Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

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Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) in his monumental History of Ancient Art established Greek art as the touchstone of all art irrespective of place or time. His ideal of beauty, which had a tremendous effect upon neoclassical artistic taste and art theory for more than a century, was grounded in his gay sensibility: "those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art."

Portrait of Johann Joachim WinckelmannIn 1740 Winckelmann was the tutor to Frederick Wilhelm Peter Lamprecht, son of the Dean of the Chapter of Magdeburg Cathedral. Lamprecht went with Winckelmann to Seehausen, where the latter got a job as a teacher, and where they shared the same room (not simply the same apartment) until their highly emotional break-up in 1746. Lamprecht went on to become a dull Prussian civil servant. Also during this period Winckelmann was probably having an affair with F. V. Arwed von Bülow, son of a former Prussian minister in Stockholm. Finally in 1748 Winckelmann escaped the provinces and became librarian and secretary to the diplomat Count Heinrich von Bünau in Saxony, near Dresden. In due course he entered the service of Cardinal Passionei in Dresden, a noted art collector. In 1754 he experienced an inner struggle, with physical symptoms such as night sweats and loss of weight and insomnia. He left Dresden in 1755, determined to devote his life to the study of art in Rome. There he freed himself from German puritanism, and embraced Italian sensuosity.

In his correspondence he became fairly open about his liaisons with, for example, Franz Stauder, a pupil of Anton Raphael Mengs, the young Florentine Nicoló Castellani, and wrote jokingly to friends bragging how he would be supping with "a beautiful young eunuch". By 1761 he had completely recovered his health and vitality — clearly because he had stopped repressing his homosexual instincts and came out:

"I can be satisfied with my life. I have no worries other than my work, and have even found someone with whom I can speak of love: a good-looking, blond young Roman of sixteen, half a head taller than I am; but I only see him once a week, when he dines with me on Sunday evening. ... Compared to Rome, all else is nothing. You don't know half of it."

Statue of Apollo Belvedere He settled into the Villa Albani on the outskirts of Rome, cataloguing the collection of antiquities of Cardinal Albani, chief librarian to the Vatican. He wrote a series of famous Reflections on Greek art and culture, blending principles of political freedom and education with aesthetic theory, both founded on erotic friendship: it was essentially a celebration of the gymnasia, when Sparta youths exercised naked, and the cultivation of male beauty, Socrates, and liberty. He produced scholarly studies of archaeology and antiquities, and issued a sequence of celebrated interpretations of famous Greek sculptures, notably the Laocoön group, the Apollo Belvedere, and the Emperor Hadrian's lover Antinous in the Vatican collections. His description of the Belvedere Torso (a beautiful and powerful fragment of a statue of Hercules) is rather camp:

"How magnificent is the arching of that chest! ... It must have been against a chest like this that the giant Antaeus and the three-headed Geryon were crushed. ... Ask those who know the best in mortal perfection whether they have ever seen a flank that can compare with the left side of this statute."

However, most of Winckelmann's art-historical works set up the younger male as the perfection of beauty, often adolescent and slightly androgynous. The Neoclassical abstract concept of Beauty was founded upon one man's aestheticized homosexual desire, which Winckelmann even half-acknowledged:

"As it is confessedly the beauty of man which is to be conceived under one general idea, so I have noticed that those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art. To such persons the beauty of Greek art will ever seem wanting, because its supreme beauty is rather male than female. But the beauty of art demands a higher sensibility than the beauty of nature, because the beauty of art, like tears shed at a play, gives no pain, is without life and must be awakened and repaired by culture. Now, as the spirit of culture is much more ardent in youth than in manhood, the instinct of which I am speaking must be exercised and directed to what is beautiful, before that age is reached at which one would be afraid to confess that one had no taste for it."

In due course Winckelmann was declared the Papal Antiquary (and would come to be called "the father of archaeology") and put in charge of cataloguing the German manuscript collection in the Vatican library. His most famous work, The History of Ancient Art was published at Christmas 1763, and he became the major conductor of famous tourists around the Eternal City of Rome.

