading of Belgian history to a lay audience:

Contrary to what has happened in so many other countries where the monarchy has shaped society, where governmental unity has produced national unity, one could say that in our country national unity has preceded governmental unity. […] Elsewhere, the State has often brought about a proper national unity; in our country, it seems to have resulted from it

[Au rebours de ce qui est arrivé dans tant d’autres pays, où la monarchie a fait la société, où l’unité de gouvernement a produit l’unité nationale, on peut dire que, chez nous l’unité nationale a précédé l’unité de gouvernement. […] Ailleurs, l’État a été souvent la cause d’une vie nationale propre; chez nous, il semble en avoir été le résultat]

(Pirenne 1905a: 4).

[13] In contrast, as Pirenne understood it, public opinion held:

There is no Belgian history. Our country is a work of the mind, if not artificial, at least only stemming from very recent European diplomacy. It dates from the Conference of London. Its history stretches back only until 1830

[Il n’y a pas d’histoire de Belgique. Notre pays est une œuvre, sinon artificielle, du moins toute récente de la diplomatie européenne. Il date de la conférence de Londres. Son passé ne remonte qu’à 1830]

(1905a: 3).

To rebut widely-held ‘myopic’ perceptions of the sort, Pirenne offered an alternative view to his fellow citizens: ‘If one absolutely wishes to start with a treaty, it is not the Conference of London that should be given as a starting point, but instead the partition of Verdun’ [Si l’on veut absolument la faire s’ouvrir par un traité, ce n’est pas la conférence de Londres qu’il faut lui donner pour point de départ, mais le partage de Verdun] (1905a: 3). By taking the period of ducal rule in the Low Countries as the epitome of a shared sense of unity in diversity, and a touchstone for national cohesion and independence in 1830,[8] the so-called Renaissance ‘Burgundian State’ played a constitutional role in Pirenne’s scholarly work as one of the Belgian nation-state’s revered precursors (Carlier 1985a: 15-20; idem 1985b; Bousmar 2012: 237-8).[9] Pirenne allegedly had no desire to become Belgium’s ‘national historian’ or to align himself with the self-proclaimed défenseur de l’âme belge, the socialist bourgeois writer Edmond Picard (1836-1924), who dedicated his 1906 book La psychologie de la nation belge to the historian (Keymeulen and Tollebeek 2011: 35).[10] However, Pirenne’s views actively contributed to events and publications in the context of the Jubilee (La nation belge 1905: 1-21). Furthermore, as the intellectual authority on Belgian history in the early 1900s, his work was eagerly recuperated and directly quoted notably in the grand parade’s programmatic writings (Boghaert-Vaché 1905: 4).[11] In this light, the tournament’s organisers who took advice from Pirenne and other prominent Belgian historians settled on their principal objective (Michelson 1905: 360; cf. Van den Neste 1996: 208; Janssens 2001: 102). Their objective was ‘to offer a faithful representation of a chivalric festival at the court of Philip the Good’ [représenter l’image fidèle d’une fête de chevalerie à la cour de Philippe le Bon] (Scénario du tournoi de chevalerie 1905: 3). By a tight focus on the reconstruction’s historical accuracy, it appears that the organisers sought to bring the imagined Belgium of the past to life. Without explicitly referencing Pirenne’s theories on the Belgian nation-state’s origin story, the tournament’s scenario, of which Warburg owned a personal copy (Warburg Rare Books DCH 5150), stated the following of its historical setting:

After all, it was the era – and this historical account was important for the present case – in which the various Belgian provinces happened finally to be reunited under a single sceptre, and when the “Belgian nation” began its common destiny, which would lead it, after many trials, to the happy independence, of which we are celebrating the glorious seventy-fifth anniversary today

[C’est enfin l’époque – et cette considération historique avait son importance dans le cas présent – où les diverses provinces de la Belgique se trouvèrent enfin réunies sous un seul sceptre, et où commença pour la « nation belge », cette commune destinée qui devait la conduire, après bien des épreuves, à l’heureuse indépendance dont nous fêtons aujourd’hui le glorieux 75ième anniversaire]

(Scénario du tournoi de chevalerie 1905: 4).

