Portrait of Winckelmann, by Angelika Kauffmann (1764)


“In Gegenden, wo die Künste geblüht haben, sind auch die schönsten Menschen gezeugt worden” (“In areas where the arts flourished, the most beautiful people were created”).

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717 – 1768) was the first German archaeologist, in the contemporary sense of the word, and an important teacher of art. His major work, “History of Ancient Art” (Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764) is the cornerstone of the science of archaeology and contemporary art history. By equipping archaeology with the scientific method it lacked up to that point, he released it from the status of an amateur occupation for “noble gentlemen“. He put in evidence the superiority of Greek, classical antiquity, over Hellenistic and Roman, and founded German classicism on Greek archaeology in a revolutionary manner for his time. He was murdered under unknown circumstances at the age of just fifty in Trieste. The day he died, he was carrying in his luggage his beloved books, which determined his whole thought and course: those of Homer.

Winckelmann was born about 70 years before the French Revolution and 100 years before the Greek Revolution. He was the most famous son of the city of Stendal (from Altmark, Sachsen-Anhalt) in former Prussia. He has been a genuinely liberal and pioneering spirit that influenced the greatest men of Germany (Lessing, Goethe, Herder, Schiller), Lord Byron, even the admirers of the French Revolution and later Napoleon. Goethe himself described the 18th century as “Winckelmann‘s century”, thus defining the measure of his importance, which is admirable, considering that Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born in a poor, impoverished Prussian city due to the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648), and was the only son of a shoemaker. Nevertheless, the education of the only son of the family was at the centre of attention for his parents, who sent him to the primary Latin school in their city (städtische Lateinschule). Thanks to his participation in a choir for poor students, he manages to acquire his books as well as free access to seminars. As a student he meets Esaias Wilhelm Tappert, the almost blind school principal, to whom he becomes a trusted assistant and a book reader. This experience, as well as the role of a supervisor for the school library, offer him his first acquaintance with important writings of English and French authors, which will gradually ignite in him the idea of political freedom. Early on in his life, he formed the perception that Prussia was an oppressing state, where he has felt “what it means to be a slave“, as he will later comment.

WINCKELMANN, Johann Joachim, lithography (SHP collection)

Encouraged by Tappert, the eighteen-year-old Winckelmann visited the Cöllnisches Gymnasium zu Berlin in March 1735, where he remained until the autumn of 1736. He studied constitutional theory, natural sciences and expanded his knowledge of the Greek language and literature. It is quite possible that the starting point for the evolution of his philhellenic spirit is rooted in this period of his life. During this time he meets Christian Tobias Damm, the High School‘s vice-president who specializes in Mythology. Damm transmits his love for Homer to Winckelmann, which fuels his passion for the antiquity, its art and philosophy. Homer will remain his favorite author until his death. In November 1736 he returned to his hometown and continued his studies at the Salzwedeler Gymnasium, while teaching Greek at the same time. The rector of Bake School describes him as a “restless and unstable person” (homo vagus et inconstans).

In April 1738 he enrolled as a student of Theology in Halle, where he attended with great interest the lectures of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762), founder of Aesthetics in Germany. He also attended the seminar of the physician and philologist Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687–1744) on the Greek and Roman antiquities according to ancient numismatics. The study of numismatics probably equipped him with a detail-oriented describing ability, which he used later for the description of artworks, such as the famous Laocoon-complex in “The History of Ancient Art” (Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764). His obsession with the exhaustive recording of human body parts as a basis for an artistic analysis of ancient Greek statues i.e. for Apollo Belvedere, is related to his brief, unaccomplished studies in Medicine at the University of Jena (May 1741). One could assume that his homosexuality, which was confirmed by many persons who studied his life, was a second reason for his obsession with the beauty of the human body, especially the male one.

In the following years he worked as a private teacher of Greek and Latin for families, in order to earn a living. At the same time, he carried out literary, philosophical and historical studies, which are now housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (in Paris). He considered this period of his life as rather burdensome. He worked as a teacher and vice-rector at the Lateinschule Seehausen (1742). It is reported that he worked there exhaustingly, to the point of physical collapse. However, the fervor with which he taught Greek remained without a response by the Prussian youth. The limited mental horizons of the Prussian province made Winckelmann feel soon oppressed and uninspired.

