July 22, 2012 by Marcus Speh
It appears that Winckelmann, when he was already famous and could look back at a distinguished career, fell in love once again. Her name was Berenice and he wrote her letters full of rather unrestrained passion.
Goethe, himself not a sad sack and proud of his own letter-writing, calls Winckelmann a splendid fellow, “who poured his entire natural freedom out on the paper when writing letters and displayed his feelings without concern.” We must presume that he knew of Winckelmann’s letters to Berenice though they are not mentioned as such anywhere in Goethe’s essay.
Upon thorough analysis, the scholar in charge of the investigation, a certain Dr. Alfons Lowenstein, realised that Winckelmann’s Berenice was a Zebra. The famous man of letters had made use of the whole range of “natural freedom” and made love to an equid.
We don’t know much about Lowenstein. We know that he was married. We know that he had previously dabbled in psychiatry in as much as anyone can dabble in the science of disturbed minds, but the mental strain had proven too strong for him. He’d chosen mid-18th century art history as his field of study because it was far enough from the excesses of Nietzschean existentialism, which scared him.
Lowenstein must have been appalled at first. When researching Winckelmann’s correspondence that he thought elevated and dealing with questions of aesthetic verity he was thrown into a maelstrom of feelings resting on a spongy bed of sexual transgression.
Via Lowenstein’s wife we know that his goal was to suppress any knowledge of the perverted nature of Winckelmann’s love life. In one of the letters, there were rather explicit descriptions of sex-making, as Lowenstein called it privately. “The zebra,” Lowenstein noted, “has never truly been domesticated.” This fact may have attracted Winckelmann’s curiosity in a time when the bourgeoisie was beginning to believe themselves to be masters of the universe. We know that Lowenstein became so interested in the species that he wed one himself: Ms Lowenstein was an Imperial Zebra from Kenya called Xanthippe. She was likely much younger than her husband, perhaps by as much as forty years.
We don’t know what happened to Lowenstein and his spouse in the end. He got lost among the stones, etchings and musings of the past, as did Winckelmann’s Berenice. Only Winckelmann’s deeds as an archeologist and his tamer letters to humans are truly known and discussed openly today.
Note: Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was an important German art historian and archeologist. He sets a beautiful example for the influence and domination of art over society. He championed the doctrine of art as creative imitation (Nachahmung) rather than copy and initiated German idealism. One of the first Germans to publicly be known as gay, he was murdered under murky circumstances in Trieste.