Giovanni Morelli

This is the most recent version of a paper that looks at Giovanni Morelli and connoisseurship and which grows out of my American Leonardo book.  Anyone interested in Morelli should pay a visit to Dietrich Seybold’s outstanding website and monograph.  Its a terrific achievement.

And see also Luke Uglow’s brilliant essay on Morelli and Giorgione at

Click to access uglow.pdf


Art and Attribution: Giovanni Morelli, Morellians, and Morellianism: thoughts on ‘scientific connoisseurship’.

“If you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories and findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what practitioners of it do”.    (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York,1973, p.5)).



Today, I want to focus my discussion on Giovanni Morelli and his so-called “scientific connoisseurship”.   I won’t dwell in great detail on this well-known story, though, as we shall see, like most well-known stories, this is a misleading one. Morellianism, as propagated most famously by Morelli in his introductory dialogue on method in the edition of his collected works, as elaborated in the essays and comments of the early (though not the later) Bernard Berenson, and as praised by such admirers as Lady Eastlake, Sigmund Freud and Carlo Ginzburg, claimed that the Italian patriot, physician and Senator had developed a new, scientific form of connoisseurship which prioritized the scrupulous inspection of works of art (rather than an attempt to adduce their history through documents, or their authorship through a swift, intuitive glance at a work’s general impression, or ‘total Eindruck’) in order to isolate their morphological characteristics, and thereby to identify not just their place in regional schools of art, but the authors of the works themselves.


The priority here was not aesthetic pleasure but a positivistic inventorying of works of art, played out on two overlapping (and sometimes contradictory) fields – the artistic patrimony of the nation state and the universal museum.   Many accounts – from Mrs. Eastlake’s in the nineteenth century, to Jaynie Anderson’s in the present – tell a heroic story about Morelli as an Italian patriot whose concern for the political entity of an emergent Italy (and I’d be the last to question Morelli’s patriotic credentials) was mirrored in his determination to establish an accurate and full picture of the new nation’s cultural patrimony in order to secure its conservancy.


As a ‘scientific’ procedure, this sort of connoisseurship emphasized repeated and painstaking visual comparisons, and highlighted the value of particular features of paintings (landscape and drapery – two often forgotten features – as well as such body parts as ears and hands). Morelli directed the connoisseur to small, insignificant details as particularly telling signs of authorship because they were rendered in a routine, unconscious manner. And it was this, of course, that excited both Freud and Ginsburg, and led them to recruit Morelli to their cause: the former because it seemed to mirror the procedures of psychoanalysis; the later because it seemed to exemplify the homological model that he employs to build totalities out of traces and fragments.


Morelli’s claims to originality and to priority were sustained by his emphasis on the weakness and unreliability of ‘traditional’ methods. Morelli rejected any art historical work that did not make the object the centre of its attention, and any art history that used the artwork as a way of recovering the spirit of the times.   Art historians, whether in the academy or the museum, were, in his view, far too immersed in books and documents, housing art history in the library and the archive rather than working in the myriad repositories – the churches, town halls and private houses – in which art rested.   At bottom, the problem with art historians was that they did not look. As Morelli memorably puts it, “looking at pictures is to them like a thorn in the eye”. The proper subject of art history was the work of art itself; rigorous art history depended on the meticulous examination of large numbers of paintings. “It is absolutely necessary”, Morelli concluded, “for a man to be a connoisseur before he can become an art historian”.


This criticism is well known. What is less emphasized is Morelli’s critique of the technique of the “coup d’oeil”, the intuitive first glance – Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.   Such a procedure, Morelli seems to be saying, has no grounding, no means of verification, no evidentiary base.   He also implies that it is slipshod, a sort of easy short-circuit to attribution, unlike the painstaking rigors of scientific observation.   Here, as so often, Morelli is playing fast and loose. It was never the claim that anyone’s immediate intuition produced a good attribution, just that someone with accumulated visual experience could use that experience and knowledge to intuit a good attribution.   The difference is a procedural one: Morelli’s method is one that appears to demand that one proceed from the parts of a work to its whole; the intuitive method proceeds in the opposite direction, from the whole to its parts, seeking corroborative evidence to substantiate the original judgment.


In treating connoisseurship as “scientific” Morelli seemed to be taking it out of the realm of humanist conjecture and into the world of scientific investigation. “Observation and experience”, he wrote, “are the foundation of every science”.   Just “as the botanist lives among his fresh and dried plants, the mineralogist among his stones, the geologists among his fossils…. So the art connoisseur ought to live among his photographs and, if his finances permit, among his pictures and statues.”   In explaining why he so often differed from the numerous experts who had written about the attributions in German collections, Morelli claimed that his conclusions were “based upon indisputable and practical facts, accessible to every observer, and are not merely subjective and aesthetic, dependent upon individual taste and impressions, as is usually the case in critical writings on art”.


Now, it must be said that Morelli’s writings are extremely difficult to analyse.   He wrote using not just a pseudonym, Ivan Lermolieff, but adopting a character, sometimes engaged in a dialogue, a stratagem that raises all sorts of issues about authorial intention and meaning. Who is speaking in Morelli’s text?   Then there is the problem of the many (and varying) versions of Morelli’s arguments. Luke Uglow, in what is the most brilliant and important work on Morelli for decades, works with seven different versions of Morelli, five in German and two in English. Morelli changed the text (and not just his attributions) on many occasions and, as Uglow shows, the English texts suppress many of Morelli’s more rebarbative and skeptical comments. Thus, to cite only one example, when talking about his Raphael scholarship he says that his method “may perhaps be an illusion”, a comment that is omitted in the translation.   Then there is the problem of Morelli’s coherence and consistency. His friend and the funder of the English translation of his works, Sir Henry Austen Layard, complained, “it is to be wished that Signor Morelli would publish a work containing so rich a mine of information in a different and more methodical form”.   Years later Carol Gibson-Wood, an early Anglophone scholar of connoisseurship, complained about Morelli’s vagueness and inconsistency.   Uglow offers a plausible answer to his problem. He sees Morelli as an ironist, arguing that the connoisseur’s vagueness and inconsistency were “intentional”, and that his purpose was to “educate his reader about the nature of connoisseurial authority, and the dangers of assuming scientific knowledge”. If this is true then it renders all the more interesting why Morelli has come down to us as the father of “scientific” connoisseurship.

The Morellians, and sometimes Morelli himself, wrote themselves into what Catherine Scallen has characterized as the progressive narrative of connoisseurship, one of cumulative improvement in our understanding and identification of works of art as a result of the application of new techniques, methods or technologies.   They invented, in fact, an ideology, Morellianism, that, as we have already seen, has proved extraordinarily seductive. It offered a comforting narrative (and continues to do so), one that had a wide public appeal in the age of positivistic science and remains potent in a technophilic age.   Oddly enough, it remains a part of art historical orthodoxy, its claims taken at face value, even when they are disputed. The usual question posed of Morellianism is whether or not it produced good evaluations and attributions, not about what sort of ideological work it was performing. But, as we shall see, Morellianism was not a very good guide to what connoisseurs (including Morelli) were doing in the period; it performed other functions. If we want to get beyond the progressive grand narrative of ‘scientific connoisseurship’, we will have to pursue a more embedded analysis, one more like a micro or case history, digging deeper into what’s at stake in connoisseurship and its application as expertise at a particular historical moment.


So let’s start to take Morelli’s and the Morellians’ account apart. To me, one of the most astonishing features of the discussion of Morelli’s scientific connoisseurship is the relative lack of attention (with a number of notable exceptions) to the question, not of whether Morelli’s attributions were true (much comment here), but of the grounds and procedures he actually used, rather than those he championed.   Put crudely, did his practice embrace his ideology? One of the few full studies of this issue, Matteo Panzeri’s examination of Morelli’s notes and annotations on La Collezione Lochis written in 1865 finds that in his entire account there is only one recorded instance of the use of morphological features to make an attribution, the case of a Virgin and child by Cosme Tura: “Caratteristiche le orecchie lunghe e cartilaginose, le palpebre come conchiglie di nautilo”.(long cartilagious ears and eyelids like nautilus shells). Instead the overriding ground for attribution is quality.   Similarly if we examine Morelli’s famous account of works in the Borghese and Doria Pampfili collections, qualitative judgments abound – works are “feeble”, “weak”, “lifeless”, “too spirited in conception and too warm in colouring”. “coarse and unskillful”, “too hard and too feeble”, and so on.   When necessary Morelli adopts a biographical approach and elaborates on Vasari – as in the case of Francesco Bacchiacca – and shows himself to be happy with documentary evidence provided it serves his purpose.   Morelli’s account of how he made his attribution of a female portrait by Giorgione in the Borghese collection, though not based on documentary evidence, also does not sound like a systematic morphological analysis: “One day, as I stood before this mysterious portrait, entranced, and questioning, the spirit of the master met mine, and the truth flashed upon me. ‘Giorgione, thou alone, ‘ I cried in my excitement; and the picture answered, ‘Even so’.”   Of course, on occasion morphological detail occupies centre stage – as for example in his discussion of how to distinguish the work of Pesellino from that of his master, Fra Filippo.   But Morelli knows, as he shows in his discussion of Botticelli, that the details of master and pupils may share the same morphological characteristics, and that then qualitative judgment comes into play. In short, Morelli frequently made attributions using methods and approaches that he condemned in his theoretical writing.


