Cyprian Norwid and the History of Greece

by Maciej Junkiert (Author)
Monographs 272 Pages
Open Access


Ancient Greek history holds a special place in the works of many 19th-c. writers. The same goes for Cyprian Norwid, one of the most eminent poets in the history of Polish literature, a thinker, and an artist. This book scrutinizes Norwid’s fascination with Greek history and culture, especially his peculiar synthesis of Greek thought and Christianity. It focuses on the key themes of the relationship of Platonism with early Christian writings and their presence in Norwid’s contemporary culture, the opposition of memory and history in 19th-c. literature and social life, and the image of the artist and its influence on social life in modern everyday. The book analyzes Norwid’s oeuvre in a broad comparison with representatives of French, German, and British literature and the humanities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Preliminary Remarks
  • 1. Norwid and History
  • 2. Hellenism and History
  • 3. Myth of the Greek-Slavic Unity in the Works of Adam Mickiewicz
  • 4. Classicism as a Necessary Hypothesis in the Reading of Juliusz Słowacki’s “Greek” Works
  • Lambro
  • Podróż do Ziemi Świętej z Neapolu
  • Agezylausz
  • Chapter I. Norwid reads Greeks
  • 1. The Hellenism of Norwid
  • 2. “Greek” Characters, Journeys to Greece
  • 3. Greek Readings
  • Chapter II. Greek Stories
  • 1. Creating Greece
  • 2. Anecdotes, Notes, and Parallels: Norwid’s Views on Greek History
  • 3. Socrates’s Ways of Civilization in Norwid’s Paris Lectures
  • Chapter III. Norwid’s Christian Platonism: About Quidam
  • 1. The Hellenization of Christianity
  • 2. Archytas and Paul the Apostle
  • 3. Judaic Threads in Quidam
  • 4. Quidam as a Poem about Education
  • Chapter IV. The Birth of Memory
  • 1. Norwid and Greek Memory
  • 2. Memory of Greece: Different Faces of Epimenides
  • 3. Greeks in Alexandria: Memory and History in Kleopatra i Cezar
  • Chapter V. Athens and Sparta in Norwid’s Tyrtej
  • 1. Sparta in the Athenian Mirror
  • 2. Sparta in Norwid’s Notebooks
  • 3. Tyrtej According to Critics
  • 4. Tyrtej and the History of the Greek Paideia
  • Herodotus’s Side. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

Preliminary Remarks

1. Norwid and History

In 1909, Cezary Jellenta compared the mind of Cyprian Norwid, the most important Polish poet of the second half of the nineteenth century, to “a greedy museum, which desires to own all treasures of ruins and excavations.”1 The author of this short synthesis focuses on Norwid’s relationship with the heritage of classicism, comparing his lyrics and dramas to the Pompeian frescos or Phidias’ Parthenon friezes. Moreover, Jelenta emphasizes that what interested Norwid were “the ancient, classical, marble souls of nations with their wisdom, poetry and statuesque movements.”2 Jellenta accentuates Norwid’s tendency to exploit themes from the antique world by claiming that in this way Norwid was able to communicate with the classical beauty of a world long gone, thanks to which this world illuminates Norwid’s works with the past glow of ancient civilizations, depicted in the moments of their crisis or fall. For Jellenta, the greed with which Norwid attempted to gather the knowledge about the ancient world and the people of that time, representing various cultures, was proof that Norwid aestheticized the stories he described so that one could read from the past the message of the eternal beauty and the classical, universal constancy of human nature.

