The German archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) redefined archeology as a history of ancient art. His high regard for Greek art greatly influenced German classical literature and stimulated classicism.
The only son of a cobbler, Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born on Dec. 9, 1717, in Stendal, Prussia, and grew up in modest circumstances. From 1738 he studied theology and medicine, then taught in Salzwedel from 1743 to 1748, and from 1748 until 1754 he was librarian for the Count of Bühnau in Nöthnitz near Dresden. Here, in addition to his historical studies, he turned to the fine arts and prepared a description of the paintings in the Dresden Gallery.
In 1754-1755 Winckelmann studied art in Dresden with the painter Adam Friedrich Oeser and came in contact with Italian artists. A result of his studies was his essay "Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture," in which he portrayed an idealized picture of Greek art and saw its spirit as "noble simplicity and silent greatness." Since Greek art was to him the highest artistic achievement, he advocated its imitation by all later cultures. The contemporary, baroque art was to be dismissed since it had grown too remote from the Greek simplicity.
Winckelmann's essay received great acclaim and prepared his way to Rome, where he went in 1755 after becoming a Catholic. In Italy, which he called the land of humanity, he fulfilled his human and intellectual purpose. The southern freedom of mores and ideas recalled his ideal Greece and enabled him to pursue the cult of male beauty which he found embodied in Greek art. Thus Winckelmann devoted his "Dissertation on the Ability to Appreciate the Beautiful in Art and Its Instruction" to his young friend Reinhold von Berg.
As equal, Winckelmann met with Roman scholars and clerics, even lived for a time in the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo. His special friends were the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs and Cardinal Alessandro Albani, in whose palace he lived before moving with him into a newly built villa in the Via Salaria. On the outfitting of this villa with antique sculptures, Winckelmann had a decided influence.
In 1763 Winckelmann was named prefect of Roman antiquities, and he worked also in the Vatican library. In his studies he combined historical awareness with vivid feeling for the present; in his writings he was at once scholar and poet. His descriptions of the statues in the Vatican's Belvedere (only the descriptions of the Apollo and of the Torso were finished) are in their enthusiastic language genial prose poems.
Winckelmann included these descriptions in his major work, History of the Art of Antiquity (1764), the first historical overview of the entire ancient art, born of profound knowledge of the sources and his personal views. His thorough erudition is also apparent in his catalog of the gem collection of Baron Stosch (1758) and in publications on unknown antiques. Winckelmann published lively reports on the excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which he got to know on three journeys, and he wrote also about ancient architecture and allegories in art.
Most of Winckelmann's writings appeared in German, and he never relinquished his bonds with Germany. In 1765 he almost became the librarian of Frederick the Great in Berlin. But as Winckelmann traveled to Germany in April 1768, his love of Rome proved the stronger; beset with deep melancholy he interrupted his journey in Regensburg, traveled to Vienna where he was honored by Empress Maria Theresa, and arrived in Trieste in June. There he met a former-convict cook who robbed and killed him on June 8, 1768.
Wolfgang Leppmann, Winckelmann (1970), is the first biography in English; it provides interesting material on life and education in 18th-century Germany, the first excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the attitude and policy of the papacy. More specialized are two studies by Henry C. Hatfield: Winckelmann and His German Critics, 1755-1781 (1943) and Aesthetic Paganism in German Literature (1964).