Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Katherine Harloe, Winckelmann and the Invention of Antiquity: History and Aesthetics in the Age of Altertumswissenschaft. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xxvi, 275. ISBN 9780199695843. $125.00.

Reviewed by Daniel Orrells, University of Warwick (

Version at BMCR home site


In this learned, fascinating and well-written book, Harloe re-assesses Winckelmann's position as "founding father" of Classical Studies (or Altertumswissenschaft). Harloe explores the various ways in which Winckelmann's work, and his 1764 History of the Art of Antiquity in particular, provoked intense and sometimes angry debate and discussion about historical method amongst certain figures we Classicists have often cited as the foundational figures of our discipline. But rather than try to show when Classics as such actually began, Harloe's book demonstrates that there was a real quarrel about the very possibility of historical grand narrative at the "origins" of Altertumswissenschaft at the end of the eighteenth century. Winckelmann's History sought to erect a Lehrgebäude, that is, a 'system' to understand not simply the history of art, but history more generally. And the History did have a real impact on classicists working at German universities, who were interested in the question of how systematic, how holistic, Classical Studies might ever be. Winckelmann's History is now often cited as a pivotal moment in the history of ideas: he gathered together the mass of antiquarian studies littering the scholar's library to produce a historical narrative of art's progress and development in the ancient world. Whereas nineteenth-century classicists certainly responded to Winckelmann's aspirations to scholarly systematicity with their own scholarly monuments, Harloe's book shows that the move from antiquarianism to systematizing historicism was a very bumpy ride, as Winckelmann's earliest and most careful readers passionately questioned the possibility of writing grand-narrative history. Harloe's book, then, gets us thinking about the grand narratives that we have written about the history of Classics.

In her Preface Harloe engages with the work of Ian Morris and Suzanne Marchand, two scholars who have done much work on the history of the discipline, in order to show how she will be building upon their researches. Marchand's Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970 charts "the gradual displacement of idealistic and utopian philhellenist 'humanism' by disenchanted and professionalized historicist scholarship," and (quoting Marchand) tells of how "the triumph of historicized classical scholarship over poetry and antiquarian reverie gradually erodes the very norms and ideals that underwrote philhellenism's cultural significance" (p. xix). The history of Classics, then, has been one of institutionalization, specialization and disciplinization (see also p. 23). It is Harloe's intention, however, to examine more closely how Winckelmann's oeuvre contributed to the eighteenth-century debates about the very possibility of "a high-status, autonomous historical discipline focused upon comprehensive reconstruction of a suspiciously hybrid-sounding object called 'antiquity' or 'the Graeco-Roman world'" (p. xxi).

Harloe's Introduction (numbered as Chapter 1) begins with a quotation from Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf's Geschichte der Philologie, a history of Classics, which he published in 1921 a year after he had retired from his chair at the University of Berlin. He characterizes Philologie, that is, classical scholarship, as an all-encompassing study of the ancient world—poetry, philosophy, law, economics, geography. Wilamowitz sought to understand how this wide-ranging, all-inclusive, multi-sided discipline came into being. And "the birth of a real science of antiquity" (p. 3) came about for Wilamowitz with Winckelmann, who is, however, celebrated in a paradoxical manner. Wilamowitz does not praise Winckelmann's various readings of ancient art and archaeology. Rather he admires "his longing for ancient Greece and for the freedom and beauty for which it stood that drove him to Italy" (quoted on p. 6). Winckelmann is set up on a pedestal not for "his particular discoveries and theories," but as "a monumental inspiration for the classicists of the present and future" (p. 7). Harloe shows how German classicists from the 1840s on began to enshrine Winckelmann as "founding hero" by celebrating his birthday (Winckelmannstag) presenting him as a "role-model" or "example" (pp. 8-9). This "Winckelmann cult" increasingly "focused upon Winckelmann's life and supposed 'spirit' at the expense of his theories and interpretations" (p. 24). In Germany at least, the discipline invented a genealogy for itself that placed Winckelmann at its origins and depicted itself as a history of intellectual developments moving on from Winckelmann's first efforts. If Wilamowitz and then much more recently Suzanne Marchand were to become very interested in the institutional coordinates of the discipline, then, Harloe's book strongly argues, we need to attend very closely to the early reception of Winckelmann's "theories and interpretations," which did have a real impact on the theorisations of Altertumswissenschaft at the end of the eighteenth century. We need to think about what it means to position Winckelmann as a founding father: how exactly did his writing help create the object of study called "the Graeco-Roman world"?

In order to answer this question, Harloe considers in the first half of her book Winckelmann's published work. In Chapter 2, "Placez moi dans un coin de Votre Bibliotheque," she offers an elegant analysis of the text on the title page of the 1764 History, which advertised Winckelmann's membership in numerous learned, antiquarian societies in Europe. How did Winckelmann become such a respected citizen of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters? Whereas the festivities on Winckelmannstag celebrated their hero's remarkable rise from Prussian poverty to fame in Rome, Harloe offers a soberer but captivating account of Winckelmann's precarious origins and his life at Seehausen, up to his time in Dresden where he befriended the artist Adam Friedrich Oeser and wrote his first published work, the Gedanken, which won him financial support from Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, that allowed him to live in Rome and study ancient art directly: "Dieser Fisch soll in sein rechtes Wasser kommen," the Elector was supposed to have said (quoted on p. 63).

