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Dilettanti & Debauchery

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Diletantti Members by Sir Joshua Reynolds

In 1734, a group of young British gentlemen, all alumni of the Grand Tour in Italy, formed a dining club in London. Calling themselves the Society of Dilettanti (from the Italian dilettare, to take delight), this close-knit association transformed classical antiquity from a private pleasure to a public benefit by sponsoring archaeological expeditions, forming collections, and publishing influential books on ancient architecture and sculpture.

Generous sponsors of expeditions to Greece, the Ionian coast of Asia Minor, and the Middle East—regions then still largely unknown to Continental travelers—the Society published lavish folios that set unprecedented standards for objective archaeological research. In 1762, the Society underwrote the three-year sojourn of painter James “Athenian” Stuart (1713–88) and architect Nicholas Revett (1720–1804) in Athens, where they measured, excavated, and drew the city’s classical monuments. Stuart and Revett’s findings were presented in The Antiquities of Athens, an imposing three-volume publication that inspired Greek Revival architects and designers for the next century. Important books underwritten by the membership also circulated the observations of teams sent out to map ancient lands and explore ruins in Ionia, Baalbek, Palmyra, and Attica.

Membership in the Society was far from all scholarly fieldwork. Meeting in taverns to discuss “those objects which had contributed to their entertainment abroad,” they elevated “convivial intercourse” to a high art. Echoing the Roman poets Virgil and Horace, their drinking toasts and mottoes signaled the Society’s priorities: “Seria Ludo” (serious matters in a playful spirit), “Res est Severa Voluptas” (pleasure is a serious business), and “Viva la Virtù” (long live the fine arts). As the English novelist Horace Walpole (1717-1797) waspishly observed, “The nominal qualification [for membership] is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk.”

Ribald and profane, the Society nurtured a lively curiosity for ancient erotica, piqued by the sensational finds of sexually explicit art in Herculaneum and Pompeii. They made a subversive contribution to the interpretation of ancient mythology and religion with A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, which drew from reports of a phallic cult in southern Italy. Designed both to inform and to titillate, this daring treatise argued that all art is rooted in religion, and all religion in sexuality. This scandalized critics who called  “obscene” artifacts, the items installed in the “museo segreto,” or a cabinet of erotic curiosities.

Taking inspiration from such groups as the libertine Hell Fire Clubs, the esoteric Freemasons, and the Arcadian Academy in Rome, the Dilettanti carried out traditional rituals in rooms hung with witty portraits by George Knapton and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The president draped himself in a scarlet toga and sat in a mahogany armchair called the “sella curulis,” after the official chair occupied by Roman consuls. Other officers included an “arch master” and an “imp” who sported a tail. Suitably decorated with sensual and suggestive imagery, a mahogany “Tomb of Bacchus” and balloting box were used to conduct business and to collect fines as “face money” for failure to present a portrait. During the Society’s early years, the most colorful members were Sir Francis Dashwood (1701–1781) 11th Baron le Despencer, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer (1762–1763) and the founder of the notorious Hell Fire Club; and Charles Sackville (1711–1769), 2nd Duke of Dorset, an impresario of Italian opera in London.

The Dilettanti’s reputation for revelry and riot was tempered by their stature as “arbiters of fashionable virtù.” The last of their monumental publishing enterprises, Specimens of Antient Sculpture, features collections of Greek and Roman art created by such prominent members as author Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824), Charles Townley (1737-1805), and Thomas Hope (1769-1831). 

Celebrated connoisseurs, Dilettanti members established and enlarged some of the finest antiquities galleries in England, including the collections at Castle Howard, Shugborough, Towneley Hall, Lansdowne House, Woburn Abbey, and Rokeby Hall.

Members of the Dilettanti emerged on the wrong side of history in the aesthetic disputes over the controversial 1816 acquisition of Lord Elgin’s Parthenon sculptures by the British Museum, and as a result the Society’s prestige suffered a serious blow. The Dilettanti nevertheless revolutionized the study of classical architecture and sculpture, eastern Mediterranean topography, and ancient religion, setting the stage for the great archaeological endeavors of the 19th century.

