In this introduction to a Common Knowledge special issue on the Warburg Institute, the authors argue that the Institute remains today — as it has been, in different forms, for almost a century — one of Europe's central institutions for the study of cultural history. At once a rich and uniquely organized library, a center for doctoral and postdoctoral research, and a teaching faculty, the Institute was first envisioned by Aby Warburg, a pioneering historian of art and culture from a wealthy Jewish family in Hamburg. Warburg rejected the traditional view that the classical tradition was a simple, purely rational Greek creation, inherited by modern Europe. He argued that it was as much Mesopotamian as Greek in origin, as at home in the Islamic as in the European world, and as often irrational as rational in its content — and on the basis of this rich vision he devised brilliant new interpretations of medieval and Renaissance symbols and ideas. Warburg's chosen associate Fritz Saxl put his creation on a firm institutional base, first in Hamburg and then, after a narrow escape from the Nazi regime, in London. For all the changes the Institute has undergone over the decades since then, it continues to ask the questions that Warburg was the first to raise and to build on the methods that he created.

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