Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 1, 2011
Bruce Redford Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England Exh. cat. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Trust Publications, 2008. 232 pp.; 105 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780892369249)
Ilaria Bignamini and Clare Hornsby Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth-Century Rome 2 vols.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 622 pp.; 50 color ills.; 200 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300160437)
Jason M. Kelly The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 366 pp.; 43 color ills.; 125 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300152197)

These three recent books explore an eighteenth-century British engagement with classical archaeology during a time when the practice was transforming from an early modern antiquarianism into a modern scientific discipline. Two of the books are monographic studies of the Society of the Dilettanti, an organization that became known for its support of unprecedented archaeological activity in Greece, while a third outlines how British subjects, some of whom were Dilettanti, undertook archaeological excavations on Italian soil and refurbished, sold, and bought the antiquities found there. In some measure, all the authors note this engagement as integral to shaping British cultural identity in the eighteenth century, and in this way add to robust scholarship on the issue.

Founded in 1732, the Society of the Dilettanti was an association of young men who had a few things in common: they had returned from a Grand Tour of Italy—a prerequisite that ensured they were of an elite social status—and they were prone to drinking excessively, making bawdy jokes, and getting into social mischief. In addition, they invested in the promotion of the arts, and throughout the century they financed a range of artistic projects. The Society of the Dilettanti was distinct from other eighteenth-century British social organizations in its desire to patronize the arts without engaging in them itself. Nonetheless, it was instrumental in helping develop a British taste for the Neoclassical by successfully sponsoring thoughtfully illustrated publications on ancient art and architecture, including Robert Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and The Ruins of Balbec (1757); James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens, 3 vols. (1762, 1787, and 1794); and the collection of journal entries and drawings by Richard Chandler, Revett, and William Pars’s Ionian Antiquities, 2 vols. (1769 and 1797). This also included Richard Payne Knight’s Specimens of Antient (sic) Sculpture (1809) and his Expedition into Sicily of 1777, unpublished until 1986 (Richard Payne Knight, Expedition into Sicily, Claudia Stumpf, ed., London: British Museum Publications, 1986). As patrons, the Dilettanti underwrote expeditions in the territories of ancient Greece, much of it then a part of the Ottoman Empire, being the first major organization to do so.

Both Bruce Redford and Jason Kelly grapple with the contradictory nature of the association, as captured in its motto, “seria ludo,” or serious play. A reworking of ideas expressed in Virgil and Horace, the phrase serves both authors as a starting point for the characterization of the group as men whose individual and collective behaviors were at times morally suspect, and at other times intellectually enlightened. But whereas Redford does not offer an explanation for the members’ incongruous actions, Kelly ambitiously tries to resolve them by situating them within a “dilettante culture.” Both authors present the history of the organization chronologically, laying out how the society refined and thereby changed its mission and its self-representation throughout the eighteenth century.

Redford’s Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England appears as a corollary to an exhibition at the Getty Museum which featured artistic artifacts created for the Dilettanti. As such, the book reads as a type of enriched exhibition catalogue, with chapter essays serving as expanded explanations of the major works of art, and plentiful illustrations. These works include painted portraits that the organization required of its members under penalty of a monetary fine, and the proto-archaeological folio publications, a term Redford uses to describe the volumes by Wood, Stuart and Revett, and Knight, etc., listed above. As noted in the “Acknowledgements,” Redford has published many of these ideas in other venues.

