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Winckelmann's Images from the Ancient World
Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian
By Johann Joachim Winckelmann, STANLEY APPELBAUM
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
WINCKELMANN'S LIFE AND WORK
The Monumenti antichi inediti (Unpublished Ancient Objects) was the last major work by the man who has been called the founder of modern art historiography (which classifies works by national, period, and individual styles) and of modern art criticism—and (though not an actual practitioner) a patron saint of archeology.
In Germany. Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born in 1717 in the Prussian city of Stendal, about 70 miles nearly due west of Berlin. His father was a cobbler who had come from Silesia; his mother, the daughter of a local weaver. Probably the decision most crucial to his meteoric social ascent was the one taken early on by his humble parents to allow him a formal education (though he had to work part- or full-time throughout his studies).
When the principal of the Stendal grammar school lost his sight in 1733, he took in the sixteen-year-old Johann to read to him; the boy earned pocket money by singing in his church choir and giving private lessons, helping to support his parents (his mother died before 1748; his father, in 1750).
Even in his teens Winckelmann was partial to ancient Greek. To perfect his knowledge of it, he moved to Berlin in 1735, enjoying secondary schooling while tutoring others and spending a few months as an assistant teacher in a small town. In 1737 he matriculated in the fairly recent University of Halle (founded 1694) as a theology student; there he was officially noted as being "unsettled and capricious." Receiving free board, he did much studying on his own. Some biographers state or imply that he knew nothing about art before he reached Dresden, but one professor of ancient history at Halle had a collection of ancient coins, and the eminent lecturer on art history and esthetics, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762; at Halle from 1735 to 1740) is said to have opened Winckelmann's mind to the subject. Here, too, Johann was introduced to librarianship, working in the summer of 1740 as assistant librarian to a diplomat.
After a return to Stendal to earn money, by tutoring, for further education, in 1741 Winckelmann entered the University of Jena with a "major" in medicine. In 1742 he became private tutor to the son of the dean of the chapter of Magdeburg Cathedral (the two young men lived together from about 1743 to 1746). From 1743 to 1748 Winckelmann was a teacher, later assistant principal, in Seehausen (like Stendal, in the Altmark area of Brandenburg); by then he could read French, English, and Italian. But now he found himself at a dead end in his career. He submitted various unsuccessful applications for more promising positions until he was finally hired, as librarian, secretary, research assistant, and cataloguer, by Count Heinrich von Bünau, who was writing a history of the Holy Roman Empire. Winckelmann now moved into the count's mansion at Nöthnitz, on the outskirts of Dresden. He was originally hired for one year, but he was kept on.
This "escape" to Saxony in 1748 was another major turning point in Winckelmann's life. Saxony was a separate nation (though basically of German blood), ruled by an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, who at the time was also the king of Poland. Dresden was truly cosmopolitan, and the greatest art center in the German-speaking lands: many outstanding works of art had been purchased between 1726 and 1736, especially, and the city was full of avid collectors, from the Elector downward; many antiquities were accessible, and many Italians were present as advisers and courtiers. After Winckelmann gave a tour of the count's library to Count Alberigo Archinto, the papal nuncio to Saxony, they spoke about an opening in Rome as librarian to Cardinal Domenico Passionei. To obtain such a post, it was useful to become a Roman Catholic. Winckelmann, a Lutheran from his baptism on, hesitated to take this step until 1754, when he finally completed all the formalities. Critics were annoyed then, and some are still, at Winckelmann's change of faith, but he was never deeply religious (not even his theology studies implied this), and in the intellectual atmosphere of that Age of Enlightenment an allegiance to some vague supreme being (or else, a tepid agnosticism) was widespread. No doubt, Winckelmann's ambition played a great part in his decision, but no one really expected a heartfelt conversion.
In 1754 Winckelmann moved directly into Dresden to teach Greek; he now began to draw a modest government pension, which was continued for the rest of his life, though not always promptly paid. Now, too, he had access to renowned living artists, such as the painter, sculptor, and teacher Adam Friedrich Oeser (1717-1799), Leipzig-based but resident in Dresden from 1739 to 1759; among other instruction, Oeser was able to teach Winckelmann about ancient gemstones.
In 1755, still in Dresden, Winckelmann published his breakthrough, manifesto volume Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (Thoughts on the Emulation of Greek Works of Painting and Sculpture). Issued in an edition of only fifty copies, this work consisted of a number of fairly brief paragraphs of enthusiastic aperçus on Greek art: Greek sculpture was the finest art form of all time; the Greeks, blessed with political freedom, good climate, and the constant opportunity, in gymnasiums, to look at beautiful naked boys, achieved a unique combination of physical and ideal beauty—a "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur." (This was a shift from an earlier general predilection for ancient Rome felt ever since the Renaissance.) The emulation of Greek art could rejuvenate "decadent" modern art (that is, the late Baroque and especially the Rococo). The Gedanken were later translated into English by the major Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825), who settled in England, calling himself Henry Fuseli (Winckelmann had pleasant association with Füssli's father later in the 1750s). A shrewd publicist, Winckelmann wrote, and issued anonymously, an open letter attacking the Gedanken, and then a crushing reply to the attack.
