1902 Encyclopedia > Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Johann Joachim Winckelmann
German writer on ancient art

JOHANN JOACHIM WINCKELMANN (1717-1768), historian of ancient art and the founder of scientific archaeology, was born at Stendal in the Altmark (Prussia) on 9th December 1717. His father was a poor shoemaker, and in his early years Winckelmann had to contend with great difficulties, With a passion for knowledge, however, he combined a resolute will; and by acting for some time as amanuensis to an old and blind rector he contrived to pass through the necessary courses of instruction at school. In 1737 he attended a gymnasium at Berlin and the school at Salzwedel, and in the following year he went as a student of theology to the university of Halle. He took little real interest in theology, and such interest as he had was quenched partly by the influence of the philosophy of Wolff, partly by the unfavourable impression made upon him by the Pietists. Through his connexion with the chancellor Von Ludewig he was led to enter upon the study of German history; he devoted himself also with great enthusiasm to the study of Greek literature. He thought of becoming a physician, and began to attend medical classes at Jena; but the accomplishment of this scheme was beyond his means, and he was obliged to accept a tutorship near Magdeburg. In 1743 he was made associate-rector of a school at Seehausen in the Altmark, and this appointment he held for five years. He then went to Dresden, where he acted as librarian and general assistant to Count Henry Von Biinau, for whose history of the Holy Roman empire he collected materials. The treasures in the Dresden gallery awakened in his mind an intense interest in art, which was deepened by association with various artists, and especially with Oeser, who afterwards exercised so powerful an influence over Goethe when Goethe was a young student at Leipsic. Winckelmann's study of ancient literature had inspired him with a strong desire to visit Rome, and now he sought, through the papal nuncio Archinto, to obtain the appointment of librarian to Cardinal Passionei. Nothing could be done for him, however, unless he joined the Roman Catholic Church; this condition, after long hesitation, he ultimately decided to comply with.

In 1755 Winckelmann gave the first indication of his genius by the publication of his Gedanken uber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerkunst. This was followed by a pretended attack on the work, and a defence of its principles, nominally by an impartial critic. In the Gedanken Winckelmann suggested most of the doctrines he afterwards developed; and the book was warmly admired not only for the new ideas it contained but for the power and charm of its style. One good result of the impression it produced was that Augustus III., elector of Saxony and king of Poland, was induced to grant him a pension of 200 thalers, that he might have an opportunity of prosecuting his studies in Rome. He arrived in Rome in November 1755, and, with the exception of some brief intervals, remained there during the rest of his life. He became librarian to Cardinal Archinto, and also received much kindness from Cardinal Passionei; and after their death he was received as librarian and as a friend into the house of Cardinal Albani, who was forming his magnificent collection in his villa at Porta Salara. In 1763, while retaining this position, Winckelmann was made prefect of antiquities.

