At the time of his murder in Trieste on the eighth of June, 1768, Johann Joachim Winckelmann was a European celebrity, whose sudden violent death was shocking news to his readers, artists, scholars and art lovers, throughout the continent. Nothing in his origin had predicted a career that would lead him to the position of Librarian of the Vatican and President of Antiquities of the Papal States.
Winckelmann was born in 1717 in Stendal, a small town in Prussia. His father was a cobbler, and Winckelmann had to earn his secondary school fees all by himself. He began to study theology, then changed to mathematics and medicine, all of which left him equally dissatisfied. He worked as private tutor before being employed as teacher at a grammar-school. In 1748 his fate changed for the better, as he became librarian of Count Bünau in Saxony, where he could not only use a large library to study what interested him most, the antique arts, but also visit the rich art collections of Dresden, and meet artists and other people who were conducive to his plans.
There he wrote the formative essay, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755; Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, 1765), in which he maintained, The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks. His essay became a manifesto of the Greek ideal in education and art and was soon translated into several languages. Under the influence of the Saxon court, he embraced the Catholic faith; and, entering the service of the future Cardinal Achinto, he exchanged his homeland for the city of Rome. The position and influential patronage he gained there, particularly that of Cardinal Albani, who had one of the great private collections of classical art, gave him access to the art treasures of Rome and the freedom to develop his talents as art critic and consultant to visitors from among the European nobility.
His works were widely read and earned him the respect of the intellectual world of the day. His general Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764; History of the Art of Antiquity) is virtually the first work to define in ancient art an organic development of growth, maturity, and decline; to include such cultural and technical factors as climate, freedom, and craftsmanship in explaining the art of a people;
or to attempt a definition of ideal beauty. This work inaugurated the division of ancient art into periods a pre-Phidian (or archaic), the high or sublime style of the great Greek sculptors Phidias and Polyclitus of the fifth century BC, the elegant or beautiful style of the sculptor Praxiteles and the painter Apelles (both flourishing in Greece in the fourth century BC), and the imitative period, corresponding to the Greek-hued Hellenistic and the Roman that have passed into the common parlance of Greek art history. But his fame rests chiefly upon his descriptions of individual works of art, combining meticulous, firsthand observation with a warm and spontaneous style. His remarks on the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere, the Niobids, and the Belvedere Torso have become landmarks in the history of German literature and art criticism alike. The study of art history as a distinct discipline, and of archæology as a humane science, may be said to date from Winckelmann.
For all his ingenious insight, Winckelmanns view of the antique arts was somewhat one-sided and biased, as characterized by his often-quoted dictum on the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur of Greek sculpture. Besides, his observations derived almost entirely from later Hellenistic works or Roman copies of Greek masterpieces. The world of Greek art, like the land of Greece itself, remained for him always an ideal more of the mind than of the eye. Nevertheless Winckelmanns work marks the beginning of a new epoch and the rise of new artistic ideals, æsthetic values and scientific terms and methods.
Winckelmann visited Pompeii and Herculaneum during the early years of their discovery. His communications in the form of open letters, in which he criticized the lack of system and the secretiveness of the responsible authorities, helped put these excavations into competent hands. For this and his catalog of ancient gems he has been called the father of modern archæology.
It is no accident that Winckelmanns description of antique sculpture is most remarkable for his analysis of male statues. What he found in much of Greek art was a kindred spirit that corresponded with his own erotic inclination for young males, and what drew him to Italy was not only its inheritance of antique works of art, but also the fact that there, like in most Mediterranean countries, the antique tradition of bisexuality and pederasty had tenaciously survived all religiously motivated disapproval, whether Christian or Islamic, as well as occasional persecution. Though apparently Winckelmanns friendships with Roman youths remained mostly Platonic and were also not very emotionally engaging, he seems to have gained some gratification from such flirtation. As Gthe, who thought highly of Winckelmann, has it in his empathetic essay Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert (1805; Winckelmann and his Century: So we find Winckelmann often in relations to beautiful youths, and never does he appear more cheerful and amiable than in such often only fleeting moments.
It was a different case with Winckelmann’s intense feelings for a young German named Friedrich von Berg. When the latter had left Rome for Paris, Winckelmann wrote him, “The genius of our friendship will follow you from afar to Paris, and there, at the seat of idle lust, he will leave you, but here your image will be my saint.” A certain bitterness of the aging man emerges in another letter, after von Berg had informed Winckelmann of his marriage: “From what you tell me of your happy union, I believe that you must be one of the merriest human beings on earth, and I could be able to make a few days’ journeys, to witness all that… I shall go to Berlin in the coming summer, but from there I will only be able to write you – but I shall imagine that I follow your footsteps again. Unfortunately, the plane-tree in Frascati, in the bark of which I wrote the sweet name of my friend, is cut down.”
Winckelmann did not reach Berlin on what turned out to be his last journey. He met his end in Trieste at an inn. In the neighboring room was staying a 38-year-old Italian named Arcangeli, a habitual criminal, whom the unsuspecting Winckelmann, in a state of depression and perhaps craving for company, befriended. Arcangeli was intrigued by a collection of coins that Winckelmann had shown to him. He entered Winckelmann’s room the next morning in order to steal the coins, but was surprised in the act by the owner and stabbed him repeatedly when he resisted, escaping without the loot. Winckelmann only had time to receive the sacraments and dictate his last wishes, one of which was the pardon of his assailant. It was not to be. Arcangeli was later captured, sentenced and executed by being broken on the wheel.