The Birth of "Noble simplicity and calm grandeur" - Johann Joachim Winckelmann

9 December 1717, the art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born in Stendal in Saxony.

“Winckelmann's and Goethe's Greeks, Victor Hugo's orientals, Wagner's Edda characters, Walter Scott's Englishmen of the thirteenth century -- some day the whole comedy will be exposed! it was all historically false beyond measure, but--modern, true." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Anton von Maron’s (1733–1808) portrait of Winckelmann, dated 1768.

Modern history’s second major recourse on antiquity on the eve of the French Revolution was certainly more politically and philosophically inspired than the Renaissance that basically meant, in terms of identity, a recourse on the glory days of Rome and Greece as a distinction from the tyranny of the northern barbarians of the Middle Ages. The ideas of Aristotelian logic, Platonic philosophy and Athenian democracy were received and discussed and antique art admired, but it was the Age of Enlightenment and the nascent scientific method of the 18th century that gave enthusiasts a systematic approach and a purpose in dealing with the days of yore. Besides first documentations, descriptions and deliberate excavations in contrast to chance discoveries, distinguishing between Greek and Roman culture, the classification of antique art in periods of development and placing findings into stages of history marks the birth of art history as well as archaeology. Winckelmann stands at the crossroads of a mere artistic enthusiasm and enthusiastic scientificity at the natal hour of Neoclassicism. 

"Laocoon and His Sons" - for Winckelmann the epitome of "Noble simplicity and calm grandeur"

Born in poor circumstances, Winckelmann’s talents were quickly recognised, he was awarded with various scholarships and received a formal education, studied theology, was far more interested in aesthetics and finally converted to Catholicism to follow an appointment as librarian for various cardinals at the Vatican in his early forties. Rome would remain a life-long passion and as Pope Clement XIII’s Prefect of Antiquities, Winckelmann’s ground was lain to publish his immensely influential Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums ("The History of Art in Antiquity") in 1764, hailed throughout Europe as a beacon – a seminally new approach on antiquity, art and art history influencing Europe’s mindscape for the next 150 years. Winckelmann’s only venture back to the north, to visit Munich and Vienna, ended in a disaster. He was received by Maria Theresa and murdered in a hotel in Trieste on his way back home to Rome for the golden medals the empress had awarded him with.

Winckelmann against a Classical landscape, posing in a manner made famous by Goethe in the Roman Campagna à la Tischbein a generation later (Anonymous, 1760)

"Noble simplicity and calm grandeur", Winckelmann’s catchwords to describe the quintessence of Greek art and civilisation were, in hindsight, characterised as the “tyranny of Greece over Germany” and the rest of Europe in terms of thought and art. His description of the rise, peak and decline of Ancient Greece and connection to the historical circumstances that allowed a culture to climax, namely democracy, were not only a major influence on art history and archaeology, but an invocation for his contemporaries: "The only way for us to become great or, if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients". That was not only understood as an artistic maxim to counter the art of the age of absolutism, Baroque with its flamboyantly cluttered playfulness against imagined Greek simplicity, symmetry and white marble. It was a challenge of the ruling absolutist class itself. Today, Winckelmann’s classifications of Greek art are counted as judgemental and obsolete, the colourfulness of antiquity in contrast to the austere white Winckelmann had postulated is rediscovered and the flaws as well the merits of Athenian democracy are viewed under a different light, but nevertheless, the turn European history took during the second half of the 18th century would be quite different without his groundbreaking work and if only in outward appearance.

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