Tracing the Footsteps of Alfred Scharf: The Early History of the Census and the ‘Republic of Pictures’

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Around 1975, two greenish-grey wooden boxes arrived at the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute.1 They were entrusted to the Warburg by Rosy Schilling, who was sorting out the assets of her late husband Edmund Schilling, both émigré art historians of German origin. She was unaware of the boxes’ provenance or the nature of their contents, but one of them had been labelled the ‘Burchard Census’, suggesting that the previous owner had been the great Rubens scholar Ludwig Burchard. She would not have expected these boxes to contain, in fact, a probable precursor of the Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known in the Renaissance, one which was only salvaged from oblivion three decades after the Census’s creation. Revisiting this largely unprobed material at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Census in 2021, I became interested in the main contributor to this early project—surprisingly, not Ludwig Burchard, but a more obscure art historian named Alfred Scharf. The quest for a clearer picture of Scharf’s engagement with the Census prompted an odyssey across various archives with unexpected encounters, through which I was able to piece together an outline of Scharf’s career. My discoveries also revealed Scharf’s presence amidst a ‘Republic of Letters’ of art historians and art dealers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who used photographs of artworks as their currency, cataloguing and indexing as their standard methodology. This ‘Republic of Pictures’ provides an intellectual context in which we could assess the legacy of Alfred Scharf, and perhaps reassess the vision of the Census itself.

Alfred Scharf: Behind the Proto-Census

‘Burchard Census’ Box. London, Warburg Institute, Photographic Collection

The starting point of this journey was the ‘Burchard Census’ box, which has remained at the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute. It contains approximately three hundred cards, arranged in alphabetical order, indexing Greco-Roman antiquities as well as their representations in the Renaissance and the Baroque period. To Ruth Rubinstein, who had been engrossed in the Census for over twenty years when she started to examine the ‘Burchard Census’ in the early 1980s, the format of the latter was not unfamiliar. With information neatly organised under the headings of Auffindung (Rediscovery), Aufstellung (Display), Restaurierungen (Restorations), Quellen (Sources), Plastische Nachbildungen (Sculptural Replicas), and Graphische Wiedergaben (Graphic Depictions), these old cards already resembled the ones she developed for the Census together with her collaborator Phyllis Bober. 

Papers from the Pighianus Box. London, Warburg Institute, Photographic Collection

The other box, labelled ‘Pighius Drawings According to Subject’, was stuffed with miscellaneous materials which had apparently been amassed for the ‘Burchard Census’ and of which Rubinstein was now trying to make sense. In addition to various slips of paper, clippings, and blank cards, one finds photographic reproductions of a sixteenth-century antiquarian sketchbook now in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, Ms. lat. fol. 61, otherwise known as the Codex Pighianus (Rubinstein noted that parts of the Codex were missing and added the word ‘incomplete’ to the box’s label). There are also a numbered list establishing categories of antiquities like ‘relief’ or ‘equestrian statue’ (Rubinstein commented that it ‘[c]ould be useful for an index’) and a hand-written list identifying the woodcuts in Antiquitates Romanae Urbis studio, a collection of ancient Roman monuments published in Rome in 1599 at the printing press of Girolamo Franzini. 

