History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 November 2007

The Dilettani Society . . .

with Celia May Hart.
Here's one place ONE MORE TIME led me in research: The Dilettanti Society.

The Dilettanti or Dilettante Society was formed in the late eighteenth-century (1734) as members with an interest in classical art and sculpture. Their reputation rapidly descended into men interested more in the erotic aspects of the art, as opposed to a less sensual appreciation. What seemed important was the ability to describe what feelings the artwork invoked in one.

Horace Walpole said of it that "the nominal qualification for membership is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk." My hero comes up against more stringent membership requirements. I never spell it out, but you get the impression that the Hardy family would never be good enough for the Dilettanti Society.

My hero was in good company. Lord Elgin (he of the Elgin Marbles fame) couldn't get into the Dilettanti Society either. (He tried twice and was finally offered membership in 1831 but declined.) The problem being that Elgin collected antiquities to share with the public as a whole, for England, whereas he lacked the "connoisseur" quality of the other aristocratic, private collectors.

The Society was a place to show off one's collections from the Mediterranean area, and retell stories of one's Grand Tour. Members of the club became renowned for their collection, most of which ended up forming the beginning of the British Museum.

By the start of the nineteenth century, the club was wealthy enough to send people off to Italy and Greece on archaeological and artistic expeditions. Awareness of ancient works rose until England and France started vying to get the best of the antiquities as part of the Napoleonic wars.

So this is sounding very dry, but consider some of the members of the Dilettanti Society over the years: the Earl of Sandwich is reputed to have an enthusiasm for sex equal to his passion for antiquities.

Younger collectors preferred to collect pieces that were, frankly, phallic, and graphic depictions of the sex act.

Naked female sculptures were worshipped by the like of Sir Francis Dashwood, which interestingly, seems to be have been part of the sea-change of men's view of women during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the unclothed statues were so revered, that real flesh and blood women came to be seen as objects. (We know, because Hannah More complained about it.)

Yep, looks like we can blame the Dilettanti Society for that one!

It's even exemplified in the relationship of Sir William Hamiliton (a Dilettanti Society member) and Emma Hart, later Hamilton. The stories are commonly known of how Hamilton posed Emma in a variety of classic poses -- just like the statues he collected.

Richard Payne Knight privately published "An Account of the Worship of Priapus" in 1786. (It somehow found its way outside of Knight's immediate circle.) The cover page (which for the sake of modesty I'll not put up here) included an etching of.... well, there are certain parts of the male extremities more or less likely to fall off sooner, by the virtue of being so exposed.

My, wasn't that diplomatic. And so that's how the Society caught my eye, inspired a whole bunch of stuff that a Dilettanti Society member probably never even dreamed of doing....

(source: the book my editor suggested I read  (so of course I did): "The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century" by John Brewer.)


Blogger Celia May Hart said...

Hey Kalen -- what is that image of?

8:29 AM  
Blogger Camilla Bartley said...

I love this article. Gives me a slew of ideas.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

In my novel, TOO GREAT A LADY, there's a scene between Emma Hart (the future Lady Hamilton), Sir William, and his nephew (then Emma's lover), Charles Greville that features the wax ex-votos (the phalluses) that Sir William Hamilton collected, with references to his book about the cult of Priapus -- considered pornography at the time!

11:37 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating. Yet another dozen or so ways to look at the Elgin Marbles.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hmmmm, facinating post. The image got my attention, too. ;-)

1:45 PM  
Blogger Celia May Hart said...

Amanda -- I think the Priapus work still might be. I have an image of the cover (you can find it in the book I referenced).

4:17 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Sorry it took me so long to get here, I can't log on at work. *sigh* That's a close up of a Bernini's Rape of Proserpina, which I think is one of the most erotic statues EVER!

7:59 PM  
Blogger Georgie Lee said...

Great post. Thanks!

11:41 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

Wow, great post and some fabulous information to tuck away. I have always found it fascinating that a society that was so sexually repressed on the surface was exploring it's sexuality behind closed doors. Of course that is why I love writing historical romance!!!

6:51 PM  
Blogger Celia May Hart said...

hey doglady, the Regency peiod wasn't *that* repressed, at least not when compared to the Victorians. Now, comparing them to the Georgians (of which they are at the tail end of) on the other hand.....

8:48 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

The Georgians would make Paris Hilton blush!!

6:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Celia! In "Beneath a Silent Moon," I have a group called the Elsinore League, very loosely inspired by the Dilettanti Society. I had a lot of fun wandering through museums making notes on art they might have collected :-).

5:09 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Like those phallus-shaped Roman lamps? *grin*

5:37 PM  

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