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Response to Review of Winckelmann and the Vatican’s First Profane Museum

I am deeply indebted to Carol Mattusch for her generous and thoughtful review of my book; I am grateful to her both for the time she devoted to my work and for the thoughtfulness of her engagement with its central arguments. Her suggestions of supplemental bibliographic resources, several of which I did not know, place me further in her debt. I also take her point, so carefully and judiciously expressed, concerning the questionable decision to reserve certain discussions, long ones, for the notes [the main matter here concerns my discussion of Mengs’s important ceiling fresco, the ‘Parnassus’, painted at the Villa Albani in extensive consultation with Winckelmann himself, as Steffi Röttgen documents.(1)

I was especially pleased that the central impact of the creation of a Museo Profano inside the Apostolic Palace was clear to this careful reader: namely, that certain critical ‘detachments’ came to constitute a distinctively modern way of seeing, especially a new way of seeing ancient artifacts: the detachment of profane visual materials from sacred textual ones; the detachment of a public Museum from a still very private Library; finally, and perhaps of greatest interest to the historian of religion, the detachment of Art from Religion. These perceptual detachments lay at the very heart of Winckelmann’s greatest innovation, in my judgment, his way of viewing Greek religious sculpture – not as religion, or idol – but as ‘fine art.’ His museums were choreographed to institutionalize that novel way of seeing.

Professor Mattusch opted to minimize her discussion of the fifth chapter of the book, while I have tended to maximize this part in my own discussions of its main themes. In that chapter, I take up the highly charged (and to my eye, rather overplayed ) discussion of Winckelmann’s sexual identity and its alleged relationship to his emerging and unapologetically homoerotic aesthetic gaze. What I try to show in this chapter is that religion mattered far more than sex in the ecclesiastical culture of 18th-century Rome; arguably, just the opposite is the case in today’s Vatican. My point in emphasizing this was to underscore, not what we all are trained to see, these days (rampant and perhaps hypocritical sexuality in the Roman Church), but rather what often goes unnoticed, namely the revolutionary new religious way of seeing inscribed in Winckelmann’s nascent Vatican museums, as well as in his most important books. The story of the emergence of modern public art museums from out of religious institutions is ultimately a story about shifting conceptions of religion and the secular in the modern period. The fact that we can take such museums, and the museum culture they produced, for granted makes their novelty, and indeed their religious adventurism, more difficult to see. This was another central theme in the book.

Professor Mattusch poses six wonderful questions near the end of her review, and I would like to try, albeit briefly, to address them here.

What was Winckelmann’s precise role in the creation of the Museo Profano? And how was it related to Alessandro Albani’s role in that same endeavor? My suggestion is that Winckelmann’s central task at the Vatican Library placed him in an unusual role carved out for him by his patron and friend, the Cardinal Alessandro Albani. Albani gave Winckelmann living quarters in his new Villa just north of Rome and essentially hired Winckelmann to catalogue and curate his remarkable collection of Classical statues, bas reliefs and other smaller objects. That was when Winckelmann collaborated with Raphael Anton Mengs on the ‘Parnassus’ ceiling fresco, but I suggest that this work also served as the influential dress rehearsal for the two men’s extensive collaboration at the Vatican just a few years later.

It all happened fairly quickly. Pope Clement XIII issued a Moto Proprio concerning the reorganization of the Vatican Library in August of 1761, one in which he suggested – very tentatively – that it might be advisable to create a ‘total separation’ of the sacred and profane materials in the Vatican Library (the phrase ‘tutto separato’ and some playful doubling recur throughout this document). Just six days later, the Pope appointed Alessandro Albani to be his new Cardinal Librarian; he must have known that Albani and Winckelmann were essentially a package deal when it came to the curatorial organization of collections of ‘profane’ visual art.

In any event, the next year and a half (1762–3) were dedicated to a flurry of new construction at the northern end of the Library corridor where the Museo Profano was to be housed. Once the space had been prepared, Albani set about securing Winckelmann a formal appointment inside the Vatican Library. That story, too, was peculiar.

When a Chinese priest named Giuseppe Lucio Vu died in the spring of 1763, Albani saw his chance to get Winckelmann an open position at the Vatican Library. Vu had been hired as a sort of adjunct scribe (called a Scrittore), whose main responsibility lay in translating Chinese books and other materials for the Library. Albani took the 36 scudi that Vu had received annually, supplemented it with 14 more from the Library’s general funds, and nominated Winckelmann to be similarly employed with some new German materials that had recently been acquired from the Palatine and installed at the Vatican Library. The idea was that Winckelmann would create an index of the Palatine materials as well as translations of any materials he deemed potentially valuable to the Apostolic See. Yet Winckelmann never worked on any of this material, as nearly as we can tell.