The most perplexing problem for Rubinstein, however, was that the handwriting present throughout such material, except for a few fragmentary bibliographical notes, was not Ludwig Burchard’s. In June 1981, Rubinstein slid a note questioning the boxes’ authorship into the ‘Burchard Census’ box. She had entertained a few candidates—Gertrud Bing, Fritz Saxl, Erna Mandowsky—but none of them had a script that matched the specimen at hand. In another note dated March 1982, this time written by Arnold Nesselrath, director of the Census’s digitisation, he reports that this enigma has been solved. Thanks to the archival acumen of Anne Marie Meyer, then Secretary of the Warburg Institute, the writing was attributed to the German-born British art historian Alfred Scharf, an old acquaintance of Burchard’s. With this identification, Nesselrath reconstructed the creation of what he dubbed the ‘proto-Census’: shortly after Burchard’s arrival in London in 1935, he would have commissioned an index of antique works known to Rubens and his contemporaries and hired the recently emigrated Scharf as amanuensis. Indeed, this collaborative endeavour may quite reasonably be considered a prenatal episode of the Census proper. When Fritz Saxl wrote to Richard Krautheimer in October, 1945 that he wished to ‘tackle the subject’ of the knowledge of antiquity in the fifteenth century, he mentioned that Scharf had for some years garnered material on this topic at his suggestion.2 To this Saxl added, not without pedantic condescension, that Scharf had irrevocably deserted academia for the lucrative business of art dealing. Presumably Scharf had stopped contributing to the project by this point, and it was to be started afresh within new parameters. Saxl met with Krautheimer in New York in the spring of 1946, and in May, Krautheimer outlined their plans for the ‘Census of Antique Works of Art Known to the Renaissance’ that still continues today (under a somewhat modified title).3

This formed the basis of our narrative of the ‘Burchard Census’ for an online exhibition in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Census, with which I was assisting as a Master’s student at the Warburg Institute. Since the documents recording the early history of the Census had not been published in full, Prof. Kathleen Christian, Director of the Census, encouraged me to delve into the archives for further research. I gladly complied, for a more personal incentive too. Seeing in the plentiful material Scharf left behind a testament not only to an understudied antecedent to the Census, but also to solid, scrupulous scholarship, I felt uneasy about the slightly belittling undertone of such characterisations of Scharf as an ‘amanuensis’ adjunct to another scholar’s vision, or an ‘art dealer’ removed from true science. So, to flesh out the timeline of the proto-Census and to cast a fairer light on Scharf, I made myself a regular at the Warburg Institute Archive under the kind supervision of Dr. Eckart Marchand, Assistant Archivist. 

To my frustration, the resources available there hardly explained any further Scharf’s engagement in the proto-Census. Nowhere among Scharf’s scanty letters could I spot an explicit reference to the project, and the only mention of Burchard and Saxl together concerned a rescheduled meeting of the three, whose subject was left unspecified. Dated 12 December 1942, this letter read:

Dear Professor Saxl,

As Ursula is out of danger now, I should like to arrange a new appointment for our postponed meeting. May I suggest a day just after Christmas for it? Please let me know when it would suit you. Dr Burchard and I shall be at your disposal.

Yours sincerely,

A. Scharf4

Upon hearing about my regrettable lack of findings, Dr. Marchand consoled me that such things were wont to happen, as discussions often took place not in writing, but in the corridor or the office. He then advised me to look elsewhere, like the Rubenianum in Antwerp where Burchard’s archive was situated, or Scharf’s archive, if it could still be pinned down. I was, however, too obstinate and inexperienced to admit defeat, still hoping to uncover from this apparently trivial letter some hidden significance. With my eyes fixed on the name of Ursula, I wondered if that could perhaps represent someone unconventional, or even refer not to a person but to a thing, like the steamboats ‘Hermia’ and ‘Jessica’ that carried the exiled Warburg Institute to the benevolent banks of the Thames in 1933. In this spirit, I asked Dr. Marchand whether he had any idea as to who Ursula was. Putting his reading glasses on, he pondered over the document for a while and concluded that ‘Ursula’ sounded to him like a name of a family member, possibly Alfred Scharf’s wife or daughter. ‘Daughter,’ I murmured, wondering what that information could lead me to.

Ursula Price: Family History and Institutional History

I did eventually look elsewhere for traces of Alfred Scharf and the proto-Census. Coursework and  Covid-19 restrictions made travelling to Antwerp impractical, so I turned my attention to Oxford. The Bodleian Libraries house the Archive of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL), an academic council founded in London in 1933 that was to play a vital role in procuring financial and institutional support for scholars in exile under the National Socialist régime. 

