“He would be handsome, if he were not so ugly!” Prince de Ligne gives us the best description of Casanova. And to Casanova we owe the best description of Winckelmann. That is Casanova lets Winckelmann say it in self-defense on the subject of homosexual pedophilia, “And what would people here in Rome think of me, if I were to take a mistress?!”
Let us now look at Wincklemann’s portrait, Wincklemann at his desk: Well, the First Art Historian is at work. What does he do? He writes. What? There is a picture of Antinous in front of him; so, the subject matter of his writing should be known to us. And what do we know about Antinous? A beautiful Greek youth, a tragic lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, whose death, a crocodile must have gotten him when he was splashing in the Nile, or on a more serious note, a devoted lover had sacrificed himself to allow the Egyptian priests to extend the Emperor Hadrian’s life; anyway, this youthful god-like creature became a cult-figure. His self-sacrifice, or, to return us to more solid ground, drowning, made Antinous, first in Egypt and then, with a little help from Hadrian, in Rome, an avatar of Osiris. That is how the Egyptians saw all those who drowned in the Nile. In the rest of the Roman Empire the cult had to be tweaked a bit to make Antinous acceptable under many different forms.
A closer look at the picture of Antinous Winckelmann has in front of him shows us that this is not just a picture of any Antinous, but Antinous as Vertumnus. Antinous himself had quite a few avatars throughout the Roman Empire. He could disguise himself as Hermes or Bacchus, Endymion or Castor and Pollux. Here he is worshiped as Vertumnus, God of the Four Seasons, the shape-shifter, which, given Antinous’ own shape-shifting abilities, seems appropriate. Furthermore Vertumnus, as the Etruscan god of gardens, corresponds perfectly to Osiris, the god of fertility, whose dismembered body is sunk in the Nile, and penis is swallowed by a certain fish. This particular part of his anatomy, forever missing, has been identified by the Romans as Priapus, the first scarecrow, the guardian of the crops, whose hypertrophy threatens the thieves and serves us as a pointer. There! Everyone is looking at the crotch…. Yes, that’s what I am talking about. Winckelmann is running downstairs, “Look what he has done to me!” Francesco Arcangeli has struck a number of fatal blows there with a knife. Trieste, 8 Juine 1768.