Monday, March 12, 2012


Carol C. Mattusch (ed.), Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Letter and Report on the Discoveries at Herculaneum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. Pp. ix, 230. ISBN 9781606060896. $50.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Balbina Bäbler, Göttingen (

Version at BMCR home site

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the founding father of Classical Archaeology, had been living in Rome since 1755; almost from the beginning of his stay he visited villas, palazzi and collections of antiquities to study the works of art1 in preparation for what was to become his most influential work, the Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (Dresden 1764).

Between 1758 and 1767, Winckelmann visited Naples (then part of the Spanish Bourbons' empire) and the ancient sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii (where excavations had begun in 1738 and 1748) four times. The artifacts from these excavations had been brought to the royal summer residence at Portici. Winckelmann managed to see what few had seen before, although he was sometimes obliged to do it secretly, with the help of friends and bribery, because (being in the employment of the Pope) not only was he from a foreign and somewhat suspect country, but also his acid comments on methods of excavation and earlier publications had caused displeasure among those concerned. He published his observations in the then popular form of long letters, to the Count von Brühl in Dresden and to J.H. Fuessli in Zürich (see below). These publications made the excavations and finds for the first time known to a wider public in northern Europe and had an immense impact: they triggered a wave of "Pompeiomania" that pervaded all aspects of life. Women's dresses à l'antique became as fashionable as furniture and tableware "alla Pompeiana" and "Pompeianising" wall-painting; the beginning of mass production (e.g., the invention of wall-paper) made these tokens of culture and education affordable also for middle-class households. In German, both works have been edited by St.-G. Bruer and M. Kunze as volumes 2,1 and 2,2 (1997) of the annotated complete edition of Winckelmann's works: Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Schriften und Nachlaß; part. 3 of these Herculanische Schriften, edited by A. H. Borbein and M. Kunze (2001), provides the Briefe, Entwürfe und Rezensionen zu den Herkulanischen Schriften; this third volume in fact enables us to see Winckelmann's work in progress as well as the contemporary resonance it got; unfortunately it has not been taken into account by Mattusch.

While the Sendschreiben: (Letter) of 1762 was soon translated into French and from there into English (22-25), becoming a guide-book for educated tourists, the second account, the Nachrichten (Report, 1764) has now been translated by Mattusch for the first time, which is per se an admirable achievement, considering the challenges not only of 18th century German, but also of Winckelmann's sometimes idiosyncratic ways of expression.2 Mattusch's translation with notes, introduction and 147 illustrations is most welcome, since it will make two important, but generally lesser known works by Winckelmann accessible to a wider public. Mattusch gives an extensive and extremely useful introduction (1-61), containing an overview of the contemporary historical background, the history of the discovery and excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii, and the persons who played a role in them (25-35). This last section is vital to understand Winckelmann's often bitter criticism of his predecessors and / or rivals (25f.); his favorite victim was G.O. Martorelli, since 1738 professor of Greek Literature in Naples, whom he treated not altogether fairly in quoting him by name only when criticizing him, but forgetting to mention him when drawing from his insights and knowledge.3

Although Winckelmann's harsh judgments may often have been motivated by personal resentments – his continuous need to assert himself, his jealousy of the well-paid jobs of his rivals compared to his own constantly precarious financial situation – they are not without foundation and also show him ahead of the usual practices of his time, e.g., in his harsh remarks on the melting down of the fragments of six bronze horses found in the theatre of Herculaneum for the fabrication of a new, whole one, or the cutting of paintings off the ancient walls in order to frame and transport them (37-40. 43).

Winckelmann's Letter (1762; officially addressed to Count Ch. H. von Brühl,4 but in fact to a larger general public that he wanted to instruct in an entertaining and non-scholarly style), treats first the region and the ancient sites (65-72), their destruction and rediscovery (72-77), and then the finds, which are divided into objects (78-116) and texts (116-134), i.e., the papyri discovered at the Villa dei Papiri; this part contains also remarks on ancient paper and books, writing, inks and pens, wax tablets and finally the unrolling of the texts with a drawing of the machine built for this purpose (p. 133, pl. 102). The last part (134-142) includes a description of the Museum at Portici and its most famous objects, among others the sculpture of a drunken, reclining satyr (pl. 109), several marble reliefs (pls. 110-113) and a bust of Demosthenes (pl. 114); notes to the text follow (143-159).

The Report (1764; dedicated to the Swiss historian and politician Johann Heinrich Fuessli, a personal friend of Winckelmann who accompanied him on his third trip to Herculaneum) is a sequel to the Letter, the knowledge of which is presupposed; it elaborates on many finds which had been treated only summarily in the earlier work. The Herculaneum theatre and its architectural structure are now treated at length, as well as the ancient texts on theatre, stage and drama production (166-172). The main gate of the town of Pompeii, grave monuments outside the town, and several residential houses with their wall paintings are described (172-185); and Winckelmann also adds elaborate discussions of certain aspects and details of statues and portraits (172-199) already mentioned in the Letter, but which he had not been able to insert into his magnum opus, the Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (Dresden 1764).

Mattusch's translation of the German text is correct as well as elegant, and it was even a pleasure to read Winckelmann in modern English instead of the original and somewhat archaic (and sometimes even for a native speaker not easily accessible) German; it makes the treatises look unexpectedly fresh and modern.