There is other evidence that Morelli’s take on morphological analysis was a bit more ambivalent than he and some of his proponents would have us believe. Morelli himself often insisted, especially when he was accused of being ‘mechanical’ in his attributions, that examining such particulars was only one facet or part of his technique. In his analysis of individual paintings morphological details are very often intermingled with observations of dress fashion, gesture and poetic expression in making an attribution; they are not given special status. He disparaged the famous illustrations of ears and hands, which are reproduced again and again in modern discussions of connoisseurship, calling them “caricatures made to engage the public”, and when he was preparing the definitive edition of his works he deleted them from the proofs.   And he denied that his method could be reduced to a mechanical process in which attributions were read off, using a small detail. “It has been asserted in Germany”, he complained, “that I profess to recognize a painter and to estimate his work solely by the form of the hand, the finger-nails, the ear, or the toes. Whether this statement is due to malice or to ignorance I cannot say; it is scarcely necessary to state that it is incorrect. What I maintain is, that the forms, more especially those of the hand and ear, aid us in distinguishing the works of a master from those of his imitators, and control the judgment which subjective impressions might lead us to pronounce”.  The term Morelli uses in German to describe his method is Hulfsmittel, meaning one of many means to assist in the practice of connoisseurship.


So this whole issue was fraught with ambiguity: were morphological details Morelli’s method or were they a supplement? Morelli’s comments were contradictory (deliberately so in Uglow’s view) while his followers could never quite decide. They wanted the benefit of morphological scientism – rigor and a high degree of certainty, as well as what they saw as the badge of distinction conferred by the approach – but wished to avoid accusations of mechanical and rote learning. When enthusiasm for Morelli’s work was at its peak, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Morellians strongly hinted that his method was a passepartout that gave almost anyone the key to attribution. Jocelyn Ffoulkes, the English translator of Morelli, described his method as the means “whereby beginners may hope to attain to a certain amount of proficiency in distinguishing one master from another”, concluding, “This road is open to all”. Lady Eastlake in a fulsome tribute to Morelli, imagined a time when, thanks to his method, the public could “more easily learn to know a painter’s special style, and, after a time, could themselves, without the help of art critics, detect if an imposter had been foisted upon us”. And, as we have seen, Morelli himself was not averse to claiming that his conclusions were “not merely subjective and aesthetic, dependent upon individual taste and impressions, as is usually the case in critical writings on art”.   He referred to his method as “matter of fact” and as “unaesthetische”.


But as Morelli’s methodological claims came under attack as the approach of what Charles Eliot Norton called “the ear and toenail school”, his defenders were quick to point out that, “those purely mechanical tests which are so frequently and so closely associated with his name form but a comparatively small part of his system” and were easily abused. “In the hands of those whose faculties of comparison are themselves mainly mechanical, they degrade art criticism to the level of chirography”.   Morelli repeatedly drew a distinction between “some who have eyes to see, and others whom the most powerful glasses would not benefit in the slightest degree, because there are practically two types of sight – physical and spiritual. The first is that of the public at large….the second belongs to a very few intelligent and unprejudiced artists and students of art.”   So, the status and force of the Morellian method was always ambiguous, especially among its proponents.


Which brings us to the issue of novelty and to the question, which has recently much exercised Morellian scholars, of the sources or origins of Morelli’s method. Carlo Ginzburg and others have connected the Morellian method to his training as a doctor, emphasizing the similarities between medical diagnostics and the use of fragments to ‘diagnose’ attributions. Richard Pau and Jaynie Anderson, drawing on the Morelli archive, have pointed to Morelli’s notes and anatomical drawings made during his time as a student of Dollinger at the University of Munich, and have traced his approach to Cuvier’s methods of identification through the use of fragments, “the correlation of parts”. This concern to isolate a special ‘source’ of Morelli’s ideas is, I think, connected to the assumption that in some way his method was novel, and that its origins had to be outside the realm of art history and the humanities.   In other words, it takes at face value, Morelli’s claim to be developing a science with an “experimental method”.

More recently Valentina Locatelli and Luke Uglow have emphasized Morelli’s intellectual debt to Romantic Naturphilosophie, whether that of Schelling (who Morelli translated) or Goethe. These arguments (especially that of Uglow) are extremely important because they point away from a positivistic view of form, and towards a more spiritual approach in which form reveals to the cultured and sympathetic observer the spirit which gives it life.   The assimilation of the object, only possible through intense scrutiny and sympathy, gives revelation. It is important in this context to note that Morelli draws a distinction between Grundformen (basic forms) and what he calls artists’ mannerisms (Schnokel). The former have more power than the latter. They reveal the inward conditions of art, while the latter are useful merely as a form of identification. Most interpreters have seen Morelli as looking forward, a scientific modernist of sorts, but Locatelli and Uglow push him back into the Romantic era.


Here I think it important to bear in mind that, as Morelli himself acknowledged, there were many art scholars in Italy who did not see his method as especially novel. As Donata Levi has pointed out, Giovanni Batista Cavalcaselle, who accompanied Morelli on a trip through Le Marche and Umbria in 1861 to inventory art works there for the new nation state, used precisely the sort of morphological detail emphasized by Morelli in his armory of attribution. And, as Uglow reminds us, in 1820 Karl Friedrich von Rumohr’s Italiensiche Forshungen used anatomical details to identify the works of Giotto. Such an approach had a strong pedigree in Italo-German scholarship, particularly in a field that seems to have been largely neglected by Morelli scholars, namely classical art and archaeology. In the eighteenth century Winckelmann, of course, was one of the first to use trivial details (knees etc) to make identifications.   By the early nineteenth century German and Italian scholars of ancient art and artifacts were routinely using formal analysis in this way. Figures like Heinrich von Brunn of the Deutsche Archaelogische Institut in Rome, in the words of the Dictionary of Art Historians, “pioneered the method of determining the date and source of sculptural fragments through a rigorous analysis of the representation of anatomical detail”. And, of course, the primacy of the visual, of the astute eye, over the textual, was one of the chief emancipatory strategies of classical archaeology in its attempt to free itself from literary classicism.


The general point I want to make here is not one that disparages Morelli and his achievement, but rather to point to how he took up and developed mainstream ideas not just from nineteenth-century positivistic science, nor from the technique of investigation described by Huxley as ‘retrospective prophecy’, but from within the worlds of art and archaeology. Claims about Morelli’s novelty, in other words, seem to me to be exaggerated. A fair response to this might be the one that Morelli himself made to accusations that he lacked originality – if he was so mainstream why all the fuss?


Uglow’s answer to this question is to argue that Morelli was deliberately provocative and contentious because of his desire to problematize connoisseurial authority and the claims of ‘science’. This may well be so, but more is going here. One other better-known answer to this question, elaborated most convincingly by Jaynie Anderson, is that what lay at the heart of Morelli’s notoriety was cultural politics. In particular that the vicious and escalating quarrels between Morelli and von Bode of the Berlin Museums was as much about the politics of cultural patrimony as it was about connoisseurial method.   As she writes, “the differences between Morelli and Bode were political, or in other words about the politics of acquisitions between competing nations and their developing national museums. From the time that Morelli invented a scientific method of attribution in the 1850’s, connoisseurship as practised by patriots rather than dealers, became a political activity. In the creation of national museums connoisseurship was an important diagnostic activity, used to determine who should have the best works of art. He who succeeded, created the national patrimony for the future of a nation.”   Anderson is surely correct in locating the issue of connoisseurship within the questions of cultural patrimony, museums and the nation state.   As in the case of his famous trip to Le Marche and Umbria in 1861 with Cavalcaselle (and a further extended series of trips with his assistant Frizzoni between 1874 and 1877, when he traveled through Italy making an inventory of art works for the Italian government), Morelli was very much concerned to record Italy’s cultural patrimony. Because of all the controversies raised about specific attributions, it has been rather forgotten that Italian connoisseurship in the second half of the nineteenth century was about a general exercise in recuperation, rescue and discovery. Berenson in an early essay compared the task of the connoisseur to that of a Contadina rescuing lost sheep. The Burlington Magazine, in a wide-ranging discussion of connoisseurship, talked about its threefold task as “discovery, attribution and classification”, and praised connoisseurs who had “rescued from obscurity a large number of personalities, some doubtless of little account, but many of profound interest, whose acquaintance we can now make through their work”.   This was an enterprise analogous to that of the archaeologist, the unearthing of the obscure, the rescuing and reconstruction of a lost culture, and thus the creation of an Italian patrimony.   And hence the frequent heroic accounts – in the writings of Morelli, Cavalcaselle, Berenson and Langton Douglas – of the intrepid connoisseur as a forager and explorer undergoing personal hardship and privation in order to explore newfound lands. In the first instance, the object of connoisseurship was less the identification of difference, the observation of the singularities that identified a particular master, than the discovery of similarities that made up a regional style or school. Berenson makes this abundantly clear in his essay on connoisseurship of 1904. Taking the example of the Venetian school, he writes, “we wish to know how it originated, how it ripened to maturity, how it decayed, and what were its characteristics in all these phases”.   This, Berenson argues, cannot be achieved without a full inventory of Venetian art, and the first duty of the connoisseur is to identify affinities among works in order to identify schools and periods. This process of resurrection was also the means by which a process of proper discrimination could be undertaken. Such inventories helped undermine the prevalent and casual assumption that a school or regional style was made up almost exclusively of old masters. Only when it was in place could the great works be distinguished and identified.   (I think it telling that the most eloquent recent justification of connoisseurship, by David Freedberg, bases his case around its methodological value in defining a field.)   This process, which Berenson actually described as ‘dialectical’, involved lumping and splitting: aggregating and disaggregating.   It seems fairly obvious – at least to me – and is born out by the notes and diagrams of Cavalcaselle and Morelli themselves – that a morphological analysis – put another way, formalism – was, in fact, a rather sound procedure when trying to group together schools and identify their characteristics. Here the object in view was not beauty or aesthetic judgment but rather the development of a taxonomy of art.


