History and Longing

Johann Joachim Winckelmann was a notable scholar of Antiquity and papal Antiquarian. He wrote one of the most compelling studies of classical art of his own times, the History of the Art of Antiquity. His oeuvre fiercely opposed the artistic forms of his days in the native Germany, where late Baroque art was still popular and proliferated in a conservative courtly environment. To Winckelmann, this represented a moment of artistic decadence, which stemmed from a deeper decadence of society and politics. Indeed, his work shares the principles of several other Enlightenment thinkers. In this post, I will discuss some of the criteria adopted by this influential author to judge the arts and their value.

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba – Claude Lorrain

Montesquieu wrote a treatise about the significance of weather and geography in politics. His analysis starts from the assumption that the environment shapes men and their habits. Winckelmann followed similar principles in his analysis of ancient art. In a passage of History of the Art of Antiquity, he argues that the ideal Greek climate allowed social events such as sport contests and beauty pageants. These may seem trivial activities but the author notices that Greek artists were in fact exposed to a variety of situations which could train and sharpen their aesthetic sense. Moreover, social phenomena such as the Olympiads boosted art production, with bronze statues being made to commemorate winners. Therefore, Winckelmann subordinates the development of the arts to a variety of external factors, great art being the product of great civilisations.

Winckelmann also emphasised the role of political and social culture. While describing Egyptian art, he states this never reached the perfection of the arts because of local laws and customs. He then discusses the Etruscan civilisation and says that greater freedom and contact with the Greek world led to a more refined artistic style. Nonetheless, Etruscans soon disappeared under the Roman rule and did not have the time to fulfill their true potential. Greek culture, on the other hand, was based on ideals of freedom and democracy which fostered the production of most beautiful artworks. Interestingly, Winckelmann, a homosexual, seemed to connect liberty and sexual freedom too, pointing out the many references to homoerotic subjects in Greek art and literature. In this instance, it becomes evident that he was motivated by a sense of longing that he knew he could not fulfill in a time when homosexuality was demonised. In fact, nostalgia and longing move entire passages of his writings, hence becoming a core component of artistic appreciation itself.

Port Scene – Claude Lorrain

Other prominent art historians, such as Giorgio Vasari, saw the prospect of a new rise of the arts. The trope of decadence is brought forward in his writings to build up a narrative of successful advance and progress. This is not Winckelmann’s case. On the one hand, he dismissed the biographical genre, which had been used by endless imitators of Vasari. On the other hand, his work does not place any hope in a resurgence of the arts. Toward the end of History of the Art of Antiquity, he describes himself as a woman on the shore, looking at the ship her beloved has embarked on, sure he will never return. This image describes the author’s nostalgia of the glory of Antiquity, seen as a long-lost Eden. Indeed, Winckelmann seems to suggest that the mosaic of social, political, and cultural conditions which allowed Greek art to flourish will never be whole again.

Winckelmann connects the development of art history to longing and nostalgia. The Greeks, he writes, did not produce consistent art criticism because they were already surrounded by perfect artifacts. There was no need for them to theorise or discuss these. On the other hand, loss makes it necessary for men to rationalise and give meaning to their unfulfilled desires. In fact, Winckelmann’s idea of perfection of the arts is more a projection of his own times and aesthetic ideas, than those of Antiquity. His categorisation of Greek art, for example, is far from perfect and it seems to cast the author’s expectations on the works of art, rather than describing them faithfully. In this regard, history writing becomes an independent form of narrative and a statement of aesthetic value. Therefore, it provides content which is more aspirational than descriptive of past events. As Peter Burger writes in Theory of the Avant-Garde, “aesthetic theories may strenuously strive for metahistorical knowledge” but they always show the signs of the time when they were conceived. Winckelmann and his oeuvre are no exception.

The Departure of Ulysses from the Land of the Phaeaces – Claude Lorrain 


Featured Image

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba

Port Scene

The Departure of Ulysses from the Land of the Phaeaces

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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