[14] The revival of an imagined national past and platitudes about nationwide progress, prosperity, and cultural belonging, presented as lavish entertainment for the masses conflicted with Dwelshauvers’s ideological bent and filled him with utter disgust.[12] Yet from Warburg’s differing viewpoint – that of a patriotic supporter of the Emperor Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – the grand parade’s pageantry had been ‘splendidly thought through and was effective in its overall impression’ [famos überlegt und wirkungsvoll im Gesamteindruck] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 15 August 1905). As he tactfully reported to Dwelshauvers, he did not praise the parade’s execution nor express any of his criticisms about the tournament, ‘which had been recreated really with a great deal of love applied to the task’ [das man wirklich mit sehr viel Liebe zur Sache reconstruierte] (WIA, GC, Aby Warburg to Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers, 8 September 1905). While Dwelshauvers seems to have considered the tournament’s claims to historicity as nothing but the thin veneer of a display of Belgian nationhood, Warburg kept his eyes fixed on the past alone. His notes indicate that he hardly paid any attention to the re-enactment’s nationalist subtext vaunting the Belgium of yore. Rather, general problems of representation and one all but trifling detail in direct relation to his historical research (an accoutrement of historical dress, see fourth section) stood out for him as salient.

3. Historical Accuracy in the ‘Democratic Age’

[15] Before proclaiming almost as a rule that ‘the point is not accuracy, but the thrill of contact with a mythic past’, Jay Winter writes, ‘re-enactments of historical events are bound to distort the past’ (2010: 18). While the tournament’s organisers would not have disagreed with this observation, they might have objected to the claims about the point of the exercise; as pointed out, however, their aspiration had been to carry both aspects through. The opening scene of the tournament was the only part that involved a re-enactment of a historical event: a joust held on Brussels’s central square on 20 February 1452, in celebration of the coming of age of Charles the Bold (1433-77), then Count of Charolais. To flesh out a fuller picture of mock fights at the ducal court of the mid-fifteenth century, subsequent segments based on broader preparatory research undertaken by Cuvelier were added to the re-enacted jousting scene (Scénario du tournoi de chevalerie 1905; Cheyns-Condé 1986).[13] For this reason, the performance lasted over three hours and featured more equestrian segments (such as a passage of arms and a quintain),[14] armed combat on foot with an assortment of weapons (swords, lances, and battle-axes), and a tournament with 531 participants as a grand finale, after which the victorious knights were lauded in keeping with chivalrous social codes. For instance, the Count of Charolais ceremoniously received a prize from one of the competition judges, his bride-to-be, Isabella of Bourbon (ca. 1434-65).

[16] The Belgo-German heraldist Stephan Kekulé von Stradonitz’s (1863-1933), in his glowing review, expressing his hopes for a patriotic feast of the sort in Germany (1906: 39; cf. ‘Revue des revues’ 1906: 292), lamented that the tournament was attended by ‘bathing guests who had by chance travelled to the Flemish coast over the summer […], not by experts in weaponry and heraldry, nor by researchers in the field of costume history’ [zufällig gerade im laufenden Sommer nach der Flandrischen Küste reisenden Badegästen […], nicht von Fachmännern der Waffenkunde und Wappenkunde, nicht von Forschern auf dem Gebiet der Kostümgeschichte].[15] It appears that von Stradonitz was unaware that shrewd observers of this very sort had, in fact, been present. The curator of the Royal Museum of Arms and Armour in Brussels, Edgar de Prelle de la Nieppe (1854-1915), for instance, authored multiple in-depth reviews of the event for a non-specialist readership (1904-5; 1905a; 1905b; 1905c). Although Warburg explored the possibility of publicly sharing his observations too (in a lecture before the Verein für historische Waffenkunde’s members),[16] his unfiltered criticism remained stored away in his Zettelkästen and personal letters.