But of course this spitting and lumping is only part of the story. It did not take place in an atmosphere of unanimity and accord, but one of great conflict. Anderson and others are right to insist on Morelli’s patriotic agenda – it is noticeable how his hostility to von Bode and the German museums escalated after 1874 when the north Europeans began buying works of Italian art in significant numbers.   But Morelli’s view of Italy, one that was shared by many of his British admirers, and saw the new nation as a centralized constitutional monarchy on the British model, was under constant challenge from the Left, whose values grew out of the Mazzinian, republican tradition that Morelli opposed, and who also supported more regional autonomy and local power. In this, as in so many other respects, Morelli, and his great rival, Cavalcaselle were at odds. And, just as Morelli’s hostility to Bode grew with German purchasing power, so Morelli’s antipathy to Cavalcaselle grew as the latter became more and more important as a cultural administrator, after the Left defeated the liberal conservatives in 1876 and dominated administrations over the next ten years.


It seems to me that personal, political and aesthetic issues all became terribly confused.   Personal relations between Morelli and Cavalcaselle were never more than polite after their trip together in 1861.   But more important was the issue of who was to be the guardian, interpreter and proprietor of Italy’s cultural heritage – was it to be the rather patrician, erudite amateur and collector whom Morelli embodied, or was it to be the democratic functionary personified by Cavalcaselle, working with local museums and authorities that combined patriotism with campanilismo? Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century (1853), and its subsequent and expanded iterations in German and Italian, made a powerful case for Cavalcaselle’s proprietorship, not least because, unlike most of Morelli’s writings, it constituted a history of art, constructed with the aid of local archivists and antiquarians.   Morelli and Cavalcaselle may not, as we have seen, have differed much in their connoisseurial practices or techniques, but they did differ in what they produced, in what they made that connoisseurship do.   Morelli wrote about Italian painters and about collections, Cavalcaselle wrote a history of Italian art that gave a great deal of attention to works in both their physical and historical location.   (The idea, propagated by Morelli, that such art history saw artworks as mere cultural illustration is a willful mischaracterization of Crowe and Cavalcaselli.)   Of course Morelli was extremely knowledgeable about the sort of art that Crowe and Cavalcaselle discussed, and used it on occasion to challenge museum attributions; he also had very fixed ideas about the organic and local nature of styles of art that in his view were determined by their environment. But what his writing sets out to create and control was not the history of art (about which he was, as we know, extremely and inaccurately disparaging) but a body of art work, whose true meaning and significance was available to only a very few.   Bode, in his attack on Morelli shortly after the latter’s death, implied that Morelli was some sort of populist, making the meaning of art accessible to all. Sometimes, as we have seen, Morellians expressed similar sentiments. But this, as I am sure Bode knew and as we have seen, was all nonsense.   Morelli constantly emphasized how inaccessible the true meaning of art was to the viewer.   He dismissed curators, museum functionaries as people who did not have the time to examine art properly (!); this was also his repeated reason for why he would not take up any formal position in the administration of art in the new Italy. He dismissed the new art history professors in the universities as bookworms and pedants, given to metaphysics and history rather than art. (Though, ironically, his most lasting legacy was probably at the University of Vienna where his technical formalism was much admired and underpinned the work of the Viennese school of art scholars from Franz Wickoff to Julius von Schlosser.) He blamed the presence of copies in the art world on the greed of merchants and bankers. He saw the amateur as far superior to the professional. “I hold that amateurs who have a real love of art, and who, like myself, have a collection of their own, are quite as much entitled to express an opinion on a work of art as – nay, even better entitled to do so, than – so-called professional critics, who really care no more about a picture than the anatomist cares about the dead body he is dissecting”.   But being an amateur was entirely consistent with being a patient and persistent observer: “The study of all the individual parts, which go to make up ‘form’ in a work of art, is what I would recommend to those who are not content with being mere dilettanti, but who really desire to find a way through the intricacies of the history of art”…“such studies, however, are not a matter of weeks, months, or even years”. The appreciation of works of art was a lifetime avocation, a calling; what it was not, was a profession.


The position that Morelli takes about who is able to make an informed and skilled judgment about a work of art is, in other words, both anti-modern and elitist. No wonder he railed against the disasters perpetrated under “democratic progressive government”.   Morelli may have been an Italian patriot, but he was an exceptionally conservative figure in the art world of the late nineteenth century, who clung to the values of disinterested amateurism, did not like the international art market, nor, as Henri Zerner pointed out, the functionaries who inhabited the new nineteenth-century art institutions – public museums, universities – whether in Italy or abroad. He used every weapon at his disposal to combat these new forces (I use the metaphor advisedly; Morelli was fond of such deliberately combative language). The war was waged ad hominem: the index to the first volume of the English edition of his works lists fifty five entries for Bode, all but two of which are pejorative; Crowe and Cavalcaselle command forty nine footnotes, four of which confirm their attributions, all the rest list errors. No Italian artist commands anywhere near as many entries. As Carol Gibson Wood pointed out many years ago, the explicit articulation of a Morellian method came late in his career, and it is hard not to see it as a means of distinction, another way of differentiating him from his rivals. I don’t mean by this that he invented the method as a form of distinction. He was, from a very early stage in his writings, deeply skeptical of ungrounded aesthetic judgments (though never averse to evaluating the quality of a painting), and strongly committed to a rigorous formalist analysis as the key to understanding and appreciating art. He also certainly wanted the understanding of art to be ‘a science’, though in this he was like many of his contemporaries, even though they may have had different notions of what that meant.   But I am inclined to suggest that late in his career, in an exquisite irony that would no doubt not be lost on him, Morelli played up his ‘modern’ scientific method to further a deeply conservative vision of the art world.



Let me conclude with some brief remarks upon the legacy of Morelli. There was a period at the end of the nineteenth century when Morellianism enjoyed its greatest vogue – both among (some) connoisseurs and as a means of assuring a lay public that the burgeoning literature on art was ‘scientific’.   But the situation began to change early in the twentieth century, when Italian art became an object of serious interest to the immensely wealthy American collectors who had come to dominate the international art market. the Morellian emphasis on the art work as a stand-alone object sat well with its growing importance as a singular commodity on the art market, and was also frequently invoked to explain why no corroborative (textual) evidence was need to make an attribution. But what did not sit well with these new collectors was the exacting language of supposedly scientific Morellian connoisseurship. What had to be discerned was less the hand of the master than the presence of ‘artistic personality’, a quality that was not just a question of technique, though there was some attempt, as with Bernard Berenson, to associate it, in the Morellian manner, with significant form.


Where, if at all, did the inheritance of Morelli feature in all this? In brief the Morelli bequest was not so much a method and way of talking about pictures (which, as we shall see, was largely set aside in the marketplace), but the presence of a highly factionalized and personally acrimonious body of connoisseurs, many of whom continued to embrace Morelli’s notion of the great connoisseur as the great amateur.   At the same time the demand for expertise created a special space (and opportunity for enrichment) for such ‘amateur’ connoisseurs.   Museum curators were often forbidden by their institutions from giving opinions on works of art for sale (though this didn’t stop them doing so, it made it harder for them to profit from such attributions); dealers, as parti pris, were suspect.   The private enthusiast, the knowledgeable connoisseur, working in the tradition of the marchand amateur, was the obvious recruit for the task.


We can trace these developments most clearly in the case of Bernard Berenson, avowed acolyte of Morelli, a man who originally gave himself up to the study of Italian art, and who published his most significant work before 1907, in the form of lists that continued the inventorying of Italian art in the Morelli/Cavalcaselle tradition. After that date, however, Berenson was committed to establishing himself not just as the scholar of early Italian art, but as the authenticating expert in the market for Italian primitives. The pressure on him was unrelenting, especially after he signed a deal with Joseph Duveen in 1912 to act as the expert for the biggest Old Master art dealership in the world. In the year 1917, for example, he provided opinions on 250 paintings, many in the form of judgments written on the back of photographs.


I am not here interested in Berenson’s motives, accuracy or honesty, topics that have taken up far too much space in the literature on Berenson and connoisseurship. But Berenson’s shifting views on Morelli and Morellianism are highly instructive. Even in his 1902 essay on connoisseurship, one of the most fully elaborated and lucid accounts of Morelli’s morphological technique, (taken I suspect from Mary Berenson’s lectures on the subject), Berenson makes clear that he sees Morelli’s method as a means of identification but not as a way to evaluating quality.


“it may be laid down as a principle, that the value of those tests which come nearest to being mechanical is inversely as the greatness of the artist. The greater the artist, the more weight falls on the question of quality in the consideration of a work attributed to him. The sense of Quality is indubitably the most essential equipment of a would-be connoisseur. It is the touchstone of all his laboriously collected documentary and historical evidences of all the possible morphological tests we may be able to bring to bear upon a work of art.   But the discussion of Quality belongs to another region than that of science. It is not concerned with the tests of authenticity which have been the object of our present study; it does not fall into the category of demonstrable things. Our task, for the present, has limited itself to the consideration of the formal and more or less measurable elements in pictures with which the Science of connoisseurship must reckon. We have not touched upon the Art of connoisseurship.”


