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    Johann Joachim Winckelmann and the Glory That Was Greece

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    250 years ago, the great man’s murder shocked cultured Europe. Traveling incognito by coach from Vienna, where he was received by the Empress Maria Theresa, he stopped in Trieste on June 1, 1768, to await a ship for Rome. There he met Francesco Arcangeli, an unemployed cook and small-time thief, who visited him in his room daily for the next week. On June 8, his newly made acquaintance, almost 20 years his junior, garroted and stabbed him to death.

    So ended the life of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), “the prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology” and the father of art history. Winckelmann was no Alan Quartermain in search of King Solomon’s Mines, however. He never ventured into a single jungle or turned a spade of earth to dig into the past. His was an Enlightenment mind hoping to find patterns, not pottery shards, to illuminate humanity’s past.

    Born the son of a shoemaker and a weaver’s daughter, Winckelmann overcame immense poverty to gain his great success. Encouraged by his parents and mentored by a local schoolmaster, he eventually was able to pursue a university education. In 1742 he became the private tutor of Friedrich Wilhelm Peter Lamprecht (1728–1797), son of an official in Magdenburg.

    The student was his first great love. When Winckelmann became the assistant headmaster at a school in Seehausen in 1743, Lamprecht went with him. For the next three years they shared a single room, although Winckelmann claimed that he slept only in an armchair. After he returned to his home a few years later, Winckelmann wrote to him, “I will love you as long as I live.”

    Winckelmann became librarian for Count Heinrich von Bünau (1697–1762) near Dresden in 1748. After seven years of research, he published Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture. The study, which acclaimed Hellenic art as humanity’s highest accomplishment because of its “noble simplicity” and “calm grandeur,” made him famous throughout Europe and helped to establish the Greek Revival movement in the decorative and visual arts, theatre, music and architecture. The next year he moved to Rome, where he remained for the rest of his life.

    Citing ancient aesthetics, but filtered through his love of men, Winckelmann made it possible for viewers to admire masculine beauty for itself, not only for the artist’s technical achievement. “Those who are observant of beauty only in women,” he wrote, “and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art.” For him, no artwork was more magnificent than the Apollo Belvedere, “an unmatched portrayal of the perfect male figure.”

    Winckelmann may simply have cherished the young men around him without embracing them, but no less an authority on lovemaking than Giacomo Casanova discovered the scholar in 1760 putting his theories into practice. “Early that morning I go without knocking into a small room in which [Winckelmann] was usually alone,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “and I see him hastily leave a boy, at the same time quickly setting his breeches to rights … . The Bathyllus [a young man loved by the Greek poet Anacreon], who was indeed very pretty, leaves.”

    Although such intimacy did not bother Casanova, Winckelmann decided to explain his behavior. “The ancients,” he said, “were almost all buggers without concealing it … . Unable to convict myself of [their] stupidity merely by cold theory, I decided to seek the light of practice.” Casanova was not convinced these efforts were entirely motivated by research.

    Winckelmann was usually open about his sexual desires. “I can be satisfied with my life. I have no worries other than my work,” he wrote to one friend, “and have even found someone with whom I can speak of love: a good-looking, blond young Roman,” adding that “compared to Rome, all else is nothing.” He also wrote about his liaisons with Franz Stauder, a pupil of the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, whose John the Baptist typified Neoclassicism; and the Florentine Nicoló Castellani, among others.

    The final great—apparently unrequited—love of Winckelmann’s life seems to have been his beloved Friedrich Rheinhold von Berg, who embodied the scholar’s ideals of beauty: young, handsome, well read, sensitive to male beauty and mentored by a man of learning. “I have fallen in love, and how! [W]ith a young Livonian,” he wrote to a friend in 1762, when he was 45 and Berg was 26. He dedicated one of his most famous essays to the young nobleman.

    When Berg left Rome, Winckelmann was heartbroken. “My beloved and very beautiful friend,” he wrote to the young man, “no name by which I might call you would be sweet enough or sufficient for my love … . I love you more than any living thing, and neither time nor chance nor age can ever lessen this love.” Berg eventually returned to Riga, married and fathered five children.

    Why Winckelmann was attracted to the uncouth, untutored Arcangeli, Berg’s opposite in every way, is an unanswered question. Perhaps they spent time together because the older man responded to the younger man’s flattery. Possibly they were attempting merely to brighten some otherwise dull afternoons. Perhaps they were merely affirming the hoary adage that “buggers can’t be choosers,” this time with tragic results.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.