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The Enlightener

History of the Art of Antiquity (Texts & Documents) by Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Reviewed by Ingrid D. Rowland
The New Republic Online

Although Johann Joachim Winckelmann is often called "the father of modern art history," that paternal claim belongs by now to another generation. For the German-educated refugees who escaped to London and the United States before World War II and effectively created the discipline of art history for the English-speaking world, Winckelmann, a German resident in Italy in the eighteenth century, was certainly a symbolic father for their own displacement and their own passions. Like Winckelmann, the bibliophile banker Aby Warburg, the onetime lawyer Erwin Panofsky, and the art historians Fritz Saxl, Ernst Gombrich, and Richard Krautheimer all believed that the study of art was an activity for everyone, an enterprise to be communicated to a greater public with the utmost clarity, enthusiasm, and wit. And this they (and many others) did, both in their native German and in their adopted language, to memorable effect.

That generation of mid-twentieth-century refugees was a generation of intellectual giants, and like most giants they were also tyrants. It is not entirely surprising that their much-put-upon successors have followed their lead with less than perfect docility. Superbly educated in a plethora of languages ancient and modern, those elders of the twentieth-century diaspora had learned how to use language as a means of persuasion. Their epigones, less confidently erudite, often use words to shield their own insecurity, bandying about terms like "ekphrasis" when "description" will do, creating such lumbering Greco-Latin sports as "contextualize," or transferring Platonic abstractions such as "the good" uncomfortably to English.

It is the state of contemporary art history -- its Oedipal rebellions, its verbosities, its insecurities -- that drives Alex Potts, who has written the introduction to this important new volume, to divide his remarks in two: first, a straightforward presentation of Winckelmann's life (1717-1768) and work, clearly written and informative, addressed to general readers; and then a coda of special pleading, in contemporary academic prose, that absolves Winckelmann in advance of such crimes against humanity as naive positivism, Romantic aestheticism, and the Holocaust:

It would be misleading, however, to see...Winckelmann's history of art as prefiguring a potentially reactionary aestheticizing of history in which the narrative seeks to assimilate the complexities of the social and political to some artistic norm....Nor should Winckelmann's image of early Greek sculpture be confused with the reactionary celebrations of the antique that reached their nadir with the Nazi instrumentalizing of a mythologized classical past.

Within all this verbiage, conspicuously absent from the rest of his introduction, Potts is arguing, to be sure, for the exercise of good sense, both common and historical; but when these potential readers are prepared to blame Hitler on Praxiteles, he might be better advised to preach, like St. Anthony, to the fish. No useful connection, paternal or philosophical, can link the piercing clarity of Winckelmann's ideas to academic art history's current penchant for simplistic thought clad in pom-pous language. As Winckelmann himself observed of such "debased taste" in another era: "Its prime attribute was the pestilence that in our time is called pedantry. [Poets] strove to appear more the scholar than the poet and to establish themselves with archaic and foreign words and expressions...to appear possessed rather than inspired and to be understood after sweat and tears rather than to please." There is much to be said, therefore, for having History of the Art of Antiquity in English, as limpid and persuasive in Harry Francis Mallgrave's translation as Winckelmann is in his own German. Two and a half centuries on, his writing is still a breath of fresh Enlightenment air.

Winckelmann's powers of persuasion lie not only in his language, but also in his utter familiarity with his subject. In his position as secretary to Cardinal Alessandro Albani, from 1758 to his death ten years later, he collected, examined, and supervised the restoration of ancient artifacts, sculptures, and inscriptions, as well as the occasional fragment of painting. He did all this while living with the cardinal among the ruins of ancient Rome, in an antiquities-stuffed modern villa whose grounds, as they knew full well, bordered on those of the ancient villas of Lucullus, Maecenas, and Sallust. Within his sanctum, Winckelmann pursued handsome young men as ardently as Jupiter pursued Ganymede, or Apollo Hyacinth, or the Emperor Hadrian his Bithynian friend Antinous -- in fact, the youth's petulant profile, in colossal marble relief, looms over a fireplace in the Villa Albani. Like many of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's champions of reason, Winckelmann was a wild man in real life, knifed at fifty-one in the port of Trieste by a small-time criminal he had befriended.

This Saxon expatriate wrote History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764, to supplement his meager salary from the cardinal. He wrote in German rather than Latin in order to attract a larger public; within two years his book would be translated into French, and thereafter into Italian. Yet his urge to put art into a historical sequence was as old as Rome itself. The Romans had been acutely, sometimes guiltily aware of the cultural debts they owed to their Etruscan ancestors, and to the Greek and Egyptian neighbors they first admired and then conquered. The ancient Romans developed a voracious appetite for antiques: Cicero famously prosecuted a corrupt former governor of Sicily for looting the island's artistic treasures. (Robert Harris has re-created the political background for this incisive early statement about cultural property in his novel Imperium.) The architect and writer Vitruvius, Cicero's younger contemporary, tracked the changes in taste that led the Greeks to prefer taller, narrower columns and the Romans to invent an imaginative style of painting that defied, at least in his eyes, the laws of nature. A century later, the insatiably curious Pliny the Elder (who died investigating the eruption of Vesuvius) traced the history of Greek sculpture in the midst of a disquisition on stone.