Berenson, who was an aesthete at heart, greatly admired Morelli’s labours and the skill of his eye, but always seems to have been troubled by his mentor’s pursuit of authenticity over quality. In his Florentine Painters of 1901, Berenson struggled to connect form and taste. “It was in fact upon form, and form alone”, he wrote, “that the great Florentine masters concentrated their efforts, and we are consequently forced to the belief that, in their pictures at least, form is their principle source of our aesthetic enjoyment.”   But he pretty much gave up on the effort after 1904.   In certain respects Berenson always remained a Morellian: he always insisted on the primacy of the visual examination of the art object; he repeatedly disparaged academic art history; he kept up the running feuds with the followers of Cavalcaselle, and faithfully fought with Bode, repeatedly challenging his attributions.   But he consistently downgraded and underplayed Morellian connoisseurship.   In his Three Essays in Method, published in 1927, but using materials that he had worked on for many years, he reneges on his old master, even describing Cavalcaselle as “the earliest and greatest master this pursuit [of connoisseurship] has yet had”.   And when he considers Morelli he writes, (52-3)


“And so, at last, we have reached the field of Morellian connoisseurship, which offers no explicit method for establishing the school and the date of a given work of art, or for deciding whether it is an autograph work or a first-rate studio version (for that depends upon the critic’s sense of quality), but which is well suited for distinguishing between a masters and his closest followers or competitors.”

Morellianism is reduced to a matter of fine tuning.


These remarks accurately embody the retreat made from the language of Morellianism, not only by Berenson himself, but by other so-called art experts, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of the art boom in 1929.


What then was left of Morellianism in the early twentieth century?   He and his putative creed still stood, especially outside art historical circles, for something called ‘scientific connoisseurship’, a sense that attributions were more secure because based on rigorous methods.   His career and credo was a monument to such hopeful aspirations, and few experts in the marketplace were going to dispute the notion of ‘connoisseurship as a science’, even if they had their misgivings about Morelli and his methods. Morellianism created, I have to say, expectations that it was not capable of fulfilling. Connoisseurship, both in the market place and in the museum (sites that came together in the growing number of art journals) remained a contentious and highly personal process, linked to its amateur pedigree.   Morelli’s exceptionally vituperative and personalized style of attribution and dispute, the deep factionalism that he created, and his elevation of the amateur collector, all militated against the emergence of the art connoisseur as a professional expert.



























The Grand Tour

This essay is a much fuller, longer version of the article published as part of the catalogue for the Exhibition show at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, and at the Ashmolean in Oxford in 2012-2013.

The English Prize: The Capture of the “Westmorland,” an Episode of the Grand Tour.

see the link

The extraordinary cache of cultural treasure stowed away in the hold of the Westmorland, along with its commercial cargo of anchovies, olive oil, anchovies, silk, salt paper and boxwood, provides us with a unique insight – a sort of archaeological cross-section – into the material culture of the grand tour. Its twenty-three crates of marble pieces, thirty-five of marble fragments, and twenty-two boxes of portraits, prints and books, contained consignments for a variety of clients. These included the wealthy twenty-one years old west-country gentleman, Thomas Basset; his tutor, William Sandys; the twenty-two year old Viscount Lewisham, the future earl of Dartmouth, who was to feature in Zoffany’s famous composition of Englishmen gathered in the Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence; Frederick Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon, a stripling of twenty, and three famous British antiquaries: the Catholic Charles Townley, the Welsh magnate, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, and the banker Lyde Brown, all of whom were to become members of London’s Dilettanti Society, a body that combined classical learning and libertinism.   There was also some royal booty on board: several boxes were intended for the Duke of Gloucester, George III’s brother, who had just completed his second tour of Italy with his wife Maria Walpole.

At first sight, then, the evidence derived from the Westmorland seems to fit easily into what has become the familiar story of the Italian experience on the Grand Tour, one dominated by the travels of rich young men, and by the plunder of the cultural riches of Italy in order to acquire a cosmopolitan taste and civic-mindedness embodied in objects of virtu – classical antiquities and fine art – purchased in Italy and ostentatiously displayed at home.   Though this is certainly a part – an important part – of the tale of the Westmoreland and its treasures, such a narrative, as much recent scholarship has come to suggest, replicates a partial story that does not do justice to the disparate individuals (dealers, bankers, sea-captains, soldiers and sailors, painters and restorers, porters, guides and cicerones, the inn-keepers, tailors, servants, chaplains and priests, shopkeepers and tradesmen), and complex processes (involving networks of diplomacy and patronage and markets for money, trade, goods and sex) that both made such tourism possible and thrived upon it; nor does it reveal the disparate, varied and eclectic taste of much of the collecting that accompanied such travels.   To examine (grand) tourism from the (grand) tourists’ point of view – to stand in their shoes – a position taken by so many students of the grand Tour – entails a range of assumptions, particularly about the formation of taste and the creation of collections, that as we shall see, turn out to be at best to be misleading.

What is most striking about the treasure trove aboard the Westmorland was not that it was seized by a hostile foreign power or that it ended in a foreign academy.   Such hazards were manifest in the long delays between the commissioning or purchasing of works of virtu and their arrival back in Britain. Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, for example, had been waiting for Meng’s painting of Perseus and Andromeda (and, as it turned out, in vain) for nearly a decade. The slow passage of goods was the subject of much justifiably anxious correspondence between tourists and collectors and their agents back in Italy. Thus the experienced tutor, Thomas Brand, fretted in a letter from Florence to his sister in 1793 about materials he had sent home: “it is now nearly a year since they were packed up. I begin to be very uneasy about them for there were many valuable things And Prints which I would be very sorry to lose”.

The capture of British goods (as well as British subjects) happened during most of the wars that punctuated the eighteenth century. Thus in 1707 and again in 1709, Sir John Perceval’s public-minded plan to ship his “valuable collection of books, paintings and statues, antiquities” acquired in Italy back to Dublin for “the use of an academy of painters…in Ireland” was thwarted by their capture by two sets of French privateers. In 1745, Joseph Leeson, another wealthy Irishman, lost “£60,000 worth of goods, and many statutes [sic], pictures, etc”, again to the French. And when the Revolutionary armies successfully invaded Italy in 1797, they seized a vast quantity of loot from British collectors, including much of the earl of Bristol’s collection, “that immense, valuable and beautiful property of large mosaick pavement, sumptuous chimney pieces for my new house, and pictures, statues, busts and marbles without end, first rate Titians, and Raphaels, dear Guido, and three old Carraccis”.   The capture of the Westmorland was just one of the many hazards (like breakages, mis-direction, and damage by the elements) faced by grand tourists seeking to get their goods home.

More revealing is the variety of the Westmorland’s contents and what they disclose about grand tourists’ collections after the 1760s. Take the crates of marbles and fragments. As Viccy Coltman remarks in her recent analysis of their contents, “the status of the sculptures cased on board the Westmorland was as diverse as the objects themselves, with examples of ancient and modern works, or a marriage of the two, serially produced small-scale antique sculptures, original productions, restorations, and portrait busts by Christopher Hewetson.”   The candelabra, inlaid tables and fireplaces, like the volumes of Piranesi engravings, the numerous vedute of the Italian landscape and engravings of classical antiquities, the small copies of major works of art, the models of temples, pieces of volcanic rock, and the numerous books, guides and maps all spoke to an exceptionally mediated tourist experience that was less about a direct confrontation with the ancient world, its taste and values, than with commercialized forms of contemporary tourism. The contents of the Westmorland were not shaped simply by the taste of a few discerning aristocrats, but by the vigorous intervention of a series of intermediaries whose power over the Grand Tour and travel in Italy had steadily grown.

How did this come about? The process was a complex one. In part it was a consequence of the changing English population in Italy. There had always been a substantial British commercial and diplomatic presence in the peninsula, as well as a large number of British Jacobites and Catholics in Rome, where the court of the Stuart Pretender was based. But from the mid eighteenth century the British communities in the peninsula grew larger, not just because of the growth and increasing variety of Italian tourism (the presence of tourists and semi-permanent residents who by no stretch of the imagination could be described as grand tourists), but because of the rapid increase after the 1750s in the number of British artists resident there, especially in Rome. At the same time the tour itself became less and less exclusively the experience of young men, as more and more aristocratic women and families traveled to Italy. The lists of the bon ton resident in Italy and Naples during the winter published in the English newspapers of the 1790s contained numerous family parties.

It was not simply the British community but the circumstances of tourism that changed. Politically the Stuarts and their Catholic followers became increasingly marginal in Rome, encouraging more Protestant and Hanoverian visitors, no longer so afraid of political contamination.   The Italian authorities, especially the Papacy and the Neapolitan monarchy, recognizing the political value of tourism, and both, in their different ways, pursuing policies of autocratic Enlightenment, took much greater control of the tourist industry and used it for their own ends.   Finally, partly because of these changes, but also because of shifts in taste both in Britain and elsewhere, the experience of Italian tourism shifted. It still was heavily involved in Italian art and antiquity, but these were often framed in less explicitly didactic ways and much more as producing certain sorts of emotional and aesthetic experience whose enjoyment was the object of tourism.   Italy became less a place to pursue classical erudition and more a rich environment in which to explore a repertoire of feeling.

