Winckelmann in Rome

However, as the activities he undertook in his professional life can attest, it was in Rome that Winckelmann entered the most fruitful phase of his career. After arriving in Rome in 1755, Winckelmann lived on a relatively hand-to-mouth basis, subsisting on a small stipend from the Saxon court until he entered the service of Cardinal Albani in 1759. Cardinal Albani was a famed collector of antiquities who provided Winckelmann with enormous support in Italy, underwriting his studies as well as giving him use of an enormous personal library and living quarters within his palace. Winckelmann adopted Italy as a second home, attaining respected positions as librarian of the Vatican, President of Antiquities, and Secretary to Cardinal Albani.

During this period, Winckelmann maintained a relatively ascetic lifestyle, employing no servant in Albani’s palace, and keeping a wardrobe of only two robes and a big fur coat. He continued his habit, developed in his early years at Seehausen, of sleeping only four hours a night in order to pursue his studies. Winckelmann’s conspicuous modesty and diligence, though admirable, reflected more than a desire to save money. As Katherine Harloe argues, these were marks of a “poor-yet-honest man’s self-presentation,” for they announced the attributes of a true scholar: dedication to knowledge, rather than fame or material comforts.1

In 1764, Winckelmann published The History of Art of Antiquity, a monumental undertaking that guaranteed him status as a founding figure within the disciplines of classical archaeology and art history. But ultimately, years of toiling away in relative obscurity earned him only a few years of success before his premature death in 1768 at the age of 50. The murky circumstances of his death, which seems to have been the outcome of a robbery gone wrong, shocked Enlightenment Europe. It seems that while awaiting a return trip to Italy, Winckelmann met fellow traveler Francesco Arcangelo. Arcangelo, lacking the fare for his trip and equipped with a knife and rope, attempted to dispossess Winckelmann of some gold medals he had received from the Habsburg court. The ensuing struggle resulted in several fatal stab wounds to Winckelmann’s abdomen.

The speculation surrounding Winckelmann’s death, which seemed disproportionately extreme for the meager gains it yielded, simultaneously amplified the drama of his life and revealed the extent to which it was the man himself who had held Enlightenment Europe’s fascination. Winckelmann was a presumed homosexual, and those in the European art community were quick to cast his murderer as a vengeful lover, drawing lurid connections between gay sex and physical violence.2 However tenuous these attempts to read Winckelmann’s sexuality into the circumstances of his death were, they evince the entanglement implicit in a career that made the man a subject of equal interest to his work. For instance, classicist Daniel Orrells correlates the unfinished nature of Winckelmann's brief life to the fragmented state of the sculptures he studied, exhibiting this tendency to conflate the man himself with his scholarship:

On the one hand, his work became an abstraction, a classical system of ideas, timelessly applicable, and Winckelmann himself an antique figure living in the ancient world, a time-traveller, the perfect historian. On the other, however, the Geschichte was an incomplete fragment precisely because Winckelmann was a man of flesh and blood, his embodiment highlighted by his ghastly murder, his embodiment figuring his place within history, his inability to time-travel to fill in the gaps of the fragmentary nature of ancient art itself.3

1 Harloe, Winckelmann and the Invention of Antiquity, 46

2 Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 17.

3 Daniel Orrells, “Burying and Excavating Winckelmann’s History of Art,Classical Receptions Journal Vol 3. Iss. 2: (2011): 174.