Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Early Education of the Apprentice Aesthetician

                    Although we are separated by 239 years, I share a birthday with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was born on December 9th 1717, at Stendal, Brandenburg. His father, Martin Winckelmann, was a mender of shoes but we do not know if this was because he lacked either the skills or the application to be a fully-fledged shoemaker, or if he lacked sufficient funds to buy enough raw leather to set himself up in business. He intended young Johann (who never used his second name, which he felt was somewhat coarse and who inherently preferred simplicity anyway) to follow him into his handicraft, as was the habit in Stendal, but the boy was studious and serious minded and begged to be sent to school. Eventually, Martin relented and Johann was sent to the Latin School, where his diligence, industry and application marked him out as a model pupil. 

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

He earned his tuition fees as a chorister and made a little more money through paid instruction to richer, younger children, money with which he could afford to buy a few books. It sometimes happens that one person’s misfortune is a blessing to another, as it was with Johann, who became the reader, amanuensis and eyes of an ageing, kindly and virtually blind teacher, Isaiah William Tappert, who repaid Johann’s care by becoming his mentor. The position also gave Johann access to the old master’s library, and the boy immersed himself in the classics of Greece and Rome; whilst the lads of Stendal were skating or rough-housing, Johann was working on his Greek and Latin grammar, with the help of a little pocket notebook that went everywhere with him. He studied Greek and Roman literature, geography, history and archaeology, and at sixteen he moved to Cologne Gymnasium in Berlin where, on Tappert’s recommendation, the rector Backe gave him lodgings and he also attracted some generosity from well-wishers, which he remembered with gratitude for the rest of his life. 

J J Winckelmann

After a year, he returned to the love of his family and the supportive Tappert, who hoped he might study theology. In March 1838, he entered the university at Halle, where he entered the Theology school funded by a meagre stipend provided by his patrons, and made the best of it by studying Greek and Hebrew, and sitting in on other lectures, particularly medical ones. In the following years, he worked as a private children’s tutor and although he was seemingly successful, Winckelmann found it to be unrewarding tedium. He moved on to Seehausen, in Altmark, where he took the post of associate rector in the school there, thinking maybe that the position would also give him time for private study. 

If he did, he was mistaken, and resorted to sleeping for only four hours each night, to allow him more time to read – it is said that one winter he gave up going to bed entirely and slept only in a reclining chair, surrounded by his books. He argued with the Inspector, who objected to Winckelmann reading his Greek poets in church, instead of listening to his interminable sermons, and he began to look for work elsewhere. It came to his attention that the Count von Bünau might have need of a librarian and so Winckelmann wrote to him, offering his services. The Count accepted and gave Winckelmann a position with room and board, and an annual salary of about eighty thalers, in his library at Nötheniz, near Dresden. 

Winckelmann Memorial - Stendal

As he left Seehausen, he visited his father at Stendal for the last time, where he left what books he had collected over the years with his friend Uden, with instructions that he sell them for the best price he could get and use the money to provide a weekly sum for the old man and, when he eventually died, to provide a decent funeral for him. 

In 1748, Johann Winckelmann arrived at Nötheniz and began to work in the library of Count Heinrich von Bünau, assisting him by collecting information for his proposed history of the Holy Roman Empire and helping to catalogue and organise the 40,000 books. Winckelmann was, by now, astonishingly familiar with the Classics of Greece and Rome but now he came into contact with the works of the Enlightenment authors, including Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau. 

He also became friends with John Michael Franke, another of the Count’s librarians, whom he worked alongside. Winckelmann also began to visit the galleries in nearby Dresden and developed an intense interest in the visual arts, and at the same time began to meet and talk with men of similar interests and tastes. He found a kind of heaven in the library, surrounded by so many books, but the surfeit was almost too much for him and his health began to suffer, as overwork and the years of lack of sleep began to take their toll and in 1751, he was forced to take a rest cure in Altmark. 

Cardinal Alberico Archinto

In the same year, Alberico Archinto, Papal Nuncio and future Cardinal, visited Nötheniz and was shown around the library by Winckelmann, who deeply impressed him with his learning. Archinto was concerned about Winckelmann’s obvious ill-health and mentioned to him that the food and climate of Italy would be more conducive to it. Archinto recommended the German to Cardinal Passionei, who was enthusiastic about employing him and wrote letters to Archinto specifically mentioning the conditions, duties and salary that a position in his library would accord. Winckelmann was concerned about the impression this would have on Count von Bünau, who had showed him nothing but kindness and to whom he felt deeply indebted, not wishing to show even a hint of ingratitude but the Count was accommodating and understanding in the extreme. As a necessary pre-requisite, Winckelmann converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1754, and the following year he published his Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture), a work that made him famous. 

Title Page - Fuseli's Translation of Reflections - 1765

Henry Fuseli, the English artist, translated it into English and it received some slight attention in artistic circles although Fuseli’s translation did not go into a second edition. The book brought Winckelmann to the attention of Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, who granted him a pension of 200 thalers per year for the two years it was intended the Italian visit to take. The anxiety of the proposed move worsened Winckelmann’s health even further – the night-sweats returned, he ate meat only once a week but eventually gave it up completely and ate only vegetables and watery soup.

Tomorrow - A journey to Italy

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