The Society of Dilettanti Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment Jason M. Kelly

Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
Publication date:
15 Jan 2010
320 pages: 256 x 192 x 30mm
100 black-&-white illustrations + 20 colour images


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.

Jason M. Kelly is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis.

"In addition to its other virtues, Kelly’s book is meticulously researched, generously illustrated, and handsomely produced. Full of nuanced ideas but historically grounded, it makes an important contribution to the study of culture and sociability – and the ways in which they were related – in eighteenth-century Europe."—Carole Paul, European History Quarterly