[17] Enjoying the exclusive privilege of assisting Cuvelier at the dress rehearsal, Warburg had been able to mingle with the participants and most key players behind the reconstruction, and examine up-close the costumes, accessories, armour, and weaponry used in it. Going by his writings, the biggest stumbling block to the resuscitation of the past, as he understood it were the standards of ‘the democratic age’ [das demokratische Zeitalter]. These were the ‘modern’ standards that shaped the tournament’s playbook and, as he averred: ‘presented a mere substitute only, not even allowing for a faithful simulation of a mock battle’ [gibt auch hier nur ein Surrogat, es erlaubte selbst die getreuere Nachahmung eines Scheinkampfes nicht] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280). Further, in a letter to his wife, Warburg characterised the battle staging attempt in good faith as scrupulous, yet naïve. He sees it in short, as a sham struggle of a romantic mock battle of princely tyrants’ [dem Scheinkampfe eines romantischen Scheinkampfes der fürstlichen Tyrannen] that seemed calculated to endear (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280). He went on:

The fine, courteous colonel [de Witte], and the honest, clever archivist [Cuvelier], who so laboriously considers the illusion of an illusory world to be [the] “Renaissance”, even down to the costumier and the banner painter, together display such refreshing verve in their attempts at reconstruction, that one grows fond of them precisely because they are so utterly incapable of authentically depicting the barbarically elaborate milieu at the court of Charles the Bold

[Der feine nette Oberst, der biedere und kluge Archivar, der mit so viel Anstrengung die Scheinwelt einer Scheinwelt für ‘Renaissance’ hält, bis zum Costümier und Fahnen Maler, zeigten eine so erfrischende Verve in ihren Rekonstruktionsversuchen, dass man gerade sie deshalb lieb gewinnt, weil sie so absolut unfähig sind, das barbarisch raffinirte Milieu am Hofe Karls des Kühnen congenial darzustellen]

(WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280).

As this account reveals, more specifically, three elements had impeded Warburg from travelling back in time: the modern-day setting; the benign representation of the Burgundian ducal milieu; and the herald’s proclamations in archaic French. First, and allegedly for financial and practical reasons, the large north-wing hall of iron and glass at the Parc du Cinquantenaire (commissioned under Leopold II’s auspices for the golden Jubilee) with dimensions similar to the city’s central square had been chosen as the event’s backdrop, rather than the historic location of the 1452 joust. For all decorations on site, in Warburg’s view, they did not gain mastery over the Machine Hall’s heaviness [Maschinenhallenschwierigkeit] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280; cf. Michelson 1905: 363). Second, the measures put in place to avoid any serious violence resulted in an unsuitably good-natured atmosphere. For example, the jousting lances were adjusted to bend at a certain point and, thus, their blows were blunted to keep riders from being lifted from their saddle. In response to de Prelle de la Nieppe’s disapproving remarks about the tinkered with combat gear (1905c: 134), Cuvelier defended such concessions impairing the historic integrity of battle scenes on practical and moral grounds as necessary trade-offs between safety hazards and scientific exactitude. If the tournament was not fully up to scratch, he parried, that was because ‘a man’s life is worth as much, in our view, as the reconstruction of a measly archaeological detail’ [la vie d’un homme valant bien, à nos yeux, la reconstitution d’un mince détail archéologique] (Cuvelier 1905: 172). In Warburg’s opinion, who attached less weight to cavalier attitudes on the battlefield than minutiae of fashionable dress, the fighting had mercifully turned into ‘a functioning of the doubly distilled semblance of the semblance’ [einer Aktion der doppelt destillirte Schein des Schein] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280). Third, the sprinkling of obligatory ceremonial messages, even after being reduced to the bare minimum by the organisers as they admittedly missed their mark, still disturbed Warburg to such an extent that they ruled out any chance of psychological attunement [Modulation] for him.

