Arts: Regenerating the Arts

Amateur Antiquarians

With faculty appointments in two departments and specializations in English literature and European art of the 17th and 18th centuries, University Professor Bruce Redford put several of his varied scholarly interests to use in his most recent project, an exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, entitled “Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti.” As Guest Curator, Redford worked with Getty Curator Claire Lyons to prepare a visual history of the Society of Dilettanti, a London drinking club dedicated to the celebration of classical culture. The exhibition, which opened in August 2008, was accompanied by the publication of Redford’s monograph, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England.

University Professor Bruce Redford examines volumes on Roman antiquities and sculpture by Giovanni Bellori, Andrea Palladio, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi—books likely to have found their way into the private libraries of Society of Dilettanti members in the early 18th century—among the holdings in the Rare Book Collection at BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

University Professor Bruce Redford examines volumes on Roman antiquities and sculpture by Giovanni Bellori, Andrea Palladio, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi—books likely to have found their way into the private libraries of Society of Dilettanti members in the early 18th century—among the holdings in the Rare Book Collection at BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

The Society of Dilettanti was formed in 1734 by a group of young aristocrats who had completed the Grand Tour. In 18th-century England, no young gentleman’s education could be considered complete without this journey through France and Italy, which focused on sites of cultural import and supplemented scholarly knowledge with firsthand experience. According to Redford, the society began as a kind of “alumni association” for those wishing to “relive their happy memories” of travel abroad.

Redford began to study the Dilettanti over a decade ago, after completing his book Venice and the Grand Tour. Intrigued by the group, Redford visited its meeting place in London, where he encountered two group portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds—the most influential British painter of the 18th century and himself a member of the Society of Dilettanti—as well as 23 individual portraits of members by George Knapton. Redford realized that these portraits, which had received little scholarly attention before catching his eye, contained a wealth of information about the Dilettanti’s interests and activities, alluded to in the sitters’ costumes, props, and gestures. His exhibition at the Getty Villa includes several of these individual portraits by Knapton, along with prints of the group portraits by Reynolds and objects owned by the society’s members.

“The Dilettanti were motivated by love of learning and passionate curiosity.”

With a love of classical culture matched only by their love of drink, the Society of Dilettanti at first focused on social, not scholarly, activities. In the latter half of the century, however, the society made lasting contributions to the study of classical architecture and archaeology by funding expeditions to Athens and Asia Minor and by forming major collections of antiquities. The resulting folios they published—for instance, Specimens of Ancient Sculpture—greatly added to knowledge of the ancient world in England.

Although the Society of Dilettanti still exists today, its prestige suffered a serious blow in the early 19th century when, Redford explains, the “culture of the amateur” began to give way to an emphasis on professional specialization. The Dilettanti, he says, were “motivated by love of learning and passionate curiosity” rather than by “academic rigor.” But, as Redford’s own research shows, curiosity and rigor can yield the most satisfying results when working in tandem.