Dilettante Battles


CE: OK, so first let’s give a really general overview of our new Tumblr “Dilettante Battles.” Basically, we are using this Tumblr to introduce fellow dilettante enthusiasts to the original dilettantes—the members of the Society of Dilettanti. Whew, that was a lot of the D-word.

Each month a different historical dilettante will take control of the Tumblr and post whatever he wants. Yes, we have a time machine. And, yes, the members of the Society of Dilettanti were (and still are) all male (cool choice, bros).

SC: As your resident purveyor of dry historical facts, allow me to set the stage.

The Society of Dilettanti had its first meeting in 1732. A group of male British aristocrats, all of whom had met on the Grand Tour, had decided to pool their Continental sophistication into one club. This club was of a particular kind, a dining society, which held regular dinners in one pub or another.

CE: So that kind of brings us to one of the reasons that we are so interested in the Society of Dilettanti—it was/is a club! We like clubs! We like groups of people getting together to talk about their interests/support each other/drink wine. But we really want to contextualize this—the Society of Dilettanti was formed in a very specific moment in English history when clubs were important socially and politically. Like even more important than the club I forced my friends to join in 3rd grade (it was called Turquoise Turtles, FYI).

SC: The Dilettanti was one club among the thousands that formed in England in the 18th century. “Club life” was an important form of socialization for upper-class men; the clubs you belonged to signaled acculturation and virtue, and they were fantastic for networking.

Clubs were a social and cultural mechanism for establishing aristocratic identity. The 18th century was the Enlightenment era, after all, and people were exploring new ideas and methodologies related to rationality and social constructs. Add in the French Revolution, and you have all of Europe in an uproar over what it meant to be a titled nobleman. Opinion gradually shifted away from the divine right of kings and toward a kind of weighted meritocracy in which aristocrats, in order to prove their worth, had to show that they embodied Enlightenment ideals of knowledge, justice, and cultural refinement. They had to be of both noble birth and noble character.

The members of the Dilettanti, through their association with other learned men, wanted to align themselves with taste and scholarship. They borrowed their name from Italian opera society, where a man who admired and participated in the arts was termed a “dilettante” (from the Italian verb dilettare: to delight, give pleasure to). “Dilettante” was a kind of local Italian slang for a virtuoso (although the words are not synonymous). The Dilettanti chose a title that made it clear they had actually been to Italy and were familiar with cultural society there—the term “dilettante” would have been confusing to anyone without first-hand knowledge of Italian Grand Tour destinations.

CE: In researching the original Society of Dilettanti—and for all y’all following along at home, our primary (highly recommended) SoD-related text so far has been The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment by Jason M. Kelly—one of the more surprising things I learned is that the word “dilettante” has changed in meaning pretty significantly since the Society of Dilettanti first used it.

The SoD actually gets credit for coining the term “dilettante” in English. Back in those days (cue Ken Burns-esque violins) a dilettante was a man who was interested in art, had traveled (bonus points for Grand Tour), and had acquired an arts and antiquities collection.

SC: When the Society of Dilettanti coined the word in English, “dilettante” did not have all the negative associations it has today.  Above all, a dilettante was a collector of arts and antiquities.  He had some scholarly training, but was not an expert or a pedant. He excelled in what was called “polite learning”: a wide familiarity with natural philosophy, literature, and the arts. Polite learning was the hallmark of gentlemanly conduct and an expected virtue for an aristocratic man.

In the 18th century, disciplinary boundaries in the arts were in their embryonic stages. Enlightenment values resulted in the founding of many new universities, which came with departments staffed by professional scholars. Those scholars had a vested interest in establishing professional standards that would protect their livelihoods, and they took pains to differentiate themselves from other types of scholars through such criteria as institutional affiliation and full-time work. So while “dilettante” did not originally denote an amateur (because there was no such thing as an amateur), it came to mean just that. “Dilettante” has been on a negative-association downward spiral since the 1730’s—in contemporary use, a dilettante is not only an amateur but an unserious and undedicated one. It has also become differently gendered, coming to be used as an accusation mostly against women (who have also been rarely considered “professional,” historically speaking).

The founding members of the Dilettanti were dabblers of the first order. They had an all-embracing approach to visuality. Dilettanti used their travels through Europe and the Near East to map and record classical ruins, collecting examples of classical Greek and Roman art along the way. They studied and consumed all manner of art: painting, ceramics, sculpture, architecture, poetry, and literature.  The boundaries between these mediums, built up over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, have begun to dissolve relatively recently. After the rigor of modernism, the lack of division in Dilettanti methods seems refreshing to some modern scholars (me).

But the boundless curiosity of the Dilettanti was accompanied by boundless consuming. While they contributed some important scholarship and were the patrons of much more, they spent most of their time drinking and carousing. Modern literature about the Dilettanti constantly refers to “wenching” as one of their primary pastimes, a word that never fails to make me cringe. Let’s be clear about it: it seems probable that they committed sexual assault pretty regularly. The Dilettanti were also complete orientalists—they viewed the modern residents around their beloved classical ruins as just more picturesque ruins of former glory. The Ottoman Empire inspired both titillation and fear in the contemporary English gentleman, who took a great deal of Greek, Turkish, and Italian patrimony out of their countries of origin, simultaneously endowing great collections and robbing other countries of their heritage. At home, their politics tended to favor the maintenance of their own wealth and position.

CE: In revisiting the lives of early Dilettanti, we’re not interested in glorifying or romanticizing all of their actions and viewpoints. In general they were classist, sexist, racist, Eurocentric, and probably ageist (when it came to the aforementioned wenching).