The relentless depiction of glorious civilizations is perhaps Norwid’s most pleasant activity. He wanders among their statues for the sake of their beauty and richness, whereas the fictional and dramatic plot is only a guise. First, Norwid creates a costly material like a large piece of an embroidered fabric, and then he turns it into a composition, such as Quidam or “Pompeja.”3

Years later, Kazimierz Wyka responded to Jellenta in the periodical Kultura i Wychowanie (Culture and Manners, 1933) by expressing his strong objection to the accusation of Norwid for a passive collector’s attitude toward the past:

Museum! It would be a truly dangerous word that carries the whole aftertaste of historicism had it not been for the fact that Norwid was not satisfied with the such cultural collecting. Inarguably, he enjoyed surprising the reader with information that only he possessed. Although, at the same time, the variety of cultures he visited raised in ←13 | 14→Norwid’s mind the question of what the fixed fundaments of this variety are, is there and where could lies its possible universality, the base line for such diverse cultures. No culture collector could afford such a question or an answer equal to Norwid’s.4

Wyka notices the regularity that significantly defines the space of Norwid’s research in the meanders of history. While modern people may communicate only with certain set preformed cultural patterns, Norwid tries to not limit himself to reconstructing the history of culture so as to avoid the promotion of a naive imitation. He is fascinated by the formation process of humanity’s intellectual and artistic achievements, the covered distance and decisions made on the way, which eventually contributed to the crystallization of culturally valuable philosophical, literary, and theological ideas and creations. By avoiding the temptations of Romantic particularism and universalizing historicism, Norwid chooses the middle ground by searching for knowledge of how the historical process influenced the history of human intellect. Therefore, by observing artists or writers who created in the ancient times, Norwid attempts to recreate all the factors that affected their creation in order to show the innovative nature of the work and explain how it enriched universal human knowledge about ourselves or allowed us to express a previously unexpressed desire or feeling. As Wyka explains:

Since culture is something unique and irreversible, then the only road to a living culture that captures our most excellent endeavors must be a fresh and proper search for values that – by originating from the deepest needs of our lives – will determine the vitality of the created culture. As in the past, the culture achieved in this new way will certainly one day become something common to all people, existing in a detachment from the base from which it emerged. In this detached form, we obtain results of ancient cultures, but it does not mean that we may achieve a new creative addition to them by the very contemplative tasting and cherry-picking of various cultural creations of the past.5

In the article “Main Motifs of Norwid’s Poetry,” originally presented in Krakow in 1947, Wacław Borowy reverses the opposition of culture and history by making the latter the fundamental factor that shapes Norwid’s worldview: “When you immerse yourself in Cyprian Norwid’s poems, you almost feel the winds of history blowing through it. In fact, next to ‘truth,’ the words historia or dzieje (history) themselves, along with their derivatives, are among his favorite words which ←14 | 15→he charges with more poetic meaning than any other ones.”6 Borowy notices a strategy in Norwid’s works that consists of observing the essential tendencies of historical transformations and intellectual fascinations in various cultural periods. Hence, Norwid is to attribute a special role in his works to individual characters, as their stories often add to the complicated history of civilization, which constitute an apparent background of described events.

In all of Norwid’s poetry you will sense the presence of huge masses, powerful social forces, and great currents of civilization. His Kleopatra i Cezar used to be compared with Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. What is the chief difference between the two works? Shakespeare describes the tragedy of several great historical figures entangled in historical processes; Norwid presents above all the pressure of tradition, customs, beliefs, political interests, social aspirations etc. on the masses and on great individuals alike. In his Quidam, each character stands for one form of civilization of his times. A reader of Quidam gets the impression of witnessing primarily movements of large groups, while individuals’ actions are of secondary importance. The same is true of Tyrtej (Tyrtaeus).7

However, the perspective that presents the changes happening in ancient societies and intellectual processes that dominated their lifes is not Norwid’s overriding aim. Borowy emphasizes that Norwid always tries to focus on the everyday aspects of history, which escape the great narratives about the past. In this way, Norwid’s works about processes fundamental for the history of culture are not abstract descriptions of conflicts between masses but seek to ensure a better understanding of lesser known details. Precise descriptions are supposed to illustrate the character of historical transformations of the world, torn between paganism and Christianity, marked by the influence of human will and not only by the deterministic judgement of God. As Borowy remarks, this approach allows Norwid to maintain a balance between presenting both the monumental and private history. Although, history certainly was the subject that Norwid was most passionate about, from which other phenomena resulted and by which they were determined.

