Society of Dilettanti Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In response to a growing interest in Greek and Roman antiquities—especially among aristocratic British travelers who had seen them firsthand—the Society of Dilettanti was established in London for the study and discussion of those antiquities. The society helped fund and promote major archaeological expeditions and also contributed to the rise of neoclassicism in British art and architecture.

Summary of Event

Two trends that came together in the first part of the eighteenth century made possible the foundation of the Society of Dilettanti. The first trend was the continued growth of secular clubs and societies in Britain, often building on the traditions established by the religious societies of the preceding century. That century had also seen the formation of the Royal Society, Royal Society, England perhaps the greatest British society, under the aegis of Sir Isaac Newton. Some of the new societies—such as the Beefsteak Club or the notorious Hellfire Club—were no more than dining clubs, but others engaged in serious intellectual pursuits. For example, the Society of Antiquaries Society of Antiquaries (England) discussed the discovery, description, and explanation of various antiquarian sites, customs, and cultural expressions, particularly in Great Britain. [kw]Society of Dilettanti Is Established (c. 1732) [kw]Dilettanti Is Established, Society of (c. 1732) Society of Dilettanti (England) Antiquities, Roman Antiquities, Greek [g]England;c. 1732: Society of Dilettanti Is Established[0770] [c]Organizations and institutions;c. 1732: Society of Dilettanti Is Established[0770] [c]Anthropology;c. 1732: Society of Dilettanti Is Established[0770] [c]Art;c. 1732: Society of Dilettanti Is Established[0770] [c]Architecture;c. 1732: Society of Dilettanti Is Established[0770] Dashwood, Francis Sackville, Charles Knapton, George

The second trend leading to the establishment of the Society of Dilettanti was the resumption of the Grand Tour Grand Tours of Europe by young British aristocrats. The tour consisted of an extended journey, often lasting several years and under the guidance of a tutor, to the centers both of contemporary culture and of ancient antiquity. Early tours focused especially on France and Italy, but as the Ottoman Empire became more receptive to European visitors, later tours also encompassed significant sites in Greece and Asia Minor (western Turkey). The English aristocrat Lord Chesterfield Chesterfield, Lord wrote letters to his son that stand as the epitome of fatherly guidance to a son on such a tour. These letters demonstrate that the primary purpose of the Grand Tour was to gain manners, enlarge the mind, and acquire a familiarity with the languages, customs, and traditions of other civilized nations.

The Society of Dilettanti was probably formed in either 1732 or 1733 (though some accounts put it as late as 1736) by a group of gentlemen, mainly sons of aristocrats, who had taken the Grand Tour and whose interests had been awakened to the newly discovered antiquities of Italy and Greece. The word “dilettante” means a gentleman amateur, one who will show interest in a gracious and stylish way. The society was not meant to be a study group. Rather, it was conceived as a dining club where the social interchange would be as significant as the intellectual. The society’s founders sought to encourage by all means possible a greater interest in antiquities. They also aimed to develop a taste for neoclassical Neoclassicism;art Art;neoclassicism art and architecture Neoclassicism;architecture Architecture;neoclassicism at home.

The archaeology Archaeology of the ancient world was still in its infancy when the Society of Dilettanti first met. The ancient site of Herculaneum was only opened for archaeological investigation in 1738, and Pompeii Pompeii, Italy was excavated beginning in 1748. Thus, even the society’s founding members had little idea of the scope of the antiquities awaiting discovery. Originally, the society consisted of twenty-three gentlemen and one painter, whose job became to paint each member’s portrait in a somewhat parodic manner. Meetings were presided over by an archmaster, and various subcommittees were organized to facilitate society business. The balance of pleasure and profit sought by the society was greeted with contempt in some quarters. Robert Walpole, Britain’s prime minister, stated that the organization was merely another excuse to get drunk.

Despite their often lavish and ostentatious lifestyles, however, the society’s members really did commit themselves to its aims, and as the century progressed it became the driving force behind the development of archaeology as a science. The society encouraged the systematic description and collection of antiquities, sending out archaeological expeditions and surveys and then publishing their findings. One of the most famous of these surveys was that conducting by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett in Athens between 1751 and 1754.

The Antiquities of Athens: Measured and Delineated by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett Antiquities of Athens, The (Stuart and Revett) was published in five volumes between 1762 and 1830. Their surveys, sketches, and detailed descriptions set high standards for future archaeological surveys. To produce the work, moreover, Stuart and Revett overcame significant obstacles, including Turkish occupation of the Acropolis, plague, rivalry with the French, and loss of motivation. The Society of Dilettanti paid for the publication of the third and fourth volumes of The Antiquities of Athens, published in 1794 and 1816, respectively. (Volume 4, which contained details of the Parthenon marbles, was published the same year that the seventh earl of Elgin sold them to the British Museum.) The volumes made a new image of Greece available to the British public, just as the work of German archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann made such an image available in Germany.

