By contrast let us look at an idealist.

The most influential figure in the art history of this age was not an artist, but a scholar whose mature life was dedicated to the history of art, and whose strange death moved the soul of literate Europe. He was born on December 9, 1717, at Stendal in Brandenburg. His cobbler father hoped he would be a cobbler, but Johann wished to study Latin. He paid for his early education by singing. Eager and industrious, he advanced rapidly. He tutored less able pupils, and bought books and food. When his teacher went blind Johann read to him, and devoured his master’s library. He learned Latin and Greek thoroughly, but he had no interest in modern foreign languages. Hearing that the library of the late Johann Albert Fabricius, a famous classical scholar, was to be sold at auction, he walked 178 miles from Berlin to Hamburg, bought Greek and Latin classics, and carried them on his shoulders back to Berlin.49 In 1738 he entered the University of Halle as a theological student; he did not care for theology, but he seized the opportunity to study Hebrew. After graduating he lived by tutoring. He read twice completely Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique, presumably with some effect upon his religious faith. In one year he read the Iliad and the Odyssey thrice through in Greek.

In 1743 he accepted an invitation to be associate director of a school at Seehausen in Altmark, at a salary of 250 thalers per year. During the day he taught “children with scabby heads their A B C, whilst I … was ardently longing to attain to a knowledge of the beautiful, and was repeating similes from Homer.”50 In the evening he tutored for his lodging and meals, then he studied the classics till midnight, slept till four, studied the classics again, then went wearily to teach. He gladly accepted a call from Count von Bünau to be assistant librarian in the château at Nötheniz, near Dresden, for lodging and fifty to eighty thalers a year (1748). There he reveled in one of the most extensive book collections of the time.

Among those who used this library was Cardinal Archinto, papal nuncio at the court of the Elector of Saxony. He was impressed by Winckelmann’s learning and enthusiasm, his emaciation and pallor. “You should go to Italy,” he told him. Johann replied that such a trip was the deepest desire of his heart, but beyond his means. Invited to visit the nuncio in Dresden, Winckelmann went several times. He was delighted by the erudition and the courtesy of the Jesuits he met in the nuncio’s home. Cardinal Passionei, who had 300,000 volumes in Rome, offered him the post of librarian there, for board and seventy ducats; however, the post could be filled only by a Catholic. Winckelmann agreed to conversion. As he had already expressed his belief that “after death you have nothing to dread, nothing to hope,”51 he found no theological, only social, difficulties in making the change. To a friend who reproached him he wrote: “It is the love of knowledge, and that alone, which can induce me to listen to the proposal that has been made to me.”52 *

On July 11, 1754, in the chapel of the nuncio at Dresden, he professed his new faith, and arrangements were made for his journey to Rome. For various reasons he remained for another year in Dresden, living and studying with the painter-sculptor-etcher Adam Oesen. In May, 1755, he published in a limited edition of fifty copies his first book, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Mahlerei und Bildhauerkunst (Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture). Besides describing the antiques that had been gathered in Dresden, he contended that the Greek understanding of nature was superior to the modern, and that this was the secret of Hellenic pre-eminence in art. He concluded that “the only way for us to become great, indeed to become inimitably great, … is through imitation of the ancients”;56 and he thought that of all modern artists Raphael had done this best. This little volume marked the beginning of the neoclassic movement in modern art. It was well received; Klopstock and Gottsched joined in praising both its erudition and its style. Father Rauch, confessor to Frederick Augustus, secured for Winckelmann, from the Elector-King, a pension of two hundred thalers for each of the next two years, and provided him with eighty ducats for the trip to Rome. At last, on September 20, 1755, Winckelmann set out for Italy, in the company of a young Jesuit. He was already thirty-seven years old.

Arrived in Rome, he had trouble at the customshouse, which confiscated several volumes of Voltaire from his baggage; these were returned to him later. He found lodging with five painters in a house on the Pincian Hill-sanctified by the shades of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. He met Mengs, who helped him in a hundred ways. Cardinal Passionei gave him the freedom of his library, but Winckelmann, wishing to explore the art of Rome, refused as yet any regular employment. He obtained permission for repeated visits to the Belvedere of the Vatican; he spent hours before the Apollo, the Torso, and the Laocoön; in contemplation of these sculptures his ideas took clearer form. He visited Tivoli, Frascati, and other suburbs containing ancient remains. His knowledge of classical art won him the friendship of Cardinal Alessandro Albani. Cardinal Archinto gave him an apartment in the Palazzo della Cancelleria—the Papal Chancellery; in return Winckelmann reorganized the palace library. Now he was almost ecstatically happy. “God owed me this,” he said; “in my youth I suffered too much.”57 And to a friend in Germany he wrote as a hundred distinguished visitors were writing:

All is naught, compared with Rome! Formerly I thought that I had thoroughly studied everything, and behold, when I came hither, I perceived that I knew nothing. Here I have become smaller than when I came out of school to the Bünau library. If you wish to learn to know men, here is the place; here are heads of infinite talent, men of high endowments, beauties of the lofty character which the Greeks have given to their figures.... As the freedom enjoyed in other states is only a shadow compared with that of Rome—which probably strikes you as a paradox—so there is also in this place a different mode of thinking. Rome is, I believe, the high school of the world; and I too have been tried and refined.58