The Welsh artist and pupil of Richard Wilson, Thomas Jones, who lived in Italy between 1776 and 1783, once remarked that there were three groups of Englishmen in Rome, the painters, the “mezzi cavalieri …who lived genteely, independent of any profession” and the “Milordi Inglesi”.   In seeking to move beyond the perspective of this last group, we should not however occlude it. It is worth beginning with the conventional story of the aristocratic Grand Tour, so that we can refashion or re-tell it in another way. Its protagonist was a young man (any where between 16 and 23), a wealthy aristocrat or gentleman, often educated at Eton, Westminster or Harrow, and with some experience of residence in an Oxbridge college, especially Christ Church.   Of the travelers with goods on the Westmorland, Francis Basset attended both Eton and Harrow, which was also Lewisham’s old school; Watkin William Wynn was a pupil at Westminster; Lewisham and Ponsonby both attended Christ Church, Oxford. This was typical of the English milords. As the rather boorish young Marquess of Kildare wrote to his mother from Turin in the summer of 1768, ‘we are about ten English at present, and eight of us were at Eton together. It is amazing how one picks up our old Eton acquaintances abroad. I dare say I have met above forty since I have been in Italy’.

Grand tourists normally travelled first through France, stopping, often for some time, in Paris to see the art, the court and fashions, before journeying south. Often they spent some time in the Loire valley to perfect their French language (the region was believed to speak the purest French). They then travelled to Italy either by sea from a French port to Genoa, Lerici, Civitavecchia or, most often, to Livorno (Leghorn) or – with increasing frequency later in the eighteenth century – by crossing over the Alps. The overland route was safer than the journey by sea, offered the prospect of a visit to Voltaire at Ferney (in 1763 he was the host of Lord Abingdon, John Byng, George Macartney, Lord Mountstuart, the earl of Holdernesse and Robert Piggott), and the chance to enjoy the spectacular and sublime scenery of the Savoyard glaciers and the Alps, sites that attracted the special attention of Francis Basset in 1777. Many then visited the city of Turin, the seat of the court of the king of Sardinia (where attendance at the Academy, a sort of finishing school for young men said to employ “the best dancing master in Europe”, was the norm), and then moved at a leisurely pace down Italy – taking in (inter alia) the cities of the Po valley, Florence, perhaps Siena, then a real sojourn at Rome (which was always crowded with tourists during Holy Week), a winter flight to Naples, that from mid-century almost certainly took in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and return via Venice.   Of course, as Jeremy Black reminds us, there were many alternative itineraries – the journey to Sicily and on to Asia Minor became more important with the Greek revival at the end of the century – and military conflicts often affected the tourists’ routes; but the core of the tour was through France and Italy.

Such trips might be protracted. Thomas Coke, aristocrat, began his tour in 1713 when he was fifteen; he was accompanied by Dr. Thomas Hobart, a fellow of Christ’s College Cambridge (his bear-leader), and spent nearly six years traveling, four of them in Italy.   But later in the century tours tended to be shorter, and tourists often paid more than one visit to the peninsula. The new pattern is clearly discernable in the milords who had materials on the Westmorland. Watkin William Wynn had completed his tour between August 1768 and January 1769. Lewisham, Duncannon and Basset had all arrived in Italy in the autumn of 1777 and had left by the following May. Lyde Brown had been in Italy from May 1776 until early 1777.   The Duke of Gloucester’s most recent visit to Italy lasted somewhat longer, from September 1775 to August 1777; Charles Townley’s final visit to Italy was much briefer, including only the first four months of 1777.   Many of these men made more than one tour.   Townley, a Roman Catholic who devoted his life to collecting antiquities and who had been educated on the Continent, made three trips between 1767 and 1777. Brown, Duncannon, Basset and the Duke of Gloucester all made more than one tour, including at least one in the company of their wives and children. (On two of the Duke’s tours he was accompanied by a mistress – Madame Grovestein in 1771 and Lady Almeria Carpenter in 1786.)

Milords, as we can see, did not often travel alone. James Clitherow (another Christ Church man) believed that embarking on his tour on his own in 1789 was worthy of comment, but he soon hitched up with a friend in Switzerland.   Many grand tourists had an entourage of followers and friends; quite a few journeyed with school chums. In 1782 the uber-rich William Beckford’s traveling band, replete with artist (J.R Cozens), tutor, personal physician and harpsichordist and a bevy of servants, was so great that when he was traveling south through Augsburg he was mistaken for the Emperor of Austria.   At the very least a Grand Tourist was accompanied by a tutor whose task was to keep his charge out of trouble, and ensure that the educational goals of the trip were in part fulfilled. Many were clerics, some were fellows of the ancient universities and a few were remarkably erudite. Francis Basset was fortunate in his instructor. William Sandys was the son of one of Basset’s butlers, educated at Oxford, a cleric, well traveled in Europe and an enthusiast for history and antiquity. The two men got on well (quarrels between tutors and charges were common), and remained good friends for years, sustaining their amity through a mutual interest in virtu and memories of their journey together.

En route, the tourist used several of a growing number of guidebooks, employed local cicerones, and took courses (especially in Rome) to understand the antiquities and architecture of the Ancient world. He had his portrait painted – the most desirable portraitists were Rosalba Carriera in the early part of the century, but by the time of the Westmorland’s capture Mengs and Batoni were by the far the most fashionable. (Her cargo contained Batoni portraits of both Lewisham and Basset, as well as examples of the popular portrait busts executed by the Irish sculptor, Christopher Hewetson). In addition the Grand Tourist bought what works of virtu he could find and afford, as well as memorabilia, casts of sculpture and copies of paintings, shipping his loot back home. The more enthusiastic tourists continued to buy from Italy on their return and maintained the contacts they had made on the peninsula (again this was true of Basset), and many were elected to the Dilettanti Society or the Society of Antiquaries a few years later.

For the young men who undertook the tour it was an educational rite of passage and often a moment before they took up their public duties – as magistrates, landlords and politicians – and fulfilled their dynastic obligations through marriage.   It looked back to their schooldays, where most had been brutally tutored in the classics, and forward to their life in polite society, and it was intended to shape a certain sort of individual, knowledgeable about classical antiquity, modern taste and other nations, but resolutely British.   The experience was built around a shared culture, the knowledge – prior to Italy – of classical texts. Tourists were instructed in how to think and see things “classically”.   This meant more than the acquisition of a certain sort of knowledge; it entailed the cultivation of a certain way of seeing the world, what Lord Palmerston, who made three tours to Italy between 1763 and 1792, called “a disposition of mind” or, as James Boswell put it, fretting about his own ability to achieve it, “a mind … well furnished with classical ideas”.   The object of the direct observation of classical antiquity was to understand classical civilization and its values, especially its supposed commitment to public spirit.   As Chesterfield put it in his famous letters to his son: “View the most curious remains of antiquity with a classical spirit, and they will clear up to you many passages of the classical authors”.   In fact the process was more commonly the reverse, and, in a highly scripted experience, the landscape and antiquities of Italy were seen through the writings of Virgil, Cicero, Horace and the Roman historians.   What the young milord observed was thus both tantalizingly novel and comfortingly familiar. Thus Lord North wrote to his tutor:

“You know that the road from Rome to Naples abounds with classical amusement: I can assure you that the road from Naples to Paestum is no less amusing in the same way. There is scarce a town, a rivulet, a hill, or a valley, that is not mentioned & even distinctly pointed out in some of the antient writers. Those travelers, who are well read in them, & who have already made the same journey several times in their imaginations, are highly pleased to find themselves in a well-known country. Almost every spot they see, and every step they take, recalls or refreshes, confirms or clears up some old Idea”.

More than one tourist remarked on how their journey would have been boring without this prior education. The 2nd earl Mornington, wrote of his tour in 1790-1: “all the old ideas of Eton and [Christ Church] Oxford employed my mind” without which “I think the journey through Italy would lose the greatest part of its amusement”.

For the classically educated, and this included tutors and many genteel visitors, Italy was saturated with classical allusion – Italy was a land of texts. The Irish clergyman, Martin Sherlock, on his tour of 1778-9, wrote that his greatest pleasure was to have “his Horace in one pocket, and his Virgil in the other, and to look at a thousand objects which have been painted by these masters”. Knowledge of the classics was itself an incentive to visit Italy. The twenty-one year old 8th Duke of Hamilton (Eton) had “not read the Roman classics with so very little feeling as not to wish to view the Country which they describe, and where they were written”. The philosopher David Hume on his arrival in Italy “kist the Earth that produc’d Virgil”. The erudite Scottish baronet, Sir James Macdonald (Christ Church), who was to die prematurely in Rome in 1766, similarly declared that, “the satisfaction of treading that ground [Bay of Naples] with Virgil in your hand is inconceivable”.   A year later, the physician Lucas Pepys (Christ Church) used the same language, saying that to tread the same floor as Cicero was “a kind of delightful dream …which cannot be expressed”.   Like Pepys, many of the travelers were reading or re-reading the classics as they journeyed. Many of the coaches they used had special book shelves or “a wooden case which serv’d for a traveling library” filled with guide books and classical texts, such as that carried by Thomas Chinnal Porter (Christ Church). [i]

This view that the relics of Italy provided privileged insight into the past was more often than not based on an exemplary notion of history, which was itself derived from Cicero.   The Grand Tourist was, as Viccy Coltman has pointed out, a sort of time traveler, eager to get past the present and to inhabit a Roman world and imbibe its values. Thus John Northall, the author of Travels Through Italy published in 1766, explained that, busts of classical figures: “standing, as it were in their own person before us, gives a man a cast of almost 2000 years backwards, and mixes the past ages with the present”. This was the spirit in which one tourist was urged to purchase busts of Cicero and Seneca “to inspire good morals and Patriotism to certain Bucks who begin to prefer amor pecuniae to the inestimable amor patriae”, and in which many grand tourists had their portrait busts sculpted in the Roman manner by Hewetson, Wilton and Deare.

