Winckelmann, Johann Joachim (1717–1768)

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Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the German art historian and founder of scientific archaeology, was born at Stendal in Prussia. After early schooling in Stendal and Berlin, he studied theology and classics at Halle and mathematics and medicine at Jena. He held a series of minor positions and then became a librarian at Nöthnitz, near Dresden, where he met many artists and critics who stimulated his interest in the fine arts. Influenced by the papal nuncio in Dresden, Winckelmann became a Catholic; and in 1755, after the publication of his first important work, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture; Dresden and Leipzig, 1754), he went to Rome on a royal subsidy. In Rome he was supported by various high churchmen. In 1758 he visited Naples, Herculaneum, and Pompeii and spent a longer period in Florence. In 1760 he became librarian and surveyor of antiquities to Cardinal Albani and wrote his Anmerkungen über die Baukunst der Alten (Remarks on the architecture of the ancients; Leipzig, 1762). In 1763 he was appointed general surveyor of antiquities for Rome and Latium. While general surveyor he published Abhandlung über die Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen in der Kunst und dem Unterricht in derselben (Treatise on the power of feeling beauty and on teaching it; Dresden, 1764); Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of ancient art; Dresden, 1764); and Versuch einer Allegorie, besonders für die Kunst (An essay on allegory, especially for art; Dresden, 1766). In 1768 Winckelmann was murdered in an inn at Trieste.

Winckelmann was the founder of classical archaeology and of art history. He was the first person to consider a work of art not only as an item of contemplative pleasure and imitation or as an object of erudite commentary and psychological characterization, but as a creation of a particular nation and period with its own special geographical, social, and political conditions, which expresses the style of the spirit of the milieu as a whole.

Winckelmann's aesthetic theory is found mostly in scattered remarks in his works on ancient art, and his ideas were constantly evolving. They were methodological by-products of his work as a historian systematizing the history of ancient art. For these reasons any reconstruction of Winckelmann's aesthetic doctrines is controversial. These views were nevertheless systematized by his contemporaries, and extended from ancient art to literature both ancient and modern.

Winckelmann was dissatisfied with all received definitions of beauty, and he held that beauty is indefinablethat it is one of the greatest mysteries of nature, and beyond the limits of human understanding. (There is nevertheless an absolute standard of taste. But this cannot be deduced; it must be grasped through a deeper insight into actual works of art.) One general characteristic of beauty is proportion; but to dead proportion must be added living form.

Expression (Ausdruck ) is a lower stage of beauty. It is a lively imitation of both the soul and the body as passive and active. Pure beauty is reached through the stillness of this feeling of life. The highest stage of beauty arises from the unification of expression and pure beauty in grace. By this unity beauty becomes an appearance of divinity in the representation of a sensible object. The unity of a work of art arises mainly from simplicity (Einfalt ) and measure (Mässigung ), or the harmony of opposing traitsfor instance, understanding and passion. This process of unification corresponds to the rise from sensible to ideal beauty, or from the imitation of nature to the creation of a higher nature. The observation of nature gives us the means of overcoming spurious standards of beauty and a set of samples to be used by the intellect in creating the higher nature.

Beauty is felt by the senses, but it is understood and created by the intellect (Verstand )which is the faculty of ideas as well as of distinct concepts. The "ideal" (Das Ideale ), or "spirit" (Geist ), is the most important and controversial notion in Winckelmann's aesthetics. One kind of ideal is created when an artist combines in one unique whole elements of beauty among different natural objectsfor example, by constructing a perfect female figure from separate parts imitating parts of different real women, each of which is the most perfect of its kind. A superior kind of ideal arises when the choice of parts is directed not only by a feeling for proportion, but by a supernatural idea translated into matterfor example, the superhuman perfection of a particular human type or quality such as the combination of attractive manhood and pleasing youthfulness in the Apollo del Belvedere, or of enormous pain in a great soul in the Laocoön. The second kind of ideal is not abstracted from experience, but is derived from an intuition of the beauty of God himself. It is realized through a creative process like that of God creating his own image in man. Ideal beauty of the second kind must show "noble simplicity and quiet greatness" (edle Einfalt und stille Grösse ). Immanuel Kant later systematized this double conception in his Critique of Judgment.

Because beauty in its highest form is spiritual, it must suggest a deeper ethical meaning. These ethical thoughts are the content of real art. Art makes them intuitively known through allegory. Nature also presents allegories to man; and man himself spoke through images before he spoke in rational language. Painting, sculpture, and poetry all express through allegory invisible things; and thus allegory is the foundation of the unity of the different fine arts.

Simplicity, or unity, gives distinctness (Deutlichkeit ) to a work of art. Winckelmann held therefore that there is an intuitive, or sensible, distinctness, whereas the then current psychology admitted only intellectual distinctness and allowed only clarity to sensibility. Kant, later, was the first to introduce the concept of intuitive distinctness into the theory of knowledge.

Winckelmann saw in Greek art the standard of ideal beauty. The Greek man was the most spiritually and ethically balanced, and therefore the most physically perfect, because of various climatic, geographical, historical, social, and political conditions. Greek artists could therefore use the most beautiful human specimens as models, and they should be imitated by modern artists. Imitation of nature and imitation of the Greeks is the same thing.

See also Aesthetic Judgment; Aesthetics, History of; Art, Value in; Beauty; Kant, Immanuel.


works by winckelmann

Monumenti antichi inediti, 2 vols. Rome, 1767.

Werke, 12 vols. Edited by Joseph Eiselein. Donaueschingen, 18251829.

Werke. Edited by W. Rehm and H. Diepolter. Berlin, 1952. Critical edition.

Kleine Schriften und Briefe. Edited by W. Senf. Weimar: H. Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1960.

works on winckelmann

Aron, Erich. Die deutsche Erweckung des Griechentums durch Winckelmann und Herder. Heidelberg, 1929.

Baumecker, Gottfried. Winckelmann in seinen Dresdner Schriften. Berlin: Junker and Dünnhaupt, 1933.

Curtius, Ludwig. Winckelmann und seine Nachfolge. Vienna: Schroll, 1941.

Hatfield, H. C. Winckelmann and His German Critics, 17551781. New York: King's Crown Press, 1943.

Justi, Carl. Winckelmann und seine Zeitgenossen, 3 vols. Leipzig, 18661873; 4th ed. Leipzig: Koehler and Amelang, 1943.

Rehm, W. Winckelmann und Lessing. Berlin, 1941.

Vallentin, Berthold. Winckelmann. Berlin: Bondi, 1931.

Zbinden, W. Winckelmann. Bern, 1935.

Giorgio Tonelli (1967)