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three pairs of lovers with space



Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was the eminent German art historian responsible more than anyone for making Europeans conscious of the unique beauty of ancient Greek art. There is much circumstantial evidence for supposing him to have been boysexual, but the only hard evidence comes from the following, recounted by the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (1725-98) in the seventh volume of his memoir translated from the original French by Willard R. Trask as History of My Life, Volumes VII and VIII (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), pp. 181-194.


Chapter VIII

Mengs Anton Raphael ca. 1770 self portrait dtl
Anton Raphael Mengs: self-portrait, ca. 1770

From Florence, where Casanova had adventures related in The Corticelli Boy, 1761, he went to Rome, where the day after his arrival, his brother (who lived there) took him to a fashionable house where he met an abate:

we talk and we become good friends. It was the celebrated Abate Winckelmann,[1] who twelve years later[2] was murdered in Trieste.

When they left the gathering,

We returned to the “City of Paris” with the Abate Winckelmann, whom my brother persuaded to stay to supper with us. The Abate bore a strong resemblance to the Abbé de Voisenon. The next day the three of us went to the Villa Albani to see the Cavaliere Mengs, who was living there, being engaged in painting a ceiling.[3]

Chapter IX

A few days later, still in Rome in January 1761:

The next day Mengs came to Rome, and I supped with him and his family. […]

After supper everyone was tipsy. Winckelmann turned somersaults on the floor with Mengs’s children, male and female, who adored him. The learned man liked to frolic with the young in the manner of Anacreon and Horace[4]: Mille puellarum, puerorum mille furors (“Passions for a thousand girls, a thousand boys”).[5] What happened to me one day at his house is worth recording.

14 in Rome apartment 1760 d3

Early that morning I go without knocking into a small room in which he was usually alone copying out some antique inscription, and I see him hastily leave a boy, at the same time quickly setting his breeches to rights. I pretend to have seen nothing, immersed in admiring an Egyptian idol which was behind the door of the room. The Bathyllus,[6] who was indeed very pretty, leaves; Winckelmann comes to me laughing and says that, after the little I had seen he did not think he could keep me from deducing the rest, but that he owed himself a kind of justification, which he begged me to hear.

“Know,” he said, “that not only am I not a pederast, but that all my life long I have declared it inconceivable that the inclination could have exercised such an attraction on the human race. If I said this after what you have just seen, you would pronounce me a hypocrite. But here is the truth of the matter. In the long course of my studies I first came to admire, them to idolize the ancients, who, as you know, were almost all of them b[uggers][7] without concealing the fact, while a number of them even immortalized the charming objects of their love by their poems and even by magnificent monuments. Indeed, they went so far as to cite their inclination as testimony to their morality—for example, Horace, who, to prove to Augustus and Maecenas that he was beyond the reach of calumny, defied his enemies to prove to him that he had ever incurred the guilt of adultery.[8]

Winckelmann Johann Joachim by Anton Raphael Mengs
Winckelmann by Anton Raphael Mengs

“In the light of this obvious truth, I scrutinized myself, and I felt a kind of disdain and even of shame because in this respect I did not in the least resemble my heroes. At considerable cost to my self-esteem, I felt that I was in a way contemptible, and, unable to convict myself of stupidity merely by cold theory, I decided to seek the light of practice, hoping that by analyzing the thing my mind would gain the illumination it needed in order to distinguish the true from the false. Having so resolved, I have been applying myself to the matter for the past three or four years, choosing the prettiest Smerdises[9] in Rome; but all to no avail: when I set to work, non arrivo (‘I get nowhere’). To my dismay I always find that a woman is preferable in every respect. But, quite aside from my seeing nothing wrong in that, I am afraid of acquiring a bad reputation, for what would people say in Rome, or anywhere else where I am known, if it could be said of me that I have a mistress?”[10]


[1] Johann Joachim Winckelmann […] studied Protestant theology at Halle, was converted to Catholicism in 1754, went to Rome in 1755 with a stipend, became librarian to Cardinal Archinto in 1757, and, after the latter’s death in 1758, librarian to Cardinal Albani, was appointed Keeper of Antiquities at the Vatican Library in 1763. Though he never received minor orders Winckelmann dressed as an abate from 1757 [Translator’s note 45].

[2] Winckelmann was robbed of his money and murdered at an inn in Trieste in 1768, hence 8 years after the time of which Casanova is writing. [Translator’s note 46] Louis A. Ruprecht, “Winckelmann and Casanova in Rome” in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June 2010), p. 312 argues convincingly that Winckelmann was murdered because he detected a theft, not because he had made an unwelcome homosexual pass (as often claimed by writers keen to homosexualise his story as much as possible).

[3] [Translator’s note 52] The German painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79), made a Knight of the Golden Spur by the Pope in 1758, was then working on his famous ceiling painting “Parnassus” in Cardinal Alessandro Albani’s villa (which Winckelmann helped make a repository of a precious collection of antique sculpture). Casanova’s brother Giovanni was then living in Mengs’s home as his disciple as well as helping Winckelmann prepare the plates for his upcoming greatest book, published in 1764.
    Giovanni Casanova was famously to expose Winckelmann, internationally recognised as the greatest authority on ancient Greek art, to ridicule by fooling him into believing his own painting of Zeus kissing Ganymede was a genuine antique, leading to Winckelmann pontificating on it as a perfect example of the essence of Greek art, a story best told by Thomas Pelzel in his “Winckelmann, Mengs and Casanova: A Reappraisal of a Famous Eighteenth-Century Forgery” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Sep., 1972), pp. 300-315. Very likely, the jealousy and resentment that led to this cruel joke was already festering in Giovanni’s mind by the time of his brother Giacomo’s visit. If Giacomo told his brother of his accidentally witnessing Winckelmann shagging a boy just after their meeting, this will presumably have influenced the choice of a pederastic scene for a painting calculated to excite Winckelmann’s interest.

[4] Both the Greek Anakreon (ca. 575-495 BC) and the Roman Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BC) wrote lyric poetry expressing their passions for both boys and girls [Website footnote]

[5] Horace, Satires, II, 3, 325 [Translator’s note 24]

[6] Bathyllos was a beautiful boy loved by Anakreon in Samos and described in his 22nd ode. [Website footnote]

[7] Casanova writes b… (for bougres) [Translator’s note 26].

[8] Both the Emperor Augustus and Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (1st century B. C.) were patrons of Horace. Casanova may refer to Horace’s defense of himself in Satires, I, 6, 68-70, which is addressed to Maecenas. No passage in Horace’s works corresponds exactly to Casanova’s description; however, admissions of homosexual love occur here and there in the Odes and Epodes. [Translator’s note 27]

[9] Smerdis was a boy loved in Samos by both Anakreon, who particularly admired his hair, and the tyrant Polykrates (Aelian, Varia Historia IX 4). The name was ofte applied in a general sense to a loved boy. [Website footnote]

[10] Casanova’s testimony is important as the only evidence of Winckelmann’s sexual involvement with boys. Building on this foundation, modern historians have frequently, as is their wont, taken his sexual “orientation” thus supposedly revealed as something by which the rest of his life (notably his passion for antiquities and his murder) should be interpreted. This is anachronistic and the logic at least questionable: whether or not one believes Winckelmann’s claim that he really preferred women to boys, there is no evidence he was not being sincere when he said Greek antiquities made him interested in pederasty rather than vice versa. As for the reason for his murder, see footnote 2 above.