Scharf had moved to London in that same year and, after spending most of his savings on settling down with his family, he approached the SPSL in 1934. On his personal information form, now conserved at the Archive, he cited the Warburg Institute as a provider of ‘unpaid facilities’.5 What such ‘facilities’ entailed became clear in a 1945 letter concerning the resumption of his application for naturalisation, which had been submitted in 1938 but interrupted by his brief internment in 1940 for being a person of Austrian descent. In the letter of May, 1945, he explained that the circumstances of war disrupted his collection of material in his special field of research, namely Italian art of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, and he admitted that he ‘had not much new to add concerning [his] activities since 1940’. Scharf then mentioned:

I could not give much thought to the Catalogue of Antique Sculpture known to and used by the artists of the Renaissance and Baroque which I started more than ten years ago in connection with the Warburg Institute.6

This statement traces the beginning of the proto-Census to Scharf’s early days in London, for which he would have perhaps already used the Warburg’s ‘unpaid facilities’ by 1934. More importantly, the name by which Scharf called his project bears a striking resemblance to its later incarnation, the ‘Census of Antique Works of Art Known to the Renaissance’ which no longer involved Scharf. This nominal similarity confirms the continuation between the proto-Census and the Census, though the extent of such continuation is yet to be elucidated.

The last document from Scharf at the SPSL Archive is a letter reporting that he swore his oath of allegiance at length in April 1946.7 Naturalised together with him was his only child who went, as expected, by the name of Ursula.8 Much of the information at the Archive has been incorporated into the entry for Scharf in Ulrike Wendland’s monumental Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil.9 Surprisingly, Scharf’s Wikipedia entry currently also contains a concise yet accurate biography, with a sentence on his ‘seminal role in the early stage of the Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known in the Renaissance at the Warburg Institute in London’. There is more information about Scharf’s family, too. It consisted of his wife Felicie Scharf (née Radziejewski), art historian and art dealer, his daughter Ursula Price (née Scharf), and his grandchildren Martin and Steffie. I merely glanced over the Wikipedia entry for pointers when preparing the anniversary exhibition of the Census; it was when I revisited this entry in the exhibition’s final stages that I noticed that Scharf’s grandson, Martin Price, was in fact an authority of international renown in the field of Mountain Studies. Besides numerous accolades and an emeritus professorship, he had a personal page on the website of Perth College UHI, Scotland, with his email address.

By then, we had established a draft of a text for the Census anniversary exhibition from existing scholarship and from the ‘Burchard Census’ itself. However, conscious that further work could be carried out, I decided to reach out to Prof. Martin Price and ask, without much expectation frankly, if he knew anything about his grandfather’s involvement in the Census. Very promptly Prof. Price’s reply arrived. He appreciated my interest in his grandfather and referred me to his mother, who would be capable of a more complete response. In this way, I got in touch with Ursula Price herself, who obligingly invited me over for tea.

Ludwig Meidner, Portrait of Rosy Schilling, 1945. London, British Museum © Ludwig Meidner-Archiv, Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main; the Trustees of the British Museum

On a brisk November afternoon, I made my way to Ursula’s home near Richmond in south-west London. She gave me an enthusiastic welcome and, after a brief exchange of words, she went to the kitchen for tea and biscuits. From her energetic demeanour and quick wit I could barely tell that she was 91 years old; only her unhurried gait betrayed her age somewhat. After we had settled at the table, I started to extemporise on the early history of the Census over photos of examples from the ‘Burchard Census’ box. Listening attentively, Ursula confirmed the hand in these cards to be his father’s, but also recognised a curved, upright, and previously unidentified script as that of her mother, Felicie Scharf, who had always likened her writing to the trails of a ‘drunken spider’. Upon hearing the names of Edmund Schilling and Ludwig Burchard, Ursula recalled that both were close family friends. Of Schilling she remembered that he married twice—both wives were named Rosy—and that the Rosy who consigned Scharf’s cards to the Warburg was certainly ‘Rosy the Second’. With the Burchards, continued Ursula, her family would frequently organise barbecues in their backyard or visit Kew Gardens, which was just a stone’s throw away from where they lived. Other regulars to their household included émigré German art dealers Herbert Bier and Arthur Kauffmann, the latter being the father of the late Prof. Michael Kauffmann, former Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art

