With elegance and wit, Bruce Redford re-creates the vibrant culture of connoisseurship in Enlightenment England by investigating the multifaceted activities and achievements of the Society of Dilettanti. He dissects the British connoisseurs whose expeditions, collections, and publications laid the groundwork for the Neoclassical revival and for the scholarly study of Graeco-Roman antiquity.
After the foundation of the society in 1732, portraits of the Dilettanti were painted by George Knapton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Sir Thomas Lawrence. These include a striking group of mock-classical and mock-religious portraits, which Redford deconstructs deliciously.
The society's support of expeditions to the Levant yielded pioneering architectural and archaeological folios, from The Antiquities of Athens (1762) to Specimens of Ancient Sculpture (1809). These monumental volumes aspired to empirical exactitude in text and image alike. As Redford shows, they combine the didactic (detailed investigations into technique, condition, restoration, and provenance) with the connoisseurial (plates that bring the illustration of ancient sculpture to new artistic heights). The accompanying exhibition Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa from August 7 through October 27, 2008.
Bruce Redford is University Professor and Professor of Art History and of English at Boston University.