In chapter 1, Redford describes the portraits painted by the first official artist, or “limner,” of the Dilettanti, George Knapton, in the 1740s. A trained art historian and literary scholar, Redford relies on the identification of art-historical precedent and iconographic analysis to make sense of these quirky paintings, in which the sitters have presented themselves in masquerade. Many of them refer to the sitters’ impolite exploits, mainly their preoccupations with sex or drink. In most cases, the masquerading refers to something about the sitter, for example, when he presents himself as a Venetian gondolier or a Roman soldier. In others, the costuming is intended as parody, for example, when a Dilettante dressed as a tonsured Catholic monk or a turbaned Ottoman Turk is represented indecorously. Redford notes that these portraits were “a means of affirming . . . the cultural status quo” (42), of tightening the associational bonds between the Dilettanti. Chapter 4 treats the portraiture created by the organization’s third limner, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in the 1770s. Although the paintings continue to highlight “the bacchic, the sexual . . . and the sacrilegious” nature of the gathering (100), they also allude to the organization’s increasing interest in the classical past. In one, a group surrounds the newly inducted Sir William Hamilton, and the centerpiece of the composition is an illustration of a vase from his Antiquités Etrusques, Grecques et Romaines, while in the other some inspect or display ancient gems. Redford notes that this growing seriousness is also evinced in single portraits of members such as Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson.

Most of the remaining chapters deal with the proto-archaeological folios in light of a thesis that is arguably Redford’s most valuable contribution: that the Dilettanti-inspired explorers of antiquity, mainly of Greek monuments, utilized a textual description and illustrative method that is based on Lockean empiricism and that is intended to contrast with those employed by scholars in France and Italy. The illustrations, both the geometric drawings and the views, give the appearance of accuracy. The method of representation is characterized by a strong and regular line, correct scale, and logical shading, which Redford argues was “a corrective to Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma” (51) and at odds with the more picturesque interpretations of classical architecture in Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro (1764). This aesthetic of the austere, with its seeming objectivity, ushered in a more scientific archaeological practice. Furthermore, in Specimens of Antient Sculpture, the illustrations clarify the quality of ancient marbles’ surfaces, and thus they focus attention on such modern issues as the artifacts’ state of preservation and restoration.

Redford argues that reactions to Knight’s Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786) were indicators of a sea change in attitudes toward the society. Knight’s text elaborated on ancient religions’ fascination with the mysterious power of procreation as seen in a myriad of artifacts representing male genitalia and sexual acts, which are duly illustrated. Redford notes that text and images “speak a private, libertine language” while at the same time engage in an intellectual practice and use empiricism as a method to convey knowledge. Denunciation of what was deemed the obscenities in the publication came in particular from T. J. Mathias, librarian at Buckingham Palace. To Redford, the criticism of the Discourse signaled an erosion of the reputation of the Dilettanti, and of dilettantes in general, that was made visual in James Gillray’s caricatures of lecherous or effete art amateurs and connoisseurs, created between 1794 and 1808.

A trained historian, Jason Kelly builds on Redford’s work in some instances and revises in others. The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment locates the conflicted behavior of the Dilettanti in what he identifies as “dilettante culture,” which is the subject of the first section of his three-part book. This culture exists at the nexus of eighteenth-century British aristocratic virtú, middling sociability, and libertine license. The primary duty of those belonging to the aristocratic class, the Dilettanti included, was to receive a moral education. Their increasing interaction with the middle classes in matters of commerce and politics, however, required that they participate in the civic world. Their obligation, then, was not just to improve themselves but also to contribute to the public good. In addition, misbehaving in society by whoring, overdrinking, and showing disrespect to sacrosanct institutions was a prerogative that they alone could enjoy without reproof, as long as it did not interfere with their commitment to their other duties. Noting that they could seize this license and then abandon it at will, Kelly understands the Knapton portraits as a reflection of this privilege.

