The Love Letters of J. J. Winckelmann

Published in: September-October 2011 issue.


THE ACHIEVEMENTS of antiquarian and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), the representative gay æsthete of his century, are not in dispute. Winckelmann, the son of a northern German cobbler, moved to Rome and became the librarian of Cardinal Albani and curator of Roman antiquities in the Vatican. He was the leading spirit behind the first wave of Neoclassicism, an international art movement centered in Rome. Arguably he created the discipline of art history as we now know it, transforming the traditional, dry archaeological description into fervent and poetic art criticism that expressed his love of Greco-Roman beauty.

While his crowning achievement was The History of Ancient Art (1764), Winckelmann’s private letters* reveal his quest for ideal love relationships with cultured young men. In his works and correspondence Winckelmann sought to revive the ancient ideal love between males. Following Plato’s concept, the contemplation of the beauty of youths would lead to the discovery of spiritual beauty. As a neoclassical idealist, Winckelmann linked physical and spiritual beauty, which so well defined his psyche.

Like the ancient Greeks, Winckelmann actively pursued the love of younger men, the older male erastes in pursuit of his eromenos. Some of these relationships are documented in his letters. Living in the literary period known as Sturm und Drang, Winckelmann had an intensely romantic side. For the most part, his hopes for homoerotic fulfillment—one of his life’s great goals—remained a perpetual, unsatisfied longing. Sifting through the letters, we can piece together the details of his quest for love. Invariably, his relationships were based on the classical model. However, in this case it was a middle-aged bourgeois gentleman pursuing middle or upper-class youths. Winckelmann acted as a father figure, teacher, experienced friend, but also as a kind of sentimental sweetheart in his search for “heroic” friendships patterned on the ancient Greek model.

First came his private pupil Wilhelm Peter Lamprecht (d. 1791), the son of a magistrate. At the Seehausen Latin School where Winckelmann was assistant headmaster, the student and teacher shared a room until 1746. In the letters, Winckelmann addressed Wilhelm as “most beloved brother” and confided to him a year later that he considered their friendship to be without equal in their own century. The young man, who would not have understood such high-minded concepts, became alienated, returned to Seehausen, and then left Winckelmann, who suffered an emotional crisis. Winckelmann’s intense passion, relentless solicitude, and total dedication to his “special friends” would have been difficult for almost any adolescent to understand. That summer (1747), Winckelmann expressed to another pupil and sympathetic friend, Friedrich Ulrich Arwed von Bülow, his ardent longing for friendship like that of Orestes and Pylades in Greek mythology, and added later that this passion would be the unique study of his own life. It took another year before Winckelmann could forget about Lamprecht completely.

But Winckelmann continued to cultivate special friendships in the capacity of tutor. He wrote about heroic friendships of antiquity to his young lawyer friend Hieronymus Dietrich Berendis (b. 1719), who shared his aspirations, expressing his regret that such friendships were widely discussed but rarely enjoyed. Only one example of a special friendship was known to Winckelmann, that of two Venetian noblemen named Nicolo Barbarigo and Marco Trivisano, who spent their lives together like a married couple. Once in Rome in 1755, Winckelmann was occupied with important research, outlining his History of Ancient Art and traveling to Naples, Portici, Herculaneum, and Florence for first-hand research of ancient artifacts. At the same time, his heart was longing for an intense friendship, which seemed more within reach, since Rome represented freedom to a northern European. Curiously, though, Winckelmann chased fellow Germans almost exclusively while in Rome. In a letter dated January 29, 1758, to Berendis, he teased his friend with a description of a handsome, sixteen-year-old blond with a Greek profile, with whom he discussed the topic of love once a week.

Soon after that, while in Florence, Winckelmann experienced his first sexual encounters, which apparently involved no love attachments. The most astonishing report comes from none other than Casanova, who in 1761 surprised Winckelmann in his study: “I saw him withdrawing quickly from a young boy, at the same time readjusting his breeches. I pretended to have seen nothing.” Winckelmann must have been mortified, because he offered a preposterous explanation to convince Casanova that he was not a pederast. Such “research” with young lads was his way to learn about the ancients more fully, he maintained: “I decided to enlighten myself through practice.”

