Underrated: Winckelmann

Mary Beard’s bête noire, the father of art history and archaeology

Underrated
The father of art history: Johann Joachim Winckelman (1717-1768)(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Mary Beard has a problem with Winckelmann. If one didn’t know better, one might suspect her of homophobia. Quoting his “swooning” description of the Apollo Belvedere, she tells us that Winckelmann was “a man who had enthused over any number of Graeco-Roman bodies”. Just in case anyone has missed her point, she includes a portrait of him in a turban and a gorgeous red gown, trimmed with fur, with an engraving of Antinous, Hadrian’s lover. No wonder he was murdered by “a rent boy”. 

But Professor Beard’s beef with Winckelmann goes beyond nudges and winks. In her first contribution to the BBC Civilisations series, she castigated the man revered for centuries as the father of archaeology and art history for imposing a “Western way of seeing”, which was and is (of course) a masculine one — a “predatory male gaze”. In her accompanying book, she wonders “how far it is possible entirely to escape the pure, gleaming white vision of antiquity that J.J. Winckelmann bequeathed to us”, and sees him as the ultimate source of Kenneth Clark’s “patrician” view of civilisation. It was he who is to blame for our “distorting and divisive lens that is hard to escape”, for “a weight of conservatism lying heavy on the history of art”.

Poor Winckelmann would have been perplexed by this onslaught. For most Britons, the name “Winckelmann” conjures up not a gay German scholar but a female television presenter who is even more of a household name than Mary Beard. Perhaps Winckelmann would have taken the overbearing influence that she attributes to him as a back-handed compliment. She frames her denunciation in the library of Syon House, showing us a French translation of Winckelmann’s History of Art in Antiquity, the book that first established art history as a respectable discipline. Has Professor Beard read the History? Or Winckelmann’s other works, let alone his voluminous correspondence? Alas, academic celebrities like her are far too busy making television appearances or virtue signalling on Twitter to bother with reading.

So who was Johann Joachim Winckelmann? A century after his death, one of his greatest disciples, the Velazquez and Michelangelo scholar Carl Justi, concluded in his vast, three-volume life of Winckelmann that “he was a citizen of the world, he thought, when he wrote, of the community of art-lovers”. Connoisseurship has a bad name among academics today, not least for reasons of class: Mary Beard belittles connoisseurs such as Clark as “posh”, whether on account of their privilege, their accent, or both.

But Winckelmann, the supreme connoisseur, was anything but posh. Born the son of a poor Prussian cobbler, he made himself indispensable to a series of patrons, culminating in a move to Rome as the head of antiquities and librarian of Cardinal Albani. There he could freely indulge his artistic and homoerotic tastes; the only price was conversion to Catholicism.

What made Winckelmann so important was not just his erudition, his connoisseurship and his mastery of the excavations at Herculaneum and elsewhere. He saw Greek art as the unsurpassed source and exemplar of Western civilisation. In his first programmatic essay of 1755, “On the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks”, he praised their “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” and announced: “There is but one way for the moderns to become great, and perhaps unequalled. I mean, by imitating the ancients.” Winckelmann thus imparted his own Hellenism to posterity, to the Romantics as much as the various forms of neoclassicism.

A decade later, his History of Art in Antiquity had a similarly enduring influence. Nobody had written a history of art before, in the sense of what he called “a system”. He showed how changing styles reflected Greek politics “and the habits of thinking which originated therefrom”. It is thanks to Winckelmann that so much of the history of art was written in German, at least until Hitler drove so many of the best art historians across the Channel and the Atlantic. It was he who created the canon of ancient art and the very idea of art as an index of civilisation.

Not that Winckelmann would have recognised academic art history as it is now taught. Like a dwindling number of scholars today, he cared only for the works of art themselves. Theory for its own sake did not interest him. As a connoisseur and aesthete for whom art was more precious than life, he saw nothing wrong in sharing his own enthusiasms; hence the “swooning” passages about his favourite sculptures to which Mary Beard takes exception.

Winckelmann made no apology for his view that the Greeks were the greatest. And their best works were to be found in Rome. He told a story: how civilisation had declined from its Greek zenith, then revived in what would later be called the Renaissance, reaching its apogee in Raphael and Michelangelo, before declining again. This is indeed the story that was told by Clark. Whereas Professor Beard defines civilisation as “an act of faith” — a definition that excludes nothing — Winckelmann had only one criterion: beauty.