Naturally, we proceeded to talk about Alfred Scharf. Unfortunately, Ursula did not know about his ties to the Warburg Institute, nor had she kept track of all the scholarly engagements of her father, who often reserved academic matters to himself. Having grown up under two art historians, with unceasing conversations about Italian painting at the dinner table, Ursula decidedly turned to German literature for her studies. Nonetheless, she had a clear mental record of the incidents leading to the family’s relocation to London in 1933, even though she was too young then to remember these events from experience. Having earned his PhD in Freiburg in 1925 with a thesis on the history of theatre design under Hans Jantzen, Scharf had spent the following years as a free-lance writer and editor for art magazines such as Der Cicerone (which Ursula compared to The Burlington Magazine). Hoping to win a more stable position, he applied for a lectureship at the University of Frankfurt early in 1933, with a Habilitationsschrift dedicated to the Florentine painter Filippino Lippi that included an exhaustive catalogue of the artist’s drawings and paintings. However, his application was met with the curious recommendation of a professor there to ‘not go ahead with the appointment’. With the rise in power of the Nazi Party, Scharf shrewdly detected in this response a signal of the imminent danger Jewish scholars like him were to face. When invited to lecture in London in May, he was persuaded by his friends to emigrate. By September he packed up all of his belongings as he ‘had nothing to lose’ and definitively quit Germany with his family for London. 

Scharf’s Habilitationsschrift was published as a monograph in Vienna in 1935, but until then his livelihood in London depended upon meagre remunerations for occasional lectures at the Courtauld and piecemeal editorial works. Having had no prior institutional affiliation, he sought academic positions in England in vain and had to start from scratch as an art dealer and consultant. This admittedly more profitable path, which Saxl would bemoan, probably befitted Scharf’s character, since throughout his academic career he was more of a researcher than a writer or a lecturer. As Ursula Price remembered, as a writer Scharf was constantly confronted with writer’s block, and as a lecturer, he so often grasped things by intuition that he had difficulty adjusting his pace to an audience that struggled to follow. So, Ursula ascribed the relatively few publications under her father’s name to his disposition. This might also explain Scharf’s charge of the proto-Census, whether the project was commissioned by Burchard, or guided by Saxl, or, as Scharf stated, initiated by himself ‘in connection with the Warburg Institute’, since a survey of the Renaissance and Baroque knowledge of ancient monuments would have been presentable in the form of an index or a catalogue, with little further writing required.

Portrait of Alfred Scharf © Estate of Alfred Scharf, by kind permission of Ursula Price

After Alfred Scharf passed away in 1965, aged 65, from an unexpected heart attack, his business in art dealership and consultancy was taken over by Felicie, who would outlive Alfred by 26 years, dying in 1991 at the age of 90. Most of the couple’s library and art collection went up for sale shortly afterwards, and what remained in Ursula’s possession consisted of a handful of books and offprints, mainly authored by her father. To her knowledge, all of the personal correspondence of Scharf had been lost, but the surviving documents, albeit insufficient for a personal archive, included a modest sepia photograph which showed a pensive, scholarly Alfred Scharf next to a statuette of a woman seemingly in nineteenth-century garb. ‘Here he is,’ exclaimed Ursula, handing over the framed picture. She generously allowed me to borrow the photograph and to make a scan. I carefully placed in the inner pouch of my backpack, like a child depositing their most treasured possession: as no visual record of Alfred Scharf could be found elsewhere to our knowledge, this photo would prove to be an important addition to our display.

Then she recalled that there should be more to what her father left behind. Most of his research photos, she said, were at the Courtauld Institute, with which Scharf had maintained rapport since his immigration to the UK, and where he had served as advisor for the ‘Princes Gate Collection’ of Old Master paintings and drawings bequeathed by Count Antoine Seilern. Ursula suggested that I visit the Witt Library at the Courtauld to see if I could come across anything of interest. 

