Winkelmann, Johann Joachim

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Winkelmann, Johann Joachim (1717-1768): German Art Historian.

Johann Joachim Winkelmann, art historian and founder of the science of archaeology, was born in 1717 at Stendhal in Prussia. His early schooling in Stendhal and Berlin was followed by studies in classics and theology at the University of Halle. In 1741 he enrolled at the University of Jena, where he studied mathematics and medicine. In 1743, after jobs tutoring in various families, Winkelmann took a teaching position in the country town of Altmark. The position lasted five years, during which he studied routinely on two to three hours’ sleep, mastering various languages and the classics. Because of the demanding nature of his teaching, and his lack of respect for religious observances, Winkelmann was almost dismissed from his position, but was spared by a superintendent who admired his teaching and the depth of his knowledge. In 1748 he took a position in N`thnitz as librarian to a Saxon diplomat, and soon discovered that very little of Homer, Sophocles, or Plato was available anywhere in Germany, a problem that he helped immediately to correct.

Winkelmann continued his nocturnal studies, and in 1749 the erudite librarian caught the attention of Count Alberigo Archinto, Papal Nuncio to the Court of Saxony. Archinto persuaded Winkelmann to think of the city of Rome, a center of arts and history, as a place worthy of the gifts that the lowly librarian obviously possessed. Archinto connected Winkelmann with Cardinal Passiones, whose library of 300,000 volumes was in need of a librarian, and soon thereafter Winkelmann converted to Catholicism. Moving to Dresden, to await his appointment in Rome, he wrote Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, his first work, in which he began to develop his idea of beauty in art. Beauty in this essay becomes identical with the graceful simplicity and grandeur of Greek art. Classical Greek art arose in a civilization that valued both emotional restraint and physical beauty and which gave its citizens the freedom to express their sense of beauty in the unity of soul and body. Beauty is first experienced by the senses but must be appreciated by the intellect, even as beauty is indefinable, a mystery of nature that surpasses the limits of human understanding, rising in this way to a level close to divine revelation. Greek art thus becomes both an educational and moral force, not an ornament for the wealthy or those inclined to sensual pleasure.

Arriving in Rome in November 1755, Winkelmann worked as librarian to various Church authorities and in 1758 helped to establish guidelines for the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Prior to Winkelmann’s intervention, much valuable art had been plundered by Roman aristocrats and few records of finds or dating techniques were available. In 1761 he acquired the formal title, Papal Antiquary, and served as official guide of Rome for the Vatican to visiting dignitaries. In 1794 he published his History of Ancient Art and in 1767 wrote his pioneering work in archaeology, Unpublished ancient Monuments, explained and illustrated. In 1768, Winkelmann decided to visit his homeland, but his trip was cut short as the strain of the return precipitated a nervous breakdown. On his way back to Rome, in Trieste, he was stabbed to death for some jewelry he had in his hotel room.

Further reading:

W. Zbinden, Winkelmann, 1935.

W. Leppmann, Winkelmann, 1970.

Michael J. Matthis