Ernst Gombrich gave his final lecture at the Warburg Institute in January 1997, a paper on the Sassetti Chapel in the church of Santa Trinita, Florence. It was some six decades since he had first arrived in England as a refugee from Vienna. He went straight to the Warburg, where he remained for the rest of his working life, retiring as director in 1976. A tutor at the Courtauld Institute tipped me off that the Sassetti lecture was one to hear. Arriving late, I found the only place left was a small patch of ground in front of where Gombrich sat. The lecture was complex, delivered in his still-thick Austrian accent, and the only strong memory that remains for me, apart from the slides of Ghirlandaio’s imposing frescoes, was that Gombrich was wearing a pair of dazzling Nike trainers.
Art historians have been sitting at Gombrich’s feet for fifty years now, many acknowledging him as one of the greatest practitioners of the subject during the 20th century. As Meditations on a Heritage makes clear, however, his legacy is far from uncontested. In an interview he told Didier Eribon that