Winckelmann’s circumspection stemmed from the severity of penalties for those convicted of “crimes against nature” in the 18th century. Most of the research on this topic focuses on France, where seven men convicted of sodomy were burned at the stake during the 1700’s. Five of those, however, had committed additional, more serious crimes. In Venice, a monk perished at the stake in 1771, but generally in Italy sodomites and male prostitutes were more tolerated. Throughout Western Europe, authorities preferred to ignore sex offenses between men in order to keep the populace ignorant of the vice, unless it involved running a male brothel or raping a minor. Discretion was the key to survival in the gay underworld. The upper classes, members of the clergy, and intellectual and artistic elites (including Winckelmann) were largely untouched by legal authorities, but the middle and lower classes were still at risk. Now and then an example had to be set, as for instance in 1750, when a twenty-year-old butcher and a cabinet maker, aged eighteen, were burned at the stake before the Parisian public.

Winckelmann’s last great aspiration was for the love of Baron Friedrich Reinhold von Berg (1736-1809), a 26-year-old Latvian nobleman who was studying in Leipzig and later became royal court assessor and a minor administrative official. Berg embodied Winckelmann’s concept of the ideal friend. Never before had he realized that love could be such an enthusiastic, tender, and passionate affair. But the celebrated antiquarian was delusional, and the crush was one-sided. Shortly after their first meeting in June 1762, Winckelmann sent Berg a letter in which he confided that their special friendship was probably the last one he would experience. What he called a “heavenly impulse” was in fact a rather hastily established infatuation with a young man whom he had only just met. In his ardent enthusiasm, Winckelmann went so far as to carve Berg’s name on the trunk of a huge maple tree in Frascati.

To enlighten Berg, Winckelmann provided a small reading list that included Homer, Plato’s Phaedrus, the odes of a now obscure 17th-century metaphysical poet, Abraham Cowley, and Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. Cowley’s ode “Platonick Love” was quoted in English:

I Thee, both as a man and woman prize;
For a perfect Love implies
Love in all Capacities.

Winckelmann was not bold enough to insert the part of the poem that suggests physical sensuality:

Indeed I must confess,
When Souls mix ’tis an Happiness;
But not compleat till Bodies too do joyne,
And both our wholes into one whole combine.

He also told Berg that only those with an inclination toward male beauty could fully understand and appreciate art: “I have noticed that those who are aware only of beauty in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of our sex, seldom have an impartial, innate instinct for the beauty of art. To such a person the beauty of Greek art will ever seem lacking, because its greatest beauty is male rather than female.” In other words, it helps to be homoerotically inclined to appreciate Greek statues.

The lesson in ancient friendship was lost on Berg, who had no inclination for friendship with homosexual undertones. We are fortunate to have the young man’s response, dated September 28, 1762, in which he carefully declared: “I could not give up all the feelings of a true friendship, since I feel pleasure in corresponding as much as possible with such a worthy friend as you, whom I admire above all else in the world.” Since Berg was on his Grand Tour and would be in Rome for one month, Winckelmann suggested they spend that time together, to speak on the matter of friendship and to establish a firm basis for their own. But Berg spent all of his time with two fellow students and then hastened away without seeing Winckelmann at all. Alex Potts points out the class barrier between them that would have prevented any lasting relationship—even if Berg had homosexual leanings (which is doubtful). But his departure left Winckelmann in despair.

Berg wrote again on December 12, expressing surprise that Winckelmann called him ungrateful: “How could you believe me to be so thankless and unfeeling as to have forgotten you, my Dearest Friend, who has done so much for me, through the most active proofs of friendship?” He countered that he was no barbarian and he would always have pleasant memories of their friendship. Still, Winckelmann could not get Berg out of his thoughts. He wrote to him again in March 1763, saying that at least once more in his life he would like to embrace him. Then, in 1764, he sent Berg a most passionate letter, which begins: “My dearest Friend, I love you more than all living creatures, and no period of time, no incident, no age can lessen this love. … Every written line from your hand is to me a holy relic.”