Winckelmann's ideal of beauty was embodied in his beloved Friedrich Rheinhold von Berg, to whom he dedicated his most famous essay On the Nature and the Cultivation of Sensibility to the Beautiful in Art. Berg was obviously the model for Winckelmann's ideal artistic person: young, well read, good looking, a man of leisure, sensitive to Plato and to male beauty, and associated with a cultural mentor (i.e. Winckelmann). Berg was twenty-six, Winckelmann forty-five when they met in 1762. Winckelmann wrote to another friend, "I have fallen in love, and how! with a young Livonian." He even carved Berg's initials on the bark of a sycamore tree in Frascati. Goethe said of this relationship: "Winckelmann felt himself born for a friendship of this kind — not only as capable of it, but in the highest degree in need of it; he became conscious of his true self only under the form of friendship." Winckelmann wanted Berg to have children to perpetuate his form, and spoke of the stunted years of his own youth.

But Berg eventually deserted Rome for the livelier social life of Paris, and they separated; eventually he lived out an undistinguished life on his estates at Riga. It was a painful separation:

"As a solicitous mother inconsolably mourns her beloved child, so, my sweet friend, I deplore our separation with all my heart. ... My beloved and very beautiful friend, no name by which I might call you would be sweet enough or sufficient for my love; all that I could say would be far too feeble to give utterance to my heart and soul. Truly friendship came from heaven and was not created by mere human impulses. ... My one friend, I love you more than any living thing, and time nor chance nor age can ever lessen this love."

Two years after meeting Berg, Winckelmann, now on the rebound as it were, jokingly spoke of "finally" falling in love with a woman: Margaret Mengs, offered to him by her husband the painter, but despite her wanton advances, and despite the fact that she possessed a beauty that was admired by Casanova, Winckelmann remained "virtuous". He was, at heart, a pedagogic pederast. The following is typical of his praise of Berg:

"From the first moment an indescribable attraction towards you, excited by something more than form and feature, caused me to catch an echo of that harmony which passes human understanding and which is the music of the everlasting concord of things. ... It is from you yourself that the subject is taken. Our intercourse has been short, too short both for you and me; but I was aware of the deep consent of our spirits, the instant I saw you. Your culture proved that my hope was not groundless; and I found in a beautiful body a soul created for nobleness, gifted with the sense of beauty. My parting from you was, therefore, one of the most painful in my life; and that this feeling continues our common friend is witness, for your separation from me leaves me no hope of seeing you again. Let this essay be a memorial of our friendship, which, on my side, is free from every selfish motive, and ever remains subject and dedicate to yourself alone."

Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann In 1768, at the height of an internationally acclaimed career, Winckelmann enigmatically decided to return to Germany, in the company of the art restorer Cavaceppi. But he broke off his journey at Ratisbon, having visited only Munich: he experienced a nervous breakdown, probably due to an onslaught of Germanic guilt which he thought he had forever left behind, and began his return, stopping briefly at Vienna for an audience with Empress Maria Theresa. Cavaceppi went on to Berlin, where Frederick the Great broke the news to him that Winckelmann had been murdered.

Travelling incognito, Winckelmann had arrived in Trieste on June 1, 1768, and checked into the largest inn, to wait until a suitable ship departed for Rome. There he fell in with Francesco Arcangeli, an unemployed cook or café waiter and small-time thief, who went to Winckelmann's room every night for the next few days, where Winckelmann showed off his gold and silver medals, including one just given to him by the Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna. Arcangeli was astonished not only by Winckelmann's medals and his stories of life at the great courts of Europe, but by Winckelmann's odd clothing: white linen shirt with gold buttons inlaid with cornelian, and black leather trousers.

Arcangeli was with Winckelmann on June 7 when Winckelmann bought a pencil and penknife; later that same day Arcangeli returned alone to the same shop and bought a knife of his own, and, in another store, a length of rope. The following day, in Winckelmann's room after dinner as usual, he threw the knotted rope around Winckelmann's neck; Winckelmann pulled away; Arcangeli drew the knife and they struggled, Winckelmann grasping the knife by the blade to unsuccessfully ward off the blows. In Arcangeli's confession he pointedly notes that he spread Winckelmann's legs apart and stabbed him not only in the chest but "lower down." I interpret this as a record of a frenzied sexual attack. Arcangeli fled, Winckelmann staggered out of the room and down the stairs, crying "Look what he did to me!" In the remaining few hours of life left to him, Winckelmann made his will and forgave his enemy. Arcangeli was nevertheless captured, condemned to death, and broken on the wheel in the plaza in front of the inn on July 21. Though neither young nor beautiful — thirty-one and pockmarked — Arcangeli was obviously a bit of rough trade with whom Winckelmann had decided to celebrate his return to the life of the senses.

When after many vicissitudes due to political upheavals, the Villa Albani was reopened as a private museum in 1868, a bust of Winckelmann was donated by King Ludwig I of Bavaria (father of gay King Ludwig II).