Any change in the Dilettanti’s reputation is portrayed as a shift in the equation of what constitutes dilettante culture. By mid-century, as the boundaries between social classes in Great Britain collided and converged, there emerged new perceptions of some aristocratic practices, which are captured by William Hogarth’s foppish rascals in the “Marriage-a-la-Mode” series (1743–45) and Thomas Rowlandson’s lustful pedants in his caricatures (ca. 1790–1810). Thus, the libertine behaviors of the Dilettanti became increasingly subject to criticism. Kelly illustrates this change by recounting the reaction of the middling class and the press to two incidents, one in 1745 and another beginning in 1763. In the first, the Calves’ Head incident, a riot erupted outside a tavern because it was perceived that some members of the Dilettanti showed extreme disrespect for the monarchy; in the second, the scandal of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey (Dilettanti including Charles Sackville [the Earl of Middlesex], Francis Dashwood [the Baron Les Despencer], and John Montague [the 4th Earl of Sandwich]), a more serious situation emerged. It was rumored that the monks performed irreverent anti-Christian rituals and that they ran a prostitution ring out of Middlesex’s estate, but public outrage boiled over only when Sandwich, the newly appointed Secretary of State, used his position of power to punish John Wilkes, a persistent critic. Kelly notes that while London’s middle class would tolerate some of the aristocracy’s misdeeds, it would not do so when it crossed into the political arena. The public censured Sandwich, the Medmenham monks, and by association the entire Society of the Dilettanti. In both cases, the society attempted to distance itself from such condemnation. Beginning in the late 1740s, and certainly by the 1770s, the Dilettanti worked toward reinventing themselves as providers for the public good and as tastemakers.

In part 2, Kelly focuses on the major archaeological expeditions underwritten by the Dilettanti, as well as the publications generated therefrom. As in part 1, he provides fuller accounts than Redford, contextualizing them in terms of larger cultural, social, and political issues. The Dilettanti eventually settled on the promotion of explorations of art and architecture of ancient Greece, previously largely ignored, as their contribution to the public good. Kelly expounds upon their employment of empirical methods in the treatment of ancient Greek art and architecture, identifying the incremental steps they made in that employment, as reflected in the various folio publications. Kelly also provides substantial evidence of the society’s role in fueling a burgeoning Neoclassical aesthetic in Britain.

In 1749, the Dilettanti’s James Caulfeild (the 1st Earl of Charlemont) traveled to the eastern Mediterranean to inspect ancient architecture. His trip represented a shift away from an interest in Italy, where antiquities were becoming more difficult to acquire by mid-century, to areas in ancient Greece, where the British could find collectibles as well as explore architectural monuments. The classical scholar Robert Wood’s expedition of about the same time, with James Dawkins and John Bonverie, however, was more transformational than Charlemont’s for the discipline of archaeology. The resultant publications from the trip, The Ruins of Palmyra, The Ruins of Balbec, and Essay on the Origin Genius of Homer (1769), provided a new methodology for archaeology, one reliant on the exactitude of measurement of the monuments and some experiential description, and that purported that empiricism was “a tool to acquire knowledge as well as to attain an aesethic ideal” (128), illustrating Wood’s commitment to classical notions of beauty. Kelly points out the inaccuracies in the expedition’s artist/draftsman Giovanni Battista Borra’s drawings—here one wishes for an art historian well-versed in the inherent subjectivity of images—arguing that the appearance of exactitude, or the “aesthetic of empeiria” (135), was the goal. As he does here and with discussion of subsequent folio publications, Kelly relates how the plates served as models for architects and architectural patrons, some of them Dilettanti, as is apparent in some garden pavilions at Kew and Stourhead.

Stuart and Revett’s multi-volumed Antiquties of Athens is revealed as primarily a manual for a Greek revival architecture demanded by growing market forces in Britain. Like the others’ expeditions, Stuart and Revett’s was undertaken around mid-century; however, the publication of the first volume was delayed by over a decade. Kelly contextualizes the production in two ways: one, in terms of a new demand of the social elite for architectural commissions, fed by an expansion of London and the development of the countryside; and secondly, in light of a newly developed continental debate on aesthetics, i.e., the Greco-Roman quarrel of the 1750s and 1760s. For the first, because the Dilettanti had an interest in new architectural models, and Stuart in particular had a desire to excel as an architect, he and Revett embraced the now status-quo empirical methodology in presenting the ancient monuments, even though this was not originally their principal intention. For the second, Stuart used pragmatism to skirt the controversy about which culture’s art was aesthetically superior; without more data about Greek and Roman architecture, gleaned only from empirical studies, he reasoned that the debate was moot. This argument “set the Dilettanti on a trajectory that would involve them in one hundred and fifty years of archaeological work in the lands of classical Greece” (171).