I believe that Borowy’s suggestion has not been properly considered in the studies on Norwid so far. We may even state that, due to the introduction of the notion of “old” cultures, the interest in history in Norwid’s works became pseudonymized. The prioritization of the exploration of the “old” cultures and civilizations – especially the ancient ones – resulted in less attention payed to the ←15 | 16→ancient history. Scholars have attempted rather at separating the characteristics of particular models of cultures or states and presenting them in a timeless limbo in order to facilitate the comparison of Norwid’s reflections on the past with his diagnosis of the present. Zdzisław Łapiński’s book Norwid is an example of such a practice. Łapiński avoids answering the question on Norwid’s attitude toward history – especially the ancient history – by claiming that he was exclusively interested in the achievements of past cultures and how much they foresaw the phenomena noticeable in Norwid’s times:

The old cultures occupy Norwid in two ways. First, they show our beginning, and the understanding of our present is incomplete without the understanding of its genealogy. The way back sometimes is the way forward, as by returning to the past we can better understand the path we will travel in the future. Second, the patterns of culture have certain universal traits. Their internal dynamics repeat in various material.8

Did the past really interest Norwid exclusively as an argument to be used in contemporary polemics? It is hard to agree with this statement. Just skimming through Norwid’s notes suffices to notice that the vast majority of them does not directly refer to current events. Norwid is occupied with history for the sake of history, as he often expressed the conviction that it is impossible to learn about the human mind in any other way than through examining its creations, among which history is the most brilliant achievement. Norwid expresses this view, among other places, in a fragment from “Garstka piasku” (A Handful of Sand), also mentioned by Borowy:9

Pray know that it is tradition by which man’s majesty is distinguished from field animals, and that he who has stifled the conscience of history becomes a savage in a remote island and is gradually becoming an animal himself.10

The discussion on Norwid’s historicism has lasted for over a century, although it still seems impossible to reach a definitive settlement on the issue. The problem of the presence of history in Norwid’s works continues to be an unexhausted subject of scholarly interest, despite the existence of treaties and studies – along with those mentioned above – by Zofia Stefanowska,11 Elżbieta ←16 | 17→Feliksiak,12 Alicja Lisiecka,13 Ewa Bieńkowska,14 Andrzej Walicki,15 Antoni Dunajski,16 Grażyna Halkiewicz-Sojak,17 Krzysztof Trybuś,18 and many others.

I wish this book to be another voice in the exchange of views, as I intend to focus on just one selected aspect of historicism in Norwid’s works. I will make the main thread of below deliberations the history of ancient Greece, along with its cultural derivations, such as the birth of literature, philosophy, art, and theology, in order to take a closer look at the significance of history in the process of the intellectual development of man through the unique case of the history of Greece. We would also like to include the characteristic ambiguity involved in understanding history. Norwid focuses on history as both the course of specific historical processes and stories written down by people; that is, the materials and narrative remnants of past events.

At the foundations of Norwid’s views lies the conviction of our active participation in the historical process and the necessity for examining past events by reaching to remote periods in order to find a pattern that proves the irremovable presence of people in history and the organized character of their activity. Norwid expresses this idea concisely in a fragment of “Filozofia historii polskiej” (The Philosophy of Polish History): “not only sole history is history, but so are the conceptions we make of it” (Pwsz, Vol. 7, p. 65).19

Norwid does not try to discredit divine presence in history. On the contrary, he believes that providence allowed for the possibility of writing history and creating a narration based on facts. Therefore, Norwid decides not to do anything that would contribute to the further rationalization of the course of history and turning divine influence on history into a dialectic activity of an intelligent spirit:

←17 | 18→

If history (in my opinion) had nothing divine in its entirety (that is, if due to that it was not history itself…), then indeed, a historian would need a complete inventory of all facts and acts preceding his writing to which he could add nothing or from which he would draw nothing. / In such a case, history would not have its logical cause of existence, nor such a writer would have to consider it a responsibility, which is said to be one of the links and relations of the course of history. / Indeed, I think that deep antiquity bears the great and honorable seal: that not only preserved monuments but also their remains, or even the absence of remains becomes a monument, if someone can make them legible (Pwsz, Vol. 7, pp. 66–67).

