Passionate Prose

Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
August 1, 2005

 


Engraved illustration, Johann Winckelmann's History of the Art of the Ancients

Engraved illustration, Johann Winckelmann's History of the Art of the Ancients, Dresden 1764, acquired in 1976 as part of the Harold Jantz Collection of German Baroque Literature and German-Americana

For centuries academicians have faced the challenge of crafting scholarly language that both educates and inspires. An excellent example of passionate, scholarly writing is Johann Winckelmann's famous treatise on Greek sculpture, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, or History of the Art of the Ancients, published in Dresden in 1764.

Often called the first modern art historian, Winckelmann (1717-1752) introduced the practice of dividing art into periods and describing how one period relates to the next chronologically. This method of organizing and explaining the past became the model for art historians until the early twentieth century.

However, it was the inspirational quality of Winckelmann's writing rather than his scholarly method that first generated interest in his history of ancient art. His descriptive language brought History of the Art of the Ancients widespread recognition, leading some to recognize it as the first internationally acclaimed German language work.

By imbuing his writing with the passion he felt for his subject, Winckelmann succeeded in conveying the emotional impact of Greek sculpture. Of the famous Apollo Belvedere, he wrote:

"From admiration I pass to ecstasy, I feel my breast dilate and rise as if

I were filled with the spirit of prophecy; I am transported to Delos and the sacred groves of Lycia--places that Apollo honored with his presence--and the statue seems to come alive like the beautiful creation of Pygmalion."

The transformative powers of passages like this seem somewhat overwrought today, but it sparked the popular imagination and captivated artists, writers, historians, and other readers across Europe. The Neo-Classical and Romantic movements in art and literature owe much to Winckelmann's inspiring prose. It stimulated Byron's interest in antiquity and Greece and shaped Goethe's thoughts during his two trips to Rome. As Goethe observed, "We learn nothing by reading Winckelmann, but we become something."