[18] Given these shortcomings, not travelling back in time but through space – from Brussels to Florence – may have been the most fruitful part of Warburg’s comparative exercise. His treatment of Northern Renaissance chivalric festivals as points of reference for giostre can already be detected in the 1900s Festwesen manuscript, typifying the former as the ‘cultivator / shaper / mediator’ [als Ausbildner / Präger / Vermittler] of their ‘fashionable’, or stylistically more pliable, Italian counterparts (WIA.III.58.10.2, fol. 4). By experimenting with the 1905 historical tournament as a Northern yardstick, he may have tested an earlier version of his thesis on lavish public festivities in fifteenth-century Europe and fluctuations in taste, which (as formulated in his 1928 lecture on Renaissance festivals) runs as follows:

If we were to fix our gaze towards the north […], we would find an objective touchstone against which to measure the personal character of Florentine festivals, which was not only closely associated with that of the northern lands, but was also obliged to engage with it as a powerful, evenly matched opponent in the arena of festival conception

[Wenn wir den Blick nach Norden […] richten, erhalten wir einen objektiven Maßstab für die persönliche Note des florentinischen Festwesens, das mit dem der nördlichen Länder nicht nur im engen Zusammenhang steht, sondern sich mit ihm als mit einem mächtigen und ebenbürtigen Gegner auf dem Felde der festlichen Gestaltung auseinanderzusetzen hatte]

(Warburg 2012: 277).

4. ‘Combatant on Italian Fields’

[19] In direct relation to Warburg’s own research, namely his freshly published article ‘On Imprese Amorose’, an analysis of the Florentine Quattrocento’s formation of style through the lens of a revolution in dress in the Baldini engravings, he took issue with the depiction of a characteristic piece of Burgundian headgear in the shape of a cone (the hennin) at the 1905 tournament. Focusing on the Belgian artist, Charles Michel’s (1874-1967) working method, using the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy’s contemporary illuminated manuscripts as a basis for the costume designs, in the fashioning of ‘my beloved hennin’ [meinen geliebten Hennin] (WIA, FC, Aby Warburg to Mary Warburg, 13 August 1905; Warburg 2021: no. 280), as Warburg puts it, Michel’s method had gone amiss. The veil was made of sheer light-weight fabric. That is to say, the symbol par excellence of the Northern Renaissance costume style (which he termed alla franzese) had been misrepresented in his eyes (WIA.III.58.10.2, fol. 53). In light of the setting at the ducal court, nothing but ‘the head burdened with a hennin and a voluminous veil’ would have been acceptable to Warburg (1999: 176). What he actually wanted to see at the Brussels tournament was the ‘Burgundian chrysalis’ (i.e., the stiff conical hennin) in all its splendour (Warburg 1999: 176). In other words, the most powerful opponent of the ‘antique butterfly’ (i.e., a winged Florentine headdress), before the latter metaphorically erupted from the hard outer case of the hennin in the battle raging between realism and idealism to inspire freer forms of movement (all’antica) associated with flowing garments in flimsy fabrics.

Figure 6: The Planet Venus. Engraving from Baldini Almanac, first edition. From: ‘Delle Imprese Amorose’, 1905. The Warburg Institute Library, London. Photo by the author.
Figure 7: Isabella of Bourbon’s ladies-in-waiting at the historical tournament. Le grand hall du Cinquantenaire, Brussels. Postcard owned by the author.

[20] ‘Such trifles tend to be passed over too hastily’, Warburg already cautioned in his above-mentioned article, ‘the modern art-historical mind is not attuned to the cultural history of accessories’ (1999: 171). Neither was his compagnon de route, Dwelshauvers, who did not find the visual evidence in the 1905 article – the hennin’s replacement by ‘the Florentine butterfly’ – that underpinned Warburg’s argument on the deliberate stylistic shift towards all’antica in later editions of the Baldini Almanac to be wholly convincing. This change of headgear, as far as he was concerned, ‘cannot be accorded the validity which Warburg attributes to it’ [ne peut avoir le valeur que lui attribue Warburg] (Mesnil 1906: 3). Dwelshauvers’s counter-evidence of how fifteenth-century Florentines continued to dress alla franzese elicited an illuminating response from Warburg on the importance of the hennin’s role as a stylistic marker of Northern influence in the early Renaissance spasmodic evolution of Italian art. Heeding Usener’s advice, he riposted in a letter to Dwelshauvers:

I will beat you on your own terrain. You publish, as a piece of evidence […] the Redditi-Davanzati cassone with the very acceptable dating of 1465. In your view, it proves only that women then wore the “cornu”, that is, the double-horned headdress (Therefore, I would add, not the hennin!). However, what does it prove for me? That the painting of traditional costume and genre painting alla franzese distracted the contemporary descendants of the Romans from their own style to such a degree, that the great, lofty civic events of Roman history degenerated into scenes from a fashion journal

[Ich werde Sie auf Ihrem eigenen Felde schlagen. Sie publizieren als Beweisstück […] den Cassone Redditi-Davanzati mit der sehr willkommenen Datirg. 1465. Für Sie beweist er nur, daß die Frauen damals die “Cornu” d.h. den doppelgehörnten Kopfschmuck (ich füge hinzu also nicht d. Hennin!) trugen. Was beweist er aber für mich? Dass die Trachten- und Genremalerei alla franzese so sehr die damaligen Nachkommen der Römer von ihrem eigenen Stil abgelankt hatte, dass die grossen pathetischen Staatsaktionen der römischen Geschichte in Scenen aus einem Modejournal entarten]

(WIA, GC, Aby Warburg to Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers, 2 October 1906; Warburg 2021: no. 307).

What does this prove for us? Two things: first, that Warburg’s reflections on the hennin also exemplified the second motto of the 1925-6 seminar – ‘God is in the Detail’ [Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail]. Perhaps Usener not only infused his student’s argumentative language, but also was one to inspire his methodological knack for a ‘philological immersion in the detail’ [philologische Vertiefung in das Detail] (Wuttke 1978: 55). And second, that at all events, Northern Renaissance re-enactments included, Warburg considered himself a ‘combatant on the Italian field of battle’ [Combattant auf italienischem Felde] first and foremost (WIA, GC, Aby Warburg to August Schmarsow, 24 July 1907; Warburg 2021: no. 329).

5. ‘Florentines in Spirit’

[21] To come to grips with the 1905 tournament’s pursuit of historical authenticity and figments of a national past, Warburg’s writings alone – as he focused on historical research and brushed aside nationalistic uses of the past – did not provide us with a comprehensive picture. Only by linking the latter’s motivation for participating in the event with Dwelshauvers’s political reasons to dismiss it out of hand, does a fuller understanding of the wider stakes emerge. This paper’s conclusion, in a similar vein, returns to their intellectual kinship to further drive home what was at stake for Warburg at the spectacle, which patently evoked the distance between past and present.

[22] Under any other circumstances, it is likely that Dwelshauvers would have accompanied Warburg to a re-enactment of a fifteenth-century tournament. For he not only researched Quattrocento festivals and took a keen interest in the Yale cassone himself but also seems to have been no less convinced of the methodological necessity of affective strategies.[17] In contrast to old Florentines, he stated, ‘we rarely participate in public events directly’ [il est rare que nous assistions directement aux événements publics]. Rather, to our own research endeavours and capacity for historical empathy’s detriment, one reads between the lines:

We are informed afterwards by diffuse, banal and colourless reports that we read in cold blood and leave in our minds not a living image of the facts, but a mere verbal memory

[nous en sommes informés après coup par des relations diffuses, banales et incolores que nous lisons de sang-froid et qui laissent dans notre esprit non une image vivante des faits, mais un simple souvenir verbal]

(Mesnil 1923: 74).