This imaginary journey into the past, transported by classical ruins and antiquities and accompanied by classical texts was, of course, intended to create a certain sort of person, a polished aristocrat or gentleman, who by virtue of these accomplishments enjoyed a certain social advantage. Aristocrats, the boys from Eton and Christ Church, themselves rarely commented on this – they had no need to do so – but those on the periphery of ‘the bon ton’ or who were seeking to enter its charmed world revealed the tour’s purpose. Bland Burges, whig politician and polemicist, who was to become a baronet and a member of parliament, was under no illusions about the value of his (rather brief) Grand Tour of 1773 to his social advancement: I resolved, he wrote, “to place myself on a footing in life which the education my father had given me, and the polish I had obtained on the Continent, enabled me to support. I had indeed considerable advantages; such as being an excellent Latin and Greek scholar; talking French and Italian perfectly; dancing, riding, and fencing well; playing the harpsichord, guitar and violoncello. These I considered as my fortune, and with these determined to work my way”.   A member of the minor Yorkshire gentry, without public school or Oxbridge education, Robert Grimston told his parents in a more modest fashion that he intended on his tour “to polish myself so far that when I come home again you shall all wonder and say Is this the clownish school boy, whom I knew two years ago”.

Such, of course, was the ideal of the Grand Tour, but to what extent was it realized? The British periodical press and the graphic satires of Pier Leone Ghezzi, with their images of dim-witted, ignorant young men, led by their tutors, deluded by foreign manners and outwitted by foreign sharpers, provide a sharp contrast with the educational ideals of virtu and classical civilization.   And many tutors, who struggled to contain their charges wilder behaviour and to focus their attention on their education, took, it must be said, a jaundiced view of their charges and their experiences in Italy.   The cleric Joseph Atwell, who accompanied William, 2nd earl Cowper (who, by all accounts was well behaved and attentive to his studies of antiquity) nevertheless complained of “Boys just escaped from the lash of a severe Master, & the tedious confinement to Books and Studies [who visit a] Foreign Country where they first give a full swing to their Passions, & lead such Lives as they are sensible would be attended with shame at home”.   A generation later the refrain was little different. John Hinchcliffe, later Master of Trinity Cambridge, who led John Crewe (Westminster and Christ Church) on his tour in 1761-62 grumpily concluded, “I cannot see what has induced the generality of travellers to extol this country [Italy]…for my part I am satisfied that the dangers of travelling far exceed the boasted advantages ….& young men must have an extraordinary share of prudence to return home with as few vices & follies as he set out”.

Tutors complained about the drunken high-jinks of their charges, like the kicking of tradesmen, ejecting of coachmen and riding on horseback round the ramparts of Turin observed by the British diplomat there, Louis Dutens.   No-one liked the provocative conduct of someone like Thomas Lyttelton (Eton and Christ Church) who ran up (and didn’t pay) huge gambling debts in Venice and fought two duels in Bologna, all in the space of a few months. But the real fear was sexual, the Grand Tourist’s contraction of an undesirable disease or, even worse, an undesirable alliance.   Parents, guardians and tutors warned not just against “drink, gaming” but “all improper connections” with Italian women whom Lord Kinnoull told his ward were “bewitching sirens who fascinated young men if they were not upon their guard”.   Lady Charlotte Burgoyne complained, “The turn of all women in that country [Italy] is gallantry … I have no idea how anyone can live in Italy, that does not give themselves wholly to passion”.   Anxiety (and prurience) focused on the practice of Italian married women taking a cicisbeo, a male admirer and publicly-paraded companion, who, as James Boswell found out in Siena, sometimes became a bedfellow.   As Thomas Watkins commented in his published letters from his 1787 tour, “Before marriage their women are nuns, and after it libertines”, a condition he explained by the practice of forced marriage, in contrast to the British way of allowing brides to choose their groom.   Certainly Italian women acquired a notorious reputation among English men. As Richard Cosway wrote to Charles Townley from London, “Italy for ever say I – if the Italian woman fuck half as well in Italy as they do here, you must be happy indeed”.

Grand Tourists, rich, young, often exploitative and sometimes gullible, took full advantage of the freedom from home. The nineteen-year old Sir John Rawdon was said to be “prodigiously in love in every town he makes any stay in”; Augustus Hervey cut a swathe across Italy with numerous lovers in Florence, Genoa and Naples during the 1750s, while Henry Seymour Conway wrote from Florence: “There are but two things at all thought of here – love and antiquities, of which the former predominates so greatly that I think it seems to make the whole history and the whole business of this place”. Some milords got themselves into serious scrapes. On his tour in 1769-72, for instance, the young Lord Lincoln was swindled out of 12,000 guineas by his lover, a Venetian dancer, and her accomplices.

Private sexual intrigue was not incompatible with the pursuit of virtu. Augustus Hervey found time between his conquests to visit the galleries of Florence, sketch ruins and visit Pompeii and Herculaneum.   The culture of the connoisseur, as the circles around such figures as Charles Townley and Richard Payne Knight, and clubs like the Dilletante make clear, easily conflated the private pursuit of sexual pleasure with the joys of collecting and displaying objects of antiquity and virtu.

But for many of the young grand Tourists, the study of art and antiquity was a chore. George, 9th earl of Winchelsea, (Eton and Christchurch) was tickled pink to be included in Zoffany’s portrayal of the Tribuna, but complained of the ignorance of “about 9 tenths of the women & 2 3rds of the Men [who] have never been in the Gallery”.   Some years earlier, one of the sons of Baron Milton, together with Captain Howe, had been taken to the Uffizi.   “They submitted quietly to be shewn a few pictures. But seeing the Gallery so immensely long, their impatience burst forth, and they tried for a bett who should hop first to the end of it”. The 4th Duke of Gordon (Eton) was privileged in 1762-3 to have the great antiquary and historian, Winckelmann as his cicerone, but he “showed scarcely a trace of animation as he sat in his carriage, while Winckelmann described to him, with the choicest expressions and grandest illustrations, the beauties of the antient works of art.”   Thirty years later Thomas Packenham, Lord Longford, repeatedly expressed his antipathy towards Rome and its antiquities, complaining of having “to stand an hour hungry & cold under an ugly old pillar of marble while a prosing antiquarian harangues on the merits thereof – all this because ‘it is the custom’”, and tartly concluding that this is “not the place for me”.

Young men seem to have found the courses in Roman Antiquity given by guides like Colin Morison and James Byres especially taxing or, as the army officer Pryse Gordon put it, “irksome”. Peter Beckford, the author of the lively Familiar Letters from Italy to a Friend in England (1805), recalled of his six-week course with Byres in 1766: “no school-boy toiled harder or at time more unwillingly; hurrying over pleasing objects to visit stones and rubbish of very little importance, for what – to say I had visited all the antiquities of Rome”.   Even the famous historian Edward Gibbon commented with characteristic understatement that during his eight week course with Byres in 1764 his “powers of attention were somewhat fatigued.”   For all the young tourists knowledge of classical texts, understanding classical antiquity was not easy.   Few, however, were as outspoken as Lord Rawdon who commented on his tour of 1772-3 that “surely one visits the greater part of the antiquities for the sake of having it to say that one has seen them, than from any prospect of receiving either instruction or pleasure from their examination”…. “I know that this is a very heterodox opinion, and that I shall be looked upon as a barbarian by the generality of the people for not admiring any thing that was antique. I must own that I think we carry our admiration of the ancients too far – in praising their works, we are too apt to forget those of modern times, many of which would perhaps on impartial examination surpass some of the most boasted pieces of antiquity”.

More modern painting was perhaps a little easier to appreciate and certainly easier to acquire, but it still proved baffling for some. Sir Gregory Turner (Eton and Oxford) the twenty-year old charge of William Patoun, who led five separate parties on the Grand Tour during the 1760s and 1770, self-effacingly wrote home that “he had passed through Parma, Regio, Modena & Bologna, in all which towns I saw several very fine original pictures, as Mr Patoun tells me, for I do not pretend to be a judge myself”.

