Ian Jenkins, curator, British Museum
I am sitting in the back of a taxi speeding through the narrow streets of Kolonaki, the posh bit of Athens. There is no conversation between me and the driver, but occasionally our eyes meet in the rear view mirror. Suddenly he speaks.
‘You look like some kind of professor’.
Before I can reply, he speaks again.
‘Who died in Trieste?’
I am on my way to the German Archaeological School. A number of such schools were planted in the nineteenth century on the lower slopes of Mount Lykabettos, where they were intended to catch the breeze in the long, hot summers and to command views to the sea or across the plain of Attica to the mountains. Now you just see across the street as far as the high-rise apartments opposite.
The German School is on Odos Fidiou, Pheidias Street. Founded in 1874, it was designed by Ernst Ziller and was anticipated by the French School, established in 1848, which was the first. The purpose of these institutions is to provide a base for operations in Greece, such as the German excavations at Olympia, the French at Delphi and the British at Knossos on Crete. All have wonderful libraries that serve not only home-grown researchers but also other nationals.
The taxi draws up at the entrance to the German School and the driver swivels round in his seat to give me a stare that is clearly meant to elicit an answer to his question.
Now it just so happened that the aforementioned deceased is one of my heroes. Just as well really, since I have reached the age where I cannot remember the name of anyone who isn’t dead. I was feeling confident and decided to tease him.
‘You mean, Who died on 8 June 1768?’
If he is impressed, then he shows no outward sign, ‘Well’, he replies, ‘he was a good friend of the Greek people’.
It is so sweetly put. I hardly like to introduce the difference between Philhellenism and its love of the Greek people of today, and Hellenism as the admiration of Greek civilisation in the past. Byron – who died at Missolonghi – is the obvious example of a Philhellene, while our man is self-evidently a Hellenist, who never went to Greece. That is not to say that he did not think about going. Indeed, it seems that he was making plans to go but then, disastrously for him, he changed his mind and in June 1768 crossed the Alps to travel back to his native Germany. Passing through Bavaria, he was gripped by a fit of melancholia so acute that he determined to turn back and return to Italy. The best efforts of his travelling companion, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, the principal restorer of ancient statues in Rome, could not persuade him to continue.
So it was that he found himself alone in a north Italian port waiting for a sea passage that would restore him to Rome and, he hoped, to his former self. There it was that he made the acquaintance of a creature named Francesco Archangeli, staying in the same boarding house. The circumstances are not clear, but in a savage knife attack Archangeli brutally murdered the defenceless antiquary.
His was a remarkable story, but not untypical for a true child of the Enlightenment. Born in 1717, the son of a shoemaker, he had largely educated himself in the Classics. His love of Classical antiquity took him to Italy, where he immersed himself in the antiquities of Florence and then Rome, eventually rising to become the Papal antiquary.
Our subject brought a moral imperative to the art and especially the sculpture of ancient Greece. The beauty of white marble sculpture of the human body represented a set of values that the Greeks called kalokagathia. The Roman wit Juvenal later coined the expression mens sana in corpore sano, which just about captures the idea nicely.
The development of our hero’s ideas can be traced through his earlier writing in the 1750s, culminating in the History of Ancient Art, published in Dresden in 1764. It was an instant success, swiftly translated into French for easier access to an intellectually curious European readership. It organised the famous artworks of antiquity into a narrative that traced the rise of the human body in Greek art as part of a revelatory account of the emergence of the human spirit, which he proposed as a paradigm experience of the past that should be reawakened in the present.
Writers that are more revered now than their works are read, such as Lessing, Schiller, Heyne and Goethe, were all participants in a German Romantic movement in literature that, when it was not praising nature, sought to capture the beauty of art. Theirs was the first prose writing of its kind in German and with them our tragic hero takes his place as one of the founders of a new mode of expression that was at once rational and poetic.
My driver’s face holds the same inscrutable expression at the end of my explanation as it had at the beginning. I realise then that I have made a mistake in thinking that he is interested in the man who died in Trieste, when all he wanted to know was whether I could correctly answer his question or not. Like the Sphinx, his victims are required only to give a simple answer that would be right or wrong.
‘Yes, but who was he?’. His voice has a new tone of impatience and I think I catch a glimpse of a feline paw emerging from the cuff of his sleeve.
‘Oh’ I replied innocently, ‘Didn’t I say? Why, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, of course’.
The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.
Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.