The way out of Seehausen’s boredom will be offered by Count Heinrich von Bünau’s proposal to move to Schloss Nöthnitz near Dresden and take on the role of librarian in a very important, publicly accessible private library of the time. Winckelmann’s life was often marked by the appearance of important people with prestige, who opened him paths for personal development. Winckelmann was probably a pleasant, refined character, flexible in his social interactions. He soon impressed the Pope’s ambassador, Alberico Archinto, when he visited the library. Archinto invited him to Rome to take on the role of librarian at the city of Vatican. This position was very important for Winckelmann, as the Vatican library was the center of knowledge of the world. A condition for Winckelmann‘s acceptance into the Vatican, was his conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism, which he gladly accepted, in order to expand his mental horizons. Being a visual person (“Augenmensch“), he will devote himself to an unhampered study of artworks in Rome.

Rome was instrumental in the emergence of the art historian and archaeologist Winckelmann. There he met the early classicist painter Anton Raphael Mengs, in whose house he lived, with whom he shared the same love for Greek art. He also met the young German artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), who created, on behalf of the Swiss painter Johann Kaspar Füßli (1706–1782), Winckelmann´s portrait in 1764.

Kauffmann, Angelika, lithography (SHP collection)

As Archinto´s protégé, he acquires connections with Italian scholars and has the opportunity to visit their libraries. After Archinto’s death, Winckelmann became a protégé of Cardinal Alessandro Albani, who contributed to his appointment as a commissioner of the roman antiquities (1763), a position of the highest influence and prestige. Winckelmann guided high-ranking officials through the ancient city of Rome and made archaeological trips as a researcher. Between 1758 -1767 he completed four trips to the destroyed cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stavia. Winckelmann developed a first standard scheme for the scientific description of excavations using references to the aforementioned archaeological sites. In Paestum he sees Greek temples for the first time, a fact that fascinates him. He describes his experiences in the work “Anmerkungen über die Baukunst der Alten” (“Remarks on the Architecture of the Ancients”, 1761).

The main work of Winckelmann appears at the beginning of 1764, “The History of the Art of Antiquity” (“Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums”). In this work he presents the evolution of art based on the sequence of style periods, using Greek art as the main example. He defines the following eras in of ancient Greek art and literature: (a) the era of the “archaic style”, which is the one with the longest duration of all (7th-6th century BC), (b) the era of the “high style”, which expresses the artistic culmination of the classical era of the 5th century. Its representatives are Pheidias, Praxitelis, Lysippos and Apellis, (c) the era of Praxitelis’ “beautiful style”, and, finally (d) the era of decline of the ancient art and literature. The value of his work lies in the accurate description of the characteristics of each artistic period. In this way he created a methodological tool for classifying works, not exclusively for the science of classical archeology. At the core of his work are the impressive and detailed descriptions of the artistic masterpieces.

Following Winckelmann´s order to this day, we refer to the two main eras of Greek art (5th and 4th century BC), as classical. This arrangement derives from ancient classicism: Winckelmann was influenced by the author Pliny and his thesis that Greek art began to decline after Alexander the Great. Winckelmann’s liberal spirit linked the negative evolution of the decline of the arts with the emergence of monarchies after Alexander’s death. The decline of art is related to the loss of the democratic public and the emergence of an art for private use. In other words, he believes that art leads to a dead end when its aim is to be displayed in private, while political freedom is the necessary precondition for the existence of high art.

WINCKELMANN, Johann Joachim, lithography (SHP collection)


Winckelmann’s Philhellenism derived from his need for political freedom

For Winckelmann, ancient Greek statues present the highest ideal of art. This axiom is expressed for the first time in his work “Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture” (“Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst”, 1756). Greek works are characterized by “gentle simplicity and quiet grandeur” (“edle Einfalt und stille Größe”). He encourages artists to imitate the works of antiquity, in the creative manner of the Aristotelian μιμείσθαι: not mechanically, but creatively, in a manner that leads them to knowledge.

In our time, the idea for the artistic supremacy of classical antiquity seems self-evident. However, this was not the case at all in Winckelmann’s time. It was his own courage that highlighted classical Greek antiquity over Hellenistic and Roman antiquity. Born in a country that he considered to be oppressive, the young Winckelmann traces the model of political freedom back to the Athenian democracy. He defines Greek democracy as the opposite of Roman authoritarianism, and defines the era of Pericles as the first flourishing period for Greek art. This was a groundbreaking concept for his time, as the French culture of the period also widespread in German courtyards, traced its origins to Roman antiquity. The enlightened Winckelmann brings Greek democracy and art in contrast with Roman despotism, heavy baroque art, as well as the superficial and a-political art of rococo. This does not only concern aesthetic preferences, but also political ones, as the aesthetic and philosophical superiority of ancient Greek art is inextricably linked to the democracy of Pericles.