What he did instead was to apply those same essentially scribal and curatorial skills to the visual materials in the nascent Museo Profano. As Professor Mattusch notes, at the very end of my research for this book, I located a single document that mentions Winckelmann in specific relation to the Museo Profano, arranging for an extra payment of 12.50 scudi to be made to Winckelmann for three months of work (May–July 1764). It was his position as a German Scrittore that gave Winckelmann relatively free access to all the materials in the Library, profane as well as sacred, and that was how he was identified there. I am currently at the Vatican Library Archives again, completing a long essay that will analyze that document in detail.

What did Winckelmann actually do for that supplemental salary? In brief, he altered the definition of the task of the Vatican Scrittore, by focusing on visual materials rather than texts. So he did create indices and catalogues of a sort, and he did identify items of special interest to the Vatican, but he performed this labor on ancient Greek and Roman material artifacts, not on German books. That shift in focus represents a sea change in the ecclesial culture of the Vatican Library, in my judgment. As I emphasize repeatedly, it is important to recall that there was no Vatican Museum, not yet. Winckelmann’s and Albani’s shift in institutional focus eventually created a new and very different institution: a public museum of profane art.

What was in it? Not the things that inspired Winckelmann’s most memorable flights of rhetorical fancy. In his masterful history of the Vatican Museums, Carlo Pietrangeli published a fresco image from the walls of the Etruscan Museum at the Vatican. He suggested that this was a contemporary rendering of the Museo Profano, though later Vatican scholars at the Museum speculate that it may be a picture of the Museo Sacro instead. Either way, the image is especially useful since the two museums looked very similar in fact: ornate marble walls and appointments, Brazilian wood cabinets installed for the display of smaller items like coins and medallions, ancient marble busts and bas-reliefs, and contemporary ceiling frescoes devoted to sacred or profane themes respectively, all of them painted by Winckelmann’s assistant in the office of Papal Antiquarian, Stefano Pozzi.

Still, it is just one room, and may seem a rather small and unimpressive introduction to the enormous complex of Vatican Museums as we know them today. That was why Professor Mattusch’s last question was so very apt: What was this museum’s subsequent influence?

Its influence lay in what it was designed to be, from a choreographic standpoint, not so much for the actual objects it contained. The visitor to the Museo Sacro, where the paleo-Christian materials at the Vatican Library were housed, would depart from that room and traverse the very long Library corridor in order to be deposited at the other extreme end, at the Museo Profano. What came next was a monumental stairway designed to link this little museum to the much larger and more ambitious rooms that followed: the Greek Cross, the Rotonda, the Room of the Muses, and finally the Octagonal Cortile where the Vatican masterworks were housed (among them, the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön Group, the Belvedere Torso, and so on). In other words, the Museo Profano was structurally designed to serve as the transitional room that took the visitor away from the Library and launched him or her on the final leg of this art historical pilgrimage, a pilgrimage designed to conclude in the Belvedere Cortile. If this is to be read as a secular pilgrimage, as I think it should be, then the destination is a pagan one, an extraordinary collection of ancient statues, all depicting pagan gods the vast majority of whom are nude. The influence of the Museo Profano, then, was not only to domesticate the presence of profane materials inside the Library, but actually to grant them a privileged place outside the confines of that Library, in a novel institution created precisely for such display: the modern public art museum.

Winckelmann was murdered unexpectedly in Trieste in June of 1768, not long after the Museo Profano was finished. But the Cardinal Albani survived him by a decade and oversaw the construction that confirms the original layout envisioned by the two. What is most striking to me is the lingering power of that itinerary, since even today the Belvedere Cortile constitutes the very centerpiece of the Vatican Museums, rivaled only by the Sistine Chapel. A very powerful new way of seeing had been enacted, with consequences that were to be profound in the evolution of the aesthetic culture of Early Modern Europe.

I am indebted once again to Professor Mattusch for inspiring my further reflection on these matters.


  1. See her insightful article, ‘Mengs, Alessandro Albani und Winckelmann– Idee und Gestalt des Parnass in der Villa Albani,’ Storia dell’Arte 30/31 (1977), 86–156.Back to (1)