We are interested in both the SoD’s enduring projects, like the Royal Academy of Arts, and its many impressively debaucherous historical anecdotes and scandals.

So let’s introduce our first Tumblr-running dilettante! His name is Charles Sackville, but he is NOT the bomb-ass poet. We’re talking about Charles Sackville, 2nd Duke of Dorset not Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset. Just, can you please get your Dorset history on point? Thank you.

This guy is the one we mean. (via Wikipedia Commons)

This guy is the one we mean. (via Wikipedia Commons)

SC: This Charles Sackville was an original member of the Society of Dilettanti and the impetus for its founding. He was styled Earl of Middlesex from 1720 to 1765, and that’s how we’ll refer to him here. Middlesex went on his first Grand Tour in 1730, accompanied by John Spence (a poetry professor at Oxford, where Middlesex had just completed his education). The Grand Tour acted as a kind of finishing school for gentlemen, supplementing their formal education and teaching them the ways of polite society. It was also a way to make useful acquaintances out of other wealthy tourists.

Middlesex and Spence gained several important friends on their Tour, among whom were the English founders of the Masonic lodge in Florence. In 1732, Middlesex was elected master of the lodge (who had a medal struck in honor of his service). He learned all kinds of rites and rituals at the Lodge, and the ritual flavor of his time in Italy was to became an important part of his vision for the Dilettanti. When he returned to London later that year, he immediately sought to replicate his Italian experience there, inviting his friends to continue their Continental adventures on home soil.  Many of the men he had met in Europe came together to dine in a pub, where they decided to form a club. The records for the first four years of the Society of Dilettanti are lost, but most of the founding members were aristocrats, and they had all been on the Grand Tour.  The Society was composed of like-minded gentlemen, all interested in art, archaeology, and Italian opera. They were also supremely dedicated to having a good time.  Middlesex enjoyed a tremendous reputation as a libertine—he had a succession of mistresses, at least two of them Italian opera singers, and could drink and “wench” with the best of them.

CE: Welp, seems like he’s got it all figured out! What could go wrong?

SC: His womanizing became an issue with the Society of Dilettanti when he enlisted the help of many of its members in the support an opera season at Covent Garden in 1740. Middlesex had returned in 1739 from his second tour abroad, and his Italian opera-singer mistress, Lucia Panichi (known as the Moscovita), followed him home. Middlesex and seven other men (most of whom were Dilettanti members) put up £1000 each to fund the first season of the opera, which was quite a bit of money back then.

This venture was to combine Middlesex’s great loves, women and opera, and recreate his extravagant Italian life back in London. Soon, however, it turned disastrous, because the company also combined Middlesex’s greatest weaknesses: financial incompetence and serial womanizing. The opera productions went significantly over budget. The Moscovita, for instance, was paid an extraordinary sum for her “services”—600 guineas for the season. The opera was operating at a loss, and it only achieved a middling critical reception. Nevertheless, the Society of Dilettanti decided to take on as a group and came to the aid of the floundering Middlesex. They came up with a subscription scheme to provide funding for two more seasons. It was the first time that the Dilettanti had taken on a financial burden as a group, and, as Jason M. Kelly notes, the decision to do so “represents the moment when the society decided to become something more than a private dining society. The group was entering the public realm—albeit a limited, elite one—and was intent on keeping a high profile as patrons of the arts.” 1

This is not to say that the Dilettanti went on to be great patrons of institutional breadth. Most of their schemes never came to much, and the opera company was no exception. In an effort to pay off some of the opera’s mounting debts, the Dilettanti took the unusual step of suing its backers for additional funds. This, too, was a leap from a concept of individual patronage, with set gifted amounts, to a shared interest model that involved the entire society. Unfortunately, the opera scheme lost the Dilettanti as much reputation as it gained. While opera supporters may have benefitted from their association with the libertine reputation of the Dilettanti, it was another matter to be held responsible for their debts. The opera did not last past 1743.

Middlesex himself lost a great deal of money in his brief career as an opera impresario. Combined with his gambling debts and extravagant gifts to his mistresses, his debts became the defining feature of his aristocratic legacy. Middlesex had been long estranged from his father, the 1st Duke of Dorset, who refused to pay his son’s debts. In need of funds, in 1744 Middlesex married the heiress Grace Boyle (daughter of the 2nd Viscount Shannon); he then proceeded to spend her dowry, which was worth a reported £130,000, on yet more mistresses and prostitutes. Middlesex’s long political alliance with Frederick, Prince of Wales netted him a position on the Prince’s estates as Master of Horse, and his wife was Mistress of the Robes to the Princess of Wales (as well as the alleged mistress of the Prince). 2

Upon his marriage, Middlesex’s father gave him a marriage settlement of several estates to fund himself and his family. He bled those dry rather quickly, though, and made several attempts to reconcile with his father and brothers in hopes of convincing them to settle his debts for him.3 The Prince’s friend and sometime agent, George Bubb Dodington, began acting as an intermediary agent in these reconciliation negotiation. It was a delicate process, but in 1752 they came to something of an understanding. The duke paid of some of Middlesex’s debts, although father and son were never truly reconciled. Upon his father’s death in 1765, Middlesex became 2nd Duke of Dorset. He did not enjoy his new autonomous income for long, however: Middlesex died in 1769. And yet he lives on, albeit merely as a poor shade of himself, on this Tumblr.

1. Kelly, Jason M. The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. p. 75

2. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1715-1754/member/sackville-charles-1711-69. Accessed June 3, 2015.

3. West, Robert. Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles. New York: Walker Books, 2010. Kindle edition, location 2037.