It is also important to note that before Winckelmann restored ancient art to the level at which it needs to be placed, Christianity ridiculed ancient art for its decline and disappearance.

With his positions in favor of ancient Greek art, he inaugurates for his time a controversy between the devotees of Roman and the proponents of ancient Greek art. The latter were the “modernists” of the period. Winckelmann defined the foundation of German classicism on Greek antiquity, and in this way he differentiated it from French and Italian classicism that focused on Roman antiquity. This conversion was equivalent to a spiritual revolution.

WINCKELMANN, Johann Joachim, lithography (SHP collection)

For Winckelmann, the moral influence of ancient Greek art is important, both for the artist as well as for its recipient. The artist is led through imitation to knowledge: “he must feel the power of the spirit, which he engraved on the marble“. While the one who sees the statues, finds in them examples for a specific way of life. The “calm grandeur” of Laocoon, has, for example, a moral influence on his observer, as Laocoon does not raise “any terrible voice, as Virgil proclaims” about the hero. “The opening of the mouth does not allow such a thing, it shows more a restless sigh (…) his misery reaches his soul, but we wish, just like this great man, that we too can endure the misery“. Respectively, the observer learns to endure his sufferings in a modest way.

The “calm grandeur” of Laocoon

Winckelmann believes that for Greeks, art and philosophy are identical concepts. His favorite role model is Socrates, who besides being a philosopher was also a sculptor. The combination of art and philosophy is what makes Greek works worthy of imitation. A demanding objective to achieve, indeed:

“The highest standard of art for the thinking man is the human, at least his external appearance, and this is just as difficult to examine for the artist, as it is for the philosopher to explore their inner, and the most difficult is, what does not appear, it is beauty, because in reality, it this does not fall into number and measure”.

(Erinnerung über die Betrachtung der Werke der Kunst, 1759)

Winckelmann admires the uniqueness of the Greeks, their “gentle and flexible kindness, which accompanies a living and happy existence“. And he recalls that: “in areas where the arts flourished, the most beautiful people were also created.”

«In Gegenden, wo die Künste geblüht haben, sind auch die schönsten Menschen gezeugt worden».

( Schriften über die Nachahmung der alten Kunstwerke, 1756)

Winckelmann continued to work on art history throughout his life. In 1767 he published the “Notes on the History of Ancient Art” (Anmerkungen über die Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Dresden 1767).

Winckelmann J., “Histoire de l’art chez les anciens”, Saillant, Paris, 1766. This is the first edition of Winckelmann’s work in French (SHP collection).

His first work represented a preliminary stage for the revised second edition of Art History. The book appeared after his death in Vienna in 1776.

“Winckelmann JJ, Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums” (History of Ancient Art), Vienna, 1776. The work that established Art History as a separate scientific discipline. Winckelmann defines here classical ancient art as an ideal model, worthy of imitation by contemporary artists (SHP collection).

Ηis great work, “Monumenti antichi inediti, spiegati ed illustrati” (1776) includes unpublished ancient monuments. It was positively accepted by the public. In this work he made detailed descriptions of unpublished monuments and interpreted their representations in their mythological context, defining new paths in archaeological interpretation.

In 1763 he presented part of his work to Pope Clemens XII. This seems to have been the peak of his career. He was already an official member of numerous Academies, including the Accademia di Cortona, the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, the Society of Antiquities in London and the Academy of Göttingen.

His unexpected and tragic death shocked many in Europe, as Winckelmann was a man of general and sincere acceptance. An incidental acquaintance he made at the port of Trieste with a man of the underworld named Arcangeli, was fatal for the then fifty-year-old Winckelmann.

Winckelmann wanted to return home and visit a number of prominent friends and institutions in Germany. Thus, he left Rome on April 10, 1768 and crossed the Alps with his friend sculptor, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. During the trip he suddenly became ill and decided to return to Rome. His friends took him to Regensburg, and then to Vienna, where he was received by Empress Maria Theresia. Then he traveled to Trieste to take a ferry to Ancona and then go to Rome. Due to the delay of the ship, he was forced to stay in a hotel in Trieste. On June 8, 1768, he was murdered in the room where he was staying, by Francesco Arcangeli, who had previously been convicted of theft. In his apology, Arcangeli said that he found some books written in a strange language in the victim’s luggage: they were the Homeric epics. His assassin was executed on July 20, 1768.