Norwid’s statements refer to the pre-Slavic period in the history of Poland, but we may assume that they express his convictions about the phenomenon of every antiquity and the beginnings of civilization in general; especially the surviving remains of a heritage that demand study and problematization despite their fragmentary character.

In his reflections on history, Norwid creatively uses the inspiration of Giambattista Vico’s The New Science20 (1744), who not only treated history as the proper object of human cognition but also partly freed the view on the course of history from theological interpretations by designing the “border line of the critical transition from the theology to the philosophy of history,”21 as Karl Löwith describes the role of the Neapolitan thinker:

But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind.22

Maria Janion and Maria Żmigrodzka notice that Romantic literature eagerly absorbed Vico’s ideas, which only then were properly popularized. Learning about one’s own past became the fundamental historiosophical task, especially in the European civilization, as it was believed to contribute to the better understanding of human nature. However, as Janion and Żmigrodzka emphasize: “this view was especially significant for the notion of national consciousness.”23 In their ←18 | 19→presentation of relations between history and literature, Janion and Żmigrodzka mainly focus on the events essential for understanding Romantic artists’s times. In this way, Trojan history played a special role in the process of creating convictions about the significance of Polish fate, since the former gave faith in the possibility of regaining the lost Polish state, as once was the experience of Aeneas.This is probably why Janion and Żmigrodzka omit Norwid’s works. In his case, learning about history – especially the history of ancient Greece – did not serve only to further specify the meaning of Polish history. Norwid constantly proves that he is also interested in the history of Greece itself, due to its universal meaning for the European civilization. Hence, Norwid attempts to find the foundations that made Greek history join rather than divide, especially in the context of the origin and development of Christianity. Therefore, Norwid’s goal in evoking ancient history is to illustrate the endeavors of Christian society, while national histories appeared as mediated in the history of the Christian world. This indirectness and multidimensionality of analogies between the past and the present in Norwid’s works make him considerably distance himself from the specificity of other Romantic artists.

Norwid Christianizes Greek history and tries to prove how his own times find roots in the past, and that the essential role of Christianity manifested itself even before Christ’s birth and passion. Noteworthy, Norwid avoids simplifications that in the writings of ancient authors would allow him to look for clear harbingers of the salvation of humankind. He is passionate about the archaic and classical Greece, but also about its afterlife under the rule of the Roman Empire. Defeated Greece is simultaneously the victor that achieved cultural domination over the Romans and contributed to the crystallization of the Christian doctrine. Thus, Norwid experiments with mental processes and the problem of the cultural continuity of the European continent. By going back many centuries in time, he may present the development of Christianity existing within the pagan empire. Moreover, Norwid attempts at reconstructing the contemporary conflict of reasoning by demonstrating various connections between Hellenism and the teachings of Christ.

Norwid uses the method of distrust and suspicion to oppose various attempts at ideologizing and mangling the image of Greece, including especially the neopagan visions of the land of mysteries and gnosis, the aesthetic and political Hellenic utopia of free people exclusively devoted to art, and the idea of Reason that absorbed Christianity, because the followers of Reason saw Athens the most apt birthplace for Christ. Norwid constructs his own vision of the historical presence of Greece in the form of a spiritual element that cyclically returns in various configurations to awaken in people desire for transcendence.

←19 |

Norwid’s mistrust similarly concerns the antique sources that he learns from, as the essential aspect of his returns to the past is the coexistence of an opposing worldview of people from bygone times and limited cognitive possibilities of an artist peering into history. Hence, the appearance of so many momentary encounters, fleeting impressions, and surprising analogies; approximating the past simultaneously means reconstructing and actualizing just a few of its ideas. The presence of the Greek spirit noticed by the poet manifests itself in an accidentally noticed statue, a quote treated as a snatch of a conversation with the dead, a visit in a place of an unknown purpose, or a blurred writing on a wall. The Greece sought by Norwid is a fragmentary tale about history, whose essence was the strive for wisdom, truth, and beauty. Norwid will remain loyal to those endeavors and questions posed by ancient Greeks for the rest of his life. His attitude toward Greece from the Classical period is the most accurately reflected in the excerpt from Norwid’s “Notatki z mitologii” (Notes from Mythology): “From Pericles to Alexander the human mind makes a larger step than India, Egypt, the Chinese and even the Israelites!” (Pwsz, Vol. 7, p. 294).

