Public history, a new podcast explores Winckelmann's life and murder


In the realm of art history, few names command the same reverence and intrigue as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the German scholar whose work heavily inspired the Neoclassical movement of the late 18th century.

Winckelmann’s tragic demise in 1768, at the Osteria Grande in Trieste, is the starting point of Dr. Sean Williams' latest podcast, “Death in Trieste”, a series of 5 episodes produced by BBC Radio 3 that delve into the life and murder of the famous art historian.

Williams - Senior Lecturer in German literature and European Cultural History at the University of Sheffield - carried out the research work behind the series at the Venice Centre for Digital and Public Humanities, part of the Department of Humanities of Ca' Foscari University of Venice “I knew I needed to spend my research leave in Italy to be able to tell this story as best as I could - explained Dr. Williams - I’d heard about he VeDPH and I got into contact with professors Stefano Dall’Aglio and Franz Fischer, who saw the value of this work. It was great to be around creative people who are so academically driven. Doing research at the Centre was key not only in terms of the support I received, but also practically, as it offered me a space in which I could live and work and get to the places I was researching about. This series turned into so much more than cultural history from archives and history books!”

Indeed, in the quest to unravel the myth surrounding Winckelmann’s figure, Williams ventured to different locations, transporting listeners into the very essence of those places, from the piers of Trieste to the villas in Rome “You can gather information in libraries and archives and make quite a good podcast, but I really wanted to create an immersive experience. Nothing makes good radio like hearing the echoey voice in a crypt, the shutting of the gates, the sloshing of water - and to me there’s no replacement for these sounds being authentic. Sound effects, locations, speaking to your audience personally, tone of voice: all of this might be seen as just decorative elements, but they’re actually fundamental to getting your point across.”

As a public story, ‘Death in Trieste’ has everything: a true crime case, sex and death, art, literature and travel, but William’s reflection on the life of Winckelmann is far from sensationalist “This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a very long time. I’d come across it in reading often and it’s been subjected to a lot of discussion and much has been written about it academically, so there’s lots of material on it. it’s not like we have a smoking gun, there is no great discovery about the culprit to be found in the archives. Rather, it’s always been read anew, over the centuries - which means it also tells us a lot about ourselves, and our changing approaches.
The great gift of this story is that it allowed me to take the traditionally academic approach of asking questions and make it accessible and compelling, to make people think, to intrigue them and to evoke curiosity. To stand back and ask bigger questions about how we approach history, and make myths out of it.”

The interpretations about Wincklemann’s sexuality in connection to his murder rest on reading between the lines, so it’s difficult to get a grasp of what actually happened. But Williams wants listeners to embrace these grey areas of history “History isn’t definite, and the history of sexuality certainly isn’t. I would like for people to learn to appreciate the ambiguity of our past, using it to question why we project ourselves and the present onto stories like these. Sometimes we lose our historical consciousness, thinking that certain things were not possible back in the days and reducing the past. Or we look for heroes in history to give legitimacy to current day issues. Things are a lot more grey than that, but the process of thinking about them is not fruitless if you don’t come to a concrete answer.”

After the success of the podcast, Williams has every intention of continuing his work on the story “I was inspired by what some researchers are already doing at the Venice Centre of Digital and Public Humanities and I want to think of different ways in which this already existing podcast can be used or embedded, for example to give a new perspective to tourists in Trieste, Venice or Rome. I would like for this work to speak to as many people as possible, adapting it for different audiences

Listen to all five episodes of “Death in Trieste” here 

Francesca Favaro