New Book on the Dilettanti

Posted in books, Member News by Editor on January 20, 2010

Jason Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2010), 9780300152197, $75.

In 1732, a group of elite young men, calling themselves the Society of Dilettanti, held their first meeting in London. The qualification for membership was travel to Italy where the original members had met each other on the grand tour. These noblemen’s youthful indulgences while on the Continent and upon their return to London were often topics of public discussion, and ribald and licentious tales about the group circulated in the press. Originally formed as a convivial dining society, by the middle of the eighteenth century the Dilettanti took on an influential role in cultural matters. It was the first European organization fully to subsidize an archaeological expedition to the lands of classical Greece, and its members were important sponsors of new institutions such as the Royal Academy and the British Museum. The Society of Dilettanti became one of the most prominent and influential societies of the British Enlightenment. This lively and illuminating account, based on extensive archival research, is the most detailed analysis of the early Society of Dilettanti to date. Not simply an institutional biography, three themes dominate this history of the Dilettanti: eighteenth-century debates over social identity; the relationships between aesthetics and archeology; and the meanings of natural philosophy. Connecting the world of the grand tour to the sociable masculinity of London’s taverns, this book reveals that the trajectory of British classical archeology was as much a consequence of shifting notions of politeness as it was a product of antiquarian discoveries and elite tastes. The book places the Society of Dilettanti at the complex intersection of international and national discourses that shaped the British Enlightenment, and, thus, it sheds new light on eighteenth-century grand tourism, elite masculinity, sociability, aesthetics, architecture and archeology.

Note: — The book is not available in the U.S. until February, but I saw a copy a few days ago while browsing in Galignani, just across the street from the Louvre (I’m here in Paris, teaching a two-week January term). I’m glad to report that it’s stunning — and high on my wish list (I’m afraid I’m already returning with too many books to fit this one into my suitcase, and the pre-order price at Barnes & Noble or Amazon is especially attractive). –C.H.

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