Hayden White notices that the nineteenth-century bloom of history should be related to the development of a national state and the tendency to legitimize its existence through a careful examination of the issues linked with the past, and to convince the society of the unity of the nation and its rightfulness to the occupied land.

From the mid-nineteenth century on, historical studies would have the task of studying only what had already happened, what was over and done with and could not be undone, what lay in comforting fixity beyond the horizon of living perception in the past, and what could be known with certainty because it could no longer not be what it was. All this was undertaken in order to allay the fears and anxieties of an uncertain origin and fears of corruptive mixtures of blood, genes, and essences.24

Surely, Norwid’s ambition is to freely enter areas reserved for historical sciences, which was fostered by evident shortcomings in the institutionalization of Polish historiography. We can draw such conclusions from many of Norwid’s drafts, notes, and texts devoted to specific historical issues. We may risk a statement that he sought balance in using history to fulfill the needs of one’s own nation and looking back to interpret it in a universalist manner. The balance must be unsteady, because Norwid assumes that his main task – which I will describe ←20 | 21→further in the book – was to extract and reveal the events of history unknown to the general public, its dark sides and the human struggles that were never expressed. Hence, he is convinced that history is brought to life and gains significance mainly due to the possibilities provided by literature.


This book consists of six parts. The introductory part focuses on Romantic Hellenism understood as an influential intellectual and artistic movement that very much shaped the aesthetic character of European Romanticisms. I subordinate the choice of representatives of European Hellenism to Norwid’s fascination with history in order to anchor his thought more accurately in the intellectual atmosphere of the Enlightenment and Romantic interest in ancient and contemporary Greece. Moreover, I attempt to emphasize the presence of educational and didactic issues in European Hellenism that constitute an important context in Norwid’s works. I devote the two remaining fragments of the introduction to the issue of Hellenism in the works of Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki. The problem of the presence of Hellenic issues and references in the works of those two poets is so extensive that it could easily fill separate monographs. Therefore, I exclusively focus on selected subjects in order to more accurately emphasize the differences between how Mickiewicz and Słowacki perceived Greek heritage and how did Norwid. Hence, as far as Mickiewicz’s works are concerned, I am mainly interested in the issue of the political image of Greece and its associations with Russian imperialism while, in the case of Słowacki’s works, I describe selected examples of relations between Hellenism and classicism, especially in three of his works: Lambro, Podróż do Ziemi Świętej z Neapolu (Journey to the Holy Land from Naples), and Agezylausz.

In the first chapter, I focus on the matter of Norwid’s Hellenism in the existing studies on his works and describe how he approached the civilizational heritage of the Greeks. The middle section of the chapter consists of a list of editions by antique writers and contemporary researchers to whose works Norwid probably referred. In the same chapter, I also characterize his views on the birth of literature, historiography, and philosophy in ancient Greece.

The second chapter concerns the history of Greece, observed through the lens of Norwid’s notebooks, who attempted at specifying and expressing his own position on Greek history based on various readings. The reading of these notebooks is a fascinating experience that allows one to understand that – according to Norwid – Greece emerged as a result of the clash of the influence of various cultures, such as the Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Phoenician, and Pelasgian. The Greeks who arrived at the Mediterranean Sea, when meeting with ←21 | 22→new peoples, languages, and beliefs, gained experiences that later allowed them to invent such phenomena as democracy, philosophy, and theater; fundamental from the viewpoint of the fate of civilization. I touch on the issue of connections between Norwid’s Socrates from Norwid’s lecture on Juliusz Słowacki, rationalist philosophy, and the political role of philosophers in a polis. The main point of my interest is to explain why the Socrates from Norwid’s works is an incomplete incoherent figure, as if the poet feared the potential of meanings included in the activity of the Athenian philosopher.