In 1766, Revett conducted an expedition to Ionia under the Society of Dilettanti’s auspices together with Richard Chandler and William Pars. The first edition of the society’s account of this expedition appeared in 1769 under the title Antiquities of Ionia. Chandler’s later account appeared as Travels in Asia Minor (1775). A second expedition to Ionia followed in 1811, and Chandler’s account of it was published beginning in 1817. Owing to the loss of plates, however, the final, fifth volume of Chandler’s account was not published until 1915.

The Society of Dilettanti also found itself influential in areas other than the funding of archaeological expeditions. Its efforts to promote a neoclassical taste in architecture were especially successful. Several English aristocrats had their country mansions rebuilt in the Palladian style, for example, and the design of the British Museum, opened in 1759, constitutes a particularly visible example of the society’s influence upon Enlightenment tastes in architecture. The society also helped to establish the Royal Society for Arts Royal Society for Arts, London in 1754 and the Royal Academy of Arts Royal Academy of Arts, England in 1768.

Three original members of the Society of Dilettanti exemplify its place within eighteenth century British culture. Francis Dashwood made his first trip abroad in 1726, followed by excursions in 1729 and in 1739, when he saw the excavations just beginning at Herculaneum. He was passionate about art and antiquity. He remained an active member of the society for thirty-five years and became its archmaster in 1746. He was elected a fellow of both the Royal Society for Arts and the Royal Society. He entered Parliament as an independent, opposed to the government, but nevertheless served on various parliamentary committees. He was briefly chancellor of the exchequer (1762-1763) and then became lord lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. He served jointly as postmaster general from 1766 to the end of his life.

Charles Sackville, a politician and impresario trying to sustain an Italian opera, had made three trips to Italy as a young man before joining the society. He also entered Parliament, but his reputation for dissolution and extravagance kept him from higher office. Nevertheless, he was appointed lord lieutenant of Kent. The society’s first painter, George Knapton, had spent seven years in Italy as a young man, describing the excavations at Herculaneum. He was the one society member neither highborn nor wealthy, but he was commissioned to paint each member’s portrait, a tradition maintained after his death by such famous painters as Sir Joshua Reynolds. Knapton was finally appointed surveyor and keeper of the king’s paintings in 1765.


The membership of the Society of Dilettanti lost some of its notoriety as the century went by, though even in the very respectable next century, the society still had privately printed a monograph on the erotic paintings dedicated to Priapus at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Its sponsorship of expeditions and surveys continued, as did its more general influence on neoclassical art and architecture. However, as tastes changed with the advent of Romanticism Romanticism;and Western cultural tastes[Western cultural tastes] and the Gothic style, Gothic art and architecture the achievements of the society were not always fully appreciated. Romantic paintings of classical ruins Ruins;art displaced the dispassionate architectural surveys sponsored by the society. Only when there was a resurgence in the appreciation of objectivity and rationality in the study of antiquity have the society’s contributions been appreciated.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Constantine, David. Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. A useful account of eighteenth century aristocratic travelers.
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    xlink:type="simple">Cust, Lionel, comp. History of the Society of Dilettanti. Edited by Sidney Colvin. London: Macmillan, 1898. The most official record, with various lists of members.
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    xlink:type="simple">Dolan, Brian. Exploring European Frontiers: British Travellers in the Age of the Enlightenment. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Builds on David Constantine’s book, with significant references to the Dilettanti.
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    xlink:type="simple">Harcourt-Smith, Cecil. The Society of Dilettanti. London: 1977. An abridged version of Lionel Cust’s account together with descriptions of the society through 1932.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Jason M. Polite Sociability and Levantine Archaeology in the British Enlightenment: The Society of the Dilettanti, 1732-1786. Santa Barbara: University of California, ProQuest Digital Dissertation, 2004. An examination of the Dilettanti by an American scholar.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kemp, B. Sir Francis Dashwood: An Eighteenth Century Independent. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967. A biography of the Dilettanti’s archmaster.
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    xlink:type="simple">Schnapp, Alain. The Discovery of the Past and the Origins of Archeology. London: British Museum Press, 1996. Chapter 4 is especially relevant to those interested in the Dilettanti.
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    xlink:type="simple">Sloan, Kim, ed. Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. London: British Museum Press, 2003. A series of essays by leading scholars centered on the founding of the British Museum.
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    xlink:type="simple">West, Shearer. “Libertinism and the Ideology of Male Friendship in the Portraits of the Society of the Dilettanti.” Eighteenth-Century Life 16 (May, 1992): 76-104. A discussion of the Dilettanti portraits and their wider cultural significance.

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Categories: History