BMCR 2007.07.38

History of the Art of Antiquity. Introduction by Alex Potts. Translation by Harry Francis Mallgrave

, , History of the art of antiquity. Texts & documents. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006. xiv, 431 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0892366680. $67.50.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) is regularly credited with siring the disciplines of art history and classical archaeology. He is further recognized as a key figure in eighteenth-century European civilization, plausibly claimable for emerging classicism, emerging Romanticism, and—most simply and perhaps accurately—Enlightenment culture. Winckelmann also contributed specifically to the development of German learned culture and the vernacular literature capable of supporting it, a role so warmly appreciated, beginning in his own era, that at some times and in some circles he has been revered as a culture hero. His published texts, his manuscripts, his letters, and to some extent even his notes continue to be studied intensively and made available in various formats, and he is the subject of numerous exhibitions, conferences, and publications. For all that Winckelmann remains a considerable presence in Western cultural discourse, however, he is no longer a living participant in it and belonged to a different world—a situation that poses particular problems of focus and form in the publication of his works, as is shown by the volume under review.

Winckelmann’s most obviously influential works for the study of art and classical culture are his early essay Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (Dresden, 1755) and his History of the Art of Antiquity (Dresden, 1764). Several works in Winckelmann’s diverse and polyglot output were similarly variously translated during his lifetime, but while the Reflections were rendered into English by no less than the artist Henry Fuseli in 1765, the only English version of the History available until now represents not Winckelmann’s original text, but posthumous editions. That translation, by Giles Henry Lodge, itself issued in several editions beginning in 1849, has served sturdily through the century and a half during which Winckelmann’s authority inevitably receded in the face of new research and discoveries. The volume discussed here, one of the series of Texts and Documents published by the Getty Research Institute, offers a new English translation of the first, Dresden edition of Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, some augmentation of its documentary apparatus, and an introductory essay.

Winckelmann died before he was able to complete his revision of the Geschichte, but the work lived on. With the possible exception of the straight reprint, the posthumous publication of scholarship is inevitably a problematic undertaking. In the case of the Geschichte, it was not simply a question of incorporating the additions and corrections already prepared by Winckelmann for the revision, or even extending editorial intervention to fixing errors left uncorrected by the author; there was, additionally, the wish to fit new information and new analyses into the framework of the text and thereby preserve its scholarly currency. The ultimate hopelessness of “updating” a work of scholarship in such a way became clear in the increasingly awkward documentary apparatus of the various posthumous editions and translations of the Geschichte. Eventually it came to be accepted that the zombie simply could not be made to walk another step; twentieth-century editions of the Geschichte do not treat it as currently authoritative, either in presenting the text or in the documentation. The mid-twentieth-century crises in European humanism had the general effect of intensifying existing historiographic tendencies, which in turn have helped shape subsequent approaches to Winckelmann and his work.

It is self-evident that in order to trace Winckelmann’s thought, it is necessary to examine his works in detail, and it is similarly obvious that evaluating his place in cultural and intellectual history calls for consideration of not only his own works, but also their posthumous versions, as well as the reception of the corpus. But is there any place for Winckelmann within the ongoing study of the subjects with which he concerned himself? Must the historian of ancient art, for example, give serious consideration to Winckelmann as part of the task of interpreting that material now? Yes, because many of the visible and invisible assumptions that guide our scholarship proceed from his work and influence, and without understanding the sources of our ideas, our work is incomplete. The study of ancient art must rest on a solid historiographic basis.

Our means of approaching the Geschichte continue to multiply. In 1966, direct access to the original, Dresden edition of the work was facilitated by its publication in facsimile in the great series Studien zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte. The new millennium now brings us a formidable new edition of the Geschichte, expressly conceived as ” historisch-kritische,” that joins the series of Winckelmann’s Schriften und Nachlass. The first volume (2002) offers transcriptions of the Dresden edition and Riedel’s edition, published in Vienna in 1776, arranged on facing pages and spaced to permit comparison of corresponding passages. Only just available are the second and third volumes, which provide a catalogue of the works of art mentioned and a general commentary.1 One of the editors of the project, Adolf H. Borbein, is listed as Editorial Consultant for the Getty project, which is, quite understandably, far more restricted in scope.2

The Getty volume—well produced and quite expensive—is somewhat uneven in conception and execution. Its chief value lies in Mallgrave’s translation of the text, which is serviceable. It does not suggest the quality in Winckelmann’s writing that moved his own and later generations so deeply; Lodge’s mid-nineteenth-century rendering is generally livelier, but not even contemporary translations of Winckelmann’s works were always successful in this regard, and it must also be admitted that not every reader is sympathetic or even susceptible to what Mallgrave nicely characterizes as Winckelmann’s “fervid” quality (ix).

