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The Dilletanti:

Photo Courtesy of Getty Villa

The Grand Tour of Italy’s art treasures and antiquities was de rigueur for 18th-century English aristocrats. In 1734 a group of alumni of such a journey formed a club to encourage at home “a taste for those objects which had contributed to their entertainment abroad.†They named themselves the Society of Dilettanti (from the Italian dilettare, to take delight) and devoted much time to honoring Dionysos and Eros, ancient gods of wine and love–in other words, drinking and carousing. But they also underwrote archaeological expeditions to Greece, Turkey and the Middle East–regions then largely unknown to the Europeans, and publications of ancient monuments and sites.

The Getty Villa exhibition Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti examines different facets of this group. The members are captured in whimsical portraits by George Knapton in the first room. Francis Dashwood, for example, appears as a Franciscan monk revering the private parts of an ancient statue of Venus; Dilettanti loved to dress up in costumes and perform mock rituals. Ribald and profane, they adored erotic art unearthed at Pompeii, Herculaneum and elsewhere–shown here in a small gallery evocative of period cabinets of such curiosities.

The Dilettanti’s more serious preoccupations are highlighted in the remaining rooms. In the 1750s the Society sponsored a three-year journey of the painter James Stuart and the architect Nicholas Revett to study the Greek antiquities of Attica. Their findings, published in The Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated, familiarized Europeans with the remains of ancient Greece, helped develop the science of archaeology and fostered a Greek Revival in contemporary arts. Such books, along with picturesque watercolors of ancient ruins, reveal the Dilettanti’s nurturing of early archaeology.

Collecting being another aspect of their patronage, the exhibition presents various objects owned by the Dilettanti and their meticulous representation in Specimens of Antient Sculpture–an example of scholarly analysis of Greek and Roman sculpture promoted by the Society. A number of 18th-century replicas of ancient artifacts, meanwhile, demonstrate the diffusion of taste for the past in contemporary England–thanks to the Dilettanti.

The exhibition runs through October 27. Getty Villa is located at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades. For reservations, call (310) 440-7300.

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