This encounter with Ursula revealed a grippingly humane aspect of what I had thought to be mere historical research, and I realised how deeply entangled institutional history was with the personal and family histories of the individuals involved. With the hardships he endured, the opportunities he seized, the faces he befriended, and the places he frequented, the figure of Alfred Scharf became vivid. But his engagement with the proto-Census, which lay outside Ursula’s memory, was still to be recovered in fuller detail. Bidding farewell to Ursula with my backpack on the front, I decided to make the Courtauld Institute the next stop of my journey.

Alfred Scharf and the ‘Republic of Pictures’ 

Founded in the 1890s, around the same time as Aby Warburg’s photographic collection, Sir Robert Witt’s collection of reproductions of Western paintings, drawings, and engravings served a similar purpose as an individual’s reference library of images. Merged with his wife Mary’s personal collection of photographs on the occasion of their marriage, it was bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute in 1944 and has been housed there since 1952, with a current inventory of 2.2 million images. My visit to the Witt Library in late November 2021, which barely anticipated the outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in London, also coincided with the refurbishment of the Courtauld’s main site at Somerset House. I was led underground, through scaffolds and temporary passages, into the belly of this imposing structure impenetrable to mobile signal, whose labyrinthine viscera were delineated by shelves and shelves of albums. 

Materials from the Scharf Bequest. London, Courtauld Institute of Art, Witt Library

In an inconspicuous corner of the Dutch section lay the Scharf Bequest, which consisted of five albums and ten folders containing photographs of artworks and other miscellanea such as  letters, catalogues, and journal offprints. There was no itemised record of the bequest, and Dr. Karin Kyburz, former supervisor of the Witt Library, said she even doubted that anyone had touched it since she moved the bequest to its current location. Despite this apparent wealth of unexploited material, the inconsistent handwriting and the lack of background documentation made it difficult to determine whether everything had come from Scharf’s possession. Even if it did, hardly any document seemed to relate to the proto-Census, or to Scharf’s career in the 1930s at all.

An exception were the five albums listing the paintings and drawings by Filippino Lippi and his circle of Florentine painters with the handwriting of Alfred Scharf, or occasionally of Felicie Scharf, which I was now able to recognise. The albums were seemingly compiled for an extensive study of Lippi which led to Scharf’s Habilitationsschrift on the artist. Though they were undated, the occasional time stamps on the backs of the photos or on the order receipts inserted at random, as well as the dates of the bibliographic references, suggested that the project had been underway by 1931, before Scharf applied for habilitation in 1933. The Lippi albums, then, seemed to me to represent an early endeavour of Scharf’s that predates the proto-Census.

These albums adopt a consistent layout, in which a photographic reproduction of an artwork is glued to the right of the two facing pages, and basic information of the artwork is given on the left side. Only a small number of images remain in place, and most of the captions are bereft of their visual counterparts, with only glue marks on the blank facing side. I initially hypothesised that these photographs had been assimilated into the Witt Library after the bequest, but after checking a few examples, I realised that the images from the Witt were mostly reproduced from Scharf’s published Habilitationsschrift, and were of a larger size. Scharf’s original photos absent from the albums should be hence presumed lost. 

Alfred Scharf, Filippino Lippi album. London, Courtauld Institute of Art, Witt Library

However, it is the organisation of information in the Lippi albums that seemed the most relevant to the proto-Census. The remaining photos often bear, on the back, Scharf’s jottings in pencil recording the artist, title, material, size, location, and accession number of the artworks. Presumably, Scharf would first accumulate these reproductions through collections and photographic firms like the Fratelli Alinari in Florence, and then make a note of the basic information of the artworks reproduced on these photos. When they were eventually glued to the albums, Scharf would expand the information on the facing page to include a section on the provenance of the artworks [Provenienz], and another on the locations where they had been displayed [Ausgestellt]. Under these sections, one finds a list of relevant literature and extracts [Literatur] to varying degrees of detail, commonly featuring such fundamental works as Vasari’s Lives, Burckhardt’s Cicerone, Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s New History of Painting in Italy, and Berenson’s Florentine Painters. The reference number of the photographic reproduction typically appears on the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Insofar as the Lippi albums shed some light on Scharf’s working methods during the time of his Habilitationsschrift, one cannot fail to notice a close parallel with the proto-Census. Like the photographs in the Lippi albums, those in the ‘Pighius Drawings According to Subject’ box at the Warburg Institute are often marked with ‘metadata’ on the verso—the title, location, bibliographic reference of the ancient monuments, and the folio number of the corresponding drawings in the Codex Pighianus—always in pencil, and always in the familiar hand of Alfred Scharf. Presumably, from the compilation of visual and bibliographic material conserved in the ‘Pighius Drawings’ box, Scharf would establish the index cards in the ‘Burchard Census’ box. Still, the format of these cards recalls that of the Lippi albums, although the headings were adapted to the subject matter of rediscovered antiquities: ‘Provenance’ was changed to ‘Rediscovery’, ‘Display’ stayed on, ‘Literature’ donned the different name of ‘Sources’, and Scharf added ‘Restorations’, ‘Sculptural Replicas’, and ‘Graphic Depictions’, themes pertinent to the inquiry of the proto-Census.