I have commissioned new translations of some of Winckelmann's love letters to Peter Lamprecht and Reinhold von Berg, which I reproduce below.


[Seehausen, summer 1746]

What words of affection shall I use to answer your charming lines? Ad os oppressi et ad pectus. [How I have pressed them to lips and breast.] If only you could see what is going on in my soul! My very dearest brother, if life and honour were at stake, my heart would sacrifice them for your sake. Such friends as you should be displayed to the world as models. Heaven should repay us for our honesty. But who would bewail my fate? It has put my soul into such a state that it is not at peace without the charms of an invaluable friend (if I could only embrace him) yet keeps me apart from him. To me all is lost, honour and pleasure, peace and quiet, unless I see you and enjoy you. It is a small thing to me to let other affections go or, not to be fickle, to set a much lower value on them, for I have made the biggest mistake in love. I am now lucky in love. My eyes weep only for you. I am in a state not unlike that of Diogenes as described by Lucian, utterly alone, an enemy of the people, without friends or company. My spirit breaks its bounds when I think of you, as was said by Plato to Dion. You ask to see me: but I cannot.

Adspicias utinam, quae sit scribentis imago
[How I wish that I could sense the feelings behind the written word.]

Now I recognize the power of love. But perhaps no one can any longer love a friend with such sincerity and yearning. My fate, however, has declared itself against me quite, it will tear me away or else torment me with a futile delay. If only it could give me the disposition of the unfeeling stoics! I shall love you without hope. Would to God my happiness were bound to yours, which I can foresee. May God provide good aspects for it. I am desolate and my only consolation is that there must be something in me that binds me so firmly to you. That must be the only thing in me that is exceptional. I shall love you as long as I live and even as I expire . . .


the 9th of June, 1762

Noble friend!
          As a loving mother weeps inconsolably over a beloved child torn from her by a violent prince who sends it to its death on the battlefield, I lament my parting from you, dear friend, with tears that flow from my very soul. From the moment I first saw you I was unaccountably drawn to you, not solely to your outward appearance, and this gave me a feeling of the harmony that is beyond human comprehension and which is struck up by the eternal affinity of things. In the 40 years of my life this is the second time this has happened to me, and it will presumably be the last. My dear friend, no one else in the world can love you so: for such a complete accord of souls is only possible between two; all other inclinations are only branches off this noble main stem. But this divine impulse is unknown to most people, and is therefore badly misconstrued by many. The power of love in its extreme form must be expressed in all possible ways

I thee both as Man and Woman prize
For a perfect love implies
Love in all capacities.

and that is the foundation on which the undying friendships of the ancient world, those of Theseus and Pirithous, of Achilles and Patroclus, were built. Friendship without love is only acquaintance. The other, however, is heroic and sublime above all else; it humiliates the willing friend till he grovels in the dust and it drives him to the day of his death. All virtue is in some measure weakened by other proclivities and in some measure capable of false pretences; a friendship that extends to the outer limits of humanity bursts forth with violence and is the highest virtue now unknown to mortals, and is thus also the greatest good they can possess. Christian morality does not teach this; the heathens, however, prayed to it, and the greatest deeds of antiquity were accomplished through it.

Only one month of your extended stay in Rome and more leisure in which to talk with you, my friend, alone, would have set our friendship on solid foundations, and all my time would have been devoted to you. This notwithstanding, I should have explained myself in strong words unmentionable in writing had I not realized that this would be an unusual way for me to speak to you. You may thus believe that I do not wish to be paid [for my book]; your good opinion, however, retains all its worth without that, and I kiss your hands as in thanks for a great treasure that you would have liked to give me. The genius of our friendship will follow you from a distance as far as Paris, and will there leave you in the abode of foolish pleasures; here, however, your image will be that of my saint.

Convey my respects to the dear Count von Münnich, who inspires well-merited regard and love in everyone. My best wishes follow him on the road to the honour, of which he may feel assured, of one day being a great and virtuous man of whose acquaintance I, in my later years, may speak with pride.

I kiss you with heart and soul, my noble friend, my beloved, and I expire
                          obedient servant and your own
                                          and eternal friend
                                                    Johann Winckelmann

Web Resources

  • Portrait, engraving (about 1760) based on a painting by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) who became friends with Winckelmann in Rome in the 1750s
  • Biography in the Catholic Encyclopedia


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Johann Joachim Winckelmann", Gay History and Literature, 30 December 2000, updated 29 June 2008 <>.

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