New material for students of 18th-century taste, collecting, archaeology and the cultural exchange between Italy and Britain

Diggers, dealers and dilettanti


Since the publication in 1997 of Sir Brinsley Ford’s researches in The Dictionary of British and Irish Visitors to Italy 1701-1800, there have been a number of books that have expanded—both geographically and chronologically—our appreciation of the Grand Tour. However, two recent books have remained within the constraints of Ford’s researches but have dug deeper. One has quite literally dug by investigating the archaeological activity of 18th-century Rome.

Ilaria Bignamini was researching what has become Digging and Dealing when she died tragically young in 2001. The breadth of her research in archives scattered throughout Britain and Italy and—as a scholar with a uniquely balanced interest in classical archaeology and the 18th century—her understanding of antiquities gave her a unique approach to her subject. The project continued after her death and Clare Hornsby has brought her two-volume study to a glorious conclusion. The breadth of this study, and the quantity of original sources from which it has been drawn, will ensure that it is used by future generations of scholars for many years to come.

Introductory chapters review the appetite that British visitors had for classical artefacts and explain the licences and the Papal bureaucracies that controlled archaeological sites. After (quite literally) establishing the ground rules, much of the text is taken up with a detailed topographical investigation of each of the sites excavated by, among others, Thomas Jenkins, Gavin Hamilton and latterly, though on a much smaller scale, Robert Fagan. Plentiful illustrations provide maps of the locations interspersed with some of the finds from each site.

The second part of the first volume is, to quote the title, a group of biographical notes about the “British Conquerors of the Marbles”. Thomas Jenkins, by far the most successful, is given special treatment and there are another 50 biographies detailing the activities of excavators, dealers and collectors.

Volume two provides transcripts of over 400 letters from Thomas Jenkins and Gavin Hamilton taken from the Townley papers in the British Museum, the Palmerston papers at Southampton University, the Upper Ossory papers in the National Library of Ireland and papers from the Lansdowne archives which were sold at Christie’s in 1930. They provide fascinating insights into the dealing activities of the century.

The Society of Dilettanti held its first dinner in 1732 for a group of aristocrats who had travelled to Italy. The idea for such a group had been masterminded by Lord Middlesex and Joseph Spence and they modelled the new Society on the short-lived Masonic lodge in Florence. Although there were many similar convivial male dining societies in 18th-century London, the Dilettanti’s meetings are uniquely documented. The preoccupations of the members are shown in an unparalleled suite of portraits by George Knapton and also in two later group portraits (1777) by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Clearly laddish in its outlook and exclusive in its membership, the cultural aspirations of the society were important. Its objectives were pro-Italian and pro-Grand Tour and it nurtured the aims of the Royal Academy and the British Museum. Jason Kelly revisits the Society’s encouragement of classical architecture in Britain and its sponsorship of a pioneering archaeological expedition to Greece that demonstrates the influence the Society exerted on the cultural world.

Both books, especially Digging and Dealing, provide much new material for students of 18th-century taste, collecting, archaeology and cultural exchange between Italy and Britain.

o Ilaria Bignamini and Clare Hornsby, Digging and Dealing in 18th-century Rome (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with Yale University Press), 2 volumes, 288 pp and 176 pp, £45 (hb) ISBN 9780300160437

o Jason M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with Yale University Press), 320 pp. £40 (hb) ISBN 9780300152197

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Diggers, dealers and dilettanti'