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Johann Joachim Winkelmann (1717-1768)


German art historian and archeologist, who in initiating the "Greek revival" deeply influence the rise of the neoclassical movement during the late 18th century. Winckelmann was the founder of modern scientific archaeology and first applied the categories of style systematically to the history of art. Winckelmann crystallized his famous concept of the essence of Greek art – "Noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" (edle Einfalt und stille Grösse) – in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755).

"Beauty is one of the greatest mysteries of nature." (Winckelmann in The History of Ancient Art, 1764)

Johann Joachim Winkelmann was born in Stendal, Prussia, into poverty. His father, Martin Winckelmann, was a cobbler, and mother, Anna Maria Meyer, a daughter of a weaver. Winckelmann's early years were full of hardships but his thirst for learning pushed him forward. Later in Rome, when he was a famous scholar, he wrote: "One gets spoiled here; but God owed me this; in my youth I suffered too much."

At the age of 21 Winckelmann entered the University of Halle where he studied theology. He had became interested in Greek classics already in his youth, but he soon realized that teachers could not satisfy his intellectual pursuits in this field. While in Halle, he followed the lectures of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, who coined the term "aesthetics". In 1740 Winckelmann  started to study medicine at Jena. Between the terms and sometimes during them he worked as a tutor of languages in Osterburg in the Altmark, where he taught himself French.

In 1743 Winckelmann was appointed deputy head master of the gymnasium of Seehausen, but from the beginning he felt that his work with children was not his true calling. Moreover, his salary was so low that he had to rely on his students' parents to have free meals. "I have suffered much; but nothing exceeded the servitude at Seehausen." As associate rector, he was obliged to be present every Sunday at church and listed to the preaching of the Inspector. Instead of opening the Psalm book, he read Homer or some other Greek work. 

Unable to remain in Seehause, Winckelmann decided to pursue a new course in his career. In a letter to Count Heinrich von Bünau he complained: "... little value is set on Greek literature, to which I have devoted myself so far as I could penetrate, when good books are so scarce and expensive." In 1748 Winckelmann was appointed secretary of the Bünau library at Nöthenitz, near Dresden. The library contained some 40,000 volumes. Winckelmann had read Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Xenophon, and Plato, but now he found the works of such famous Enlightenment writers as Voltaire and Montesquieu. To leave behind the Spartan atmosphere of Prussia was a great relief for him.

Winckelmann's major duty was to assist von von Bünau to write a book on the German-Roman Empire. Four volumes had already been finished. During this period he made several visits to the collection of antiquities at Dresden, but his description of its best paintings was left unfinished. Among his new acquaintances was the painter Adam Friedrich Oeser (1717-1799), Goethe's future friend, who encouraged Winckelmann in his aesthetic studies. Wincelman lived for two years in Oeser's home.

In 1751 the papal nuncio, Archinto, visited Nöthenitz, and in 1754 Winckelmann joined the Roman Catholic Church, with the hope that the church would finance his stay in Italy. Goethe once stated, that Winckelmann was a pagan, and one anonymous joker said that "Winckelmaan would even have become a Mahometan, provided the rite of circumcision had been performed with a Greek knife, and connected with a promise of having permission to make excavations in Olympia."  Soon after arriving in Rome, Winckelmann obtained an audience of the Pope, Benedict XIV, but His Holiness excused Winckelmann from kissing his foot.

However, Winckelmann's decision finally opened him the doors of the Pope's library, one of the largest in the world. He was named librarian to Domenico Cardinal Passionei, who was impressed by Winckelmann's beautiful Greek writing. After publishing Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Mahlerey und Bildbauer-Kunst (1755), Winckelmann moved to Rome. There he met the painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779), and Alessandro Cardinal Albani, a collector of antiquities, who became his patron. Mengs was the channel through which Winkelmann's ideas were realized in art and spread around Europe.

"The only way for us to become great, yes, inimitable, if it is possible, is the imitation of the Greeks," Winckelmann declared. With imitation he did not mean slavish copying: "... what is imitated, if handled with reason, may assume an other nature, as it were, and become one's own." The Roman art Winckelmann discredited, which was unusual at that time – Roman culture was considered the ultimate achievement of Antiquity. Neoclassical artists attempted to revive the spirit as well as the the forms of ancient Greece and Rome. Mengs's contribution in this was considerable – he was in his day widely regarded as the greatest living painter. The French painter Jacques-Louis David met Mengs in Rome (1775-80) and was introduced to the artistic theories of Winckelmann. His painting, 'The Oath of the Horatii' (1784), made in the neoclassical spirit, is one of the greatest interpretations of the French revolutionaries' zeal.

Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works made Winckelmann famous. It was reprinted several times and soon translated into French. In England, Winkelmann's views stirred discussion in the 1760s and 1770s. Henry Fuseli's translation of his book, Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, came out in 1765, but the translation was not well received. Originally Winkelmann planned to stay in Italy only two years with the help of a grant from Dresden, but the outbreak of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) changed his plans. Though Winckelmann spent many years in Italy, never learned to speak Italian with ease. He wrote in German, Latin and Greek. An ascetic aesthete by nature, he lived simply on bread and wine, but partly his monk like life style and loneliness was increased by his homosexuality. In Germany he had suffered from bad digestion, which  forced him frequently to a water-soup diet, but in Italy his healt was better than ever.  

Winckelmann's first task in Rome was to describe the statues in the Belvedere  – the Apollo, the Laocoõn, the so-called Antinous, and the Torso Belvedere – which represented him the "utmost perfection of ancient sculpture." During a visit in the garden of the Ludovisi villa, he climbed on the base of a statue to examine it more closely; the statue fell and broke in pieces. In 1758 Winckelman made his first trip to Naples where observed the archaeological excavations being conducted in that vicinity. Usually the excavations of Pompeii in 1748 have been considered the decisive stimulus to the new archaeological classicism, but first excavation in Herculaneum took place much earlier. These two cities had been buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. From the middle of the century the collection of "antiques" becomes a passion all over Europe, discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum has a profound effect on taste, especially on interior design, and a journey to Italy is a mark of good breeding. Goethe made his journey to Italy in 1786-88 and although he never met Winckelmann – he was nineteen when Winckelmann died – Goethe found his memory still inspiring.

At the age of 45 Winckelmann fell in love with a young nobleman, Baron Friedrich von Berg, and wrote for him Abhandlung von der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen (1763). "As it is confessedly the beauty of man which is to be conceived under one general idea, so I have noticed that those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art," he wrote in the essay, composed in the highest style of prose. "To such persons the beauty of Greek art will ever seem wanting, because its supreme beauty is rather male than female." Antinous, beloved by the emperor Hadrian, was for Winckelmann a target of specific devotion. A portrait of Winckelmann by Anton von Maron from 1786 shows him writing notes about an engraving of the bas-relief of Antinous.

Winckelman rejected in his art theory the sensual nature of art objects, and idealized expressionless beauty, tranquil and passionless aesthetic forms. While maintaining a facade of diligence and respectability, Winckelmann did not suborninate his private life to cold theory. In his memoirs Giacomo Casanova tells that he discovered Winckelmann in December 1760 in sexual encounter with a young boy. "During my long studies I have come to admire and then to adore the ancients who, as you know, were almost all buggerers without concealing it", Winckelmann had explained.

The fruits of Winckelmann's journeys to Naples were the studies Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen (1762, Letter About the Herculanean Discoveries) and Nachrichten von den neuesten Herculanischen Entdeckungen (1764, Report About the Latest Herculanean Discoveries). His major work, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764, The History of Anciet Art), influenced deeply contemporary views of the superiority of Greek art, but unfortunately, Winckelmann praised in its pages antique paintings, which were clever forgeries, most likely made by his friend Anton Mengs. The best-known of these "rediscovered" frescoes is Jupiter Kissing Ganymede, others represented dancing maenads and the myth of Erichthonios  – these two were used to illustrate the first edition of the Geschichte.

Winckelmann's major opus was translated into France in 1766 and later into English and Italy. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing based much of his ideas in 'Laokoon' (1766) on Winckelmann's views on harmony and expression in visual arts. Lessing also stated that painting uses completely different means or signs than does poetry, which depicts progressive action rather than the visible and stationary.

From 1763 Winckelmann worked as a prefect of antiquities (Prefetto delle Antichità) and scriptor (Scriptor linguae teutonicae) of the Vatican. In 1768 he started his journey over the Alps to the North, but the Tyrol depressed him and he decided to return back to Italy. However, his friend, the sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi managed to persuade him into travel to Munich and Vienna, where he met Empress Maria Theresa.

Winckelmann was murdered by a fellow-traveller, named Francesco Arcangeli, on June 8, 1768, for medals that Maria Theresa and the Prince Kaunitz had given him. Arcangeli stabbed him five times with a knife. He had thought that Winckelmann was only "un uomo di poco conto"; he presumed him to be either a Lutheran, a Jew, a spy or a low person.  Arcangeli was condemned to be broken alive on the wheel – "from the head to the feet, until your soul depart from your body, and that your dead body shall remain exposed upon the wheel." Winckelmann was buried in Trieste, in the cemetery of the Church of St. Justus. After the cemetery was filled to capacity, his bones were removed and placed in the general ossuary.  Winckelmann never visited Greece, and although he had to form his views of the Hellenic art through copies, his insights have not lost their validity.