This idea of animating dry and factual written accounts, and turning them into vividly remembered images, is echoed repeatedly in Warburg’s writings.[18] One of his many letters to Dwelshauvers, describing their joint turn-of-the-century ventures in Florentine archives, runs as follows:

Freezing people [in the Archivio di Stato’s cold basement] have old paper or donkey skin dragged in and also decorate white paper with black scrawls, and while this miserable function is carried out by an arid counter clerk, the dead rise up before us cheerful and full of life, hounded, driven on and given form by passionate life: but we, on the other hand, sit before their account books and wills (the protests of the dying burgher, whose love for order outlasts his body) half as vultures and half as prophets

[Frierende Leute lassen sich altes Papier oder Eselshaut heranschleppen und bedecken wiederum weisses Papier mit schwarzen Krakelfüssen, und während dieser miserablen Funktion eines trockenen Schalterbeamten steigen in heiterer Lebensfülle gejagt und getrieben und geformt durch leidenschaftliches Leben die Toten vor uns auf: wir aber sitzen vor ihren Rechnungsbüchern und Testamenten (den Protesten des sterblichen Bürgers, dessen Ordnungsliebe seinen Leib überdauert) halb als Aasgeier und halb als Propheten]

(WIA, GC, Aby Warburg to Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers, 7 February 1902; Warburg 2021: no. 228).

Indeed, Warburg firmly believed that his own laborious method was conducive to what remained unattainable for Cuvelier and de Witte. That is, resuscitating ‘the gallant characters of old time’, as one of the tournament’s reviewers had put it, before they ‘faded from the hall and took their places once more along with the ghosts which people the great square of Brussels’ (Michelson 1905: 368). To work through his archival materials with sufficient mental and physical distance from the ghosts and city of Florence (Bing 1958: 18), Warburg had already permanently moved back to Hamburg when Dwelshauvers contemplated relocating to his hometown in the early 1900s. The latter writes:

I feel too alive to bury myself for the rest of my life among ghosts. For, genuine modern life is missing here, and the past overwhelms the present too much. There is no doubt that the environment in Brussels is more reifying, despite all that is unsympathetic in the external aspect of life

[Je me sens trop vivant pour m’enfouir pour la reste de mes jours parmi des fantômes. Car il manque la vie moderne profond ici et le passé écrase trop le présent. Il est certain que le milieu est plus réifiant à Bruxelles, malgré tout ce qu’il y a d’antipathique dans l’aspect extérieur de la vie]

(WIA, GC, Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers to Aby Warburg, 11 January 1904).

For better or for worse, these fellow ‘Florentines in spirit’ felt unburdened by the weight of the past in modern-day Brussels. Only towards the end of Warburg’s life when, ensuing the great shock of the First World War, his political alertness had become a more integral part of his research projects, do the object of his study in Brussels and the historical tournament meet in a striking commonality – the Florentine Renaissance and its Northern modern counterpart’s shared penchant for elaborate heraldic displays. In the context of his late 1920s work on the political iconographies of nation-states, for which Dwelshauvers provided research assistance, Warburg came to understand the art of cassoni (awash with personal heraldry) as distant forebears of modern-day postage stamps bearing national emblems (Wedepohl 2014: 150; Zöllner 2020). So, even in light of Warburg’s own cultural-historical sensibilities, the comparative experiment with a wedding chest panel and a flag-waving tourney was more apt than appreciated at the time.


[1] For Warburg’s notes on the Yale cassone panel and a tracing in Mary Warburg’s hand, reproductions, and other jottings and sketches, see WIA.III.58.10.3; WIA.III.58.11.3 / WIA.III.107.6, Panel 28/29 [new ref. no.]; ZK [7] and ZK 12. For the object’s provenance and a selected bibliography, see the Yale University Art Gallery’s online record.

[2] This case study fitted into a larger project of Warburg; he worked on the cassone painters Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono’s workshop ledger (discovered by Heinrich Brockhaus) from 1899 onwards. He later abandoned this project and Paul Schubring published a fraction of his materials (WIA.III.58.14; Schubring 1915; Wedepohl 2014: 151).

[3] Charles Belot also captured a public celebration in the presence of royalty on National Day, the Colonial Palace’s inauguration in Tervuren, and the opening of the world’s fair in Liège. None of Belot’s recordings have been recovered from the film archives and, thus, it is presumed that his work is no longer extant. I am grateful to Dr Guido Convents for this insight.

