Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Winckelmann and Tarocchino

Winckelmann's compliments to the 'Society of the Tarocchino' of Dresden


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, August 2013


Johann Joachim Winckelmann (Stendal, Prussia, 1717 - Trieste 1768), an exponent of Neoclassicism in the studies of art history, was the first to adopt the criterion of the evolution of styles chronologically distinguishable from each other. The son of a shoemaker, he studied at the Universities of Jena and Halle. In short, after he had carried out many prestigious assignments (librarian to Imperial Count Heinrich von Bünau at Nöthnitz, near Dresden, and deputy headmaster at the Gymnasium [academic high school] of Seehausen), and following the publication, in June of 1755, of Gedanken über die Nachahmung griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst [Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture], Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, granted him a pension of 200 thalers to allow him to continue his studies in Rome, where, once arrived, he entered into friendship with cardinals and the political and cultural authorities, and in 1763 was appointed prefect of antiquities.


In 1760 he published the Description des pierres gravées du feu baron de Stosch and two years later the Anmerkungen über die Baukunst der Alten [Observations on the Architecture of the Ancients], with a report on the temples of Paestum.


After visiting Naples and the cities destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD,  there appeared his Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen (Letter on the discoveries at Herculaneum, 1762) and Neueste Nachrichten von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen (Report on the Latest Discoveries at Herculaneum, 1764), where he gave the first information on the artistic treasures unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum.


In addition to numerous other works on antiquity, his masterpiece is the Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (History of the Art of Antiquity), translated into Italian with the title "Storia delle arti del disegno presso gli antichi" (History of the arts of design among the ancients), published in Dresden in December 1763 and dated the following year. "The influence of his work can be characterized as immeasurable, from the late 18th through the 19th centuries and after. This influence is evident by the dominance, acquired and maintained for a long time, of the neoclassical style in all fields of art, as well as in aesthetic theories that put the masterpieces of Greek art as the basis of any judgment. The fundamental idea in the aesthetic vision of W. is that the purpose of art is pure beauty, and that this aim can be achieved only when the individual and generic elements are strictly subordinated to the overall vision of the artist. The true artist, through his imagination, selects the nature of the phenomena suitable for his purposes, creating an ideal type of beauty characterized by "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" (edle Einfalt und stille Größe). The model of Beauty is, for W., the statues of the Greek Olympic gods, which transcend the materiality and particularity ("blood and veins”) of the human body, transforming it into something universal, a symbol of a perfect humanity. As a pure form of the intellect, beauty has nothing to do with the senses, matter and passions, and transcends all individual peculiarities. In the ideal of beauty reason must dominate pathos and sentiment. Starting from this conception of beauty as something perfect, absolute, objective, that transcends any contingency, W. poses the ultimate goal of art in the "representation of general concepts and things that are not perceptible by the senses", and then, in opposition to the baroque, a critique all forms of naturalism, rejecting the idea of art as mimesis, but also as "expression" (Ausdruck), i.e. as a manifestation of the artist's subjectivity, which in this case manifests itself as primary, not objective beauty, and in doing so keeps the consumer of the work of art in his subjective finitude. Beauty finds its ultimate realization rather when it becomes "grace", and more specifically the "peaceful grace according to reason", whose essential characteristics are rationality, balance, composure and order" (1).


A huge misunderstanding into which Winckelmann fell was that in his veneration of Greek statuary, in which he singled out the whiteness of the marble as one of the highest aesthetic suggestions, he did not consider that Greek statues (as well as temples) in marble were completely covered in colors (basically red, black and white), natural colors, unstable and soluble, which the rain washed away leaving minimal trace.


Winckelmann died in Trieste on June 8, 1768 at the hands of a certain Francesco Arcangeli, a professional chef, who had approached him to steal the gold medals given to him by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. His remains rest in the Cathedral of San Giusto.          



                                         Johann Joachim Winckelmann, painted by Anton von Maron (1768)


On the occasion of his journey to Rome, Winckelmann stopped in other cities, including Bologna, where he was hosted by the Bianconi family, whose members held important positions in society at the time; Angelo Michele had recently been appointed as agent of the King of Poland, whose uncle Gian Battista, scholar and theologian, a scholar of the Greek language and literature, took the Archiginnasio [city library of Bologna], while Charles, one of the younger brothers, became the president of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Milan.


