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Johann Joachim Winckelmann
(December 9, 1717 - June 8, 1768) Germany

J. J. Winckelmann

Archaeologist, art historian, writer


Born in Standal, Prussian Saxony, his father was a poor shoemaker in Brandenburg. In 1738 he began to study Lutheran theology at the University of Halle. He later studied medicine at the University of Jena.

J. J. WinckelmannFor several years he was a village pastor and schoolmaster. In 1742 he began tutoring F. W. Peter Lamprecht, and fell in love with him. A year later J. J. Winckelmann moved to Seehausen, Peter Lamprecht followed him, and they lived together until 1746.

In 1748 J. J. Winckelmann took the post of librarian to Count Heinrich von Bünau at Nöthnitz near Dresden. While in this job he began studying Greek classical art through writings and engravings. In 1754 he became the librarian for Cardinal Passionei in Dresden. Here he was able to study actual art objects and this led to his essay Reflections Concerning the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks. In this essay he wrote "The only way for us to become great and, if possible, inimitable, lies in the imitation of the Greeks."

J. J. Winckelmann converted to Roman Catholicism and moved to Rome. He eventually became librarian to the Vatican, president of Antiquities, and secretary to Cardinal Albani. This post gave him access to an enormous private collection of classical art. While in Rome he wrote to a friend about a relationship with a blond 16-year-old Roman boy who he dined with every Sunday evening.

In 1758 he examined the remains of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Paestum, and went to Florence. He wrote a treatise on ancient architecture in 1762. In 1763 Pope Clement XIII appointed him Papal Antiquary which included superintending excavations at Pompeii.

J. J. Winckelmann did not get to see Greece himself. His view of it was an idealised one. However his writings are regarded as the beginning of both the discipline of art criticism and also of modern archaeology. His approach to Greek culture inspired gay writers such as Walter Pater and J. A. Symonds.

In 1968 J. J. Winckelmann returned to Dresden for the first time for ten years. On his way back to Rome he had a week to wait for a boat in Trieste. He became acquainted with the 30-year-old Francesco Arcangeli and spent some time with him. However, J. J. Winckelmann was stabbed to death in an inn, and Francesco Arcangeli was found guilty of the crime and executed.

At the time of his murder in Trieste, 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.


J. J. WinckelmannThe study of art history as a distinct discipline, and of archæology as a humane science, may be said to date from Winckelmann. His work marks the beginning of a new epoch and the rise of new artistic ideals, æsthetic values and scientific terms and methods.

It is no accident that Winckelmann's 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 Winckelmann's 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 Gœthe, 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."

Winckelmann met, in 1762, in Rome, a young nobleman, Reinhold Friedrich von Berg, to whom he became deeply attached: almost as first there sprang up, on Winckelmann's side, an attachment as romantic, emotional and passionate as love. In a letter to his friend he said,

"From the first moment an indescribable attraction towards you, excited by something more than form and feature, caused me to catch an echo of that harmony which passes human understanding and which is the music of the everlasting concord of things.... I was aware of the deep consent of our spirits, the instant I saw you."

And in a later letter:

"No name by which I might call you would be sweet enough or sufficient for my love; all that I could say would be far too feeble to give utterance to my heart and soul. Truly friendship came from heaven and was not created by mere human impulses.... My one friend, I love you more than any living thing, and time nor chance nor age can ever lessen this love."

When von Berg 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."


Source: Ludwig Frey, Der Eros und die Kunst, Leipzig, 1898, p 211

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