It must be emphasized that the volume does not reproduce the Dresden edition in translation. The elements of the publication of 1764 are included but have been rearranged and changed; it is not a substitute for the original, the facsimile, or the new transcription. The volume concentrates facsimiles of the original pages carrying illustrations in a separate section (81-109) that includes the “list and explanation.” The layout of the translation preserves the headings and marginal summaries of the original, but the text has been rearranged so that Winckelmann’s footnotes have become continuously numbered endnotes in separate sections for the two major parts. Winckelmann’s abbreviated references have been expanded, which will be helpful for readers unfamiliar with the range of his ancient and post-antique sources. Less helpful is the unusual editorial policy: “We did not verify the information in each of Winckelmann’s footnotes, but we have corrected errors that came to our notice” (xiii), which shakes one’s faith in the “team of research assistants” (xi). Winckelmann’s list of cited books has been moved from its position after the table of contents to the end of the text and notes, and it has also been augmented with fuller bibliographic information and by the addition of entries for “the sources cited … by Winckelmann” but not included in his list. It is understandable, given scholarly practices in the eighteenth century, that the original list had no page references, but it is less clear why this list, which makes no pretense of reproducing the version of 1764, does not offer them; whatever the reason for the decision, it detracts from the usability and usefulness of the volume and underscores the fundamental inconsistency of purpose that emerges most clearly in the introduction.

The introduction by Alex Potts, illustrated by a separate set of plates, begins by stating the specific historiographic value of examining the Dresden edition of the Geschichte as opposed to the posthumous “updated” editions and translations: “Lodge’s translation does not present the more distinctive and intriguing features of Winckelmann’s thinking with the same clarity as Winckelmann’s first full exposition of a history of ancient art, the one he prepared in the heat of conceptualizing the subject in a new way” (2). Potts’s discussion, however, simply presents his frequently repeated conception of Winckelmann as remarkably in tune with the major themes and principles of art history as practiced in the late twentieth century and also as a far more original thinker than can supported. His contention that Winckelmann’s conception of writing a history of ancient art was an innovation and rested on his ability to combine empirical observations of works of art with a diffuse array of textual sources can be maintained only by ignoring the clear and abundant evidence for, for instance, the existence of such conceptions in German-language publications known to him; the direct dependence of his understanding of stylistic development and its cultural significance on well-established, ready-made ancient formulations known to him both directly and indirectly through post-antique writings also built on their framework; and the actual scope and content of his readings and the nature of his scholarly practice in using those sources. Potts cites the scholarship relating to these points but either neglects to mention or downplays the relevant conclusions that contradict his interpretation (40 n. 15 for T. Kaufmann’s important work on the predecessors of Winckelmann; 39 n. 10 for E. Décultot’s fine work on Winckelmann’s notebooks of copied excerpts) or dismisses them as “alternative” (47 n. 69 for the reviewer’s work on Winckelmann’s use of sources). The choice not to engage opposing evidence would be understandable in another kind of publication, but here the consequence is that the reader for whom the Getty volume is likely (in theory) to be most helpful—one who is not familiar with Winckelmann, or eighteenth-century learned culture, or classical archaeology, or classical intellectual history—is the reader least well served by the volume; for it has long been known that Winckelmann’s acknowledgement of his sources was never full. Even the augmented list of cited sources that the volume gives is therefore inadequate for understanding how Winckelmann worked and how his text worked. Both as an introduction to the work and for serious historiographic research, then, the Getty volume has only limited value, and to readers who think that historiography is a necessary part of art-historical practice, those limitations will also reduce its value in other respects.


1. A.H. Borbein, T.W. Gaehthgens, J. Irmscher, and M. Kunze, edd., Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums ( Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Schriften und Nachlass Philipp von Zabern, Mainz) 4.1 Text (2002); 4.2 Katalog der antiken Denkmäler (2007); 4.3 Allgemeine Kommentar (2007).

2. Cf. Thomas Hardy, “Liddell and Scott on the Completion of Their Lexicon”: “‘That German [Passow] has read / More than we!’ I said; / Yea, several times did I feel so!”