[4] Performances took place on 20 and 30 July, and 13 August: the first showing was attended by the royals and dignitaries (invitation-only); the second and third performances were ticketed events of which the profits were donated to good causes (e.g., the Belgian and Congolese Red Cross). Warburg attended the third showing. To meet the demands of local news outlets, who railed against admission fees that kept large parts of the population from attending the event, a fourth ‘popular performance’ was organized on 17 August (Rouvez 1905: 163-4; Janssens 2001: 102).

[5] As stated in Rouvez’s celebratory publication, Le jubilé national de 1905: ‘It seems that this is above all the aim of this Jubilee procession, since it is, before anything else, a question of remembering and celebrating an independent Belgium, which should unite all citizens in a surge of legitimate pride’ [Il semble que ce soit surtout le but à atteindre dans ce cortège jubilaire, puisqu’il s’agit, avant tout, de rappeler et de fêter la Belgique indépendante en ce qui doit unir tous les citoyens dans un élan de légitime fierté] (1905: 230).

[6] Later that same year in November, the government was forced by a commission of inquiry to recognise the violence committed under the king’s regime (Viane 2008: 764; Bevernage 2018: passim).

[7] Pirenne authored a hugely popular seven-volume longue durée analysis, Histoire de Belgique (1900-32), of which two tomes had appeared by 1905. The first volume of his magnum opus first appeared in German in 1899 (Geschichte Belgiens) as part of the pangermanist historian from Leipzig Karl Lamprecht’s (one of Warburg’s most influential teachers) series Geschichte der europäischen Staaten.

[8] ‘For the Burgundian civilisation, a product of the collaboration of the Flemish and Walloon populations, can be cited precisely to prove how much these populations, which we sometimes like to consider as fundamentally different, are capable of understanding and agreement. It remains an ideal – a very high ideal – for modern Belgium’ [Car la civilisation bourguignonne, produit de la collaboration des populations flamandes et wallonnes, peut être citée justement pour prouver combien ces populations, que l’on se plaît parfois à considérer comme foncièrement différentes, sont capables d’entente et d’accord. Elle reste un idéal – un très haut idéal – pour la Belgique moderne] (Pirenne 1899b: 8; see also idem 1905b).

[9] Pirenne used the late nineteenth-century term ‘Burgundian State’, underlining that the territory in the Low Countries, in personal union with the House of Valois-Burgundy, was not a monarchy but a princely ‘State’ dependent on two monarchies (Boone 2019: 116-7).

[10] Picard viewed the Belgian nation-state as a psychological entity, united by a ‘Belgian soul’ (Picard 1897; see also Laqua 2013: 19-21; Hasquin 1996: 53-6).

[11] ‘…this intermediate state, made up of two fragments of states, which the Dukes of Burgundy finally succeeded in creating in the 15th century and which still exists’ […cet État intermédiaire, fait de deux fragments d’États, que les ducs de Bourgogne ont enfin réussi à créer au XV siècle et qui dure encore] (Pirenne 1900: ix apud Boghaert-Vaché 1905: 4). To give one more example, another celebratory publication referenced the first two volumes of Histoire de Belgique to give more heft to the national motto, ‘unity makes strength’ (La patrie belge 1905: 51-2; see also Carlier 1985a: 20). As said by Tollebeek, Pirenne’s scholarship fully answered to his day’s ‘political requirements’ (Tollebeek 1998: 351-3; more on the reception of Pirenne’s Histoire de Belgique, see Keymeulen and Tollebeek 2011: 32-5; Hasquin 1996: 61-78; Carlier 1985b: passim).

[12] Dwelshauvers’s attitude was not out of the common. The Belgian Worker’s Party (BWP) urged their supporters to refrain from officially participating in the national celebrations to uphold public perception of revolutionary masses (Van Ginderachter 2019: 48-53). On Dwelshauvers’s politics and relation with BWP, see Van Rooy 1985.

