Ancient History & Civilisation


A famous sketch of J. J. Winckelmann made in Rome, in 1764, shows him sitting over an open book, quill in hand. Huge, dark eyes shine out from under an intellectual brow. The nose is large, almost a Bourbon nose in this portrayal. The mouth and chin are soft and rounded. Altogether the drawing suggests an artistic rather than an academic personality.

Winckelmann, a cobbler’s son, was born in 1717 in Stendal, a small town in Prussia. As a boy he tramped the countryside looking for the prehistoric barrows of the district and lured his comrades into helping him dig for old urns. By 1743 he had made himself senior assistant master of a grammar school in Seehausen.

In 1748 he found a post as librarian for the Count of Bünau, near Dresden, in Saxony, and left the Prussia of Frederick the Great without regret. He had early realized that Prussia was a “despotic land,” and in later life he looked back on the years spent there with a shudder, remarking that “I at least felt the slavery more than others.” The future course of his life was determined by this move. He landed in the midst of a circle of important artists, and in Dresden found the most comprehensive collection of antiquities then extant in his native Germany. The opportunity to study these relics put out of his thoughts half-serious plans to go abroad, perhaps to Egypt. When his first writings appeared, they evoked echoes throughout all Europe. In order to get a chance to work in Italy, he turned Catholic, but with the passage of the years he became, if anything, more spirtually independent than before his conversion, and in religion he was never dogmatic. Rome, he thought, was worth a Mass to him.

In 1758 he became the librarian of Cardinal Albani’s collection of antiquities. And in 1763 he was appointed Chief Supervisor of all antiquities in and about Rome, and in this capacity he visited Pompeii and Herculaneum. In 1768 he was murdered.

Three of Winckelmann’s voluminous works contributed basically to the introduction of scientific methods in the investigation of the past. These are his Sendschreiben, or Open Letters, on the discoveries at Herculaneum; his main work, History of the Art of Antiquity; and his Monumenti antichi inediti, or Unpublished Relics of Antiquity.

Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum during the early years were haphazard. But worse than planlessness was secrecy. An atmosphere of exclusiveness was generated by prohibitions imposed by self-seeking rulers on all foreigners, whether mere travelers or students of the past, who sought permission to visit the two dead cities and tell the world about them. The only exceptions made by the King of the Two Sicilies had been to allow a bookworm by the name of Bayardi to prepare a catalogue of the finds. But Bayardi plunged into an introduction to his catalogue without even bothering to visit the excavations. He wrote and wrote, and by 1752 had completed five volumes, totaling some 2,677 pages, without even getting to the essentials. Meanwhile he spread malicious reports about two newcomers who showed signs of going straight to the heart of the matter, and was able to have them denied permission to visit the sites.

And when a bona fide scholar managed to get hold of one or another excavated piece to inspect at first hand, as often as not total lack of preparation would lure him into such devious theories as the one advanced by Martorelli. This Italian savant wrote a two-volume work running to 652 pages in order to prove, by inspection of an inkwell, that the ancients did not use scrolls, but regular books of rectangular shape. And this when the papyrus rolls of Philodemus stared him in the face.

The first large folio volume on the antiquities of Pompeii and Herculaneum finally appeared in 1757, written by Valetta, and subsidized by the King to the extent of twelve thousand ducats. Meanwhile Winckelmann entered this atmosphere of envy, intrigue, and moldly bookishness. After countless difficulties, during which he was treated like a spy, Winckelmann obtained permission to visit the Royal Museum. He was expressly forbidden, however, to make the smallest sketch of the sculptures stored there.

The embittered Winckelmann now found a friend of somewhat his own disposition. In the Augustine cloister where he had been given lodgings, he became acquainted with Father Piaggi, whom he found engaged in a most peculiar task.

When the Villa of the Papiri was discovered, everyone had been delighted with the rich find of ancient writings. But delight faded into dismay when the papers were handled, for on handling they began to crumble into carbon dust. All sorts of expedients were tried in an attempt to save the rolls. No one had the least success, however, until one day Father Piaggi appeared with “a frame almost like the kind used by wigmakers in preparing hair” and claimed to be able to unroll the scrolls with his instrument. He was allowed to experiment, and when Winckelmann arrived had already spent years on this painstaking task. He had, it seemed, been successful enough in preserving the manuscripts, but a dismal failure in his relations with the King and Alcubierre. They, he said, did not appreciate him.

As Winckelmann crouched beside Father Piaggi at his worktable, the angry cleric vented his spleen on everything that passed within view of his window. Meanwhile, with an incredibly delicate touch, as if he were sorting fluff, he turned the scorched papyrus a millimeter at a time on his little machine. He grumbled about the King, he deplored his sovereign’s lukewarmness, the incapacity of royal officials and working crews. Showing Winckelmann a freshly recovered column from an essay by Philodemus on music, he ranted in his pride against the impatient and envious ones who did not give him his due.