In Italy. In 1755 Winckelmann finally moved to Italy. He accepted no position at first, even though his pension was menaced by the occupation of Saxony by Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1756 (early in the Seven Years' War—which spilled over into the North American colonies as the French and Indian War). Finally he became librarian to Count Archinto in Rome. Here he made the acquaintance of such artists as Giovanni Battista Casanova (see the section on the Monumenti later in this Introduction) and, especially, Casanova's teacher Anton Raphael Mengs. Mengs (1728-1779) had become court painter in Dresden in 1745; he was especially noted for his portraits—one he did of Winckelmann is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A fellow convert to Catholicism, Mengs, who also ran an art school, guided Winckelmann through the effervescent Roman art scene, and they collaborated on essays about Greek art. Mengs left Rome in 1760 to become court painter in Madrid.
Handy for his later writings was the personal inventory Winckelmann soon made of ancient artworks in Rome. In 1756 he began composing essays that would later be incorporated into his magnum opus, the Geschichte (see below). Meanwhile he had acquired an important new patron, Baron Philipp von Stosch (1691-1757). Stosch had conducted excavations in 1717 for Cardinal Albani (to whom he was now going to recommend Winckelmann); in 1722 he was in Rome again, paid by the British government to spy on the doings of the "Old Pretender," James Francis Edward Stuart (or Stewart; 1688-1766), who had led the Scottish rising of 1715 (and whose son, Bonny Prince Charlie, 1720-1788, was to do the same in 1745). In 1731 Stosch had moved to Florence, where he assembled an outstanding collection of Greek and Roman gems. Now, having been sent a copy of the Gedanken by Winckelmann, he invited him to Florence, but Winckelmann was unable to get there until after Stosch's death. Winckelmann made a scholarly, detailed catalog of Stosch's gems (many of which are illustrated in the Monumenti as well) in the book Description des pierres gravées du feu Baron de Stosch (Description of the Engraved Stones of the Late Baron von Stosch; published in 1760, with a dedication to Cardinal Albani, the new master to whom he had been passed along). Stosch's collection later went to Berlin, having been purchased by Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia (1712-1786). During Winckelmann's nine months in Florence, he studied the Etruscan art objects there, collected out of national pride by the subjects of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
[Before accompanying Winckelmann back to Rome, let us summarize in one paragraph his four trips to Campania (in the politically separate Kingdom of Naples), the first of which had taken place in 1758. The chief purpose was to visit the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, cities buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79; not counting some earlier accidental or muddled digs, official excavation had begun in 1738 at Herculaneum, in 1748 at Pompeii. The excavations were being conducted as a private enterprise of the king of Naples; items considered choice were kept at a private museum at Portici, while everything else was badly recorded and reburied, and the digging methods caused much careless destruction. In 1758, Winckelmann reached his furthest point south in his lifetime, the ruins at Paestum, slightly southeast of Salerno (see also the commentary to engravings Nos. 190 and 200, below). After his second trip to the Naples area, in 1762, Winckelmann issued an open letter demanding that more objects be kept, that unearthed areas be left open and visible, that better records be kept, that less be destroyed, and that the topographic relationships be respected. After his third trip, in 1764, he published a report on new finds at Herculaneum. His last trip to the area was in 1767.]
When Winckelmann returned to Rome from Florence, Count Archinto was dead and Cardinal Passionei (his originally intended employer in Rome) was senile. Now his patron became Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779; created a cardinal in 1721), to whom he was to dedicate the Monumenti. A promoter of excavations and a tireless collector, Cardinal Albani had early on created a house-museum in his Palazzo Albani on the Quirinal hill; in 1734 his extensive collection became the basis of the new Museo Capitolino on the Campidoglio (Capitoline hill), and he began a new collection. This was later housed in the new Villa Albani (just each of the grounds of the Villa Borghese; now also called the Villa Torlonia, after a later owner—not to be confused with the separate Museo Torlonia!). The Villa Albani was built with Winckelmann's advice, and it was he that supervised the installation of the artworks in accordance with his own style-period and iconographic principles. Mengs painted the Greek-emulating ceiling decoration Parnassus in the grand hall (Gran Salone).