In this regard, whoever commissioned the proto-Census after 1933—if it was indeed ‘commissioned’—this latter project was developed with Scharf’s personal methodology, which can already be observed in the Lippi albums. For both projects, he would have worked from images that he had gathered either at his own expense or at someone else’s. Then a more orderly index would ensue. From the 1945 letter at the SPSL Archive in which Scharf mentions the proto-Census, one may also infer the existence of a reference library of photographs he kept for himself: although his involvement in the proto-Census was impeded by the circumstances of war and in particular by ‘the impossibility of getting photographs from the continent’, as Scharf writes, luckily he ‘had collected all the photos for a monograph on Piero di Cosimo before the outbreak of war’. He continues:

[M]y collection of photographs enabled me to answer many enquiries of numerous colleagues in this country and in the United States and of the editors of the Burlington Magazine and other periodicals. In many cases I could provide hitherto unpublished or by war unobtainable photographs for their publications […].10

But to what extent was this modus operandi Scharf’s own? In an age when works of art were made increasingly accessible thanks to the burgeoning technology of silver print photography, a personal photographic library seemed customary, if not imperative, for an inquisitive art historian. Scharf kept his stock of images, but we have also encountered more prominent and encompassing photographic collections like those founded by Aby Warburg and Robert Witt. Scharf would have been aware of such examples, having probably consulted Warburg’s collection during his research at the Warburg Institute. Priding himself on his ‘hitherto unpublished or by war unobtainable’ acquisitions, he was also ready to share them with the founders of bigger collections.

Verso of the same photograph, with Scharf’s annotation in blue. © Biblioteca Berenson, Fototeca, I Tatti – The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies
Photograph of a drawing Scharf attributed to Raphael. Florence, Villa I Tatti © Biblioteca Berenson, Fototeca, I Tatti – The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies

During a research trip at the archives of the Bernard Berenson, Renaissance art historian par excellence, at the Villa I Tatti in Florence in January 2022, after the Census exhibition had gone live, I chanced upon a letter to this effect written by Alfred Scharf to Berenson as late as 1952. Convinced that he had come across a Raphael drawing ‘so far unknown to modern art history’ which he then reproduced for his ‘private collection’ of photographs, Scharf was now proffering this photo to Berenson’s photographic collection (known as the ‘Fototeca Berenson’), in the hope that this authority would concur on his identification.11 Scharf’s expectation was not met, as the photo which I located in the Fototeca, labelled ‘Arthur [sic] Scharf Coll.’, came with Berenson’s handwritten note that it was a product of the ‘School of Raphael’. But this interaction between Scharf, who had for years been wearing his art dealer’s hat, and a much more established figure in art history and art dealing, suggests the widespread practice of collecting photographs for research and profit in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Nor does Scharf’s practice of indexing seem to be born in a vacuum. Instead, it was a common methodology particularly favoured by art historians trained in the German tradition, epitomised by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker’s Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon (1907–1950), a summa of art historical scholarship. The format that Scharf used for the information in the Lippi albums, especially with the list of quotes about the artworks from relevant literature, foreshadowed Richard Krautheimer’s Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae (1937–1977), though the two projects were independently developed. As for the index cards Scharf prepared at the Warburg Institute, Aby Warburg, whose personal library became the Institute, had himself compiled index cards about artworks throughout his life and organised them thematically into boxes. By the time Scharf undertook the proto-Census, the Princeton Index of Christian Art had been in progress for more than a decade and would be cited by Krautheimer as a ‘spectre’ to be eschewed for the Census. Given this vogue for indexing, or more precisely, the ‘Zettelkasten method’ which involved storing information on index cards arranged in boxes, it seems reasonable that the proto-Census shared with the Census a similar format and methodology, even though Burchard’s boxes did not come back to the Warburg Institute until years after the Census’s establishment. It is striking how these original methods continue to endure, despite technological changes. Saxl and Krautheimer’s outline of the format, aims and methodology of their Census was formulated with what we might now call the ‘Burchard-Scharf Census’ in mind, leading directly to the system of typed index cards which Phyllis Bober developed for the Census project over decades. These cards, in turn, would form the basis for the current Census database and its data-fields.