Following his failure with Berg, Winckelmann confided to Prussian antiquarian Baron Philipp von Stosch that his passion for beautiful young men was causing him to suffer with no recompense. On learning in 1765 that Berg had been married for a year and had a son, he found another love interest—this time, the young Louis-Alexandre Duc de Rochefoucauld (1743-1792), described as “the sweetest, the most well-bred and the most scholarly young man that I have met.” Unfortunately, nothing more is known about this encounter. We do know that the Duke was later a victim in the September Massacre during the mob violence of the so-called “First Terror” of the French Revolution. Perhaps he would have come to a happier end had he and Winckelmann returned to Germany together; who can say?

Winckelmann now buried himself in classical reveries, putting his energies into his writings on ancient Greek art, dreaming of the ideal beauty of ancient times when gorgeous human specimens grew out of a temperate climate where young men exercised freely in the nude, far from the gloom and fog of the north: “The practice of physical exercise from boyhood gave this training its noble forms. … The bodies of the Greeks obtained from these exercises the strong and manly contours that the masters then imparted to their statues.” In The Renaissance, which contains a chapter on Winckelmann, Walter Pater reminds us how important physical beauty was in antiquity. The Greeks even organized beauty contests and gave prizes.

Winckelmann postulated that Greek ideals in art were nothing more nor less than nature’s intended image of man. Art writers of the 17th century had already developed Neoplatonic æsthetic theories as part of their idealization of the Greeks. Winckelmann’s originality lay in his integration of sensual, homoerotic, and spiritual beauty. For instance, in describing the Belvedere Torso (Vatican Museum), a first-century BCE copy of a third-century original (which he regarded as a fragment of a statue of Hercules), Winckelmann saw the power of a mighty giant who rebelled against the gods. At the same time, he recognized a body with gentle outlines and swift sinuosity. The author likened the play of the muscles to the rise and fall of the sea: “As in the lifting movement of the sea, the previously calm surface swells in a lovely restlessness, where one wave swallows up the other … just as gently pulled, surging up and floating, does one muscle here flow into the other, and a third … appears to strengthen their movement.” The description moves to the hero’s back, which is compared to a naturalistic landscape with valleys and mountains. Suddenly, from terrestrial metaphors and sexual fantasy, Winckelmann shifts to the spiritual plane: the sturdy statue of Hercules is a monument to the perfection of his soul.

While in Italy, Winckelmann was inspired by the many “living works of art” that he saw, such as the athletic young men who bathed nude in the Bay of Naples during the heat of the afternoon. But he needed more: Winckelmann attempted to live his dream in a kind of neoclassicizing of everyday life. This pursuit proved unrealistic and the goal unattainable. For Mario Praz, Winckelmann expended “an immense sum of energy … in a hallucinatory idealization of the beloved object.” In his search for special friends, he assumed that Lamprecht, Berg, and others that he regarded as beautiful might be made to understand Greek culture, beauty, and friendship as he did. If exposed to the wonders of ancient art, these youths could match the perfect fusion of the physical and the spiritual that characterized the ancients. This fervent idealism was crushed when Winckelmann realized his friendship was one-sided. In the end, reality appeared as Death in the form of a young man that we would call “rough trade.” Winckelmann was murdered by a convicted thief named Archangeli, whose aim was no loftier than to relieve Winckelmann of some valuable medals, a gift of Maria Teresa, which he had used as a lure. Too late did he learn that beautiful (or sexually appealing) bodies are not always inhabited by beautiful souls.

*    Winckelmann’s letters (Briefe), available only in German, were published in 1952 in four volumes (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter). His History of Ancient Art is widely available in English translations. Winckelmann: Writings on Art. (edited by David Irwin, 1972) is a particularly useful source for the major works translated into English.


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Derks, Paul. Die Schande der heiligen Päderastie: Homosexualität und Öffentlichkeit in der deutschen Literatur 1750-1850. Verlag Rosa Winkel, 1990.
Ettlinger, L. D. “Winckelmann, or Marble Boys are Better,” in Art, the Ape of Nature: Studies in Honor of H. W. Janson. Moshe Barasch and Lucy Freeman Sandler, eds. Harry N. Abrams, 1981.
Potts, Alex. Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History. Yale University Press, 1994.
Praz, Mario. On Neoclassicism. Northwestern University Press, 1969.
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Von Wangenheim, Wolfgang. Der verworfene Stein: Winckelmanns Leben. Matthes & Seitz, 2005.


Michael Preston Worley is an artist and art historian who has published widely on 18th-century French and British art and literature.


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