By 1764, the Society of the Dilettanti committed fully to explorations of Greece by funding and organizing the entire expedition of Chandler, Revett, and Pars. Their travels to then-understudied monuments such as the Temple of Apollo Didymaeus and the Temple of Athena Polias at Priene produced material for Ionian Antiquities. Kelly notes that the authors strove to ally their archaeological practice with the sciences, particularly with natural history, by ordering the monuments by typology with an attention to historical development, rather than by topography or even aesthetic value. The textual and visual descriptions of the Greek monuments are “most exact,” even “formulaic” (187), and any hint of a travel narrative, as found in the works of Wood or Stuart and Revett, is absent. Although the publication still perpetuated a fad for the Neoclassical, the authors were successful in presenting their archaeological exploration as an academic endeavor.

The Ionian Antiquities also serves Kelly in his argument that the Dilettanti shaped British cultural identity and sparked discussions in Great Britain about what constituted a successful nation. In an incisively deconstructed analysis of one image, “View of Athens,” and its accompanying text, Kelly reveals an eighteenth-century British affinity for ancient Greek culture (225). This affinity had its antithesis in the depiction of Ottoman Turks as stock figures who stand for all things unsavory to the British, i.e., a despotic subjugation of a once great free-thinking people, whose beautiful artifacts were not just underappreciated but abused. The argument is well-taken, and readers may wish for analysis of more images in the same vein.

The third part of Kelly’s book treats the waning of the society’s reputation, and of amateur antiquarianism in general, in the last decade or so of the century when Napoleon reshaped the discipline of archaeology by instituting systematic digging and record-keeping (Ronald Ridley, The Eagle and the Spade: The Archaeology of Rome during the Napoleonic Era 1809–1814, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). Kelly aims a polemic against Redford, who believes that two episodes “dethroned” (172) the Society of the Dilettanti—the criticism of Knight’s Discourse, and the revelation of rifts in the Dilettanti’s collective knowledge of antiquity during Parliamentary hearings held to discuss the acquisition of the Elgin Marble. Kelly explains away the impact of both events. His argument at times is a bit overstated, but is consistent with his thesis, particularly regarding Knight’s publication, which he sees as a logical extension of the society’s increasingly serious academic aspirations, i.e., its interest in natural history.

Whereas Kelly characterizes the development of classical Greek archaeology as reactive to events in Italy, Ilaria Bignamini spotlights archaeological activity conducted by individual British subjects in and around Rome from 1764 to 1798. In Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth-Century Rome, she identifies and defines what she terms the British Conquest of Rome, a phenomenon whereby British subjects amassed collections of antiquities, including many sculptures from the second century, newly unearthed from British-led excavations in Rome and its campagna. This trend has been ignored in the secondary literature in part because of the dispersal over time of many of these works of art to museums around the world, thereby creating a “Marble Empire” (xx). One exception to the exodus from Great Britain is the collection of Charles Townley, a member of the Dilettanti; it was featured in Knight’s Specimens of Antient Sculpture and is now in the British Museum.

Bignamini was an art historian who worked closely and enthusiastically with classical archaeologists for her research of the British Conquest. After her untimely death in 2001, Clare Hornsby of the British School in Rome used Bignamini’s notes and undertook some additional archival research in order to produce Digging and Dealing. It is primarily a reference work, with three major parts presented in two volumes: one on relevant excavation sites in and around Rome, another on the individuals who made the British Conquest possible, and a third containing transcriptions of archival sources.

