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‘Introduction. Le mythe winckelmannien’ and ‘Première partie. Le culte du livre’ from Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Enquête sur la genèse de l'histoire de l'art

Author(s): Elisabeth Décultot

Journal: Journal of Art Historiography
ISSN 2042-4752

Volume: 2;
Start page: 2;
Date: 2010;
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Keywords: Winckelmann | myth of Winckelmann | Alex Potts | Winckelmann archive

For his friends and for himself, Winckelmann likes to divide his life in two quite distinct periods: the German one at first, which unfolds in dark libraries, and then the Italian one, lived in the light of Rome’s art collections. In this construct, the Italian phase stands in contrast to the German one as sensible knowledge does to bookish learning. This dichotomy, which was stylized by Winckelmann himself, then picked up again by his biographers and interpreters, is doubly beneficial for him. It allows him first, in the order of autobiography, to set himself up as the hero of a dynamic tale marked by a strong existential split. In moving from Germany to Rome, Winckelmann could be seen to have lifted himself from the dead universe of books to the tangible reality of stone statues. But it allows him too to position himself as the founder of a new field of study: art history. With his Geschichte der Kunst des Altherthums (1764), written in Rome, the historical discourse about art, which — according to Winckelmann — up to then has rested on ancient texts, begins to rely on the sensible observation of works of art.An attentive reader, however, shouldn’t be content with such a construct. The use of books plays a much more complex role in Winckelmann’s life than what the Roman Winckelmann cares to admit. What, then, is the role of reading in Winckelmann’s work? What is the role of the book in the German and Italian phase of its development? An unusually rich archival collection is available to answer these questions: his notebooks of excerpts. Starting in his student years, Winckelmann developed the habit of recording entire text passages he read and thus constituting a portable handwritten library, which never left him. The result of this meticulous compilation work appears on approximately 7500 pages covered with fine, narrow handwriting, mostly preserved at the manuscript department of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris. This tremendous collection raises many questions, on which the present book focuses :I. How did Winckelmann’s reading activity develop?II. How does this reading activity fit within the wider context of the scholarly tradition?III. What was its effect on the written composition of Winckelmann’s work, which is to say, its style, its structure and its theoretical content?
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