For German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the Italian dream did not end in the way it should have. On June 8, 1768, while returning to Rome from a trip to Munich and Vienna, where the Empress Maria Theresa had honoured him, the 48-year-old stopped at an inn in Trieste, where he was garroted and stabbed to death by a fellow guest, a petty criminal who was after the shiny medals the sovereign had given Winckelmann. The murderer, Francesco Arcangeli, who was caught and executed, did not realise that he had murdered the man known as the ‘father of archaeology’ and one of the most influential thinkers of the eighteenth century, who had significantly contributed to Europe’s neoclassical period, the idealistic embrace of Ancient Greece and Rome in fashion, décor, art, architecture and political thought.
At the time of his death, Winckelmann was in the employ of Pope Clement XIII as the papal prefect of antiquities to and librarian of the Vatican. It was there, in Rome, in 1764, that he published his second masterpiece: The History of the Art of Antiquity (Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums), which gave a comprehensive, clear and chronological account of antique art, including ancient Egyptian architecture (c.3,000 BCE–200 CE), Etruscan art (c.700–90 BCE) and the history of Greek art and civilisation. He showed how the social and political structures of antiquity made possible the production of art and that art equals beauty. Whilst these ideas seem pedestrian today, Winckelmann’s book was the first to give the modern study of art history a basis and a scientific methodology, and it was revolutionary for the European intellectual scene. The book was quickly translated into French in 1766 and later into English and Italian.
Winckelmann’s road to Rome had, however, been a slow one. The son of a cobbler, he was born in Stendal in northeastern Germany on December 9, 1717. A clever student, he studied at the Koellnische Gymnasium in Berlin, where he became interested in ancient Greek language and culture. In 1738, funded by the church, he studied theology at the University of Halle, and from 1741 to 1742 he studied medicine at the University of Jena. In 1748, he became librarian to Count Heinrich von Bunau at Nothnitz, whose library held more than 40,000 volumes. That access allowed him to write and, in 1755, publish his first major work, the one that made him famous: Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerkunst).
Because of the book’s success, Augustus III, the king of Poland and elector of Saxony, to whom he had dedicated it, granted him a pension so he could further his research in Rome for another two years. His travel thwarted by the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), Winckelmann obtained posts with several influential cardinals until, in 1758, he became librarian to Cardinal Albani, who had an impressive private collection of classical antiquities at his villa at Porta Salaria. By looking at collections of painting at Rome, what was left of ancient architecture and, especially, other collections of antiquities in the city and the villas beyond, he soon became an expert and consultant on antiquities and archaeology.
For example, Winckelmann spent the months between September 1758 and March 1759 in Florence cataloguing a vast collection of engraved gems, including 10,000 cameos, intaglios and antique glass pastes, which had belonged to his fellow countryman, Baron von Stosch. He was employed by the baron’s nephew and heir, who was hoping to sell the lot. While engaged in cataloguing the collection and writing a book about it (to promote a sale), Winckelmann lived in the late baron’s palace on borgo degli Albizi. (The collection was eventually purchased, in 1765, by King Frederick the Great.)
The position with Cardinal Albani not only gave Winckelmann access to the art treasures of Rome and the Vatican and commissions such as the one he fulfilled in Florence, but between 1758 and 1762 he also travelled to Naples four times to visit the excavations at Pompeii, Herculaneum and further south to Paestum during the early years of their discovery. Although he did not have easy access to the digs or the finds, he persisted, and through his Letter about the Discoveries at Herculaneum (Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen) and Report on the Latest Discoveries at Herculaneum (Nachrichten von den neuesten Herculanischen Entdeckungen), his acidic commentary on the amateurish nature in which they were progressing, they were entrusted to more competent hands.
Anton von Maron’s famous portrait of Winckelmann, who was reputedly a homosexual, depicts a soft-featured man in a fur-trimmed housecoat and elaborate headdress with an open book on the table before him, quill in hand and a Greek bust at his back. Yet, despite his undoubted fame, he was neither rich nor particularly happy. Not only did he live in a constant state of financial precariousness, he was occasionally known to unfairly criticise rivals, jealously pointing out their failures whilst ignoring their merits.
Time has disproven some of his theories and shown his view of antiquity to be highly idealised, but in seeking to revive appreciation of the beauty and timelessness of Greek and Roman art and architecture, Winckelmann almost singlehandedly launched the neoclassical art movement that flourished throughout Europe between 1770 and 1830 and laid the scientific foundations of modern archaeology.
Head to Naples to visit the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum (theflr.net/ga479n). Until November 2, 2015, an exceptional exhibition Pompei and Europe. 1748–1943 at the Naples National Archaeological Museum and at the Amphitheatre at Pompeii recounts Pompeii from the beginning of the excavations until the dramatic bombardment in 1943 during World War II. For more information, see theflr.net/c40ijw.