Winckelmann was all the more receptive toward Father Piaggi’s censures after the authorities persisted in denying him permission to visit the diggings. They restricted his research to the museum, and even there he could not copy. He bribed the foremen at the excavations, and they let him look at odd pieces here and there. In the meantime objects had been exhumed that were of real importance in an inclusive survey of antique culture such as that conceived by Winckelmann. The new findings were carvings and pictures of a highly erotic nature. The narrow-minded King, shocked by a statue showing a satyr coupled with a goat, had all the new material shipped off to Rome and there put under lock and key. And so Winckelmann did not get to see these latest and significant discoveries.

Despite these frustrations he was able, in 1762, to publish his first open letter, “On the Discoveries at Herculaneum.” Two years later he paid a second visit to the city and to the Royal Museum, which trip resulted in another commentary. Both these productions contained harshly critical allusions to situations that Winckelmann had heard discussed in Father Piaggi’s cell. When the second open letter reached the Neapolitan court in French translation, a storm of indignation arose against the German who had so shabbily repaid the authorities with abuse for their kindness in letting him work in the Royal Museum. Winckelmann’s sarcasms were, of course, justified, and his anger based on a real grievance. Yet the contentious side of his Sendschreiben no longer has any relevance. The value of the letters derives from the fact that for the first time they gave the world a clear, objective description of the antiquities taken from the slopes of Vesuvius.

About the same period Winckelmann’s chef-d’œuvre appeared, the History of the Art of Antiquity. In this masterpiece he succeeded in impressing a recognizable order of an immense accumulation of antique material that hitherto had languished as the loosest sort of aggregation. The book was written, as he proudly remarks, “without a model” to go by. It broke first ground in approaching the subject of ancient art from a developmental point of view. Winckelmann built his system out of the meager accounts bequeathed to posterity by the ancients. With unerring sensitivity he groped toward original insights, and expressed them with such power of language that the cultured European world was carried away by a wave of enthusiasm for the antique ideal. This rush of surrender was of prime importance in shaping the course of archæology in the following century. Winckelmann’s book excited a lively interest in tracking down beautiful objects wherever they lay hidden. It demonstrated means of understanding ancient cultures through their artifacts; it awakened the hope of uncovering new treasure trove, as replete with wonders as Pompeii.

With his Monumenti antichi inediti, published in 1767, Winckelmann produced a real tool for the new science of antiquity. “Without model,” he became the model himself. To interpret the meaning of Greek sculpture he traced out the whole range of Hellenic mythology. He showed a rare genius for drawing inferences from the smallest hints. Before his advent such archæology as there was had been strongly affected by philological bias and dominated by the historian. Winckelmann completely altered the canons.

Many of Winckelmann’s notions were false, and many of his conclusions overhasty. His image of antiquity was highly idealized. Not only “men like gods” had lived in Hellas, but ordinary mortals as well. Despite a plethora of material, Winckelmann’s acquaintanceship with Greek works of art was rather limited. What he had seen for the most part consisted of copied material dating no farther back than Roman times, sculptures of immaculate whiteness, scored by billions of raindrops and abrasive grains of sand. Hellas had not characteristically expressed itself in severely conceived and blindingly white forms set off against a luminous landscape. The plastic works of the ancient Greeks were gaily colored. Statuary was deeply dyed with garish pigments. The marble figure of a woman found on the Athenian Acropolis was tinctured red, green, blue, and yellow. Quite often statues had red lips, glowing eyes made of precious stones, and even artificial eyelashes.

And so Winckelmann’s service consists in his having imposed a provisional order on what before had been outright chaos, in replacing, so far as lay within his power, conjecture with real knowledge. His systematic approach was to prove valuable in rescuing much older cultures from the abyss of time.

Returning to Italy in 1768, Winckelmann stopped over at a hotel in Trieste, and there innocently fell into the company of an Italian criminal who had served several jail sentences.

We can only assume that Winckelmann consorted with this former cook and pimp, and even shared a meal with him in his room, because his archæological interest had been somehow beguiled. Winckelmann, of course, was one of the hotel’s most important guests and attracted notice. He wore fine clothes, he had a worldly manner, and occasionally he liked to show off the gold coins that he kept as souvenirs of an audience with Maria Theresa. The Italian, very inappropriately named Arcangeli, equipped himself with a noose and a knife.

The murder took place on the evening of June 8, 1768. Winckelmann, intending to write some directions to his publisher, had removed his outer clothing and was seated at work at the writing table. The Italian came in, threw his garrotte about Winckelmann’s neck, overpowered him after a brief struggle, and inflicted severe knife wounds.

The victim had a robust physique, however, and despite his mortal wounds was able to drag himself downstairs. But his blood-soaked clothing and terrible pallor so paralyzed the waiters and servant girls with fright that by the time they had summoned help it was too late to save his ebbing life.

The famous scholar was dead a few hours later. On his writing table a sheet of paper was found, on it the last words from his pen: “It should—” After these two words the murderer had knocked the quill from Winckelmann’s hands. So perished one of the most learned men of his time, founder of a new science.

After his death Winckelmann’s work bore ample fruit. His children, so to speak, are scattered all over the face of the earth. Nearly two hundred years have elapsed since his death, and still on December 9, his birthday, students of antiquity celebrate his memory in the great archæological institutes of Rome and Athens.

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