In 1763 Winckelmann was appointed Commissario (or, Prefetto) delle Antichità della Camera Apostolica (Commissioner of antiquities of the Papal States) to keep him in Rome after he had received offers of positions in the German lands. Aides were able to handle the more mundane duties of keeping track of the ancient artworks, preventing them from being smuggled out, and issuing permits for excavations. Winckelmann himself became a glorified cicerone for visiting dignitaries, including royalty, and for wealthy north-European noblemen on the fashionable Grand Tour (at times he could show around more congenial German and Swiss visitors who shared his interests and helped finance some of his projects).
[The Grand Tour was an expensive "finishing course" for foreigners, especially British, after taking their university degrees. In Rome they could imbibe the local culture, carouse, be painted by such famous artists as Pompeo Batoni (see commentary an engraving No. 180), and purchase tons of antiquities. (Such collecting had begun in earnest in the Renaissance—in some fields, even in the Middle Ages—but it became especially hectic in the eighteenth century.) Winckelmann is said to have quipped that the British would soon remove the entire Column of Trajan to London. Lord Chesterfield (see note 6 to the Introduction) wrote to his traveling son in 1749: "You cannot have too much of Rome, whether on account of the language, the curiosities, or the company." Amusingly, he added in a letter of a few days later: "no days [should be] lost in poring upon almost imperceptible intaglios and cameos; and do not become a virtuoso of small wares."]
Also in 1763, Winckelmann was appointed cataloguer of German manuscripts in the Vatican library, under the wing of Cardinal Albani. From at least 1759, he had also been submitting important articles and essays to German cultural and art journals.
Dated 1764, though it actually appeared in December 1763, was the book considered Winckelmann's greatest single contribution, the Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (History of the Art of Antiquity), illustrated by line drawings. In this history, he emphasizes Greek art, especially the sculpture. The main concepts of the book, which he repeated more briefly in the Preliminary Treatise in the Monumenti (see the brief discussion in the later section of this Introduction devoted to that book), constituted the most thoroughgoing rethinking of the history of art since Vasari's Lives—with an emphasis on historical forces rather than Vasari's individual biographies (Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574; Le vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, e scultori italiani [The Lives of the Most Outstanding Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors] first appeared in 1550 and was greatly expanded in 1568). Winckelmann's Geschichte made him the greatest exponent and prophet of the art trend known as Neo-Classicism.
As the Enlightenment's artistic reaction against the Baroque and the Rococo—manifesting a secular, often bourgeois, shift away from the strictly Christian perception of life and culture—Neo-Classicism was to dominate European art for the rest of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth (with such eminent practitioners as David in painting, Canova in sculpture, and Percier and Fontaine in architecture and interior design), until it made way for (the already latent) Romanticism and merged into the various historical Revival styles, after presiding over the Empire and Regency styles. Winckelmann's lifetime was also the era of such proto-Neo-Classical works and phenomena as (to name just a few examples): (1) The Antiquities of Athens, in four volumes, 1762-1830 (it first made western Europe generally aware of the Parthenon), by the painter James Stuart (1713-1788) and the architect Nicholas Revett (1720-1804), who had been sent to Greece by the Society of Dilettanti in 1751; (2) The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro [sic], 1764, by Robert Adam (see commentary to engraving No. 81); and (3) the publications, from 1766 on, of his own collection of Greek vases by Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803; husband of the notorious Lady Emma), ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800—Hamilton's publications directly influenced the production of the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795).
[Of course, no one composes in a vacuum without a past, and many recent historians have duly pointed out predecessors of Winckelmann, both theoreticians with similar views and writers of pictorial volumes analogous to the Monumenti. Again mentioning just a very few, such theoreticians included: (1) Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), who in 1608 had devised a stylistic periodization of Greek literature (Winckelmann was to see the Greeks' art as the foremost expression of their spirit); (2) Franciscus Junius (1591-1677), in his 1694 De pictura veterum (On the Painting of the Ancients); and (3) Anne-Claude-Philippe de Tubières, comte de Caylus (1692-1765), who had offered a new stylistic analysis of ancient art in his Recueil d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques, romaines et gauloises (Collection of Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, and Gaulish Antiquities; 1752-1767). Among the pictorial works: (1) the many engravings of Roman ruins by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1798), beginning in the 1740s; (2) Le antichità di Ercolano (The Antiquities of Herculaneum; eight volumes, 1750s through 1790s); and (3) the publication, between 1755 and 1763, by Philipp Daniel Lippert (1702-1785) of three thousand pictures of his gems and plaster casts. Of course, these predecessors are now known chiefly to specialists, whereas Winckelmann's enthusiasm, engaging writing style, and self-publicizing have kept his name fresh as a universally recognized beacon.]
In 1765, Winckelmann was offered the directorship of the collections of antiquities in Berlin, but the negotiations were eventually broken off. In 1767 (other minor books, not discussed here, had appeared in 1762 and 1766) he published the Monumenti, basis of the present Dover volume, which is elaborately described and discussed in the following section of this Introduction.
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