In October, 1757, armed with letters of introduction, he left Rome for Naples. There he lived in a monastery, but he dined with men like Tanucci and Galiani. He visited cities redolent with classic history—Pozzuoli, Baia, Misenum, Cumae—and stood in wonder before the stately temples of Paestum. In May, 1758, he returned to Rome laden with antiquarian lore. In that month he was called to Florence to catalogue and describe the enormous collection of gems, casts, engravings, maps, and manuscripts left by Baron Philip von Stosch. The task occupied him for nearly a year, and almost ruined his health. Meanwhile Archinto died, and Frederick the Great ravaged Saxony; Winckelmann lost his apartment in the Cancelleria, and his pension from the unfortunate Elector-King. Albani came to his rescue by offering him four rooms and ten scudi per month to take care of his library. The Cardinal himself was a fervent antiquarian; every Sunday he drove out with Winckelmann to hunt antiquities.

Winckelmann added to his reputation by issuing scholarly monographs: On Grace in Works of Art, Remarks upon the Architecture of the Ancients, Description of the Torso in the Belvedere, The Study of Works of Art. In 1760 he tried to arrange a trip to Greece with Lady Or ford, sister-in-law of Horace Walpole; the plan fell through. “Nothing in the world have I so ardently desired as this,” he wrote. “Willingly would I allow one of my fingers to be cut off; indeed, I would make myself a priest of Cybele could I but see this land under such an opportunity.”59 The priests of Cybele had to be eunuchs, but this did not prevent Winckelmann from denouncing an old ordinance of the Roman government requiring the private parts of the Apollo, the Laocoön, and other statues in the Belvedere to be covered by metal aprons; “there has hardly ever been in Rome,” he declared, “so asinine a regulation.”

The sense of beauty was so dominant in him that it almost annulled any consciousness of sex. If he felt an aesthetic preference it favored the beauty of the virile male figure rather than the frail and transitory loveliness of woman. The muscular Torso of Herculesseems to have moved him more than the soft and rounded contours of the Venus de’ Medici. He had a good word to say for hermaphrodites—at least for the one in the Villa Borghese.60 He protested, “I have never been an enemy of the other sex, but my mode of life has removed me from all intercourse with it. I might have married, and probably should have done so, if I had revisited my native land, but now I scarcely think of it.”61 In Seehausen his friendship with his pupil Lamprecht had taken the place of feminine attachments; in Rome he lived with ecclesiastics, and seldom met young women. “For a long time,” we are told, “there dined with him, on Saturdays, a young Roman, slender, fair, and tall, with whom he talked of love.”62 He “caused a portrait to be painted of a beautiful castrato.”63 He dedicated to the youthful Baron Friedrich Reinhold von Berg a Treatise on the Capability of the Feeling for Beauty; “readers found in it, and in the letters to Berg, the language not of friendship but of love; and such it actually is.”64

In 1762 and 1764 he visited Naples again. His Letter on the Antiquities of Herculaneum (1762) and his Account of the Latest Herculanean Discoveries (1764) gave European scholars the first orderly and scientific information about the treasures excavated there and at Pompeii. He was now recognized as the supreme authority on ancient classical art. In 1763 he received an office in the Vatican as “antiquarian to the Apostolic Chamber.” Finally, in 1764, he published the massive volumes that he had been writing and illustrating for seven years past: Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of Ancient Art).

Despite its long and painstaking preparation it contained many errors, two of which were cruel hoaxes. His friend Mengs had foisted upon him, as faithful reproductions of antique paintings, two drawings born of Mengs’s imagination; Winckelmann listed these paintings, used the engravings, and dedicated the entire work to Mengs. The translations that soon appeared in French and Italian carried nearly all the errors, to Winckelmann’s mortification. “We are wiser today than we were yesterday,” he wrote to some friends. “Would to God I could show you my History of Art entirely remodeled and considerably enlarged! I had not yet learned to write when I took it in hand: the thoughts were not yet sufficiently linked together; there is wanting, in many cases, the transition from what precedes to what follows—in which the greatest art consists.”65 And yet the book had accomplished a very difficult task—to write well about art. His intense devotion to his subject lifted him to style.

He addressed himself literally to the history of art rather than the much easier history of artists. After a hurried survey of Egyptian, Phoenician, Jewish, Persian, and Etruscan art Winckelmann let all his enthusiasm loose in 450 pages on the classical art of the Greeks. In some final chapters he discussed Greek art under the Romans. Always his emphasis was on the Greeks, for he was convinced that they had found the highest forms of beauty: in the refinement of line rather than in brilliance of color, in the representation of types rather than individuals, in the normality and nobility of the figure, in the restraint of emotional expression, in the serenity of aspect, in the repose of features even in action, and above all in the harmonious proportion and relation of differentiated parts in a logically unified whole. Greek art, to Winckelmann, was the Age of Reason in form.

