Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768)

Portrait of Winckelmann by Angelica Kauffmann via Wikimedia Commons

This December marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, one of the most important scholars of his age. He was the founder of modern art history and archaeology and a pioneer of German classicism.

Winckelmann, who was born into humble origins as the son of a shoemaker, spent the first three decades of his life in the German provinces before coming to Dresden. At the age of 38, he moved to Rome where he became one of the most sought-after city guides and associated with noblemen from all over Europe. He established a wide network of correspondents from Italy, France, England and other countries. It is unlikely that the international reception of Winckelmann’s work would have been so far-reaching without this European network. Winckelmann is unquestionably one of the most prominent, and perhaps even one of the first German-speaking, writers of the modern period, who was read and received with great attention throughout Europe.

The first work Winckelmann published while in Rome was his Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Mahlerey und Bilderkunst (Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works) of 1755. This work made Winckelmann famous. It was reprinted several times and translated into French and English, the latter by the Swiss/British painter Henry Fuseli. The University Library holds this seminal work in the second edition of 1756 (7000.c.278) as well as the English translation of Fuseli published in 1765 (7400.d.62).

Title pages of 7000.c.278 and 7400.d.62

Title page of 7400.c.52

Winckelmann’s most important work Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of Ancient Art) was published in 1764, the fruit of seven years of study and research. We are very proud to hold this milestone of art history in the original edition (7400.c.52).

Winckelmann’s life was tragically cut short when he was murdered in Trieste in 1768 while returning from a trip to Vienna where he had been received by the Empress Maria Theresa.

In anticipation of the anniversary several exhibitions have been held, dedicated to the various aspects of Winckelmann’s life and work. The Library has acquired the accompanying catalogues.

The first exhibition Winckelmann, Firenze e gli Etruschi. Il padre dell’archeologia in Toscana was held in Florence from May 2016 to January 2017 (C201.b.8913). Its focus was the period 1758 -1759 when Winckelmann lived in Florence and researched Etruscan artefacts for his Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums. The exhibition consisted of three sections. The first addressed the study of antiquities and private collecting in mid-18th century Florence. The second section was more specific to Winckelmann’s Florentine studies, including his cataloguing of Baron von Stosch’s collection of gems. Finally, the third section showed the cultural legacy that Winckelmann left to the Grand Ducal city and the whole of Europe.

The exhibition held in Weimar from 7 April to 2 July 2017 had the title Winckelmann. Moderne Antike and was co-curated by the Klassik Stiftung Weimar and the Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Modern Written Culture and European Knowledge Transfer at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Its aim was to reconstruct the most important aspects of his life as a scholar with more than 200 exhibits. In addition to the exhibition and accompanying catalogue (C202.b.925) the Klassik Stiftung Weimar devoted its annual publication Jahrbuch / Klassik Stiftung Weimar to Winckelmann’s influence on the intellectual and cultural life Weimar. It was published as Die Erfindung des Klassischen: Winckelmann-Lektüren in Weimar (P746.c.511.11).

Finally, an exhibition entitled Revolution des Geschmacks (Revolution of taste) was held in Wörlitz from June to September this year (C213.c.3918). This focused on the relationship between Winckelmann, Leopold III, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau (Fürst Franz) and the architect Erdmannsdorff. Fürst Franz and Erdmannsdorff met Winckelmann first in Rome in 1765 when they undertook a Grand Tour. A close friendship developed between them and Winckelmann’s ideas on classicism strongly influenced the design of Schloss Wörlitz.

Several conferences devoted to Winckelmann have also been held during 2017, and more events will take place in 2018 when it will be the 250th anniversary of his death, demonstrating that interest in Winckelmann’s life and ideas remains undiminished.

Christian Staufenbiel

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