[13] To accurately reconstruct the battle scenes and other actions, historical dress, decorations, music, the herald’s binding texts, etc., Cuvelier predominantly relied on primary sources in national archives and libraries (Scénario du tournoi de chevalerie 1905: 3-8; Cuvelier 1905: 171-2), for example, the Burgundian court’s account books; illuminated manuscripts from the historical core collection of the Royal Library of Belgium, the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy; René of Anjou’s (1409-80) treatise describing the rules for tournaments, Livre des tournois (ca. 1462-5); writings of courtier Olivier de la Marche (1425-1502) (de la Marche 1884: 214); and descriptions of tournaments and festivals in fifteenth-century chronicles.

[14] Quintains are a training exercise for jousting, where a competitor attempts to strike a mannequin with a lance.

[15] Warburg and Kekulé von Stradonitz attended the performance on the same day (13 August 1905) but seem to have missed each other. However, Warburg kept up with press articles (ZK 12) and other publications on the 1905 tournament. He was familiar with Kekulé von Stradonitz’s review and drew Cuvelier’s attention to it (WIA, GC, Aby Warburg to Joseph Cuvelier, 01 August 1906).

[16] Upon Warburg’s return home, as evidenced by correspondence with the Zeitschrift für historische Waffenkunde’s editor, Karl Koetschau (1868-1949), he felt motivated anew to share some of his findings on Quattrocento festival culture. His letter to Koetschau runs: ‘I was also in Brussels and I observed the (very excellent, by the way) historical tournament comparatively in precise detail. Would an analysis of the history of weaponry of this kind (an essay, or preferably a lecture) be of interest to your circle?’ [Ich war jetzt auch in Brüssel und habe vergleichsweise das (übrigens sehr vorzügliche) historische Turnier genau beobachtet. Hätte nun eine derartige waffengeschichtliche Betrachtung (Aufsatz, lieber noch Vortrag) für Ihren Kreis Interesse?]. However, he did not follow up on Koetschau’s affirmative reply (WIA, GC, Aby Warburg to Karl Koetschau, 19 August 1905; reply on 22 August 1905).

[17] In the winter of 1906, Dwelshauvers borrowed the reproductions of the Yale cassone for research purposes of his own. As Warburg only reluctantly lent them to him, it seems that he had not yet given up on the idea of publishing his Yale cassone case study. See WIA, GC, Jean-Jacques Dwelshauvers to Aby Warburg, 14 and 28 November, 3 and 22 December 1906. In the end, neither of them published their findings but the Yale cassone’s image continued to resurface in Warburg’s later projects in the 1920s (most famously on panel 28/29 of the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne).

[18] This much can also be gleaned from one of Warburg’s oft-quoted phrases: ‘…the living words of men who have slept for four centuries and more in the tomb, but whom love can awaken and usefully consult’. He used this quote by the Italian man of letters Cesare Guasti (1822-89) to describe his approach in an epithet for his 1902 essay on ‘The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie’ (Warburg 1999: 216).


The Warburg Institute Archive, London (WIA)

             Family Correspondence (FC)

             General Correspondence (GC)

             Zettelkästen (ZK)

The Warburg Institute Library, London

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Stephanie Heremans, PhD candidate, KU Leuven

Stephanie Heremans is a doctoral candidate in the Art History Department at KU Leuven. She is currently working on the research project “Kairós, or the Right Moment: Nachleben and Iconology” under the supervision of Professor Barbara Baert (KU Leuven) and Professor Han Lamers (University of Oslo). Before enrolling as a doctoral student, she read Art History at KU Leuven (MA, 2017) and served an internship at the Iconology Research Group. In 2020-2021 she held an Occasional Studentship at The Warburg Institute, London. Her research has been funded by KU Leuven, The Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.


I would like to thank Claudia Wedepohl and Eckart Marchand for their generous assistance and insightful suggestions, and Helen Shiner for her translations. I am also especially grateful to Steffen Haug for his comments on this essay.

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