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A Silly, Very Cultured Club

Society of Dilettanti, London
George Knapton: Sir Bourchier Wrey, 1744; paintings from Bruce Redford’s Dilettanti

True to their creed, the Dilettanti pursued both kinds of delight, serious as well as ludicrous, with maniacal dedication. Redford’s often amusing, handsomely illustrated account (flanked last summer by a delectable exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, curated by Redford and Claire L. Lyons) traces the range of their activities through three generations, from the society’s founding to its ignominious performance in the debate about the Elgin Marbles that took place in the spring of 1816.

The first Dilettanti gathered together in a London tavern in the bleak December of 1734, to relive their experiences of the Grand Tour—hence the society’s Italianate name and its emphasis on the complementary pleasures of culture, especially the visual arts, and drink. Drowning the miseries of English winter in wine-soaked memories of Italian sunshine, the founding Dilettanti dressed in exotic costumes, bantered about sex, and exchanged the refined opinions about art that they had acquired during their sojourns in Rome, Florence, Naples, and Venice.

Theirs was an era in which clubs and clubmen dominated the social scene: several Dilettanti also belonged to the ultra-serious Royal Society for Promoting Natural Knowledge or the Royal Academy of the Arts. But their own gatherings usually bore a closer resemblance to those of less sober organizations, like the Kit-Cat Club (named for the mutton pies baked by Christopher “Kit” Cat, keeper of the Cat and Fiddle tavern where the Kit-Cats met) or the shadowy, notorious Hell-Fire Club.2 Like the Kit-Cats, the Dilettanti would maintain a close relationship with the world of publishing, but whereas the Kit-Cats mixed aristocrats with working professionals and favored Whig politics, the Dilettanti membership leaned more heavily, at least at first, toward gentlemen of leisure—these were the people who could afford a Grand Tour in the first place.

Many of the founding Dilettanti were also accomplished rakes, their skills burnished by Venetian courtesans, all part of the Grand Tour’s preparation for fathering Albion’s next generation in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense. They pursued their various delights in a London of periwigs, libertines, and Enlightenment, of new gathering places devoted to the consumption of exotic global novelties like coffee, tea, chocolate, and ice cream, of new faces from the provinces and from Ireland, including men of humble background who had been superbly educated thanks to an expanding system of grammar schools and university scholarships.

Education for women still lagged far behind, and there was as yet little place to “remember the ladies” in the clubmen’s world, except as partners in what these former Grand Tourists were wont to call “the worship of Venus.” The women who made their way in the London of the 1740s were more likely to be actresses, singers, and courtesans than women of letters. Although there were already professional writers like Aphra Behn and cultured figures like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, bluestockings were a phenomenon of the future. The city itself, at half a million people, was one of the most populous and sophisticated on earth, matched in Europe only by Paris and Naples, both of them, of course, staunchly Catholic—slaves, as the Dilettanti might have said, to Popery.

The silly side of the Dilettanti, that purely English Monty Python zaniness that combines sublime wit with the donning of ridiculous outfits, emerges in the first generation’s official portraits. After 1741, each new member of the society paid a sum of “face money” if the official “limner,” George Knapton, had not yet provided the society with a clever, allusive image of the Dilettante couched in some kind of fancy dress. Redford has an unerring eye for the telling details of pose, props, and background that assign each member of the founding generation a distinct place within the club, at the same time according Knapton himself an honorable place as a painter within the Grand Tour’s history of art.

Italy dominates the limner’s artistic memory as thoroughly as it dominated the personal memories of the Dilettanti who sat for him in their outlandish getups. Appropriately, his portraits pay homage not only to Anthony Van Dyck and the great Venetians Titian and Veronese, but also to a peculiar gem of the Medici collection in Florence, Raphael’s portrait of his fat, walleyed friend Tommaso Inghirami, a brilliant actor and orator whom Raphael presents, because he can, with one eye fixed on heaven and one on earth, the very picture of inspiration. Another of Raphael’s images of Inghirami, from the Vatican fresco The School of Athens, shows the divine Tommaso dressed as Epicurus, head wreathed with ivy, preoccupied with a book, the compleat ancestor of the Dilettanti if ever there was one.

Knapton, who was in fact an extremely accomplished painter, created a rogues’ gallery that includes milordi like John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich (the very one who first put meat between slices of bread to avoid wasting precious gambling time by sitting down to normal meals) in a Turkish turban, gazing lovingly, and not quite soberly, at a glass of wine (of course it is a beautifully blown Venetian glass). Sir Bourchier Wrey (the names of the Dilettanti are often as colorful as their outfits) dips into a porcelain punch bowl; the window behind him reveals that he, and implicitly we, are inside a ship’s cabin on a vigorously bounding main. The ceramic vessel’s rim bears the inscription “Dulce est Desipere in Loco”; “it is sweet to act like a fool in the appropriate place.” The whole composition rolls and heaves along with the ship and its tipsy toastmaster; the texture of paint evokes hot flesh, supple fabric, cool china, ripe fruit, the wine-dark sea, and a sea of golden wine.

