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Johann Joachim Winckelmann (December 9, 1717 – June 8, 1768)

The art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the first German to have been publicly acknowledged as a homosexual, developed an aesthetic deeply rooted in his homosexuality. (Picture: A portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann created by Anton von Maron 1767.)

He was born in Stendal, the son of a cobbler. His family's modest financial situation limited his career choices. After two years of studying theology in Halle, where he also heard lectures on aesthetics by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, he briefly assumed a position as tutor in a private household.

One year later, he studied medicine in Jena; his knowledge of anatomy and his documented interest in hermaphrodites and other sexual anomalies would stand him in good stead during the composition of his History of the Art of Antiquity.

Lack of other opportunities compelled him to accept a position as tutor to the Lamprecht family. His sole pupil, Peter Lamprecht, was his first love, and soon thereafter lived with him in Seehausen where Winckelmann was deputy headmaster of the Latin School (1743-1748).

It was during this time that he systematically read his way through the entire Greek and Latin corpus insofar as it was available.

In 1748, Winckelmann was appointed librarian to Count von Bünau in Nöthniz near Dresden where he enjoyed not only greater access to works of antiquity, but also the cultural milieu of the court of Dresden. Dresden was known for its outstanding collection of art and plaster casts (the Laocoön among them), as well as its culture of sexual freedom, not to say excess.

In Dresden, Winckelmann became acquainted with several diplomatic representatives of Rome and eventually decided to convert to Catholicism in 1754 in order to profit from Roman patronage. Although his conversion is common knowledge, few are aware that his emigration was nearly prevented because of his reluctance to part from the young Lamprecht.

In 1755, several months before his departure for Rome, his first book, Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, was published. Germany and Europe were suddenly presented with an inspired and distinctly aesthetic vision of Greek antiquity, dominated by the figure of the unabashed and beautiful male nude. In the fall of 1755, Winckelmann left Germany.

Winckelmann lived in Rome and Italy for thirteen years. He began modestly. Befriended by the German painter Anton Rafael Mengs, he went regularly to galleries and museums, and planned a monumental work of art history.

In 1757, he was appointed librarian to Cardinal Archinto, whose death two years later allowed him to transfer to the patronage of Cardinal Albani, a man who shared Winckelmann's aesthetic and erotic proclivities.

The association with Albani afforded Winckelmann unusual freedom and protection: He moved in the best social circles, acquired art and antiquities for both the cardinal and himself, and was entitled to the use of Albani's summer home for occasional trysts and more prolonged affairs.

The evidence of Winckelmann's homosexuality is substantial. His correspondence alone (over a thousand letters, many to confidantes) allows the scholar to document a life rich in friendship and love, supplemented by sexual encounters with Italian youths.

Winckelmann repeatedly acknowledges that he was never attracted to women. His sole affair with a woman occurred late in his life and under the most peculiar circumstances: The woman in question was Mengs's wife, the initiator Mengs himself.

Third-person accounts confirm the homosexual contours of Winckelmann's life. Perhaps the most interesting is that of Casanova, who claims to have caught Winckelmann in the act.

After Lamprecht, Winckelmann's second great love was a young nobleman from the Baltics whom he met in 1762 and for whom he served as cicerone, as he did for so many. Although his love was unrequited, Winckelmann published a monument to their friendship, entitled Abhandlung von der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen in der Kunst (1763), a text that evocatively links homoerotic friendship with aesthetic education.

In 1764, Winckelmann's magnum opus, the History of the Art of Antiquity, was published. In this first modern work of art history, Winckelmann engages in detailed discussion of artworks and styles, setting them in a political and historical context, and organizing the whole according to a model of organic growth and decay.

Winckelmann himself was most proud of the aesthetic section of the History, a philosophical treatment of beauty that is distinctly gay. Ideal beauty is realized within a homosexual and desiring gaze trained on the bodies of eunuchs and castrati.

Winckelmann attempts to argue that eunuchs populated the gymnasia and artists' studios of ancient Athens, but it is clear that he is referring to his own considerable experience with castrati dating back to the opera in Dresden and continuing as a part of daily life in Rome.

In 1768, his European reputation established, Winckelmann responded to long-standing invitations from the courts of Vienna and Berlin. North of the Alps, however, he was overcome by an irrational panic, and though he did enjoy an audience with Maria-Theresa, he canceled the visit to Berlin and headed south.

In Trieste, he was forced to wait on a ship, and it is during this delay that he became acquainted with his murderer, Francesco Arcangeli. Although the official police documents have been published, the true motive has never been determined. The rumor that his death was the result of a shady homosexual liaison persists.

After his death, Winckelmann continued to be a figure of homosexual identification. Even as the German infatuation with Greek antiquity grew stronger, circles of male friends shared and distributed their copies of Winckelmann's letters. Within eighteen years of his death, five separate correspondences had been published, including the complete set of his love letters to the Baltic nobleman.

At the turn of the century, Goethe reread Winckelmann's works, his published correspondence, and the letters that Dietrich Berendis, Winckelmann's boyhood friend, had brought to Weimar, and decided to memorialize him.

The result was a book aptly called Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert (1805), which included the Berendis letters, essays by an art historian and a classicist, as well as Goethe's own biographical essay.

In sections entitled "Friendship" and "Beauty," which would become touchstones of homosexual sensibility, Goethe obliquely if unmistakably evoked the deep connection between Winckelmann's aesthetics and homosexuality.

The only account that comes close to rivaling Goethe's is the English-language essay on Winckelmann by Walter Pater.

Citation Information
Author: Richter, Simon
Entry Title: Winckelmann, Johann Joachim
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated July 24, 2006
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/winckelmann_jj.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date June 8, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

Further Readings:

Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond (Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social... by Davis, Whitney
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press (August 26, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0231146906
ISBN-13: 978-0231146906
Amazon: Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond
Amazon Kindle: Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond

The pioneering work of Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) identified a homoerotic appreciation of male beauty in classical Greek sculpture, a fascination that had endured in Western art since the Greeks. Yet after Winckelmann, the value (even the possibility) of art's queer beauty was often denied. Several theorists, notably the philosopher Immanuel Kant, broke sexual attraction and aesthetic appreciation into separate or dueling domains. In turn, sexual desire and aesthetic pleasure had to be profoundly rethought by later writers.

Whitney Davis follows how such innovative thinkers as John Addington Symonds, Michel Foucault, and Richard Wollheim rejoined these two domains, reclaiming earlier insights about the mutual implication of sexuality and aesthetics. Addressing texts by Arthur Schopenhauer, Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, and Sigmund Freud, among many others, Davis criticizes modern approaches, such as Kantian idealism, Darwinism, psychoanalysis, and analytic aesthetics, for either reducing aesthetics to a question of sexuality or for removing sexuality from the aesthetic field altogether. Despite these schematic reductions, sexuality always returns to aesthetics, and aesthetic considerations always recur in sexuality. Davis particularly emphasizes the way in which philosophies of art since the late eighteenth century have responded to nonstandard sexuality, especially homoeroticism, and how theories of nonstandard sexuality have drawn on aesthetics in significant ways.

Many imaginative and penetrating critics have wrestled productively, though often inconclusively and "against themselves," with the aesthetic making of sexual life and new forms of art made from reconstituted sexualities. Through a critique that confronts history, philosophy, science, psychology, and dominant theories of art and sexuality, Davis challenges privileged types of sexual and aesthetic creation imagined in modern culture-and assumed today.

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Tags: essayist: johann joachim winckelmann, gay 100, gay classics, literary heritage, queers in history
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