Of course there were also Grand Tourists who took their task seriously, and whose experience informed their tastes and interests for the rest of their life. Edward Gibbon managed no fewer than fourteen visits to the Uffizi in his four months in Florence. Thomas Egerton, baron Grey de Wilton (Christchurch), filled 74 pages of his journal with notes from his course on antiquities with James Byres in 1785, visited artists’ studios and commissioned a number of drawings.   Some years earlier another Christ Church man, Francis Hastings, 10th earl of Huntington, praised by Lord Chesterfield as a “bright exemplar of the union of scholar with man of the world”, was reported in Florence as having “learned Italian to a surprising degree of perfection in a month, and which he studies for three hours every morning, and then passes as many more with Dr. Cocchi and his medals, after which he stays till past four in the Gallery to examine the statues and busts with [sculptor Joseph] Wilton”.   A few tourists made important contributions to antiquarian knowledge. The drawings and notes of Sir Roger Newdigate, who made two tours, one as a callow twenty-year old in 1739-40, and again in 1774-5, uncovered new antiquities, detailed the holdings of the Uffizi and the presentation of classical sculpture.   Other tourists developed their own speciality. The future diplomat, Thomas Robinson, for example, spent much of his time examining the leading contemporary portrait painters, comparing (and describing in considerable detail) the differences between Batoni and Mengs. As his surviving books and collections make clear, Francis Basset was another such assiduous grand tourist, using works in Italian and French, as well as English, to guide his studies.

It is striking that, Basset excepted, a great many of the more assiduous participants in the tour were not striplings fresh out of school and university, but men of more mature years.   Repeatedly – and to the chagrin of their young charges – tutors expressed greater enthusiasm and displayed greater knowledge of the arts and antiquities they studied.   When we turn to the question of collecting – a tangible and costly commitment to the pursuit of virtu – then the most important collections were just as likely to be assembled by middle-aged or married men as by youthful boys. Admittedly, early in the century, when it was much easier to acquire antiquities and pictures, especially if you were a Catholic or a Jacobite sympathizer, a number of young men assembled important collections. The Jacobite Duke of Beaufort was only twenty-one when he shipped ninety-six cases of paintings and antiquities out of Italy in 1728; John Bouverie, another Jacobite, began his collections during the first of his three tours in 1741 at the age of nineteen; and famously Thomas Coke, later earl of Leicester (and a true Whig and Protestant) was not yet twenty when he acquired his first treasures for Holkham Hall.

But this was much less true in the second half of the century.   The Catholic collectors, Charles Townley and William Blundell, began collecting in their thirties and fifties respectively. The 9th earl of Exeter, who assembled a formidable collection of Old Masters during two visits to Italy in 1763-4 and 1768-9, was in his forties. Patrick Home, later Lord Wedderburn, born in 1728 began collecting on a trip with his wife to Italy in 1771. The notoriously capricious 4th earl of Bristol, one of the most prominent figures in the British community between the 1760s and the beginning of the nineteenth-century (he made five trips to Italy) started to collect in his forties. The earl of Shelburne was a young widower of thirty-three when he began to assemble his great collection for Lansdowne House, and William Weddell was not much younger when he exported over one hundred and twelve cases of marbles from Italy back to Newby Hall in 1765.   This was not a hard and fast rule.   There were exceptions – young men of great wealth like George Grenville, later Lord Temple, who wanted to acquire “a collection of marbles …inferior to few north of the Alps”, and Watkin Williams Wynn who spent over £2,000 in a matter of a few weeks in Florence and Rome, even before he reached his majority – but putting together a collection of any quality was either the work of many years – often begun on a second visit to Italy – or could only be achieved by using certain agents.

Many of the collections accumulated in the first half of the century were the personal projects of men of great erudition who were the friends and companions of Italian virtuosi and aristocrats.   Men like Sir Andrew Fountaine or the Jacobite non-Juror, Richard Rawlinson were able to assemble large collections of medals, drawings, prints, sculpture and cameos through the good offices of Italian antiquaries who shared their enthusiasm. Erudition not aesthetics was their priority.   They tended to agree (though with occasional qualification) with the Cambridge divine Conyers Middleton who explained to Horace Walpole that he collected curiosities not “out of any regard to their beauty or sculpture, but as continuing what the Italians call erudition”.

This antiquarian view of art and antiquities linked collecting to the accumulation of expertise; display, though important, was secondary. Such collecting was therefore rather different from the sorts of shopping expeditions undertaken by some Grand Tourists that seem to have had very little to do with erudition and everything to do with home decoration.   Lord Malton, later the Marquis of Rockingham, was eighteen when he arrived in Italy in 1750, but his chief purpose was less his education than the assignment given him by his father to buy works of art to decorate the family’s massive country house, Wentworth Woodhouse, and outstrip the décor of nearby Raby Hall, the home of his Yorkshire neighbour and rival, Lord Strafford.   Malton’s time was absorbed in buying pictures and commissioning customized copies of the finest antique statues for display in Wentworth Woodhouse’s Great Hall.   Other shoppers of this sort included the third earl of Dorset, who paid for a series of paintings and then marbles for Knole on his trip in 1770-1, John, first Viscount Spencer, who purchased works by Salvator Rosa, Gavin Hamilton and Guercino to decorate the ballroom of his London residence, Spencer House, and William Weddell who bought almost his entire collection (which was to include the Barberini Venus) as a vast job lot from the dealer Thomas Jenkins.   Lord Shelburne’s arrangement, made with Gavin Hamilton, during his brief tour in the summer of 1771, required the artist, dealer and antiquary to provide sixteen statues, twelve antique busts, twelve basso-relievos, eleven large historical pictures, and four landscapes of the Trojan War within a period of four years (and at a price of £6,050) to decorate his town house in Berkeley Square.

This sort of collecting, which was matched by the long-term accumulation of antiquities and pictures by figures like the earl of Bristol, Charles Townley and others, took place in a very different environment from earlier in the century.   Though British diplomats and merchants, such as Consul Smith in Venice, Sir Horace Mann in Florence and Anthony Lefroy in Leghorn, had long been involved with Grand Tourists, providing banking facilities, introductions, and themselves acting as art agents or developing significant collections, their numbers and importance increased during the second half of the century. No figure achieved greater stature than Sir William Hamilton, whose power in Naples both as Bourbon courtier, British guide, collector and vulcanologist was unsurpassed, but figures like John Strange in Venice, and John Udney, also from the Veneto successfully combined careers as diplomats, scholars, collectors and dealers. Similarly, though there had always been dealers helping those in pursuit of antiquities and art – Ignazio Hugford, son of the English watchmaker to the Medici court in Florence, for example, and Mark Parker in Rome, who obtained eleven export licences for statuary and reliefs between 1738 and 1745 – none could match the power and importance of Thomas Jenkins, Gavin Hamilton and James Byres in Rome, men at the the pinnacle of what had become a growing and sometimes lucrative profession.   Paradoxically, though there were more dealers than ever before, there was also an extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of a very few men.

These developments have to be seen against the background of changes in the size, scope and nature of the British population in Italy. Perhaps the most important of these was the rapid growth of the community of British artists in Italy (chiefly Rome) from mid-century onwards.   In the first half of the century a few well-known figures, such as the architect William Kent, the connoisseur, Jonathan Richardson Jnr, and the painter Allan Ramsay, spent time in Italy, but it is only from the 1750s that painters, sculptors, architects, and engravers arrived in significant numbers. The roll-call was illustrious and included, painters like Joshua Reynolds, Richard Wilson, Gavin Hamilton, George Romney, sculptors such as John Flaxman, Joseph Nollekens, and Christopher Hewetson, and architects like the Adam Brothers. There were many other less bright lights who worked in the shadow of such luminaries, all of them driven by the taste for Italy, classical antiquity and the grand manner, and the desire to use their Italian education as a means of artistic advancement. As the architect, William Chambers. put it, “Traveling to an artist is what the University is to the Man of Letters, the last stage of a regular education”.

Artists of all sorts tended to stay much longer in Italy than the general tourist. Taking a sample of seventy painters, architects and sculptors who visited Italy after 1760, their average length of stay was nine years. Many were funded in the first instance by private patrons (Watkin Williams Wynn supported the Welsh artist, William Parry, for example), or came in the baggage train of a wealthy Grand Tourist, as the watercolourist J.R. Cozens did in 1776 with Richard Payne Knight and again six years later with William Beckford.   But every bit as important were the new art institutions in Britain which offered stipends for study in Italy: the London Royal Academy, the Dublin Society, the Society of Arts, the Dilettanti, and the Foulis Academy of Glasgow. The effect of an Italian sojourn on the career of an artist varied. Some, like Joshua Reynolds, Richard Wilson, and Allan Ramsay used their Italian experience to enhance their reputation when they returned home; others, like the Scots Gavin Hamilton and Jacob More “the best painter of air since Claude” according to Reynolds, remained to enjoy high regard in Italy itself. Some, like George Stubbs, were not impressed; and some, like the long-forgotten William Theed, were downright miserable. But all the artists in Italy regardless of their reputation had to make a living; very few were like Prince Hoare “with an independent fortune of two of three hundred a year”, who relied on private means.   They did so in a variety of ways and they were to become, as we shall see, central to the tourist industry as it was to flourish in the second half of the eighteenth century.   Most were involved in the business of making copies of old masters for travelers; others made drawings and watercolours of the Italian landscape as up-market souvenirs; some provided instruction to gentleman amateurs; many performed minor services as required by the richer grand tourists; some acted as guides or cicerone; and some became dealers in art and antiquities.   Sculptors produced busts of tourists in the classical manner, copied the great statues of antiquity, made vases, chimney-pieces and tables. A small group, which combined several of these functions, became enormously powerful and rich, and stood at the centre of the entire Italian tourist industry. The most famous included Thomas Jenkins, born in Rome in 1722, trained as a painter, acted a banker, guide and dealer for some of the most important collectors, notably Charles Townley; Gavin Hamilton, neo-classical artist, dealer and archeologist; and James Byres, a Scottish Jacobite and Catholic, painter and architect, close friend of Batoni, chiefly in Old Master paintings – notably Poussin – and small gems, cameos etc.

