Evidences of Antiquity

Winckelmann and His Century

Athens, England, and Beyond


Athens, England, and Beyond


The ruins of Palmyra

Robert Wood, The ruins of Palmyra

The antiquities of Athens

James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The antiquities of Athens

Winckelmann was easily the most influential of Hellenists, but by the time his History appeared the seeds of a Greek revival had already been sown by several Englishmen. In 1749 Robert Wood (1717-1771) was invited by two young acquaintances, rich but not idle, to serve as a guide for an expedition through Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria. There they drew the ruins they encountered, most notably those of Palmyra, in present-day Syria, and Baalbek, in Lebanon, in the precise manner of Desgodets. On the return trip, Wood's party encountered James Stewart (1713-1788) and Nicholas Revett (1720-1804), who were similarly employed in documenting Athens. Wood published The Ruins of Palmyra in 1753, with a brief introductory text and generous plates. The volume was a popular success, and The Ruins of Balbec followed in 1757. Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens, published in a similar format, appeared in four volumes between 1762 and 1812.

Both Stuart and Revett were architects, and the designs in their books and Wood's fueled the Greek Revival style in English and American building. But Wood's primary interest was the poetry of Homer. He wrote in the introduction to The Ruins of Palmyra of his interest in "poetical geography": "the Odyssey is most pleasing in the countries where Ulysses travelled and Homer sung." Wood's Essay on the Original Genius of Homer described, not the eternal bard of myth, but a poet rooted in a specific, and strikingly primitive, place and time.

The German and English conceptions of antiquity developed along parallel paths. Goethe admired Wood's Essay, and one of Winckelmann's most enthusiastic readers was the Oxford essayist and novelist Walter Pater (1839-1894). From the interaction between English empiricism (and its close cousin, aestheticism) and German Sturm und Drang a potent new image of antiquity emerged: wild, darkly pagan, and remote from Petrarch's stately Rome. It too served a need, but its utility as a simple model was dubious. As one "good European" would lament: Ach Freunde! Wir müssen auch die Griechen überwinden!


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]