His unjust murder did not allow the great Philhellene Winckelmann to travel to Greece. The first archaeologist in history never managed to visit the Parthenon, nor to tour Olympia, the excavation of which he eagerly desired. The intellectual world of Europe was shocked by his unexpected loss. An overwhelmed Goethe refers in his memoirs to the news of Winckelmann’s death, which fell “like a thunderbolt in the clear sky.” While the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who contradicted Winckelmann’s positions in his work “Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie” (Laokoon or on the limits of painting and poetry, 1767) wrote that he would gladly offer Winckelmann years of his own life.

In 1822, Antonio Bosa designed and built a burial monument in his honor in the San Giusto Cemetery in Trieste.

The cenotaph of Antonio Bosa in memory of Winckelmann

Numerous posthumous portraits of this great man were also created. Between 1777 and 1782, the sculptor Friedrich Wilhelm Eugen Döll from Gotha, with the support of Winckelmann’s friends Anton Raphael Mengs, Johann Friedrich Reiffenstein and Anton von Maron, created three versions of a bust of him. During the 19th century, Winckelmann was honoured with busts and statues throughout Europe.

Bust of Winckelmann by sculptor Friedrich Wilhelm Doell

The founder of classical archeology is honoured to this day. His birthday (December 9) is celebrated in all German archaeological institutes around the world. Classical archaeologists conduct a series of lectures published in the “Winckelmann programs” (“Winckelmannprogramme”). The Department of Classical Archaeology at Humboldt University in Berlin carries his name: “Winckelmann Institute”. Since 1929 the German Archaeological Institute awards the Winckelmann Medal, a tradition which was also adopted as of 1960 by his hometown, Stendal. In Stendal, the Winckelmann-Gesellschaft was founded in 1940, with the aim of disseminating the work of their most important compatriot. The Winckelmann-Gesellschaft is responsible for the museum in his honour from 2000 onwards.

Winckelmann statue, Winckelmannplatz, Stendal, Germany

Although he never visited Athens, Greeks honour his memory. They offered it to a small street southeast of Athens’ first cemetery, Winkelman Street (“οδός Βίνκελμαν“).

Winkelman Street in Athens

This great scientist, a man of spirit and intellect, identified ancient Greece and the system of art, culture, democracy and the values that it represents, as the cradle of civilization of the western world. Thus he laid the touchstone for a series of extreme developments in Europe. Neoclassicism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and finally, Philhellenism, relied heavily on the work and ideas of this noble man.

More particularly as far as Greece is concerned, Winckelmann’s work was the spark that ignited a series of processes that eventually led to the liberation struggle of the Greeks.

SHP and the Greeks honour Johann Joachim Winckelmann to whom both they and the entire western world owe the freedom of Greece.


Sources and Bibliography:

  • Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst.Zweyte vermehrte Auflage. Walther, Dresden/Leipzig 1756.
  • Erika Simon, Der Philhellenismus des Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Würzburg, http://www.europa-zentrum-wuerzburg.de/, Griechisch-Deutsche Initiative.
  • Martin Disselkamp/ Fausto Testa (Hg.), Winckelmann- Handbuch. Leben- Werk- Wirkung. J.B.Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart, 2017.
  • Wolfgang von Wangenheim, Der verworfene Stein, Verlag Matthes-Seitz, Berlin 2005.
  • www.winckelmann-gesellschaft.com.
  • Spiros Moskovou, 300 χρόνια γερμανική ελληνολατρεία, Deutsche Welle (ηχητικό απόσπασμα).
  • Δημήτρης Καλαντζής, Ο γιός του τσαγκάρη που έκανε την Ευρώπη να λατρέψει την Αρχαία Ελλάδα.
  • Mιχάλης Α. Τιβέριος, Ιωάννης-Ιωακείμ Βίνκελμαν (Johann Joachim Winckelmann), ο θεμελιωτής της Αρχαιολογίας, 24 γράμματα.
  • Αλέξανδρος Κεσίσογλου, Ο Winckelmann και η εποχή μας, ΤΟ ΒΗΜΑ, 24 Νοεμβρίου 2008.