The effects of memory on political iconography: A review of “Paura reverenza terrore” by Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg

Fear, reverence, terror (Paura reverenza terrore. Cinque saggi di iconografia politica, Adelphi, 2015): this is how the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg decided to entitle his latest work, a collection of essays, revisited and brought together under the discourse that reinterprets five artistic-political icons in light of the concept of ‘Pathosformeln’.

The notion of ‘Pathosformeln’ brings to light the ancient roots of modern images, and the way in which those roots have been reworked

Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.17

A subject of study used many times by Warburg, the Pathosformeln concept is used by Ginzburg to demonstrate how certain iconographic formulas, that in the classical period expressed terror and reverence, have been recovered and used over time by multiple artists with political ends. The term, coined by the German art historian Warburg, indicated those representative motifs that ancient art and later, Renaissance art, adopted to represent life in motion through intensified physical or emotional expressions. These formulas are transmitted historically, however human reactions to them also depend on something that goes beyond history itself: the memory of human nature and its evolution. Ginzburg speaks of strong emotions, such as fear, terror, anxiety or even surprise and enthusiasm, which remain stuck in a kind of ‘collective memory’ shared by the human race. However, this collective memory does not allow individuals to remember an event in great detail, but rather according to the emotion they felt at that particular moment. History and memory, Ginzburg states, are not the same thing: the first is methodical and objective; the second one, although collective, is subject to misleading interpretations. As the one truly responsible for ‘cultural memory’, the historian should rely on critical reconstruction, calibrating his interventions between distance and participation.

The five pieces that Ginzburg took into consideration are: a gilded bronze vase made in Antwerp at the beginning of the 16th century, the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan (1), Jacques-Louis David’s La Mort de Marat, the political manifesto from 1914 in UK and Picasso’s Guernica. Below I will explore further the last three essays/pieces, which I believe are the most interesting ones.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Oil on canvas. Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. Source:

The third essay in this volume is entirely dedicated to Jacques-Louis David’s La Mort de Marat; here Ginzburg finds a connection between religion and politics, comparing David’s famous painting with another one of his works, the portrait of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (2). By analysing certain details, Ginzburg recognises both styles and forms belonging to classical identity, which in Marat is further enriched with evangelical-Christian elements. «The depiction of a hero stabbed to death in a bathtub was a similar violation of classical decorum. […] “La Mort de Marat” spoke a classical language, but with a Christian tone.» (Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.95). According to Ginzburg, this seemingly unreasonable reference in a portrait of an Enlightenment revolutionary can be explained by the profound popular feeling of genuine veneration that, after the Jacobins’ demise, was attributed to him. Therefore, David transforms this painting into a manifesto, an ideological act of political foundation, since it was evident how the Revolution had changed, forever, the relations between State and Church.

“Britons wants you”. Source:

«The image of authority acted as authority itself» (Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.127). The fourth essay develops the theme of the persuasive power of images – political and non-political – on the masses and public opinion through the famous English World War I poster The Fatherland Needs You by Lord Kitchener. «A tough, ruthless, implacable soldier; an expert military organiser, who had served the British Empire just about everywhere» (Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.120) lends his face to the British government to urge the mobilisation of troops for World War I. The impact of this propaganda poster on the population is certainly formidable if we look at those produced shortly afterwards along the same lines in Italy (3), Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States, with the famous Uncle Sam (4). Ginzburg reflects on the art techniques used in Italian Renaissance art, stating the need for historiography to pay no less careful attention to them than to books or manuscripts: «Lord Kitchener’s manifesto resulted from two different and intertwined pictorial traditions: one based on all-seeing frontal figures and the other based on foreshortened figures with pointing fingers» (Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.140).

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937). Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

The fifth and last essay takes its inspiration from one of the symbolic masterpieces of twentieth-century art and history, Picasso’s Guernica. In the wake of the Spanish painter’s own indications, it proposes the thesis according to which a full understanding of a work cannot be separated from a historical contextualisation and an investigation into the artist himself. The examination thus begins by outlining the historical moment in which Guernica was conceived: it is built around the preparatory drawings and drafts, but also the reworking and corrections that Picasso continued to make until the very end.

«The decision to commemorate a public event prompted Picasso to include elements taken from a public and widely shared language: classical mythology.» (Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.185).

Here too, in fact, the theme of classical mythology as a common, shared and recognisable language powerfully returns: classical formulas are revived, attributing value and meaning also to the narration of a modern event. An enigma linked to this work and its symbolism is the absence in the mural of any reference, explicit or otherwise, to the enemy, to the fascist aggressor: «Guernica – the anti-fascist painting par excellence in which the fascist enemy is absent, replaced by a community of human beings and animals, bound together by tragedy and death.» (Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.213).

What the reader will perceive is the development of the concept of ‘Pathosformeln’, which Ginzburg relates to the great figurative patterns of classical art (especially Christian art): models capable of expressing and transmitting an idea of authority, a sense of suffering and sacredness: «the notion of ‘Pathosformeln’ brings to light the ancient roots of modern images, and the way in which those roots have been reworked» (Paura reverenza terrore, C. Ginzburg, p.17). The reviewed works embrace a sort of ‘ancient Pathosformeln’ within themselves, yet Ginzburg offers us a new and a different meaning of it, exploring the contradictory paths of memory and secularisation, and the ubiquity of politics that these artists used to convey an unlike set of vivid emotions.

Published by Luigi Rapisarda

Luigi Rapisarda graduated in Communication Studies at the University of Turin. He is currently doing a master's degree in Comparative Literature. He did his Erasmus in Glasgow where he studied English literature, history of art, film and tv studies.