In the third chapter, I describe the process called the Hellenization of Christianity, which constitutes an important element of my deliberations, especially in the context of Norwid’s Quidam. The starting point of this chapter is Harnack’s late nineteenth-century critique of the influence of Greek philosophy and language on Christian dogma. I attempt at tracing Platonic threads in the works of Norwid, especially in the context of connections between Platonism and Christianity. While analyzing Quidam, I try to prove that the fundamental problem of the text lays in the relationship of Christianity with the ancient Greek heritage, which determined the fate of the Christian religion in the next centuries.

The fourth chapter concerns the issue of cultural memory in Epimenides and Kleopatra i Cezar. In these works, Norwid employs the motif of the birth of memory in ancient Greece and presents the far-reaching consequences of manipulating memory’s extraordinary possibilities. Epimenides concerns the role of memory in the pre-Christian Greek society, deprived of the theological assurance of the existence of the history of redemption and, therefore, dependent on the experiences from its own past to resolve conflicts and crises. Kleopatra i Cezar concerns the decline of the Hellenistic era in Egypt prior to Roman conquest. The events depicted in the tragedy constantly revolve around memory. In this way, Norwid demonstrates the destructive force that resides in memory understood as a tool used to manipulate the society. Moreover, memory plays a role in presenting the phenomenon of tragedy from a unique perspective, which Norwid moves from the set of events experienced directly by the characters to the sphere of their imagination. In this way, the presentation of the tragic conflict of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Her becomes a theater of memory enacted in front of other dramatis personae and – simultaneously – in front of the reader.

The fifth chapter focuses on the image of Sparta and Athens in Tyrtej. Here, I focus on the story of the Greek paideia, in the context of the Second Messenian War and the role of Tyrtaeus in Greek history. Norwid strongly reinterpretes the story by placing Tyrtaeus on the margin of his work to precisely illustrate the image of two opposing state models based on the example of Athens and Sparta. ←22 | 23→Hence, Norwid also summarizes his remarks about ancient Greek history which, on the one hand, is full of gaps and understatements and, on the other hand, is a masterpiece by a group of remarkable Athenian intellectuals. They created a cohesive tale on the basis of Greek history. When writing Tyrtej, Norwid pays tribute to the significant role of the history that they wrote, at the same time noticing and describing the cracks and weaker parts of their narration.

2. Hellenism and History

“Being Greek is a real performance,”25 remarks Simon Goldhill, the author of the book Who Needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism. In Goldhill’s opinion, the matter of “being Greek” should be considered as an important element of the intellectual and social history of the West. He writes that “ ‘Greekness’ is a constructed quality, crossed by fantasy, projection and desire.”26 Interpreted this way, “Greekness” may be treated as a key element of many cultural projects that regularly emerged throughout the history of the Western civilization and that consisted of identifying the aesthetic and intellectual excellence with the achievements of the ancient Greeks. Undoubtedly, the culmination of this influential intellectual current was the sudden Europe-wide wave of interest in Greece commonly referred to as Hellenism, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century and lasted until the end of the first half of the nineteenth century.27

One of the main causes of the eighteenth-century fascination with Greece was the increasing knowledge about the ancient world, which resulted from the development of archeology and historical sciences. In 1738, in Herculaneum began excavations under the patronage of the king of Naples, Charles III, and eleven years later in Pompeii.28 1755 saw the establishment of Accademia ←23 | 24→Ercolanese di Archeologia, which focused on publishing the volumes of Le Antichita di Ercolano29 that contained the engravings of the discovered monuments, which then gained recognition in the entire Europe. The institutionalization of the interest in antique art was one of the key reasons for the success of this influential intellectual movement. In France, such significant role played the activity of Académie des Inscriptions, which supported the archeological studies conducted in Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor, the lands visited by Abbé Barthélemy.30 In England, we may emphasize the founding of The Society of Dilettanti (1732), an institution interested in the popularization of information on the current state of monuments from the terrains of ancient Greece.31 This ←24 | 25→phenomenon of institutionalization and ordering of various aspects of interest in Greece will also play a significant role in the Greek War of Independence, as the national Committees emerging at that time and consisting of the Philhellenes from various countries will coordinate the actions supporting the Greek side in the conflict with the Ottomans, while often engaging in diplomatic games and international rivalry, noticeable especially between London and Paris.32

