Winckelmann and Curiosity in the 18th-Century Gentleman’s Library Back

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) wrote the key art historical texts with which any historian of Greco-Roman sculpture and Grand Tour culture in the eighteenth century is likely to be familiar. His Gedanken ϋber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (‘Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture’, 1755) and Geschichte der Kunst des Alterhums (‘History of Ancient Art’, 1764) shaped the canon of classical sculpture and a German tradition of scholarly engagement with it which evolved throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His analysis of the sculpture was initially based on casts of originals and focused primarily on the beauty of the male form alone. The emotive ekphrasis which characterised his writing caught the imagination of his readers and along with other authoritative discourses, such as Jonathan Richardson, elder and son, An Account of the Statues and Bas-reliefs, Drawings and Pictures in Italy, France, &c., with Remarks, &c. (1722; 2nd edit, 1754) and the Comte de Caylus, Recueil d’Antiquités (1752-67), defined the eighteenth-century gentleman’s understanding of classical antiquities.

2017 marked 300 years since Winckelmann’s birth and this year is 250 years since his untimely death. A series of conferences, exhibitions and events have been staged to coincide with these milestones. The current exhibition at Christ Church Upper Library, in collaboration with the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford and the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology at Reading, is the latest manifestation of these celebrations. It is part of a new initiative to encourage visitors to the magnificent eighteenth-century library with its ornate plasterwork decoration completed by Thomas Roberts in 1756. The names of important donors to the collections appear above the bookcases along the walls, spelling out the library’s debt to its gentlemen benefactors. Christ Church has some of the finest architecture of the Oxford colleges and the catalogue for the exhibition credits Winckelmann for inspiring the classical style behind the eighteenth-century rebuilding of the new library.

Exhibits are assembled in four historic display cabinets and also mingle with the library furnishings around the walls, enabling a variety of serendipitous encounters with the objects. The library always served the gentlemen at the college, but the exhibition is also representative of other libraries in private houses and institutions where gentlemen could access books, prints and collections related to classical culture. We find a copy of Pierre d’Hancarville’s Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Honourable William Hamilton (Naples, 1766), Hamilton’s sumptuous and ruinously expensive commission which serves to signify Winckelmann’s ‘discovery’ that so-called Etruscan vases were Greek in origin. The exhibition resists any mention of the problematic details about d’Hancarville’s life and his somewhat chaotic text which accompanies the beautiful prints and maintains its focus on Winckelmann. It would have been interesting to know how many of d’Hancarville’s volumes found a place in gentlemen’s private libraries in Britain.

Winckelmann’s elevation of the status of the Greek vase did not immediately result in any revision of the name. ‘Etruscan’ remained the favoured nomenclature, and its red and black figures featured in numerous Wedgwood ceramic copies and in domestic decorative schemes (such as at Spencer House in London, Osterley Park in Middlesex, and Packington Hall in Warwickshire). In the same display case we see the first volume of Antonio Francesco Gori’s (1691-1757) three volume Museum Etruscum (1737), which details inscriptions found in Etruria. He was an antiquarian from Florence and his volume represents an important strand of connoisseurship in the eighteenth century which depended on written evidence of inscriptions to date antiquities. Few private gentlemen’s libraries could have boasted a copy of Le Antichità di Ercolano Esposte (Naples, 1757-92) which was only presented to individuals by special favour of King Charles VII of Naples. Most had to find pirated copies of this beautifully illustrated book of the finds at Herculaneum which were jealously guarded. Excavations began in 1709, continued throughout the century and provided new evidence of Roman art forms, particularly of wall painting.

The remaining display cases highlight the coins and gems which were as important as books in a gentleman’s library. One of Winckelmann’s first projects when he arrived in Rome was the cataloguing of the gems in the Prussian diplomat Philipp von Stosch’s collection. Boxes of impressions from gems were highly prized and Nathaniel Marchant’s A catalogue of one hundred impressions from gems (1792) together with meticulous manuscript catalogues of coin collections compiled by library benefactors William Wake (1657-1737) and Charles Brent (1683-1722) and examples from each represent the mainstay of connoisseurial collections. These small precious objects were handled, compared and discussed, exchanged and assembled by type or date to impose a particular order on ancient history.

Other objects in the exhibition break away from Winckelmann’s vision of antiquity and mischievously hark back to an earlier version of the gentleman’s cabinet of curiosity. ‘A Pair of mandrakes’, roots of the Mandragora plant, found their way anonymously into the Library collection at some point. Their resemblance to a human head and body and their magical potency throughout the Early Modern period has spilled into the years of ‘Enlightenment’ to complicate its rational ordering of the world. Nearby, a ‘Gothick’ carved cabinet houses Horace Walpole’s ‘Cardinal’s hat’, supposedly owned by Thomas Wolsey and once part of Walpole’s Strawberry Hill collection before the actor Charles Kean (1811-68) bought it at the Strawberry Hill sale. Thomas Wolsey founded Christ Church in 1525 as Cardinal College and when the hat arrived at Christ Church, a committee voted the library as the best place to house it. In the Autumn of 2018, an exhibition, Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill, will see its temporary return to Walpole’s former home.

The rich collections of Christ Church library can sustain a focus on so many interesting aspects of eighteenth-century cultural life. Winckelmann’s works were not translated in full into English until 1880, so his contemporary readers had to be competent linguists, ideally in both modern and ancient languages. While the term ‘curiosity’ had complex layers of meaning, associations with a dangerous tendency to question as much as with a healthy approach to inquiry, the exhibition does not invite us to dwell on this. The ‘curiosity’ here refers to the gentleman collector throughout the eighteenth century, from his natural and artificial wonders of the early years to the foundations of a systematic method of which Winckelmann’s research formed a part. The books around the library shelves are testimony to the curious mind of the eighteenth-century gentleman, rooted in the classical past but reaching forward to uncover something new.

Winckelmann and Curiosity in the 18th-Century Gentleman’s Library is at Christ Church, Oxford from 29th June to 26th October 2018.