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This article is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

Belvedere Hercules Idris Parry

The translations from Winckelmann and Goethe and other German writers in this article are by the author.

IN 1805 the firm of Cotta at Tübingen published a collection of letters from the art-historian Winckelmann to his friend Berendis. The book also contained a contribution by H. Meyer on eighteenth-century art, together with three essays about Winckelmann, one of them by Goethe, who also edited the volume. He must have given the title considerable thought. The book was issued as Winckelmann and his Century.

That tells us a lot about Goethe's opinion of Winckelmann. Otherwise, giving the century to Winckelmann seems an extravagant gesture. He must have been a disgusting person, a snob, an immoral opportunist. He was also a genius. Morality couldn't survive in a man so consumed by a single passion. Could he have been a genius and moral? Winckelmann's passion was the pursuit of beauty in Greek art. For this he sacrificed honour, respectability, even sleep. Passion can be attributed but never explained.

It is impossible to say where his interest in Greek art came from. He seems to have been born with it. Which makes it all the more mysterious, because he was born, in 1717, into the desperately poor family of a cobbler in Brandenburg. They lived in a miserable hut which was workshop, living-room and sleeping quarters, all combined in a single room. Anything more remote from classical art couldn't be imagined, yet from this hovel came the ...

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