Winckelmann also followed more modern precedents. In a letter circa 1519, emulating the example of the ancient Romans (especially Vitruvius), the Italian painter Raphael had described the changes in art and architecture from antiquity through the Middle Ages up to his own time, a moment at which he and his contemporaries believed that they had managed at last to equal the ancients' artistic achievements, but in the service of Christian faith. Like ancient Roman writers, Raphael saw the history of art as a history of progress. (Interestingly, this was the only area of human existence in which the ancient Greeks and Romans admitted that there might have been a pattern of improvement; in every other respect life had been going steadily downhill since the Golden Age.) A generation after Raphael, Giorgio Vasari presented a history of modern art through his Lives of the Most Illustrious Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a masterfully amusing account of the brilliant eccentrics who created the Renaissance, from tempestuous Cimabue to sex-mad Raphael and grumpy Michelangelo. Local patriotism shaped every aspect of Vasari's opinions, which emphasized the Etruscan contribution to ancient civility and singled out his fellow Tuscan Michelangelo as the consummate artist.

The air of mystery that surrounds the Etruscans today was no mystery to Vasari and his neighbors; they were the ancestors of modern Tuscans, pure and simple. Sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Italians had definite ideas about Etruscan art, Etruscan religion, and an Etruscan language whose alphabet was almost entirely legible but whose inscriptions yielded up strange-sounding words: larth (a proper name misread as a political office) or avils (correctly read as "years"). The unusual forms were usually assumed to be derivatives of Hebrew, the language of Adam. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, a series of enterprising forgers made helpful improvements on the archaeological and literary record, revealing the Etruscan hand in everything from Doric architecture to Galileo's astronomy. Hence when Cardinal Albani's German secretary decided to write in German about the superiority of the Greeks, the decision had a political dimension as well as a cultural one.

The usual word for Germans in Vasari's day was "barbarians" or "Goths," neither term a compliment. Goths and Vandals had destroyed the Roman Empire. Germans in Vasari's Italy gulped down wine as if it were beer and became indecorously drunk. A German friar, Martin Luther, had brought on the Protestant Reformation. German mercenaries had sacked Rome in 1527 in a six-month orgy of greed and violence. But by Winckelmann's time, two centuries later, a German presence in Rome was better accepted, favored by a century of relatively peaceful conditions (the Thirty Years' War between Catholics and Protestants had been settled in 1648) and the growing tradition of the Grand Tour, which attracted wealthy young visitors from France, Germany, and Britain to Naples, Rome, Florence, and Venice.

Winckelmann was a cobbler's son with no advantages but his brain. He had served as a schoolteacher and then as the state librarian of Saxony. His own trip from Dresden to Rome in 1755 hinged on his conversion to Catholicism before his sponsor -- Cardinal Alberico Archinto, papal nuncio to Saxony -- would agree to add him to the official entourage. This conversion, as Winckelmann continued to assure his Protestant friends, was more practical than spiritual, and it served its purpose, earning him a position in Rome first with Archinto, and then, on Archinto's death in 1758, with Albani.

To a certain extent -- and his German readers realized this immediately -- Winckelmann's enthusiasm for the Greeks was a patriotic enthusiasm; they had been as foreign to Etruria and Rome as he was foreign to Italy. By the same curious analogy, in the hands of this halfhearted Catholic convert the Greeks became, in effect, the Protestant reformers of the ancient world. With his own eyes full of Rome's Baroque wonders, Winckelmann contrasts the clean lines of ancient Greek art with Alexandrian decadence and Roman "weapons and barbarity," extending his lament to what he sees as analogous developments in his own time:

In the last century, a noxious epidemic became rife in Italy, as it did in all the lands where the sciences were practiced. It filled the brains of the learned with evil vapors and brought their blood to a feverish boil, imparting a bombastic and toilsome wit to literature at precisely the same time that the same epidemic appeared among the artists....Bernini and Borromini forsook nature and antiquity in painting, sculpture, and architecture just as Marino and others did in poetry.

Intentional or inadvertent as it may have been, Winckelmann's assimilation of ancient Rome to Catholic Italy, and Greece to a contrasting, older, purer ideal, would dominate Northern European thinking about ancient -- and Italian Baroque -- art for generations.