With 60 members, today’s Society of Dilettanti still counts among its ranks distinguished figures from the world of the arts and culture including collectors, museum directors, art historians, authors, and aristocrats who have inherited great collections of paintings and sculpture. The Society meets five times a year at Brooks’ Club in London for dinners which are celebrated with traditional rituals, regalia, and toasts dating back to the eighteenth century. Vacancies in this “men only” group arise on death or retirement and are filled through an election in which each member can propose or second a candidate.

Current members include artist David Hockney, continuing a tradition of distinguished artist-members which began with George Knapton and includes Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Martin Archer Shee, Lord Leighton, and John Singer Sargent. With the aim of reviving its original mission to support projects connected with archaeology and the arts, the Society established a charitable trust in 1977 and makes grants to cultural institutions, research centers, and young scholars of classical art and architecture.

In 2008 the J.Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa presented “Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti” showing the  Society of Dilettanti as connoisseurs—of statues, sexuality, and the science of antiquity. Drawn primarily from the collections of the Getty Research Institute and the Society of Dilettanti in London, over 100 objects were on view, including oil portraits, sculptures, drawings, caricatures, artifacts, and rare books that tell the story of the Society, whose cultural ambitions flourished in an atmosphere of Dionysian revels and aesthetic refinement.

The exhibition’s companion publication, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England was written by Bruce Redford, co-curator of the exhibition and professor of Art History and English at Boston University.

Talking about the exhibition Richard Dorment, a current member of the society, said, “If you’ve never heard of the Society of Dilettanti, you may well be familiar with the famous pair of group portraits painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds between 1777-79.” The first shows the collector Sir William Hamilton surrounded by seven of his fellow Dilettanti, pointing to an engraving of a Greek vase from his collection in the volume that lies open on the table in the foreground. In the second picture, seven more members of the society have gathered together to examine a collection of antique gems.

He points out that, “not everyone in the pictures is giving these scholarly pursuits their fullest attention. In both paintings, wine is flowing, glasses are being clinked, and toasts are being proposed. After a while, the unworthy thought creeps into your head that perhaps these fellows aren’t as high-minded as you’d assumed”.

In the first picture (above), most of the Dilettanti are paying only polite attention to Sir William’s scholarly publication. Though the collector isn’t aware of it, his colleagues are actually raising their glasses to a lady’s garter that has been produced for general inspection by the fellow standing at the left.

In the second picture, a young man holds a gem up to the light and in doing so makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger that his fellow Dilettanti would have recognised at once as a rude gesture signifying the female sex. Though the study of ancient gems seems like an innocent enough activity, among those that we know circulated among the Dilettanti was at least one cameo carved with a Dionysian orgy “not fit for a lady”.

Dorment says, “Reynolds brilliantly captures both the serious and the frivolous sides of the Society of Dilettanti. At a time when royal and government patronage of the arts hardly existed, its members supported important expeditions to Greece and Iona, which resulted in publications that laid the groundwork for the development of archaeology as a serious scholarly discipline”.

But, he also recognises that “members took the enjoyment of life – in the form of wine, women, friendship and jokes – as seriously as they did their fascination with the ancient world”. Reynolds was in a position to appreciate the ethos of the society because he was a member.

Bourchier Wray by George Knapton

The first artist associated with the society was George Knapton, who in the 1740s painted 23 portraits of its members, some of them got up in Van Dyck costume, others masquerading as Venetian noblemen, or dressed as Turks. One, Lord Moyra, points to a bronze copy of the Callipygian Venus, known in the 18th century as “Venus of the beautiful buttocks” (which is what callypygian means).As with Reynolds’s portraits, the sitters knew that these pictures would mainly be seen by fellow members of the society and so hammed it up and fooled around, which they were unlikely to have done had the pictures been intended for display at home.

Dorment rightly concludes that, “For all the jokes, the society’s patronage could hardly have been more enlightened. At a time when the distinction between Roman and Greek art was just beginning to be understood, the expeditions to Greece and Turkey they sponsored were a turning point in research into the classical world, introducing new standards of scrupulous measurement and careful delineation to the study of Greek architecture and sculpture”.