Evidences of Antiquity

Winckelmann and His Century

Athens, England, and Beyond


Winckelmann and His Century


Monumenti antichi inediti

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Monumenti antichi inediti

Histoire de l'art de l'antiquité

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Histoire de l'art de l'antiquité

Winkelmann und sein Jahrhundert

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ed., Winkelmann und sein Jahrhundert

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), born in Prussia to parents of little means, wrote the first History of Ancient Art and effected a radical change in the prevailing idea of antiquity. Since Petrarch, who admired St. Augustine even more than Cicero, the celebration of Roman antiquity had been tempered by Christian approval of its fall. To Winckelmann, the art of Rome was an afterthought. The pinnacle of ancient art had been achieved in fifth-century Athens, whose democracy was the root cause of her excellence. The decline of art began with the establishment of the Hellenistic kingdoms following the death of Alexander. The moral lesson to be drawn from ancient history was not the danger of pagan hubris but rather the superiority of democracy.

Winckelmann's History shifted scholarly attention from the literary and historical referents of ancient art to its intrinsic stylistic qualities. Yet he never saw Greece, and did not arrive in Rome until his thirty-eighth year. By that time he had already developed an understanding of the stylistic development of Greek art from his readings in ancient history and rhetoric. Winckelmann's account of the link between artistic achievement and political freedom closely followed a narrative developed by a group of ancient Roman authors. It was a timely revival. The History was first published in 1763, one year after Rousseau's Social Contract.

In life Winckelmann was a prominent antiquarian - Papal Antiquary, in fact - but after his death he became a hero. His influence on 19th-century thought was immense. To Goethe he was "a latter-day Greek," his works "alive and meant for the living... a portrayal of life, a living thing." In Hegel's estimation, Winckelmann "opened up a new organ for the mind." For Nietzsche his "disgraceful conversion" to Catholicism was the ultimate indictment of the "German philistinism" from which he had fled. Nietzsche was not alone in perceiving a contradiction between Winckelmann's professed faith and the spirit of his work. By translating its capital from Rome to Athens, Winckelmann severed antiquity from Christianity and established it as a sovereign republic.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]