Therefore, Alfred Scharf’s undertakings in and before the proto-Census point to a communal attitude towards art historical scholarship typical of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the systematic organisation of images and knowledge played a dominant rôle. Art historians kept personal photographic collections to facilitate research, and art dealers adopted the same practice for their trade. But these images would often circulate among different individuals, either in the form of reproductions sent out on request (we might recall Scharf providing unpublished photographs to his colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic), or as part of institutional libraries accessible to all scholars (we might recall Scharf’s interaction with the Warburg, the Witt, and the Fototeca Berenson). In this sense, photographs of artworks—‘pictures’ of ‘pictures’—served as a currency in this learned community which could be described as a veritable ‘Republic of Pictures’, and were an important part of its constant exchanges and collaboration. The methodological preference for cataloguing and indexing seemed to be consistent with the practice of collecting and arranging photographs, as both were governed by a striving towards order and completeness. It is with this emerging picture of the ‘Republic of Pictures’ that my odyssey in the footsteps of Alfred Scharf came to a close. This scholarly community doubtless required further study, probably another odyssey, or many more; but for now, it seemed clear that both the proto-Census and the Census itself were two fruits of the same overarching intellectual climate.

Cite this blog post
Christopher Lu (2023, October 12). Tracing the Footsteps of Alfred Scharf: The Early History of the Census and the ‘Republic of Pictures’. verso. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from

Christopher Lu

Christopher G. Lu is a historian specialising in Renaissance art and intellectual history and a published translator. He is currently reading for an MSt in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

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  1. I would like to thank Prof. Kathleen Christian and Joaquin Dollar for discussing this piece at different stages in its development. []
  2. Warburg Institute Archive, General Correspondence (henceforth WIA, GC), Fritz Saxl to Richard Krautheimer, Oct 18, 1945. []
  3. J. B. Trapp, ‘The Census: Its Past, Its Present and Its Future’, Pegasus 1 (1999), 11-21. []
  4. WIA, GC, Alfred Scharf to Fritz Saxl, Oct 12, 1942. []
  5. Bodleian Libraries, Archive of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (henceforth BL, SPSL Archive), MS. S.P.S.L. 192/3, 178. I am especially grateful to Prof. Elizabeth Sears for generously supplying me with scans of the documents for consultation afterwards. []
  6. BL, SPSL Archive, MS. S.P.S.L. 192/3, 236r. []
  7. BL, SPSL Archive, MS. S.P.S.L. 192/3, 239. []
  8. ‘Naturalization’, The London Gazette, 14 May, 1946, 2298. []
  9. Ulrike Wendland, Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus Verfolgten und Vertriebenen Wissenschaftler (München: Saur, 1999), 601–4. []
  10. BL, SPSL Archive, MS. S.P.S.L. 192/3, 236r–v. []
  11. I Tatti – The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Biblioteca Berenson, Bernard and Mary Berenson Papers, Alfred Scharf to Bernard Berenson, October 14, 1952. []

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