Winckelmann’s arrival had been announced from Dresden months in advance, by archiatra [doctor] Bianconi (2) to his brother Angelo Michele, in a letter dated September 1, 1755: "...Li 13. di questo mese parte per Roma un certo Sig.r Winckelmann che è un Luterano fatto cattolico (3). Questi è un bravissimo Grecista, cosi vorrei, che lo faceste conoscere al Sig.r Zio, e glie lo raccomandaste…. Mi premerebbe che, se si ferma in Bologna come spero, che lo alloggiaste da noi. Non vi mettete soggezione, perché è un povero ragazzo avvezzo al poco; cosi tutto sarà buono per lui. Egli era spessissimo in casa mia a pranzo, cosi non gli faccio cerimonie: è giovane che ha stampato qualche cosa, ed è mantenuto dal Re...".


["The ... 13. This month a certain Signor Winckelmann, a Lutheran become Catholic, leaves for Rome. (3) This man is a very good Greek scholar, so I would like to make him known to the Signor Uncle, and you will advise him of him .... I would impress it on him that, if he stops in Bologna, as I hope, that you lodge him with us. You are not going to be made uneasy, because he is a poor boy accustomed to little, so everything will be good to him. He was often in my house for lunch, so I do not make ceremonies with him: he is a young man who has published something, and he is maintained by the King .. "]


And so yet another letter, on September 24: " ... il latore della presente è Winckelmann, di cui vi ho scritto nelle mie precedenti... ve lo raccomando quanto so e posso in tutto e per tutto, e vorrei che lo alloggiaste in casa, e come amico mio, e come persona dottissima, anzi gran Grecista, e come giovane mantenuto, e mandato dal Re a Roma... Fategli vedere la pittura, le Librerie, massime quella di S. Salvatore, conoscere i Letterati, e l'Istituto...... Vi raccomando il soggiorno costí di Winckelmann, acciocché non gli costi niente. Egli è un buon galantuomo da bosco e da riviera, che non pretende cerimonie”.


["... the bearer of this letter is Winckelmann, of whom I wrote in my previous letter ... I recommend him as much as I can in every way, and I wish to lodge him in the house, and as my friend, and as a most learned person, indeed a great Greek scholar, and as a young man maintained by the king, and sent to Rome ... Have him see paintings, Libraries, especially that of San Salvatore, and become acquainted with the writers and the Institute ...... I entrust to you this Winckelmann’s stay, so that he does not spend anything. He is a good, honest man of the forest and coast, who does not insist on ceremonies"] (4).


When Winckelmann was a guest in the house of Bianconi in Dresden, he knew tarot, a game to which his host dedicated his leisure time together with his friends, constituting, on German soil, the Compagnia del Tarocchino, a Society that Winckelmann will recall in several of his letters sent to his doctor friend. Winckelmann had known Bianconi in 1754 when he moved to Dresden. To describe how the friendship between the two was established, we will appeal to the life of Winckelmann as described by Joseph Eiselein. (In reporting the text we have kept the numbering of the notes as assigned by the author).






"At the beginning of October 1754, Winckelmann left his employment with the Count of Bünau in Nötheniz and relocated in Dresden. There he rented a house for six thalers a month. But after a short time he went to stay in the house of the painter Oeser, his friend, in Frauengasse, and had to settle for a single room paying two thalers and a half a month, because its resources had become more meager (100). He characterizes this painter in the following words: ‘Oeser is a man who possesses an extraordinary talent in his art, but he is very sluggish, and there is no work for him to speak of.. His design lacks the purity that the ancients, and the color is not adequately handled. He has Rubens' brush with the difference that the latter draws with more elegance, with a mind that is ready and universally informed on everything that can be known outside of Italy (101), in short I consider him as another Aristide, who, in reasoning on the soul knew to paint it with intellect (102). At this time Winckelmann became acquainted with councilor Bianconi of Bologna, chief physician of the Prince-Elector of Saxony, this man had all the fine politics of an Italian (103), and his universal talent and extraordinary ability make him superior all in all (104). He convened every night in his house a society of people among whom were many pedants; Winckelmann also always participated in the conversation. Bianconi was sorry, however, that Winckelmann took his leave in the company of others before dinner. From this we come to know for what reason Winckelmann stayed often to dine there also. He hoped to get himself some advantage from this chief physician, who had asked him to assist him in some work which he had for a long time not thought more about, but to which he wanted to return. But later he came to find out that Bianconi wanted to get honor from his labors (105). In fact, since the second day after meeting Winckelmann, he had asked in simple complacency for a new translation of Pindar and the scholiast, and having received a negative response, asked for a literal translation of the Greek physician Dioscorides of which he, knowing no Greek, wished to make a stylish paraphrase. So that the work would have special merit, it had to be compared with the Greek codex existing in Vienna, which dated back to one thousand three hundred years ago, and up to that time had served as the basis for any other edition of this doctor. Since then such a venture took a long time he proposed to Winckelmann to remain near him, for which he would have given a small stipend. Like the previous ones, this project also vanished, although something was started.. Finally he decided to propose the translation of the book entitled De morbis mulierum (106), which seems to have been composed by the Greek doctor Moschion. After many indiscreet demands Winckelmann was weary of Bianconi and finally refused any kind of work and desisted from visiting (107)" (5).


