Winckelmann, Johann Joachim

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Winckelmann, Johann Joachim

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim (yōˈhän yōäˈkhĭm vĭngˈkəlmän), 1717–68, German classical archaeologist and historian of ancient art, in which field he was a noted authority. A convert to Roman Catholicism in 1754, he went to Italy the following year. There he spent the rest of his life in study in the Vatican Library and in research in Rome, Florence, and Naples. His chief book was Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums [history of the art of antiquity] (1764). The first great analysis of art written from a historical perspective, the work deals mainly with Roman art. It served as the foundation for classical art history.


See his Writings on Art (ed. by D. Irwin, 1972); biography by W. Leppmann (1970).

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Winckelmann, Johann Joachim


Born Dec. 9, 1717, in Stendal, Magdeburg; died June 8, 1768, in Trieste, German historian of ancient art.

A theologian by education, Winckelmann studied in Berlin (1735-36) and Halle (1738-40). During 1748-54 he served as librarian to Count Bünau (near Dresden), and in this period he became acquainted with the works of English and French Enlightenment figures, including A. C. Shaftesbury, C. L. Montesquieu, and Voltaire. From 1755, Winckelmann worked in Rome. In 1763 he became the Vatican’s chief antiquarian and “president of antiquities.” He witnessed the excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Paestum. Arguing from the viewpoint of Enlightenment philosophy against the mannered, aristocratic art of the 18th century, Winckelmann turned to ancient Greece in his search for models for heroic and patriotic art. His principal work, A History of Ancient Art (Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums, 1763; Russian translation, 1888, 1890), was the first example of a scholarly art history, where the main consideration was given to art as a whole in its flowering and decline rather than to individual masters. Not confining himself to describing the subject matter or evaluating the faithfulness of the rendition of nature, Winckelmann attempted to characterize the metaphoric language and artistic traits of a given work of art. Thus, he was among the first to develop a method of analysis of works of art. Although Winckelmann only knew works of the Hellenistic period or Roman copies, he managed to arrive at a correct insight into the social background of ancient Greek art and the sensuous perception of topical reality on which it was based. He considered climate, state structure, and, most important, political freedom to be the causes of its flowering. Winckelmann’s ideal was Greek sculpture of the classical age, idealistic and elevated in his opinion, ennobling reality, and alien to everything that was commonplace and personal. Idealizing antiquity, Winckelmann considered ancient Greek art the model for all times and peoples. However, when he called on artists to return to the study of nature, Winckelmann implied an imitation of the ancient models. The interpretation of ancient art advanced by him became well-known during the 1760’s, and it served as the aesthetic basis for the emergence of classicism in Germany (for example, A. R. Mengs and A. Tischbein) as well as in other European countries (J. L. David, B. Thorvaldsen, and A. Canova). Winckelmann’s interpretation also greatly influenced the creative work of the masters of the first half of the 19th century.


Werke, vols. 1-11 [Dresden-Berlin] 1808-25.
Briefe, vols. 1-4. Berlin, 1952-57.
In Russian translation:
Istoriia iskusstva drevnosti. [Leningrad] 1933.
Izbrannye proizvedeniia l pis’ma. [Moscow-Leningrad] 1935.


Grib, V. R. “Uchenie Vinkel’mana o krasote.” Literaturnyi kritik, 1934, no. 12.

Lifshits, M. “I. I. Vinkel’man.…” In M. Lifshits, Voprosy iskusstva ifilosofii. Moscow, 1935. Pages 5-79.

Justi, K. Winckelmann: Sein Leben, seine Werke und seine Zeitgenossen, vols. 1-3, 5th ed. Cologne, 1956.

Koch, H. Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Spache und Kunstwerke. Berlin, 1957.

Ruppert, H. Winckelmann-Bibliographie. Berlin, 1968.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.