For further reading: 'The Life of Winckelmann' by G. Henry Lodge, in The History of Ancient Art, Vol. 1, by Johann J. Winckelmann (1849); Winckelmann. Sein Leben, seine Werke und Seine Zeitgenossen, 3 Vols., by Carl Just (1866-1872); The Renaissance by Walter Pater (1873); Wesen und Wandlung des Humanismus by Horst Rüdiger (1937); Winckelmann and His German Critics by Henry Hatfield (1943); Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Sprache und Kunstwerk by Hanna Koch (1957); Winckelmann by Walter Leppmann (1971); Johann Joachim Winckelmann 1717-1768, ed. by Thomas W. Gaehtgens (1986); Modern Theories of Art, Volume 1: From Winckelmann to Baudelaire by Moshe Barasch (1990); Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History by Alex Potts (August 1994); Winckelmann and the Notion of Aesthetic Education by Jeffrey Morrison (1996); Embodying Ambiguity: Androgyny and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Keller by Catriona MacLeod (1998) - For further information: Olga's Gallery: Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann by Anton Raphael Mengs

Selected works:

  • Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Mahlerei und Bildbauer-Kunst, 1755 - Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (tr. Henry Fuseli, 1765) / Reflections Concerning the Imitation of the Grecian Artists in Painting and Sculpture (tr., 1766) / Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (in The History of Ancient Art, vol. 1, translated by G. Henry Lodge, 1849) / Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (translation by Elfriede Heyer and Roger C. Norton, in in Painting and Sculpture, 1987) - Ajatuksia kreikkalaisten teosten jäljittelystä maalaustaiteessa ja kuvanveistossa (teoksessa Jalosta yksinkertaisuudesta, suom. Vesa Oittinen, 1992)
  • Erinnerung über die Betrachtung der Werke der Kunst, 1759 (in Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freien Künste, ed. Ch. F. Weisse) - Miten taideteoksia pitää tarkastella (teoksessa Jalosta yksinkertaisuudesta, suom. Vesa Oittinen, 1992)
  • Von der Grazie in Werken der Kunst, 1759 (in Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freien Künste, ed. Ch. F. Weisse) - Taideteosten  suloudesta  (teoksessa Jalosta yksinkertaisuudesta, suom. Vesa Oittinen, 1992)
  • Beschreibung des Torso im Belvedere zu Rom, 1759  (in Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freien Künste, ed. Ch. F. Weisse) - Description of the Torso Belvedere in Rome (tr. Henry Fuseli, 1765) - Kuvaus Rooman Belvederen torsosta (teoksessa Jalosta yksinkertaisuudesta, suom. Vesa Oittinen, 1992)
  • Anmerkungen über die Baukunst der Alten, 1762 - Remarks on the Architecture of the Ancients (in Winckelmann: Writings on Art, edited by David Irwin, 1972) - Huomautuksia antiikin  rakennustaiteesta   (teoksessa Jalosta yksinkertaisuudesta, suom. Vesa Oittinen, 1992)
  • Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen, 1762 - Critical Account of the Situation and Destruction by the First Eruptions of Mount Vesuvius of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabia (tr. 1771) /  Letter on the Herculanean Discoveries (in Letter and Report on the Discoveries at Herculaneum, introduction, translation, and commentary by Carol C. Mattusch, 2011)
  • Abhandlung von der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen in der Kunst und dem Unterrichte in derselben, 1763 - Mitä on kauneus taiteessa ja miten opettaa kokemaan sitä (teoksessa Jalosta yksinkertaisuudesta, suom. Vesa Oittinen, 1992)
  • Nachrichten von den neuesten Herculanischen Entdeckungen, 1764 - Report on the Latest Discoveries at Herculaneum (in Letter and Report on the Discoveries at Herculaneum, introduction, translation, and commentary by Carol C. Mattusch, 2011)
  • Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764 - The History of Ancient Art (4 vols., translated by G. Henry Lodge, 1849-73) / History of the Art of Antiquity (translation by Harry Francis Mallgrave, 2006)
  • Versuch einer Allegorie, besonders für die Kunst, 1766
  • Anmerkungen über die Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1767
  • Monumenti antichi inediti, 1767 - Winckelmann’s Images from the Ancient World (edited and with a new introduction by Stanley Appelbaum, 2010)
  • Winckelmann's Werke, 1808-24 (12 vols., ed. by C.L. Fernow)
  • Sämtliche Werke. Einzig vollständige Ausgabe..., 1825-29 (12 vols., ed. by J. Eiselein)
  • The History of Ancient Art, 1849-73 (4 vols., tr. from the German of John Winckelmann, by G. Henry Lodge)
  • Kleine Schriften und Briefe, 1925
  • Briefe, 1952-57 (4 vols., ed. by Hans Diepold and Walter Rehm)
  • Lettere italiane, 1961 (ed. by Giorgio Zampa)
  • Writings on Art, 1972 (ed. by David Irwin)
  • Schriften und Nachlaß, 1996- (ed. by Stephanie-Gerrit Bruer, Max Kunze, et al.)
  • Essay on the Philosophy and History of Art, 2005 (3 vols., ed. by Curtis Bowman)
  • Letter and Report on the Discoveries at Herculaneum, 2011 (introduction, translation, and commentary by Carol C. Mattusch)

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