(100)  Letter to Berends of 29 December 1754.

(101)  Letter to Gasparo Füessly of 9 April 1763.

(102)  Illustration to Thoughts etc. § 148

(103)  Letter to Berends of 10 March 1755.

(104)  To the same, of 25 July 1755.

(105)  To Berends of 29 January 1757.

(106)  Published in Vienna in 1793 under the title: De mulierum passionibus, liber, addita version latina [On the diseases of women, shown in Latin version] in 8.

(107)  Letter to Berends of 39 December 1754.


However, even if Winckelmann had given up visiting the house of Bianconi, there survived an epistolary relationship between the two, and Bianconi did not seem to have been hurt that much, if also in the following year he sang the praises of his friend, trying to support him in every way.


Winckelmann had long advised Gian L. Bianconi of his future trip to Italy, confirmed by a subsequent letter sent to him from Augusta in French October 10, 1755. After reporting on visits made to friends and acquaintances of Bianconi, he continues: "Penso di partire di qui l’11 del mese, cioè sabato, con il vetturino Jean Platzer, per Venezia. La supplico, Signore, di continuarmi la Sua Amicizia. Io Le ho mostrato l’intimo del mio animo, le mie debolezze e le mie follie, con­vinto di confidarmi a un uomo dotato di un'anima fatta per 1'amicizia, la più grande virtù umana. Questa mi fece apprez­zare la Sua persona, più ancora dello spirito universale e del genio felice, fecondo che ammirai in Lei. Si ricordi quando giocherà ai tarocchi, che un povero diavolo, 'le dos courbé sous un tas d'auteurs grecs' (Voltaire), è per strada, mentre Lei è adagiato sulla Sua poltrona...".


["I am thinking of leaving here on the 11th of the month, that is, on Saturday, with the driver Jean Platzer, for Venice. I beg you, Signore, to continue to offer Your Friendship. I have showed you the depths of my soul, my weaknesses and my follies, convinced of confiding in a man with a soul made for friendship, the greatest human virtue. This made me appreciate Your person, even more the universal spirit and happy, fruitful genius that I admired in You. Remember, when you play tarot, that a poor devil, 'le dos courbé sous un tas d'auteurs grecs' [‘back bent under a pile of Greek authors’] (Voltaire), is on the street, while You make yourself comfortable in Your chair ... "] (6).


His departure was delayed due to the large number of Jesuits who were on their way to Rome for the appointment of the General of the Society. After deciding to go to Venice on foot, he made an agreement with Platzer for the price of 13 florins, and he undertook the journey in the company of a castrato (7), a married couple, and two children.


A five day stay in Venice was enough: after the first moment of surprise, he realized that the great cold could undermine his health (he wrote to his friend Johann Michael Francke), so he decided to leave for Bologna, which he reached by water on November 4, after three days and three nights of travel, welcomed, as mentioned above, by the Bianconi family.


The same day he sent a letter, in Italian, to Gian L. Bianconi, his "lord and master". Probably the letter will have been only partially corrected (given the obvious mistakes) by Angelo Michele since, by previous admissions, Winckelmann, if he understood Italian sufficiently, wrote and spoke it with difficulty.


"Illustrissimo Signore e Padrone


Mi è venuta la fantasia di avvertire Vossignoria delle mie novelle in Italiano: bene ò male; non importa: basta che sia intesa. Spero dalla di lei indul­genza di perdonare i Solecismi.


Sono arrivato sano e contento in Bologna ai 4 ri­cevuto dalla Casa sua honoratissima con tutta distintione, di che mi tengo obbligato a Vossig. eternalmen­te. Penso di trattenermi costi qualche giorni per profitare dalla di lei bontà e dalla cortesia di Sua Casa. II suo fratello mi a fatto vedere in quel poco tempo che restava del giorno d'oggi qualche Chiese de' più bellissime: nessun momento sara perduto del mio soggiono in Bologna.


