Describing Style

Aby Warburg: The transformations of style

Author: Maurizio Ghelardi, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University


Has Warburg coined a concept, an idea of style? I do not believe so. For Warburg talking about artistic style means to analyze the works of art in a purely descriptive, formal way. Warburg has always investigated the transformation of style and stated that the mutation of style consists in the irruption of variants that break the uniformity of representation. These variants are for Warburg symbolic forms in which human expressive energy is objectified. Stylistic transformation and the concept of metamorphosis as a mutation of the symbolic form are the two assumptions from which Warburg's research evolves. Therefore, Warburg often speaks of energy reversal, of objectification of expression in the Pathosformeln (formulation of pathos). These formulations of pathos can generate types, a typology of gestures of the bodies that are transmitted and repeated in the works of art, but these no longer possess the expressive objectification that instead the symbolic forms retain. In this sense, types are formal schemes which artists use but do not indicate a transformation of style. 
Thus, Warburg investigated artistic syntax, not artistic style. And this fact explains why Warburg is interested in ethnology and anthropology when discussing works of art or rituals. A famous example of this approach concerning symbolic forms is that of the so-called nymph in the Ghirlandaio fresco in the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. Warburg interprets the figure of the Nymph in a context, which is characterized by a polarity between the static nature of the figures surrounding the birth of St. John the Baptist and the kineticism of the nymph in which the stylistic transformation is embodied. The Ninfa is a dynamizing form, a symbolic form. The intensified movement and direction of the movement of the nymph, the irruption of this dynamic figure allows the transformation of the static and one-dimensional space into a living space.  This phenomenon in Renaissance painting begins with Masaccio (Brancacci Chapel). Thanks to this kineticism there is also a transformation of the psychic dynamics (pathos) in the representation of the human figure (Pathosformeln). Warburg calls this process a struggle for style. The superfetation of the details marks the transformation of the style from the Renaissance to the Baroque, in which the ornament prevails over the dynamic form and their objectification in symbolic forms. 


Maurizio Ghelardi is a professor at the Università San Raffaele in Milano, Italy. Responsible for an intellectual biography of Jacob Burckhardt (2016), Aby Warburg et la "lutte pour le style" (2016), Madness and salvation (2019), "Astrologica" (2019), and recently Aby Warburg "Between Anthropology and Art History" (2021). He is the winner of two ERC projects centered around the digital publication and analysis of Jacob Burckhardt's letters. His works span from the history of European culture between the 19th and 20th centuries, to the historiography of the Renaissance.

Just how bizarre are bizarre silks? A case study in style historiography and visual digital analysis

Author: Jorge Sebastián Lozano, University of València


In 1953, Vilhelm Slomann published Bizarre Designs in Silks, a volume dealing with a trend within luxurious textiles from the late 17th and early 18th century. The previously non-existent label “bizarre silks” met with instant success within textile historiography, despite disagreement on its actual meaning. The term in question provides a useful case study on the development of stylistic categories within art historical research. Previous cataloguers and specialists did not seemingly need any historiographical label for what quickly came to be seen as an essential, distinct phase of the evolution in Baroque fashion. In fact, its mere visual appearance came to be labelled by early commentators as “virtually indescribable”. In spite of such loose accounts, the term is absolutely standard, and has peacefully made its way into various European languages and historiographical traditions. This may be seen as yet another example of the scholarly consolidation of subjective, vague, even pejorative terms. The concept remains useful to this day, however, since the existence of such designs and fabrics -sharing what might be considered some bold looks- is hard to deny. In fact, its clear-cut chronology and pan-European dissemination have allowed for further subdivisions and categorizations. Attempts to translate their visual features into terms remain only partially successful, making them a particularly apt study case for the application of machine learning to their visual analysis, and for the understanding of its potential and risks.


Jorge Sebastián Lozano is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History of Universitat de València, where he teaches heritage and art history at the graduate and undergraduate levels. He has also been a research fellow in Real Colegio Complutense, at Harvard University, in 2017 and 2018. His doctoral dissertation was devoted to female representation in Spanish court art and visual culture during the 16th century, with a number of book chapters and exhibition essays resulting from it. In 2020 he collaborated in Sofonisba Anguissola’s exhibition in Museo del Prado. He has also been involved in Digital Humanities initiatives since the early 2000s. Between 2018 and 2021 he works as Technical Manager for SILKNOW, a European Commission-funded research project on silk production and trade in Europe in early modern times.


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