Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Statut : Commissario delle Antichità


Notes : The son of a cobbler and a weaver’s daughter, Winckelmann was born in poverty in the small Prussian town of Stendal. After studies in theology, mathematics, medicine and the classics at the universities of Halle and Jena, he worked between 1743 and 1748 as deputy headmaster of the gymnasium of Seehausen in the Altmark. A major turning-point was his appointment as librarian to Count Heinrich von Bünau at his country estate in Nöthnitz near Dresden, where Winckelmann read widely (with ascetic sleep deprivation) to acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of natural sciences, history, classical antiquity as well as the fine arts. A year after moving to Dresden he published his first essay, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755). A stipend from the Saxon court allowed him to travel to Rome within the same year and focus his studies on ancient art. Unable to survive as a freelance writer and antiquarian, he eventually decided to enter the service of Cardinal Alessandro Albani as a librarian and custodian of his patron’s extensive collection of Greco-Roman antiquities. His most important work is undoubtedly the Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764), sometimes thought to be the first truly pan-European bestseller. Most contemporaries valued the book for its elegant prose descriptions of the ‘masterpieces’ of ancient sculpture in Roman collections. As a reference work it remained indeed unsurpassed until the appearance of K.O. Müller’s Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst (1835). Modern scholars recognize in Winckelmann’s systematic attempt at stylistic classification of ancient sculpture, and its chronological correlation with Greek and Roman political history, a foundational moment for the disciplines of archaeology and art history, although the degree to which his study resulted from visual analysis of the monuments (rather than skilful re-working of the ancient sources) is disputed (see Donohue contra Potts). In 1768 Winckelmann was murdered in Trieste under mysterious circumstances. The numerous translations and editions in French, German and Italian were mostly based on Winckelmann’s unfinished revision of the Geschichte, posthumously published by his friend J.F. Riedel (Vienna, 1776). The first complete translation into English appeared only in 2006 (History of the art of antiquity, Los Angeles, trans. H.F. Mallgrave). A. Potts, Flesh and the ideal (New Haven, 1994); A.A. Donohue, in W.G. Moon (ed.), Polykleitos, the Doryphoros, and tradition (Madison, 1995) 327-353.

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