Mi sono fermato in Venezia 5 giorni riguardando tutto che si poteva fare senza grande spese: le Chiese, i Palazzi, l'Arsenale: mà la mia disgrazia ha voluto che il Bibliotecario Zanetti sia stato in campagna da non potere vedere la Biblioteca di S. Marco: e quel ch'è il piu principale per me, le Statue antiche nella Antisala della Libreria.


Il suo fratello Lei avvertira dalle mie Commissione. Mi lusingo d’imparare à spiegarmi un poco più meglio fin che arriverò a Roma. Resto con eterno obligo dalle bontà di Vossignoria, raccomandandomi alle sue grazie e Lei supplico di disporre di me, in tutto che sarà del suo interesse.


                         Di Vossignoria


                                                                   Il Divotissimo Servidore


Bologna, ai 4 Nov. 1755


Mille Complimenti alla Sig.ra Sua Moglie al Annibali, al Migliavacca al padre Olivieri e à tutta Società del Tarocchino".

["Most Illustrious Lord and Master


The fantasy has come to me of informing Your Worship of my news in Italian: good or bad, no matter: as long as it is understandable. I hope for your indulgence in forgiving my Solecisms.


I arrived healthy and happy in Bologna at 4, received by the House with all its most honored distinctions, for which I remain eternally obliged to Your Lordship. I think I will entertan myself a few days profiting from your goodness and the kindness of Your House. The your brother had me see in the little time left of the day some most beautiful Churches: no time will be lost in my Sojourn in Bologna.


I stopped in Venice 5 days looking at everything that could be done without great expense: the churches, the palaces, the Arsenal, but my misfortune would have it thatthe Librarian Zanetti was in the country, preventing me from seeing the Library of S. Marco: and what is most important for me, the ancient statues in the Antechamber of the Library.


The your brother will tell you of my Commission. I flatter myself that I will know how to explain things a bit better by the time I get to Rome. I remain eternally obliged to the goodness of Your Worship, recommending all to your grace, and I beg you to dispose of me in everything that will be to your interest.


                             Of Your Most Illustrious Lordship


                                                                     The Very Devoted Servant


Bologna, on 4 Nov. 1755


A thousand Congratulations to Signora Your Wife, to Annibali, to Migliavacca, to his father Olivieri and all the Society of Tarocchino"] (8).


Winckelmann again sends his compliments to the Society of Tarocchino at the end of a letter written in French and sent to Rome to the same Gian L. Bianconi to inform him of trends of his life in that city, December 7, 1755: "Mes Complimens humbles tres-à Madame, M. Annibali et à toute la Compagnie de Tarrocchino" [My very humble Compliments to Madame, Monsieur Anibali and all the Society of Tarrochino] (9).




1 - See: Winckelmann, Johann Joachim, in “Dizionario di Filosofia" (“Dictionary of Philosophy"), Treccani, 2009, online at:
2 - Bianconi had assumed the post of chief physician of the Prince-Elector of Saxony.

3 - Winckelmann converted to Catholicism on 11 June 1754 to fulfill his dream of not only going to Rome but of being able to do the research he needed there.

4 - Giorgio Zampa (ed.), Lettere Italiane. Johann Joachim Winckelmann [Italian Letters. Johann Joachim Winckelmann], Milan, Feltrinelli, 1961, p. 4. Winckelmann wrote to the Elector of Saxony his Briefe an Bianconi [Letters to Bianconi] which were published eleven years after his death in the Antologia romana [Roman Anthology].

5 - Vita di Giovanni Winckelmann, compilata da Giuseppe Eiselein [Life of John Winckelmann, compiled by Joseph Eiselein], in “Opere di G.G. Winckelmann”, Prima Edizione Italiana Completa, Tomo I [‘Works of G. G.Winckelmann’, First Complete Italian Edition, Volume I], Prato, Per i Fr. Giachetti, 1830, pp. 58-60. [Transator’s note: in German. Winckelmann’s initials are “J. J.”]

6 - Giorgio Zampa (ed.), Op cit.,  p. 3.

7 - At that time and for some time, the castrati singers took the primary role in the works and Venice was very famous for this kind of musical expression.

8 - Giorgio Zampa (ed.), Op cit., P. 5-6.

9 - Ibid, p. 11.