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A Silly, Very Cultured Club

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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).

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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.

  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.

  4. 4

    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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