Some minor criticisms: Mattusch's account of Winckelmann's earlier years (p. 4) seems to me not quite accurate: she writes that his "father, a shoemaker, evidently supported his son's interests by sending him to study theology at Halle", but in fact Winckelmann was not interested in the subject (in later years he once called himself jokingly a "pseudo-theologus"). The study of theology, being supported by state and church, was simply the only choice for a young man with no financial means, and so was the university of Halle, where (according to a 1729 law) anyone had to spend two years if he ever wished to work in the service of the Prussian state.5

"Welsch" (p. 70, note 6) does not mean "people speaking gibberish"; it is a neutral (if somewhat archaic) term for French and Italian (and still in use in Switzerland in this sense, without any pejorative implication).

Winckelmann's footnotes have been made into endnotes, put within square brackets, and provided with explanations. This makes the main text easier to read, but may give a somewhat inaccurate impression of Winckelmann's original version, where footnotes with meticulously collected indications of ancient sources are abundant and provide evidence of his vast erudition. Sometimes Mattusch's explanations are very short and therefore do not illuminate specific problems in Winckelmann's text or his quotation. For example, on p. 143 n. 10, Mattusch annotates Winckelmann's reference to "Cassius Dio p. 1096" only by giving the full title of the edition of the Greek text by Hermann Samuel Reimarus, Hamburg 1752; but, as is explained in Sendschreiben (p. 144, to 73,6 with note 2), Winckelmann erroneously quotes Reimarus p. 1095, footnote 149 which refers to Cass. Dio 66,23.

A similar case is p. 143 n. 19 which refers to a passage in the text where Winckelmann engages in some textual criticism of Cass. Dio and rejects Martorelli's reading of the Greek text, though not for philological but for archaeological reasons (the Vesuvius could not have buried the theatre of Pompeii during a spectacle, since no human remains had been found there). Mattusch gives the Greek lines according to Reimarus' edition and adds the modern reading of the text (but without indicating the edition that supplied it) without further commentary. To understand the problem and Winckelmann's reasoning in the text, however, one has again to turn to Sendschreiben p. 149 to 74,13. Mattusch has also eliminated Winckelmann's numbering of his footnotes by inserting them into her own (indicated by square brackets) ; readers who want to look up a more detailed explanation to some problem in Sendschreiben are therefore compelled to compare Winckelmann's original page numbering (marked in the text) with the one in the modern German edition until one finds the line in question. One might of course object that this is an edition for the general reader rather than for the specialist who will turn to the German editions anyway. But it is precisely the non-specialist who will probably feel rather helpless when confronted with Greek texts and their textual problems without further explanation. But these are only minor criticisms; I am fully aware that compromises are necessary in order to provide an easily accessible book; an in-depth commentary would have made impossible the highly welcome achievement of having both Winckelmann's writings on the discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum in one volume. In the scholarly editions the Sendschreiben ( Letter) runs to 304 pages, the Nachrichten (Report) to 126.

The book is lavishly illustrated with contemporary drawings of the artifacts and finds discussed by Winckelmann,6 maps and plans, as well as portraits of all the persons who played a role in the history of the Pompeian excavations (members of the Bourbon royal family, archaeologists, rivals and friends of Winckelmann, frontispieces of their publications, etc.).

The above-mentioned introduction provides fascinating reading for everyone interested in the history of Classics, scholarship, and politics in Italy of the 18th cent. It gives a vivid picture of the beginnings of professional archaeology and one of the most important discoveries for European culture and knowledge of everyday life in Antiquity. It also provides the background and setting for the texts whose translation will make Winckelmann far more accessible for readers interested in the above-mentioned topics. Winckelmann's name and achievements are often invoked, but his writings are no longer studied as they deserve; it is hoped that this splendid book will contribute to change this situation.


1.   A part of Winckelmann's preliminary work has now been edited with commentary: A.H. Borbein, M. Kunze (edd.), Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Ville e Palazzi di Roma (Mainz 2003); other material of the collected handwritten Nachlass (now in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale) is about to be published in the course of the complete edition of Winckelmann's work.
2.   Abbreviations used: Sendschreiben: Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen. Herculanische Schriften I, hrsg. von Stephanie-Gerrit Bruer, Max Kunze (Mainz 1997); Nachrichten: Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Nachrichten von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen. Herculanische Schriften II, hrsg. von Stephanie-Gerrit Bruer, Max Kunze (Mainz 1997)
3.   G.O. Martorelli's 800 page book De Regia Theca Calamaria (On a Royal inkpot) (Naples 1756) about an ancient inkpot in the Museum of Portici included lengthy disquisitions on writings and books in Antiquity. Because it contained allegedly insulting remarks against the famous philologist A.S. Mazzocchi, the book never made it to the bookshops; how Winckelmann obtained a copy remains unclear. See Sendschreiben 23f.
4.   Christian Heinrich von Brühl was the son of the Saxonian prime minister Heinrich von Brühl (1700-1763) who dominated Saxonian politics until his death; Winckelmann hoped to gain the benevolence of the son (and possibly a job as tutor of the princes at the court of Dresden) by dedicating the work to him, but he did not even get a reaction. See Sendschreiben 31 f.
5.   See W. Leppmann, Winckelmann. Ein Leben für Apoll (Berlin 1971, reprinted 1996 with an additional preface) 36; for the political circumstances, the world in which Winckelmann was living and working, and all the persons in any way connected with him, C. Justi, Winckelmann und seine Zeitgenossen (5th ed., Cologne 1956) is still an inexhaustible source.
6.   Photographs of the artifacts (most of which are today in the National Museum of Naples) can be found in the Nachrichten, plates 7-77.

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