The Dilettanti not only acted like fools in the appropriate places; they could also be downright blasphemous, especially with regard to the Catholicism they had encountered in Italy. Knapton painted Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord LeDespencer, decked out as a Franciscan friar, tonsure and all, lofting a gilt chalice inscribed “MATRI SANCTORUM” (to the mother of the saints), but Dashwood’s wide eyes are fixed on what he might have called the “charms” of a classical Venus, whose hand, which should have been poised to shield her celestial nudity, has conveniently broken off (see illustration on page 34).

The seriousness of the Dilettanti’s Seria Ludo emerged for the first time when two of their number, James Stuart (soon to be known as “Athenian” Stuart) and Nicholas Revett, set out for Athens on a mission to measure and to record the state of its ancient monuments. Stuart and Revett both belonged to the set of Dilettanti who, like their Kit-Cat counterparts, came from the professions; in the case of the Dilettanti, these professionals were artists who could mingle, thanks to the society, with potential and actual patrons, providing their talents and expertise in exchange for sponsorship. Stuart and Revett’s immediate inspiration for their project came, as Redford demonstrates, from Paris, where Antoine Desgodetz had published in 1682 his Édifices antiques de Rome for the King, but it also reflected sixteenth-century projects like Raphael’s to draw up a plan of Rome at the time of Constantine, or Pirro Ligorio’s reconstruction of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.

In a literal sense, therefore, the Dilettanti aimed to become Renaissance men, but Renaissance men in the service of Protestant reason: they saw Rome, whether ancient or modern, as an eternal symbol of Popery, and Greek antiquity as a contrasting, less contaminated version of the classical ethos. Somehow, therefore, the Greeks were transformed into the natural Protestants of the ancient world, and many of the comments made by the Dilettanti about the Greeks in those years had little to do with the Greeks at all, and much to do with different flavors of Christianity.

The final result of Stuart and Revett’s expedition was itself a great monument, The Antiquities of Athens, three immense volumes of etched and engraved plates with written commentaries. This extraordinary publication is still an important source of information for archaeologists and historians as well as a complex, majestic work of the publisher’s art. Redford shows how Stuart and Revett’s original drawings, highlighted by colorful splashes of gouache, aimed for accuracy rather than picturesque effect, yet they attained great beauty all the same. No less remarkably, the two devoted as much attention to modern Athens, with its Greek and Ottoman citizens, as they did to what Vergil called virum monumenta priorum, “monuments of earlier men.” Neither scorched-earth archaeologists in search of Grecian purity nor Orientalists in search of exotic adventure, they show the Dilettantis’ capacity for delight in its most intelligent, capacious form. Like most of their images, in which real people go about their business among the ruins, Stuart’s drawing of the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis includes a portrait of the Ottoman aga who had his residence in this august place. The text that accompanies the published plate focuses on the people and animals as much as the building itself:

The Turkish Gentleman smoaking a long pipe, is the Disdár-Agá, he leans on the shoulder of his son-in-law, Ibrahim Agá, and is looking at our labourers, who are digging to discover the Base, and the steps under the Caryatides…. The two Turks…were placed there by him to watch our proceedings; and give him an account of our discoveries. The little girl leading a lamb, and attended by a negro slave, is the daughter of Ibrahim Agá. The lamb is fatted to be eaten at the feast of the Beiram, which was not far off at the time this view was taken.3

Stuart also shows himself sketching in the foreground. Tellingly, however, he portrays the ancient temple not from the angle where we see him planted with his sketchbook, but as we first see it on entering the Acropolis from the Propylaea: at an angle that presents the building’s south and west sides entire, while projecting porches allow us to intuit the look of the north and east façades. In effect, then, we are able to see all four very different sides of this uniquely asymmetrical temple at once, and Stuart is on to the genius of the trick (whose most probable author is the fifth-century sculptor Pheidias, whom Pericles put in charge of the whole building program of the Acropolis; Pheidias was also what we would call the architect of the Parthenon, rather than Iktinos, whose position as architekton put him in the role of chief building contractor).

  1. 1

    As Redford notes, the phrase echoes two poems from the age of Augustus, a satire by Horace and an eclogue of Vergil, and in each of these contexts the two words seria and ludo take on slightly different meanings. Both poems, however, like the two-word motto itself, claim that in play, ludo, it is possible to address serious matters, seria.

  2. 2

    On these groups, see Ophelia Field, The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation (London: Harper, 2008), and Evelyn Lord, The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies (Yale University Press, 2008).3James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, TheAntiquities of Athens, Vol. 2 (1790), Chapter 2, Plate 2, cited by Redford, p. 69.4The late Enzo Crea published a study of the Antiquités that is, typically for this great publisher, a work of art in itself: Pascal Griener, Le Antichità Etrusche, Greche, e Romane, 1766–1776, di Pierre Hugues d’Hancarville, with a preface by Francis Haskell (Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 1992). The Antiquités are now available in facsimile with an introduction by Sebastian Schütze (Taschen, 2006).

  3. 3

    James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 2 (1790), Chapter 2, Plate 2, cited by Redford, p. 69.

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