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A Silly, Very Cultured Club

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Society of Dilettanti, London
George Knapton: Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord LeDespencer, 1742

In 1762, the Dilettanti set their sights on sponsoring an expedition to the Levant, to visit the magnificent ruins of Asia Minor, and proceed onward to the glorious colonnaded streets and precociously Baroque exuberance of Palmyra and Baalbek. Redford shows how Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens exerted a powerful influence on the expedition’s designated artist, William Pars, although Pars soon developed a landscape style of his own. The society published Ionian Antiquities in 1769, guided by the chairman of the sponsoring committee, Robert Wood.

Wood appears more conspicuously as author in The Ruins of Palmyra of 1753 and The Ruins of Balbec of 1757, both on the title pages and in the extensive descriptive texts. Each of these volumes, in its own way, is as marvelous as the volumes of Stuart and Revett, but with significant differences. Eighteenth-century Athens was still a real city, but the engraved plates of these Levantine works scan vast unpopulated landscapes where the isolation of the ancient ruins exudes the same melancholy air as Piranesi’s weed-grown Roman Forum, albeit in a more crisply linear, neoclassical artistic style.

Not every Dilettante maintained this same standard of austere detachment from the objects of his research. In Italy, the Dilettanti William Hamilton and Richard Payne Knight could not help noticing the persistence of ancient beliefs in the gestures, superstitions, and rituals of contemporary Italy, relentlessly centered, like some of the society’s own rites, on phallic symbols of every size, shape, and composition. Hamilton amassed a considerable collection of modern peasant offerings in the form of what an ancient gynecological treatise called “wax similitudes.” Knight produced a learned study on the worship of the ancient phallic god, Priapus, An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, that allowed him to bring in lubricious comparative material from Pompeii and Hindu temples.

On the face of it, he was an exceedingly unlikely prospect for such a line of research; with his large upturned nose, receding chins (two of them), red, pendulous lips, and watery eyes, he could hardly have been attractive as a potential lover. He is homely even in Thomas Lawrence’s valiant attempt at a flattering portrait, which cleverly evokes Raphael’s old trick of having the sitter look “upward, outward, and inward” (as Redford evocatively puts it). James Gillray’s wicked caricature, The Charm of Virtù, probably comes closer to the truth; here a leering Knight peers, prurient and purblind, through a looking glass at a statue of a satyr.

As for Hamilton, British envoy in Naples from 1764 to 1801, he has become legendary, both for his antiquarian interests and for his exuberant second wife Emma, the plump, pretty redhead who struck elaborate “Attitudes” at their parties and carried on an open affair with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the battered hero of Trafalgar. Gillray skewers all three components of the ménage à trois: A Cognoscenti shows a bent, wizened Hamilton peering through the wrong end of his spectacles at a bust of the courtesan Thais, surrounded by vases, statues, matching portraits of Nelson and Emma as Antony and Cleopatra, and a view of Vesuvius vigorously erupting (the only vigorous thing about Hamilton is the growth of hair in his nostrils).

Another Gillray cartoon features a blimp-shaped Emma bewailing Nelson’s departure in the attitude of a modern-day Dido. Gillray always provides Emma with a bottle near to hand; the Dilettanti might drink themselves into a stupor, with paunches, chins, and bulldog jowls to show for it, but respectable women were to feel no appetites at all. Lusty Emma’s capacity for delight, which ushered her into a plump, bibulous middle age, revealed her lower-class origins as surely as the lusts of the Dilettanti revealed them as gentlemen of taste and breeding.

Hamilton and Knight belonged to the generation of Dilettanti who met in the Star and Garter tavern, and who were immortalized as a group by the society’s third official limner, Sir Joshua Reynolds—the second in line, after George Knapton, had been “Athenian” Stuart, whose work on TheAntiquities of Athens meant that he never got around to executing a single portrait on the society’s behalf. Reynolds himself was admitted to the club in 1766, and got around the hurdle of paying face money by submitting his own self-portrait, done in a palette of muted browns and heightened pinks, and with a softness reminiscent of the sublime Federico Barocci. He became limner in 1769. The group portraits that Reynolds painted for two facing walls in a room at the Star and Garter were conceived in 1777, the year following Hamilton’s admission to the Dilettanti. In their own way, despite their dark, sober colors, they are as ribald as Knapton’s individual images, with less emphasis than Knapton on fancy dress and more on suggestive finger-signs; the group that examines gems is as obscene in its own way as Knapton’s rendering of Sir Francis Dashwood as a follower of Saint Francis.

Redford’s discussion of the Star and Garter pictures treats his readers to a side excursion through Reynolds’s other portraits of the Dilettanti and their friends, contrasting them with the delightfully theatrical “swagger portraits” that Grand Tourists ordered when in Rome from the painter Pompeo Batoni—the most outré of which shows red-haired Colonel William Gordon of Fyvie striking a virile pose in front of the Colosseum, clad in kilt and scarlet military jacket, his tartan cloak flung togalike around his shoulders (for, as both Batoni and Colonel Gordon knew, Roman soldiers also wore skirts). This dashing Scotsman has entirely absorbed the Italian spirit of sprezzatura—and so much for tartans being an invention of the nineteenth century.

