The Prophet of Modern Archeology – Joachim Winckelmann

Johann Joachim Winckelmann
against a classical landscape

On December 9, 1717, German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born. Winckelmann was one of the founders of scientific archaeology and first applied the categories of style on a large, systematic basis to the history of art.

Joachim Winckelmann grew up in a poor family, but was highly supported by his blind school teacher, who let the young boy live with him. Due to this support, Winckelmann was able to earn a scholarship and enroll at the University of Halle, Germany in 1738. He dropped out and started at the University of Jena to study medicine. Next to his own studies, Winckelmann taught at various schools and began researching in the fields of history and philosophy.

In the following years starting from 1748, Winckelmann converted to Catholicism and began working at the famous library with Heinrich von Bünau near Dresden. The library was often visited by famous members of the church. In this period, he managed to publish his first influential writings on Greek Art, which was so successful, that the second edition was published shortly after. Due to his increasing influence, Winckelmann was appointed as a librarian in Rome, where he began to research more detailed ton the history of art. During his time in Italy, Winckelmann was also able to publish works on the archeological excavations at Herculaneum and finished his masterpiece on the art of the antiquity. In it, Winckelmann did not only describe the period’s art but developed a whole new system of Greek Art focussing on plastics. His system of classification and identification was highly influential and his general thoughts on art were critical for the theories of the early classicism in the German speaking area.

Back in Germany, Winckelmann began taking painting lessons with Adam Friedrich Oeser, who also taught Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later on. Winckelmann then traveled through Italy, enjoying its art and culture and was supported by Italian priests. In 1768, Winckelmann traveled with the artist Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, but interrupted the journey shortly after. On his way home, he was murdered by Francesco Arcangeli in Trieste due to until this day unknown reasons.

During his lifetime, Joachim Winckelmann was honored numerous times. It was Winckelmann, who supported the excavations of the historical town Olympia and he managed to describe ancient Greek art from completely new perspectives. He illustrated the meaning of Greek art and its influence on Roman art and architecture and managed to transfer the history of art into political and cultural issues even though he is also known to have drawn an idealistic and utopian image of the Greek culture.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a lecture on Greek art as well as its distinction to Roman and Roman art on the example of plastics on the human body by Professor Ian Jenkins.

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