However, the broader issues are not neglected. In an introductory essay, Bignamini notes that although foreigners usually had a difficult time securing permission to excavate in Rome, the papal authorities were amenable to granting them to the British, beginning in 1764. For the papacy, there was political capital in establishing good relations with the Hanoverian dynasty after the British success in the Seven Years War, even as the Pretender and his family resided in Rome. Bignamini outlines the bureaucracy and the technical logistics required of the British to undertake excavations. For example, licenses came with certain rules about the distribution of any found material, with the papal officials having first right of preemption. In this way, using British initiative, the papacy succeeded in stocking the Museo Pio-Clementino with exquisite works, while dealers still had sufficient stock to sell foreign clients. Bignamini also argues that although these excavations were still treasure hunts designed to meet patrons’ or buyers’ demands, the diggers’ activities at times foreshadowed modern archaeological practices. The method of excavating was a result of market forces rather than of any shift in cultural mentality. They include a care in recording the provenance, which added value to the work in the buyer’s mind, and a vigilance in recording things as they appeared when unearthed, either in drawing or by taking casts. Because multiples copies of statue types were available in Rome, especially in ancient villas and baths, a cache of visual records of various finds allowed both dealers and buyers to compare different copies of sculptures for quality, as well as to provide a basis on which to make judgments about what constituted successful restorations.

The remainder of the publication contains evidence to support Bignamini’s observations. Part 1 of volume 1 consists of encyclopedic entries on each site where there is evidence of a British-led excavation; the list includes sites such as Gabii, Monte Cagnolo, and the Villa Negroni in Rome. Entries record information such as who worked on the site, when and how licensing was achieved, which works of art were found there, and where those works are currently located. Part 2 includes essays on individuals involved in the world of selling antiquities to the British in the latter part of the eighteenth century. There are dealers who most often were artists themselves, with varying degrees of talent, and restorers who often were much sought-after sculptors. There are old aristocratic Roman patrons with collections to sell or land to lease for excavation, and many British patrons with different reasons for or preferences in collecting. Included are entries on bankers and exporters who made transactions possible. This array of people came from diverse national, political, religious, and social backgrounds. In this section, two of the four most productive excavators of the period, Gavin Hamilton and Thomas Jenkins, are given longer essays. (The other two, Robert Fagan and Colin Morison, are excluded from major consideration here because Bignamini has published elsewhere on them [Ilaria Bignamini, “The ‘Campo Iemini Venus’ Rediscovered,” Burlington Magazine 136 (1994): 548–52; Bignamini, “I marmi Fagan in Vaticano: la vendita del 1804 e altre acquisizioni,” Bolettino: Monumenti, Musei e Gallerie Pontificie 16 (1996): 215–44; Bignamini and Amanda Claridge, “The Tomb of Claudia Semme and Excavations in Eighteenth-Century Rome,” Papers of the British School at Rome 66 (1998): 215–45. Also, forthcoming is Bignamini, “Scavi settecenteschi a Tor Paterno: gli scavi Chigi del 1777–80 e gli scavi camerali del 1783,” in Castelporziano IV].) Hamilton and Jenkins operated as suppliers of antiquities which they had unearthed themselves, as well as functioning as dealers; and they worked professionally with art restorers and artists, exporters, antiquarians and art critics, papal authorities, land owners of all types, and, of course, buyers. Their letters to Townley and other clients, presented in volume 2, reveal Hamilton as a hardworking and honest dealer, with an enthusiasm for the ancient world that bled into his other serious occupation as a painter, and Jenkins as a clever and successful dealer, conscious of his role in shaping the taste of his predominantly British clients.

Bigliarmini’s short essays are sprinkled with big ideas which unfortunately she did not expand upon. For example, she wonders if and how the British, at the dawn of their own imperial history, might have identified with the Roman Empire, whose ancient sculpture formed a large part of their purchases (1). Also, she believed that heated contemporary controversies about the rightful ownership of Roman antiquities in museums cannot be solved by using legal systems. Instead, a paradigm shift in thinking is required, one whereby antiquities are valued because of their provenance, something she feels has ceased to be an issue for today’s collectors as it was during the eighteenth-century British Conquest (xxiii). Future scholarship may well take up these issues.

All three authors consider the history of archaeology in the eighteenth century in the broadest possible terms, not least of which is in the shaping of cultural identity. It is an overlooked but rich area of investigation, situated between disciplines. Its exploration is worth the effort, as these books attest.

Susan M. Dixon
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, La Salle University