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Katherine Harloe (Reading): Winckelmann’s love letters: a case study in queer literary history

Associated with the Centre for Classical Reception

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In this paper I’ll present research from a monograph-in-preparation, which examines how the correspondence of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), the ‘father’ of classical art history and archaeology, has informed his reception as a significant figure in LGBTQ history. Winckelmann has found a place in the canons of queer historical personalities drawn up by nineteenth-century emancipationists and their successors in the late twentieth-century gay liberation movement not only because of his status as an inspired interpreter of the homoerotic culture that informed classical Greek art, but also because of his personal identity as a man who was able both to express, and to realise in his life, his desires for other men. Scholars and activists interested in reconstructing these aspects of Winckelmann’s life and work have often had recourse to his correspondence, most of which was published over the half-century after his death, and which has proved as important as those writings published during his lifetime to understandings of him as a man who loved other men. While supporting interpretations of the importance of queer desire Winckelmann’s life and work, I criticise some of the readings of the correspondence that have been generated by this tradition of gay-friendly interpretation: in particular an anachronistic tendency to treat this correspondence as ‘private’, and, perhaps unwittingly, to reproduce some homophobic tropes of reading Winckelmann’s life and work. More positively, I argue for the importance of paying attention to Winckelmann’s embeddedness in early modern, Latinate, cultures of education and epistolary communication, as well as the classical rhetorical and literary tradition more broadly. Paying attention to these intellectual contexts is essential to appreciating the public uses, as well as the variety, of Winckelmann’s (homo-)erotic epistolary voices.


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