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From our archive, May 1993

Ernst Gombrich, the Wandering Scholar, pleads successfully—in Latin

Ernst Gombrich

In 1937, the Warburg Institute, recently arrived in London from Hamburg, found itself homeless. Permission was given for it to move into the Imperial Institute, but there was no shelving, which made the library unusable. Month after month, the director Fritz Saxl sent letters to the senior civil servant at the Office of Works, Frederic Raby, asking him for shelves to be provided.

Now Raby was also a considerable scholar of Latin poetry of the Middle Ages; finally, Saxl asked Ernst Gombrich to write Raby a request in Latin poetry in case that might move him to action. Here is that poem, in the style of the “Wandering Scholars”.

The effect was instantaneous: Raby sent back a poem in the same rhyme-scheme saying that they could have their shelves. As Sir Ernst said in sending these opuscula to The Art Newspaper, “The whole stands as a nostalgic tribute to a vanished tradition of the Civil Service”.

The Gombrich Plea

Stella desperantium, miserorum lumen
Rerum primum mobile, nobis quasi numen
Audias propitie supplicantem sonum
De profundis clamitat studii patronum
Otium molestum est, et periculosum
Menses sine linea vexant studiosum.
Statum hunc chaoticum noli prolongare
Animam et domum nos fac aedificare
Libros nostros libera turri de seclusa
Quibus mus nunc fruitur gaudeat et Musa.
O, duc nos ad gratiae sempiternum fontem
Unde tibi lauri frons coronabit frontem.
Qui in Bibliotheca Warburgiana
studiis se dedere ardent
—Frederico Jacobo Edwardo Rabio


Star of guidance in despair, Light of all the wretched/ Mover of the Spheres—to us almost God in Heaven:/ Listen with a gracious ear to the imploring voices,/Clamouring from the wilderness to thee, scholar’s patron!/Unwished leisure is as much dangerous as painful,/ Months that pass without a line irritate the studious./ Suffer not to be prolonged this primeval chaos,/ Elevate our house; and thus elevate our spirits./ Liberate our Library from its towered prison:/ What the mouse now feeds upon let the Muse enjoy it./ Lead us to the fount of grace as it flows for ever,/ And we will enwreath your crown with the crown of laurel./ From those who long to study in the Warburg Library.
—To F.J.E. Raby.

Raby’s reply (addressed to Fritz Saxl)

Doctor disertissime, rector venerande,
Omnibus amabilis semper et amande,
Congemiscens audio verba deprecantum
Imo corde vocibus tactus eiulantum.
Set nunc tibi nuncio gaudium suave,
Te et tuos liberans studiosos a ve.
EANT LIBRI LIBERE. Deus sit tutamen
Libris et legentibus in eternum. Amen.


Eloquent and learned man, venerated rector,/ Always lovable and hence loved by all around thee./ Groaning loud myself I heard the plaintive application,/And my deepest heart was touched by the suppliants’ voices./ But I am the messenger now of joyful tidings/ Which will free from present woe you and your disciples:/ LET THE BOOOKS GO FREE AT ONCE! And may God’s protection/ In eternity preserve books and readers. Amen.

More from The Art Newspaper


25 Apr 13
18:45 CET


In a word: sublime. Thank you for this nugget and long live the library.

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