Remarkably, this forceful thinker's own ideas about Greek aesthetics were based almost entirely on his experience of Roman works. Some might have been created for Roman patrons by Greek craftsmen, such as the famous sculpture of Laocoon and his sons writhing in the coils of enormous snakes, signed, in Greek, by three sculptors from Rhodes. But many others, as Winckelmann recognized, had been deliberately executed in an older style:

Nonetheless, one cannot exercise too much caution in evaluating the age of works, and a figure that seems to be Etruscan or from an earlier period of Greek art is not always so. It may be a copy or imitation of earlier works that served many Greek artists as a model over and over again....Or in the case of divine figures...it seems that the older style was sometimes adopted to arouse greater reverence.

The eye that could use such problematic data to single out the distinctive qualities of Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Alexandrian, and Roman art was an eye of extraordinary discernment, as we can see when Winckelmann intersperses his historical remarks with incisive descriptions of the works he has seen in Roman collections. After all these centuries, History of the Art of Antiquity still serves as a splendid guidebook.

It is a guidebook, however, in which Michelangelo does not tower as the consummate master. To Winckelmann, this most Tuscan of artists partakes too much of Etruscan taste:

This nation...tends toward trifles. This is evident in their style of writing, which is often very stilted and affected, and appears dry and barren against the pure clarity of the Romans; the same is especially apparent in art. The style of their ancient artists can still be seen in the works of their descendants, and the impartial and discerning eye will find it in the drawing of Michelangelo, the greatest among them....By contrast, the best Roman artists, Raphael and his school...always come closer, in the lightness of their figures, to the Greeks.

Winckelmann's idea of a truly beautiful statue is not Michelangelo's tense, wiry David, but rather the Apollo Belvedere, a sculpture whose reputation for divine perfection was already well established by the late fifteenth century, when Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, captured it for his own collection. When the American artist Benjamin West came to Italy in 1760 (that is, while Winckelmann was still writing his History), his Italian hosts took him to see this statue, eager to discover what impact the pure embodiment of beauty might have on a man born so far from civilization. West, no fool, confounded them by exclaiming, "How like a Mohawk warrior!"

It is easy to see what West meant. Clad only in cape and sandals, his long hair done up in a bow, Apollo, the god of music, sunshine, and plagues, strides forth with the barest of smiles on his handsome face. His lithe, barely muscled form inspired some of Winckelmann's most ecstatic prose:

His build is elevated above the human, and his stance bears witness to the fullness of his grandeur. An eternal springtime, like that of the blissful Elysian Fields, clothes the alluring virility of mature years with a pleasing youth and plays with soft tenderness upon the lofty structure of his limbs. Go with thy spirit into the realm of incorporeal beauties and seek to become a creator of a heavenly nature, so that the spirit might be filled with beauties that rise above nature -- for there is nothing mortal, nothing that betokens miserable humanity. No veins or sinews heat and move this body, but rather a heavenly spirit that, flowing like a gentle stream, has saturated, as it were, every contour of this figure.

Beautiful, ruthless, and cruelly imperturbable, Apollo performed precisely this cool seduction on his ancient worshipers; he was a healer as well as a destroyer, and hence not to be resisted. Although Winckelmann responds to the ancient god's image with an aesthetic rather than a religious rapture, the Apollo Belvedere had stood in the Vatican for more than two centuries in part because Apollo was seen as a forerunner of Christ, the brilliant son of God who comes to earth in a burst of light. In a real sense, Winckelmann's reverie before the statue is a spiritual exercise, a disciplined journey of senses and imagination in the tradition, if not to the purposes, of Ignatius Loyola, and it captures the continuing religious significance of a work of art that has embodied something more than human for two thousand years. "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," he wrote. "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."

Winckelmann's rapturous eye extended not only to great works of ancient art. Like most of his contemporaries, he also delighted in antiquity's smaller fragments: tiny engraved gems, cameos, jewels, painted pots, ancient coins with exquisite miniatures of Caesar, Pompey, Cleopatra, emperors, gods, temples, elephants. Engravings of these small finds decorated the first edition of his book, and they provide him with glimpses into the ancient world that are no less penetrating in their own way than the insights he gains from the great statues or the epics of Homer. Although History of the Art of Antiquity is filled with historical, moral, and aesthetic judgments, it is still more filled with wonder at the ingenuity of people who lived so long ago.

Popular, readable, concise, Winckelmann's great work presents its own point of view with persuasive authority; at the same time, it also enforces a slower, more thoughtful pace on our own appreciation of ancient art. As a late arrival in Rome (he was nearly forty), Johann Joachim Winckelmann never forgot that the survival of each one of these works, no matter how humble, is a miracle, and his work devotes an attention to each one of them that can only be called loving. His fascination with them, and with the lost cultures that created them, is irresistibly contagious. We could do worse than to pause, as he did, before the ancient statues that crowd our museums, and "adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing," transporting ourselves, if only momentarily, to Greek isles and Roman gardens. The statues are happy to tell their stories, if only we will linger long enough to let them.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome Used Trade Paper $1.95
  2. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors &... New Set Hardcover $67.50



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