Death in Trieste – A Tribute to Winckelmann in Munich

A little while ago I had some time to spend in Munich before catching the train back home. As a Greek who loves the ancient Greek element in Munich‘s buildings and museums, I was planning to go see the Greek landscapes in the Neue Pinakothek. King Ludwig I. commissioned them when his son Otto became the first King of Greece in the 1830s.

But then I happened to scroll through a cultural magazine and discover the announcement of an anniversary exhibition commemorating the 250th anniversary of Johann Joachim Winckelmann‘s death. The German Hellenist, who many consider as the founder of Art history and modern archaeology, was murdered in Trieste in 1768. I changed my plans and instead paid Munich’s Collection of Classical Antiquities (Antikensammlung) a visit.

The Antikensammlung in Munich

The State Collection of Antiquities on Munich‘s Königsplatz contains an exquisite collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman works of art and everyday objects. It provides a good overview of ancient art, from the Cycladic Culture of the Aegean region in the third century BC up to the late antiquity in the fifth century AD. Together with the Glyptothek, which is situated opposite the Antikensammlung and presents sculptures from the same period (currently closed for refurbishment), it showcases King Ludwig‘s I. passion for classical antiquity.

The Bavarian King‘s wish to turn Munich into a city of the arts was inspired by Winckelmann‘s guiding principle: „The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if it is possible, is to imitate the ancients.“ When Ludwig I., not yet King, commissioned his art dealer in Rome to acquire works of art as to enlarge the collection of his family in the early 19th century, he listed 21 pieces that Winckelmann had discussed in his major work, “History of the Art of Antiquity”, written in 1764.

Winckelmann had developed a new historical structure of Ancient art from its beginnings to its decline, based on the chronological sequence of various styles. In Ancient Greek art, he saw the fulfillment of the task art should have in his opinion: the depiction of ideal beauty. He was the first to rely more on his own perception of ancient objects rather than the study of ancient sources as well as the first to view and interpret Ancient art through the eyes of Greek mythology instead of Roman history.

“Noble simplicity and quiet greatness” – Tracing Johann Joachim Winkelmann

An exhibition on somebody who, by profession, writes about art rather than creating works of art, obviously consists mostly of information around his person and his writings.  In the two halls of the Antikensammlung currently dedicated to the famous 18th-century German scholar, well written, informative texts are used to emphasize on Winckelmann’s importance for the reception of Ancient art in Central Europe and his influence on the future King Ludwig I. of Bavaria. A few sculptures or copies illustrate the works of art which became known to a wider audience through Winckelmann’s writings. Period furniture and chinaware inspired by Greek art complete the presentation.

Winckelmann’s sensory reception of ancient objects and belief in the liberal ancient Greek spirit had a big impact on Western writers, philosophers, sculptors, and painters. One of them was Swiss painter Angelika Kauffmann who became sought after as a portraitist after having portrayed Winckelmann in 1764.

Angelika Kauffmann – A female view of the ancient world

The presentation sets a second focus on the Neoclassical artist who specialized in historical paintings, finding her inspiration in Ancient mythology and participating in the reception of Homer. Influenced by Winckelmann’s less philological approach to Ancient art she chose her topics so as to evoke a higher empathy in her viewers. She thus broke with the tradition of the strong ancient hero. This, as well as her fascination for strong ancient women, display a notably female view on the Ancient world.

My thoughts on J. J. Winckelmann and Modern Greece

The visit to this exhibition awakened my interest in Winckelmann and his writings, which were perceived as a revelation by his contemporaries. The German scholar became the spiritual father of German Neoclassicism by insisting that Contemporary art should imitate Ancient art. His work on Greek art nourished the upcoming Philhellenism and thus contributed to the Greeks‘ uprising after 400 years of Ottoman rule.

But as proud as one might feel about the achievements of one’s ancestors and the interest later generations showed in them, I can’t get rid of the thought that Winckelmann’s approach also contributed to a strongly idealized view of Greece by Central Europeans, a picture that today’s Greece has trouble corresponding to.


18 Replies to “Death in Trieste – A Tribute to Winckelmann in Munich”

  1. Hi there, I check your blogs regularly. Your
    writing style is awesome, keep doing what you’re
    doing! I couldn’t resist commenting. Very well written!
    Greetings! I’ve been following your site for a while
    now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Tx!
    Just wanted to say keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Amy! Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. It’s great to hear that you enjoy reading our blog and so appreciate our writing style! I’ll make sure to pass this message on to our dear Anna as she wrote this article. We look forward to sharing many more posts with you!

    2. Hi Amy, thank you so much for taking time to read and comment in such an enthusiastic way! Your good words make me very happy, especially since this article was my first ever in a blog! I sure feel encouraged to continue now! Thanks again and greetings from Germany.

  2. The article on Winckelmann has given me an interest in knowing more about Angelika Kaufmann, thank you for that! Our family has many strong women, so I don’t find them at all intimidating, rather, exciting!

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment Michael! It’s wonderful to hear that it inspires you to find out more about Angelika Kauffmann! 🙂

  3. Thanks, Anna, for this article. I hadn’t heard of Winckelmann or Kaufffmann and find them both very interesting. Thanks for sharing the info and the blog! And yes, I am a fan of the writing too!

  4. Thank you, Laurie, for taking the time to read and comment!
    I’m happy you find the post interesting and like my writing. Apparently Winckelmann is only well known in the German speaking world. It would be interesting to think about when and how ancient Greece and its way of thinking was rediscovered in the English speaking world!

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  6. Thanks , I have just been searching for info approximately
    this subject for a long time and yours is the
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    1. Hello & thank you for your nice comment! I’m very glad my post could be of help to you. Concerning the bottom line: being a Greek who has been living outside Greece for many many years and knows both the nature and culture of Greeks and Germans (and other Middle-Europeans) well this is my own feeling and opinion on the matter. Same thing happened with Goethe and Italy: he idealized it completely!

    1. Thank you! We are glad our blog is of interest to you!
      I’m not sure I understand your question well enough to answer it though.
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