By Costanza Beltrami

Officially marking 300 years since his birth, art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born in Stendal, Germany, on 9 December 1717. Although not an Italian, Winckelmann’s birthday deserves to be celebrated on this blog as he published groundbreaking studies on Ancient Greek and Roman art, led a successful career as artistic advisor to Roman antiquarians and Grand Tour collectors, and ardently promoted Neo-Classicism as an artistic style.

After studying Greek and Latin at university and entering the artistic circles around the court of Frederick Augustus II, Winckelmann converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and moved to Rome in 1755. His religious conversion was probably a calculated move to improve his chances of finding religious patronage in the eternal city.

In Rome, Winckelmann started working on his masterpiece, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (‘History of the Art of Antiquity’), conceived in 1756 and eventually published in 1764. Fundamentally an analysis of ancient Greek and Roman art, the book is considered a foundational work in the early development of art history. For better or for worse, it established concepts which are still current today, for example the evaluation of Roman art as derivative and inferior to that of Ancient Greece, and the axiom that Classical artworks represent ‘ideal’ mythological characters and stories rather than historical events. Winckelmann’s book was also influential for his view of history and artistic development, which he explained as an organic process: for him, Classical art was born, grew to mature perfection and then decayed and died out. Although completely fictitious and contradicted by facts, traditional art history has often described artistic movements according to this trajectory.

Despite its many problems, Winckelmann’s ‘History’ features unforgettably vivid and homoerotically-charged descriptions of the naked bodies of Roman statuary, which go beyond scholarly accuracy to infuse new life into the cold marble. Particularly striking are the descriptions of two famous statues now in the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino, the Apollo Belvedere and the Belvedere Torso, which Winckelmann described as the perfect apex of Ancient Art:

“The statue of Apollo [the Apollo Belvedere] is the highest ideal of art among all the works of antiquity that have escaped its destruction. The artist has formed this work completely according to the ideal, and he has taken from the material world only as much as was necessary to carry out his intention and make it visible. This Apollo surpasses all other images of him….His build is elevated above the human, and his stance bears witness to the fullness of his grandeur…here there is nothing mortal, nothing that betokens miserable humanity…His sublime gaze, as if peering into infinity, reaches out for the height of his contentment to far beyond his victory. Scorn sits upon his lips, and the displeasure that he contains within swells the nostrils of his nose and spreads upward to his proud brow. But the tranquilly that hovers over him in a blissful stillness remains undisturbed, and his eyes are full of sweetness, as if he were among the Muses as they seek to embrace him…. His soft hair plays about this divine head like the tender, waving tendrils of the noble grapevine stirred, as it were, by a gentle breeze: it seems anointed with the oil of the gods and bound at the crown of his head with lovely splendor by the Graces. In gazing upon this masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing upon it. My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honored with his presence — for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion’s beauty. How is it possible to pant and describe it!”

“Abused and mutilated to the extreme, deprived as it is of head, arms, and legs, [the Torso Belvedere] appears, to those capable of looking into the mysterious of art, in a blaze of its former beauty. In this Herakles, the artist has figured a high ideal of a body raised above nature and a nature of virile maturity elevated to a state of divine contentment. Herakles appears here as if he has purified himself by fire of the slag of humanity and attained immortality and a place among the gods, for he is rendered with no need for human nourishment and with no further use for his strength. No veins are visible, and the belly is made only for savoring, not for surfeit, and to be full without being filled…The powerfully raised chest evokes that against which the giant Geryon was crushed, and in the light and strength of the tights we find the tireless hero […] who journeyed through countless lands to the limits of the world. The artist will admire in the contours of this body the ever-changing flow of one form into another and the gliding features that rise and fall like waves and are engulfed by one another….The bones seem clothed in a fleshy skin, the muscles are plump but without excess, and such a balanced fleshiness is found in no other figure….The Torso of Herakles appears to be one of the last perfect works that art produced in Greece before its loss of freedom [to the Roman empire].”

Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums established Winckelmann’s international reputation as an expert of Ancient art, and he soon obtained the prestigious position of Commissioner of Antiquities to Pope Clement XIII, and the honorary membership of various learned societies. Unfortunately, he died relatively young in 1768, when he was found dead in a hotel room in Trieste in mysterious circumstances.

References: Alex Potts. “Winckelmann, Johann Joachim.” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press,; “IV.F.B.aa, The Apollo in the Belvedere: Description of it”, in History of the Art of Antiquity, trans. Harry Mallgrave, Getty Research Institute, 2006, pp. 333-334;  “III.K, Description of the mutilated Herakles in the Belvedere in particular”, in History of the Art of Antiquity, trans. Harry Mallgrave, Getty Research Institute, 2006, pp. 323-324.

Further Reading: Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (Yale University Press, 2000).

Anton von Maron, Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1768. Weimar, Schlossmuseum Kunstsammlungen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Cover page of Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums, 1st ed., 1764. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Apollo Belvedere, Circa 120–140; copy of bronze original of ca. 350–325 BC. Vatican City: Museo Pio-Clementino. Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont on Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of the Apollo Belvedere. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen on Wikimedia Commons.

Torso Belvedere, 1st century BC or AD, copy of a 2nd century BC statue. Photo: jmax@flickr on Wikimedia Commons.

Details of the Torso Belvedere. Photos: jmax@flickr on Wikimedia Commons.

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