We should mention the role of Johann Joachim Winckelmann33 in creating the image of ancient Greeks and their art, because the German researcher’s perspective determined the form of later references to the Greek heritage. As David Ferris notices, Winckelmann radically revalued the assessment of antique history, contributing to the birth of the phenomenon commonly known as an aestheticization of history. In his fundamental works, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Mahlerey und Bildhauerkunst (1755) and Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764), Winckelmann formulated the principal conviction that the path to excellence in visual arts leads only through the imitation ancient Greek achievements, as they attained the universal ideal of beauty, especially in sculpture. Culture became the center of Winckelmann’s idea, as it allowed for describing all phenomena representing the existence of a nation. As Ferris argues:

What the rise of Hellenism gave a specific expression to is an understanding of history mediated through a concept of culture. For such an understanding, culture acts as a ←25 | 26→common denominator allowing access to other fields and other expressive forms that would otherwise remain isolated by the particularity of the critical discourses to which they had hitherto owed their significance. This is why, under the name of culture, political life, artistic and non-artistic productions, intellectual achievements, history, popular expressions, and even the body can all be treated as expressive forms representing a common significance: culture becomes the medium through which every form of human activity may be examined.34

Winckelmann believed that the development of art is irreversibly related to the history of a nation, therefore we may claim that art experiences its own birth, bloom, and decline, all of which occurs simultaneously to the entire nation and its art. For the nation to develop, which consequently results in the development of art, there is a need for favorable external factors; according to Winckelmann, the most important one is political freedom. In this way, the proper relationship between individual freedom and national identity became the foundation without which the achievements of the Greek civilization would be impossible.

The connection between aesthetics and history contributed to the discovery of the Greek potential, useful in defining modern phenomena. Since Greek art did not survive the fall of Hellenic freedom, we may therefore discuss it only from the historical perspective. For this reason – Winckelmann emphasizes – the end of ancient art became the beginning of art history. However, this relates to yet another crucial thread of his deliberations, as his proposal to make the imitation of ancient Greeks the aim of modern endeavors required an explanation of how to imitate the unique history of a nation. As Ferris highlights, this issue forced Winckelmann’s contemporaries to face the model of Greek history and to try to follow that path, but also, importantly, to reconsider their own attitude toward the past. On this level of history that cannot be repeated and the need for a critical approach to the past – including relentless crises and ruptures in continuity rather than a continuous accumulation of experiences – Winckelmann established the project to seek the ideal of perfect beauty.

Inimitability is, in fact, another name for history. If modernity is to imitate Greece, then it must imitate the history that makes Greece inimitable, and this history is nothing less than its failure, its complete ruin. Modernity, in this context, becomes the repeated downfall of Greek art as it imitates the inimitable moment of Greek history and culture. As a result, the onset of such a thing as modernity will always announce the failure of the past to sustain itself.35

←26 | 27→

In this way and because of Winckelmann, ancient Greece became the indicator of the relationship between modernity and the past that constantly reminds us about the impossibility to repeat history. Incessant references to Greece contributed to the visualization of the state of permanent crisis that nations can emerge from only through the self-affirmation of their art. The aestheticization of history contributed to the birth of modern thought, which states that the past constitutes something dramatically ruptured that cannot be repeated. However, we must be aware of this to assess the current situation and locate ourselves in our own present.

Biographical notes

Maciej Junkiert (Author)

Maciej Junkiert, Polish philologist and historian of ideas, professor at the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. His research focuses on relationships of classical philology with literary studies in Poland and Germany, especially in the 19th century.


Title: Cyprian Norwid and the History of Greece