Chapter 3 goes on to examine the emergence of Winckelmann's early Roman writings from the discourse of connoisseurship, which had a long history invested in identifying authorship of a work and periodizing the styles through which an artist passed in his lifetime. Harloe discusses the importance of the study of style (p. 69), which helped Winckelmann distinguish between ancient original and modern copy (pp. 73-4); the centrality of coins, medals and gems for Winckelmann's early published forays (pp. 80-1); the development of ekphrastic writing out of a longer tradition that included Giorgio Vasari and Jonathan Richardson (p. 90); and Winckelmann's participation in the competitive and often bitchy world of antiquarian studies (pp. 100-102).

Harloe turns to the magnum opus in Chapter 4, "Winckelmann's Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums and its earliest critical reception," in which she discusses the influence of three groups of writers on Winckelmann's History: the ancient writers Cicero, Pliny and Quintilian and the Renaissance art-historian Vasari (pp.108-9); eighteenth-century antiquarians, the Comte de Caylus and Pierre-Jean Mariette, "the first to apply connoisseurship to a large corpus of ancient objects," who also "held out the possibility of using style analysis to establish chronologies founded upon the evidence of those objects" (p.109; see also pp. 109-112); and finally the writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire, which helped furnish Winckelmann with his arguments for "the origins and progress of art" (p. 114). Moving between a connoisseur's interest in individual objets d'art and the historian's aspiration to construct a narrative structured in a series of causes and effects, Harloe shows that "bridging the gap between observable 'details' and universally applicable 'principles' or 'causes'" had to be central to the success of Winckelmann's project (p.118). And so Winckelmann's repeated reliance on conjecture and imaginative reconstructions of the ancient world is shown to be a crucial aspect of his rhetoric. Even if his History of Art sought to be history of antiquity more generally, "by emphasizing his reliance upon conjecture and professing the importance of imagination and desire in the construction of his Lehrgebäude [structure], Winckelmann paraded and dramatized the openness and uncertainties inherent in the process of investigating and reconstructing antiquity" (p. 127).

The second half of Harloe's book examines how the (im)possibility of building this Lehrbegäude became a defining question for those late eighteenth-century intellectuals who were debating the viability of grand historical narratives which could reify "classical antiquity" into an object of scholarly analysis. Chapter 5, "Homeric questions: a late eighteenth-century priority dispute," focuses on the wrath of Friedrich August Wolf, who felt that neither his old teacher Christian Gottlob Heyne nor the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder had duly acknowledged the originality of the arguments put forth in his Prolegomena ad Homerum. Wolf had contended that Homer could never be the author of two great epics: "a pre-literate society such as Greece could not have produced continuous poems as long, and apparently unified, as the Iliad and the Odyssey" (p.145-6). Wolf was hugely angered by Heyne's response to his work, especially as "Heyne implied that he had anticipated Wolf's Proto-Analyst thesis in his own undergraduate lectures" (p.147)! While Heyne's apparent lack of understanding of his brilliant pupil's arguments has become the story that classicists have told about the origins of their discipline ("Heyne as both philistine and dilettante" and Wolf "their scientific hero," p. 150), Harloe shows in Chapter 6 that it was Heyne's engagement with Winckelmann's rhetoric of conjecture and fantasy in the construction of the Lehrgebäude that framed his critique of Wolf. Heyne identified this very Winckelmannian—and to Heyne's mind, faulty—attribute in the supposedly scientific method of his ex-pupil. Similar to Winckelmann, Wolf was "to sketch the outline of 'the internal critical history' of the Homeric poems in its entirety" (p.189), which Heyne thought impossible because of the lack of evidence: "the limits of interpretation have been reached" (p.186). Harloe's careful analysis uncovers a more complicated narrative than those which cite Winckelmann as romantic pioneer followed by Wolf, "traditionally cast as the inaugurator of the scientific study of antiquity" (p.202). "In different areas of research on the ancient world, Wolf and Winckelmann both attempted to fashion explanatory narratives, and both were gripped by the ideal of fashioning a comprehensive picture of a long-vanished past. The older literature provides an interesting correction to those who would see them as antitheses, representing perhaps 'science' and 'antiquarianism' respectively" (p. 201).

Harloe demonstrates that Winckelmann's History emerged out of a longer history of writing, thereby qualifying others' accounts that have positioned Winckelmann as a "founding father." Harloe then goes on to show that we should attend more closely to the early reception of Winckelmann, as it will offer a corrective to the widely peddled story that Wolf inaugurated the scientific study of antiquity. On two levels, then, this book changes received histories of classical scholarship. It closes by giv[ing] the last word to Herder (p. 205), who has hitherto not received a starring role in histories of our discipline. The final chapter, "Herder, Winckelmann and Wissenschaft," eruditely examines Herder's fragmentary writings which ponder the dilemmas of Altertumswissenschaft. A true Lehrgebäude, Herder argued, would examine the interactions between peoples and cultures: Winckelmann mistakenly ignored what the Egyptians had taught the Greeks (pp. 228-9). Our history of antiquity is, Herder says, profoundly influenced by Greek prejudice (p. 230). And yet, despite Herder's call for more modest historical scholarship, he elsewhere argues, following Winckelmann, that "Since I never see cause as cause and effect as effect, but must always infer, conjecture, guess," the "sole guarantor of truth . . . can be nothing but my intelligence, my wit" (quoted on p. 235). Without a sense of feeling for, and fantasy of, the past, perhaps no historical narrative is possible. If Harloe's book gets us to rethink the (German) history of classical scholarship, then she also flags how the issue of reception was at the heart of these late eighteenth-century debates. If Winckelmann was no simple "founding father," then classical-reception scholars must also think about their own genealogical relationship with Herder, who contemplated so deeply the historian's own "intelligence" and "wit" in the construction of any scholarly Lehrgebäude.

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