From the time of his arrival in Rome he devoted himself earnestly, at first with the aid of his friend Raphael Mengs, to the study of Roman antiquities, and he gradually acquired what was then an unrivalled knowledge of ancient art. In 1760 appeared his Description des Pierres Gravees du Feu Baron de Stosch, embodying the results of much work at Florence, where he had spent nine months in cataloguing the engraved gems collected by his friend Baron von Stosch. He published in 1762 Anmerkungen uber die Baukunst der Alten, including an account of the temples at Paestum. In 1758 and 1762 Winckelmann visited Naples for the purpose of studying the treasures excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum ; and from his Sendschreiben von den herculanischen Entdeckungen (1762) and his Hachricht von den neuesten herculanisdien Entdeckungen (1764) scholars obtained their first authentic information about those groups of antiquities. Winckelmann again visited Naples in 1765 and 1767, and wrote for the use of the electoral prince and princess of Saxony his Briefe an Bianconi, which were published, eleven years after his death, in the Antologia Romana. For several years his energies were devoted chiefly to the preparation of his masterpiece, the Geschichte der Eunst des Alterthums, which was issued in 1764. It at once commanded attention and was soon recognized as a book that would take a permanent place in the literature not only of Germany but of Europe. In this great work Winckelmann sets forth both the history of Greek art and the principles on which it seemed to him to be based. He also presents a glowing picture of the conditions, political, social, and intellectual, which tended to foster creative activity in ancient Greece. The fundamental idea of his theory is that the end of art is beauty, and that this end can be attained only when individual and characteristic features are strictly subordinated to the artist's general scheme. According to Winckelmann, the true artist, selecting from nature the phenomena fitted for his purpose, and combining them through the imagination, creates an ideal type marked in action by " noble simplicity and calm greatness,"—an ideal type in which normal proportions are maintained, particular parts, such as muscles and veins, not being permitted to break the harmony of the general outlines. In the historical part he used not only the works of art he himself had studied but the scattered notices on the subject to be found in ancient writers; and his wide knowledge and active imagination enabled him to offer many fruitful suggestions as to periods about which he had little direct information. The materials for the study of Greek art which have been recovered since Winckelmann's time have compelled archasologists to reject some of his conclusions, to modify others, and to present the subject as a whole in a somewhat different light; but the writer was penetrated by so fine an enthusiasm, his style is at once so strong, so graceful, and so animated, and his descriptions of particular works of art are so vivid and true, that his book can never wholly lose its freshness. It marked an epoch by indicating the spirit in which the study of Greek art should be approached, and the methods by which investigators might hope to attain to solid results. To Winckelmann's contemporaries the work came as a revelation, and it exercised a profound influence on the best minds of the age. Goethe studied it eagerly, and it was read with intense interest by Lessing, who had found in a statement in the earliest of Winckelmann's works the starting-point for his Laocoon.

Winckelmann contributed various admirable essays to the Bibliothek der Schönen Wissenschaften ; and in 1766 he published his Versuch einer Allegorie, which, although containing the results of much thought and reading, is not conceived in a thoroughly critical spirit. Of far greater importance was the splendid work entited Monümenti Antichi Inediti (1767-68), prefaced by a Trattato Preliminare, presenting a general sketch of the history of art. The plates in this work are representations of objects which had either been falsely explained or not explained at all. Winckelmann's explanations were of the highest service to archaeology, by showing that in the case of many works of art which had been supposed to be connected with Roman history the ultimate sources of inspiration were to be found in Homer.

In 1768 Winckelmann left Borne with the Italian sculptor Cavaceppi, intending to visit Germany. But he went no farther than to Vienna, where he was received with honour by Maria Theresa. At Trieste on his way back to Italy he made the acquaintance of a man called Arcangeli, to whom he showed some gold coins that had been given to him by the empress; Arcangeli's cupidity was excited, and during the night he entered Winckelmann's room, and, after having tried to throttle him, stabbed him five times. Winckelmann died of his wounds on 8th June 1768. His murderer was caught and executed.

Winckelmann ranks among the foremost writers of the 18th century, and it is hardly possible to overrate the services rendered by him to archaeology and the study of ancient art. With wide learning and an extraordinary power of accurate observation he combined imagination and feeling, and through him the modern world obtained for the first time something like a true conception not only of particular works of Greek art but of the general intellectual movement from which they sprang. If many of his ideas have now been abandoned, that is to a large extent due to the fact that scholars and thinkers were put upon the right track by his researches. His character as a man corresponded to his greatness as a writer. Wo difficulty was formidable enough to deter him from working out his vast schemes ; and in relation to his friends and in general social intercourse he was distinguished by a noble generosity of spirit and thorough honesty of purpose.

An edition of his works was begun by Fernowin 1S08 and completed by Meyer and Schulze (1808-20). There is an admirable study of his character and work in Goethe's Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert (1S05), to which contributions were made by Meyer and Wolf. The best biography of Winckelmann is the one by Justi, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1S66-72. (J. SI.)

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