He connected the superiority of Greek art with the high regard that the Greeks paid to excellence of form in either sex. “Beauty was an excellence that led to fame, for we find that the Greek histories make mention of those who were distinguished for it,”66 as histories now record great statesmen, poets, and philosophers. There were beauty contests, as well as athletic contests, among the Greeks. Winckelmann thought that political freedom, and Greek leadership of the Mediterranean world before the Peloponnesian War, led to a synthesis of grandeur with beauty, and produced the “grand style” (hohe, grosse Stil) in Pheidias, Polycleitus, and Myron. In the next stage the “grand” gave way to the “beautiful” style, or “style of grace”; Pheidias gave way to Praxiteles, and decline began. Freedom in art was part of Greek freedom; artists were liberated from rigid rules, and dared to create ideal forms not found in nature. They imitated nature only in details; the whole was a composite of perfections found only in part in any natural object. Winckelmann was a romantic preaching classic form.

His book was accepted throughout Europe as an event in the history of literature and art. Frederick the Great sent him an invitation (1765) to come to Berlin as superintendent of the royal library and cabinet of antiquities. Winckelmann agreed to come for two thousand thalers per year; Frederick offered one thousand; Winckelmann stood his ground, and recalled the story of the castrato who demanded a fat sum for his songs; Frederick complained that he asked more than his best general cost him; “Eh bene” said thecastrato, “faccia cantare il suo generale!” (Very well, then; let him make his general sing!).67

In 1765 Winckelmann revisited Naples, this time in company with John Wilkes, who had made Europe resound with his defiance of Parliament and George III. After gathering more data he returned to Rome and completed his second major work, Monumenti antichi inediti (1767). His prelate friends had complained of his writing the History in German, which was not yet a major medium of scholarship; now he pleased them by using Italian, and the happy author, seated between two cardinals, had the ecstasy of reading a part of his book at Castel Gandolfo to Clement XIII and a numerous assembly of notables. However, he was accused of having heretical books and making heretical remarks,68 and he never obtained from the papacy the post which he felt he deserved.

Perhaps in hope that he might there secure the means of seeing Greece, he decided to visit Germany (1768). But he had so immersed himself in classic art and Italian ways that he took no pleasure in his native land; he ignored its scenery and resented its baroque architecture and ornament; “Let us return to Rome,” he repeated a hundred times to his traveling companion.69 He was received with honors in Munich, where he was presented a beautiful antique gem. At Vienna Maria Theresa gave him costly medallions, and both the Empress and Prince von Kaunitz invited him to settle there; but on May 28, after hardly a month’s absence, he turned back to Italy.

At Trieste he was delayed while waiting for a ship that would take him to Ancona. During these days he developed acquaintance with another traveler, Francesco Arcangeli. They took walks together, and occupied adjoining rooms in the hotel. Soon Winckelmann showed him the medallions he had received in Vienna; he did not, so far as we know, show his gold-filled purse. On the morning of June 8, 1768, Arcangeli entered Winckelmann’s room, found him seated at a table, and threw a noose around his neck. Winckelmann rose and fought; Arcangeli stabbed him five times and fled. A physician bandaged the wounds but pronounced them fatal. Winckelmann received the last sacrament, made his will, expressed a desire to see and forgive his assailant, and died at four o’clock in the afternoon. Trieste commemorates him with a handsome monument.

Arcangeli was captured on June 14. He confessed, and on June 18 he was sentenced: “For the crime of murder, done by you on the body of Johann Winckelmann, … the Imperial Criminal Court has decreed that you … shall be broken alive on the wheel, from the head to the feet, until your soul depart from your body.” On July 20 it was so done.

The limitations of Winckelmann were bound up with geography. Because he never realized his hope of visiting Greece under conditions that would have allowed extensive study of classic remains, he thought of Greek art in terms of Greco-Roman art as found in the museums, collections, and palaces of Germany and Italy, and in the relics of Herculaneum and Pompeii. His predilection for sculpture over painting, for the representation of types rather than individuals, for tranquillity as against the expression of emotion, for proportion and symmetry, for imitation of the ancients as against originality and experiment: all this placed upon the creative impulses in art severe restraints that resulted in the Romantic reaction against the cold rigidity of classical forms. His concentration on Greece and Rome blinded him to the rights and possibilities of other styles; like Louis XIV, he thought that the genre paintings of the Netherlands were grotesqueries.

Even so, his achievement was remarkable. He stirred the whole European realm of art, literature, and history with his exaltation of Greece. He went beyond the semiclassicism of Renaissance Italy and Louis XIV’s France to classic art itself. He aroused the modern mind to the clean and placid perfection of Greek sculpture. He turned the chaos of a thousand marbles, bronzes, paintings, gems, and coins into a scientific archaeology. His influence on the best spirits of the next generation was immense. He inspired Lessing, if only to opposition; he shared in maturing Herder and Goethe; and perhaps without the afflatus that rose from Winckelmann Byron would not have crowned his poetry with death in Greece. The ardent Hellenist helped to form the neoclassic principles of Mengs and Thorwaldsen, and the neoclassic painting of Jacques-Louis David. “Winckelmann,” said Hegel, “is to be regarded as one of those who, in the sphere of art, have known how to initiate a new organ for the human spirit.”70

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