Trieste 1768

I.

The Abbé Winckelmann was at his desk
in the hotel, when his new friend Francesco
returned, ostensibly in search of his
dropped handkerchief. He asked to see, once more,
the special medals from Her Holy Empress,
and Winckelmann obliged him merrily
by waving them like censers in the air.
Done with his “fair Antinous” charade,
Francesco made his move and pulled a knife,
intent on robbery. A fight ensued,
and Winckelmann was stabbed at least five times.
Some servant, hearing cries, surprised the thief,
who fled, with gory hands, into the street
and hid himself nearby inside a shed.
The Abbé staggered to the balcony,
pressing a cloth against his streaming wounds.

II.

He’d argued that the turbulent Laocoön
embodied chaste decorum and restraint.
Sedateness was a virtue in itself,
for this bookish son of an epileptic cobbler.
Gripping the banister, he had become
a grisly simulacrum of the statue,
peering in desperation, faintly, down
into the dim and cavernous hotel.
A bustling group of servants mounted toward
him on the stairs, some shrieking in their panic,
until they reached him finally and hushed,
stopping to catch their breath before they tipped
him gently down onto a mattress. Then,
as though he truly were a wounded king
or holy martyr, some fell on their knees,
while some like saints or ancient Romans stood
and hid their pallid faces in their hands.

III.

Poor Winckelmann had met his murderer
only the week before. Francesco heard
him asking about ships, and, butting in,
told Winckelmann that he knew of a captain
whose brigantine was ready to embark.
The two men set out for the quay but went
instead to a coffeehouse where both indulged
forbidden inclinations. They returned
to the hotel and were inseparable
thereafter, although both were unforthcoming.
The Abbé served as Papal Antiquary
and never told his friend. Francesco failed,
for his part, to disclose that he had just
been freed from jail. He thought the Abbé was
a spy or an adventurer, perhaps
a Lutheran or a Jew. At any rate,
there by himself, with money, in Trieste,
he made an easy mark for young Francesco.
The scholar had been frantic to persuade
his amoroso to return with him
and foolishly showed off a golden snuffbox,
a gift from the Marquis of Tavistock.

IV.

He’d hoped to die held in the broken arms
of his beloved Apollo Belvedere
and glide through heaven pressed to that pure stone.
But now a guardsman thumbed his battered Iliad,
while a condoling monk assisted him
in drawing up a will, which he would die
trying to sign. Francesco, on the wheel,
would bawl and beg for death, then lie exposed
as fare for famished dogs and harbor fowl.
A courier, dispatched to Rome, would bring
the awful tidings to the Vatican.
Cassandra-like, Frau Kaufmann went to Mass,
and, trudging through the galleries, distraught,
Mengs wept before the Barberini Faun.
The medals were discovered by a cardinal,
uncatalogued, among the Abbé’s things.

V.

We have our own Apollo Belvedere,
which Winckelmann inspired, at the Met.
A grand Canova on the balcony,
of Perseus rampant with the baleful head.
The victor with his magic shoes and helmet
is otherwise stark naked in the court
of Polydectes, where he hoists his trophy,
high and dripping, up before the hall,
to petrify the whole licentious rout
and end the tyrant’s terrible misrule.
The scene, at last, was what the gods had wished.
Our hero rode through town, pelted with flowers,
while pageants overspread the countryside.
Danaë rejoiced, the Nereids rejoiced,
Andromeda rejoiced in broken chains,
for Perseus had delivered up the palace
and greeted faithful Dictus with the crown.


This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 2, on page 39
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