William Hamilton appears in the Star and Garter portrait that is devoted to drink and to Hamilton’s Greek vases, the reason for his admission into the society. Initially he had collected them because they were cheaper than statues or paintings by Correggio, and as a cadet member of his aristocratic family he was perpetually short of money. But the vases richly rewarded his scrutiny; he learned to love their graceful shapes and their distinctive, infinitely variable painted decoration, at the same time turning that love into a marketing tool. Together with a slippery Frenchman born Pierre Hugues and become Baron d’Hancarville (Redford’s capsule biography at the end of Dilettanti describes the man as “French polymath, pornographer, and con man”), Hamilton devised a plan to illustrate and publish his collection. L’Antiquités Etrusques, Grecques, et Romaines eventually emerged in four volumes from 1767 through the 1770s, with stunning engraved plates in the red-black color scheme of ancient Athenian pottery.4

A report from Pliny the Elder that a ceramic vessel had once sold in antiquity for an astonishing sum of money was basis enough for Hamilton and D’Hancarville to insist that ancient pots had all been treasures of great price, but in fact, those miniature images of ancient life and myth exerted a magical pull on their own, and treasures they were in a real sense. The best Greek vases were monumental works of art, and many of the smaller ones were perfect miniatures (there were also a great many less stellar works, but they are so old, and so real, that even these have their charm). The English potter Josiah Wedgwood set out to make modern pots on similar aesthetic lines, in the workshop he called Etruria—for initially Hamilton thought that the ancient Greek vases were Etruscan. The result of that collective enterprise has shaped generations of taste in museums and around the dinner table.

From their Neapolitan palazzo (still a bright yellow presence near the fashionable Piazza dei Martiri), Hamilton and Emma could see the towering cone of Vesuvius, already split by a recent eruption into the two peaks we see today, and intermittently active throughout the eighteenth century. No wonder the envoy wrote a book about the geology of the Bay of Naples, and no wonder the result was as spectacular as his books about antiquities, with smoking Vesuvius, the bubbling mud of the Solfatara, the deep, dark crater (and reputed Hell-mouth) of Lake Avernus, the heaving ground beneath Pozzuoli, and the gorgeously dramatic volcanic crags of Naples itself. Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei came out in 1776, the same year as the third and fourth volumes of the Antiquités—when he was admitted to the Dilettanti that year, the British envoy had already produced a series of illustrated books to do the Dilettanti proud.

It is sad, therefore, to see the shining light of this often silly but reliably cultured club come to such embarrassment in the nineteenth century, first over Napoleon in Naples—in whose wake Hamilton, Nelson, and Emma governed the city briefly and brutally from a ship in the harbor—and then over the Elgin Marbles, the sculptural decoration supervised by Pheidias for Pericles more than four centuries before the Christian era, recently pried right off the Parthenon and sold to an English earl by a grasping Ottoman official. For two days in 1816, on March 4 and 5, a committee of Parliament heard testimony

to inquire whether it be expedient that the Collection mentioned in the Earl of Elgin’s Petition…should be purchased on behalf of The Public, and if so, what Price it may be reasonable to allow for the same.

The first day of hearings belonged to the artists of the Royal Academy, including John Flaxman, and they, like their Italian counterpart Antonio Canova, were eloquent in the Marbles’ praise (on seeing them, Canova, the most magisterial—and most insightful—of all neoclassical sculptors, cried, “If only I could begin again!”). The next day belonged to the Dilettanti, three of them, and their opinions varied from the enthusiasm of Sir Thomas Lawrence, by then the official limner of the society, to the supercilious disapprobation expressed by Richard Payne Knight, whose pomposity had grown along with his girth over the decades. Worst of all for his own reputation, he was convinced that the marbles dated mostly from the time of the emperor Hadrian, a discrepancy of nearly six hundred years.

Knight had a reputation to defend. As guiding spirit of the society’s Specimens of Antient Sculpture…selected from Different Collections in Great Britain, published in 1809, he had attempted to establish a definitive history of ancient art along the lines laid down by the German connoisseur Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Specimens of Antient Sculpture, following Pliny the Elder and Winckelmann, traced the development of ancient technique from the Etruscans and archaic Greece through the sophisticated international styles of Alexandria and then Rome.

Knight’s examples, illustrated by William Agar in a style that perfectly captured the glossy sheen of polished marble and chased bronze, were all drawn from the collections of his friends and fellow Dilettanti. As Canova himself recognized with such grace, the Elgin Marbles threw a shoe into the whole elaborate works; what Europeans had come to know as Grecian style was evidently something else altogether. Canova capitulated at the discovery of this strange new aesthetic world, excited at the prospects it offered for an artistic rebirth; Knight kicked back and said that the Elgin Marbles were of scant account, their surfaces ruined beyond repair.

Parliament, of course, purchased the Elgin Marbles. Just as significantly, the professional artists, both of the Royal Academy and among the Dilettanti, were shown by their testimony and its results to have assumed an authority over matters of taste that had once been deferred exclusively to gentlemen. By 1816, it was no longer the amateurs of instinct and breeding who governed the world of culture and ideas: it was that group of achievers, from William Shakespeare to Jonathan Swift, to Dr. Johnson, to Oliver Goldsmith, to Benjamin West (the American painter who became president of the Royal Academy), to Sir Joshua Reynolds, to Sir Thomas Lawrence, the men (along with a growing number of the women the Dilettanti excluded) who had taken advantage of the opportunities for education and free expression offered by British society and made London perhaps the most exciting city in the world. As Redford concludes:

It is no quaint nostalgia, therefore, to resurrect seria ludo and to remember that “when you know ancient things, you will clearly know new things.”

There is nothing remote or dusty about either the Dilettanti or his book.

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    The 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).

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