Along with the artists, there was an ever-growing number of travelers in the Italian peninsula whose purpose was neither art nor antiquity: lovers of music, especially opera, like the historian Charles Burney, the singer Elizabeth Billington and the composer Michael Kelley; classicists and philologists in pursuit of manuscripts in the peninsula’s great libraries; book-collectors and dealers, intent on acquiring materials from impecunious Italian aristocrats; doctors eager to observe dissections and the medical models and collections at the universities; scientists and vulcanologists who wished to observe experiments or witness volcanic eruptions.

A great many travelers were not so much drawn to Italy as fugitives from Britain.   This was obvious for many Catholics and attainted Jacobites.   Others, like the 5th earl of Cork, fled to Italy to escape creditors and establish “a scheme for economy”. (The cost of living a genteel life was about half that of Britain, hence the growing number of retirees in Italy). Even more ran away from familial or amatory misfortune; widows and widowers, like the artist William Parry whose second Italian trip was made with “the wish of stifling the regret for the loss of an amiable wife”. Disgruntled wives, jilted lovers and errant husbands were to be found in abundance, though few were as unfortunate as Louisa Clarges, whose trip to Italy in 1782-3 was prompted by the almost simultaneous deaths of her father, husband and son. Then there were the fugitives from justice like the notorious libertine, Lord Baltimore, accused of raping a Quaker woman, who thought it prudent to tour Italy in 1770, accompanied by what observers called his ‘seraglio’. And then there were the elopements and fugitives from polite society because of an inappropriate marriage.   The most famous examples were, of course, the Hanoverian royals – George III’s dimwitted brother, the Duke of Cumberland, dubbed by the Florence emissary, Horace Mann “the royal idiot”, who went into temporary exile after his illicit marriage to Lady Anne Luttrell was publicly exposed; and his sickly brother, the Duke of Gloucester, whose goods were on the Westmorland and who had traveled to Italy with his wife, the illegitimate Maria Walpole, once he was forced to tell the king of his marriage after his wife’s pregnancy.

In Italy it was easier to remain in polite society because its rules were more lax: hence the number of exiled gay men like the artist George James, characterized by Mrs Piozzi as “a Finger-Twirler”, Dr William Thomson, a gay geologist who helped William Hamilton in his work on Vesuvius, and Lord Tylney “who coud not resist the temptations & instigations of a passion, contrary to reason, & at which nature shudders”, and so spent over thirty years in Florence and Naples. And so too the presence of free-spirited, sexually-independent, often intellectual women like Lady Wortley Montagu and Margaret Rolle, Countess of Orford who spent thirty six years in Italy, accompanied by a variety of men.

There was nothing to prevent those who fled from scandal at home, a scene of grief, or even a crime, from taking an interest in classical ruins, modern art, or the values of ancient civilization. Sir Thomas Worsley, a fugitive from one of the most embarrassing divorce cases of the eighteenth century, used his exile to patronize contemporary artists and sculptors, and to accumulate a major collection of Greek sculpture, as well as cameos and precious stones.   Indeed, it was hard to resist such involvement, because so much of the social and economic life of the British and Italian communities, especially in major cities, was bound up with the business of culture.   Its font was, of course, the very wealthy (hence Gavin Hamilton’s repeated call “to pray for a lord”), because they injected huge amounts of money into the Italian economy. Lord Malton’s shopping spree in 1748 cost £1,500 in its first year; Sir Henry Featherstonehaugh laid out the same sum in just two months in 1776; Lord Palmerston claimed to have spent £9.000 during his tour of 1792-4. Not all of this money was disbursed up front – the earl of Bristol, for example, was notorious for not honoring his commissions and debts – but it was the life blood of what, by the time the Westmorland was captured, had become a highly developed a tourist industry. Mrs. Piozzi, traveling with her new Italian husband in 1784 was struck with the force of Voltaire’s remark that “Italy was now no more than la boutique, and the Italians les marchands fripiers de l’Europe.”   Voltaire’s comment was characteristically tart, condemning Italians as sellers of “cast offs” (marchands fripiers were sellers of secondhand clothing), but it exemplified a growing anxiety that what could be bought in Italy by tourists was not so much the genuine article as a simulacrum or pastiche.   This was certainly the view of Edward Clarke, the companion of Lord Berwick and Henry Tufton and later Professor of mineralogy at Cambridge during his tour of 1792-4. He discouraged Lord Berwick from “meddling with antiquities”, claiming that Rome “has been so long exhausted of every valuable relic, that it has become necessary to institute a manufactory for the fabrication of such rubbish as half the English nation come in search for every year”.

This concern reflected the very real difficulty that tourists had in obtaining antiquities and art works of real quality. (As early as 1748 Malton had written home to his father that “I hear it will be impossible to have antique statues”.)   This scarcity was in large part the result of the growing recognition of the Papacy and secular monarchs like the King of Naples that Italy’s cultural heritage could be of great benefit – as a diplomatic tool, a means of monarchical aggrandizement and in stimulating the local economy – provided it was conserved and controlled by Italians.   In 1733 Pope Clement XII, perhaps mindful of the losses to British collectors like Thomas Coke, who acquired two masterpieces of Antiquity a ‘Lucius Antonius’ and a Diana, and even more so of losses to the Kings of Poland and Spain, who took large parts of the Chigi, Albani and Odeschalchi collections, bought up all of Cardinal Albani’s remaining antiquities for a new museum on the Capitol. He thus initiated a policy and process that culminated in the construction of the magnificent Museo Pio-Clementino, the star attraction for tourists in Rome, not completed until the 1790s. The decisive changes occurred during the Papacies of Clement XIV (1769-74) and Pius VI (1775-99). Facing another wave of losses of Antiquities (as much to other parts of Italy as to abroad), Clement acted decisively. As Jeffrey Collins explains, ““Clement’s Mattei purchase, together with roughly contemporary acquisitions from the Barbarini, Fusconi, and Verospi collections, helped turn the tide by reasserting papal rights and, more important by inducing the Pope to create his own antiquities museum [at the Vatican] rather than further enriching Rome’s civic collection at the Capitoline”.

Classical antiquity became subordinate to a Papal agenda.   There were strict and not easily evaded controls over the exportation of antiquities; a few choice pieces were sold off as political favors, as in the case of the Endymion acquired by Gustav III of Sweden; less accomplished or more damaged versions of sculptures already in the Papal collections might get an export license, as well as sculptures whose erotic or suggestive content were considered unfitting for a papal museum; but first refusal went to the Pope and his Antiquary.   This meant that the finest antiquities could be admired (in museums) but almost never acquired (for display back in England). As Haskell and Penny conclude in their canonical account of taste and the antique,

Despite what appeared to be unlimited wealth, no English collector was able to buy any of the really celebrated antiquities in Rome. Sculptures were acquired from almost every established collection – but they were not the most famous pieces: it is in fact impossible to trace to an English collection any piece of antique sculpture which had previously been illustrated in an Italian anthology of the most famous and beautiful statues with the exception of Coke’s Diana and ‘Lucius Antonius’.”

Even the acquisition and export of lesser works of antiquity depended on papal license. Access to and good relations with the Pope and his officials was absolutely essential to the trade in Antiquities.

The supply of Antiquities was not of course fixed, but also depended upon new discoveries made through excavations. Again, the Papacy controlled these through a system of licenses that also required excavators to offer the best works to the Holy See. This did not diminish the number of digs. Indeed, in the first five years of Pius VI’s reign (1775-80) – the Pope was himself an enthusiastic collector – about 130 licenses were issued for excavations within the Papal States. But it did mean that the best finds were at the disposal of the Papacy.[ii]   Of course such rules and regulations could be subverted by smuggling, bribery and the connivance and complicity of Papal officials, but they were nevertheless an obstacle to the British collector that was not easily overcome.

Similar developments occurred in Naples, where the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, though criticized by Winckelmann, came under the strict control of the government (visitors to the sites, as they endlessly complained, were not allowed to take notes or make sketches), while the king established a museum for the archaeological findings in a suite of rooms in the Portici Palace.[iii]   For a long period the Neapolitan monarchy also resisted the publication of engravings of the newly found antiquities; the nine folio volumes of Anticita di Ercolano were privately distributed as presentation copies, and only from the 1770s did the contents of the excavations gain wider currency.   You needed to visit Naples to see its treasures.[iv]

Both the Kings of Naples and the Popes were aware of the diplomatic value of their treasures, their use to secure and cement valuable strategic friendships. Goethe may have been surprised to find items that probably came from Herculaneum and Pompeii in Sir William Hamilton’s collections, but this sort or privilege was part of diplomatic currency.   The Hanoverians and their subjects were also beneficiaries in the Papal States.   Britain’s growth as a global power, a pro-English faction in the Papal court, and the luke-warm Catholicism of the young Pretender (whose almost permanent and frequently public inebriation made him a risible tourist attraction and an embarrassment) led, as Ilaria Bignamini pointed out, to a major shift in Papal policy in the 1760s.   The Young Pretender was not recognized as the British king when his father died in 1766, and from 1763 a succession of Hanoverian royals visited Rome, albeit in a private capacity. The Pope’s pro-Hanoverian politics was signaled by the sale of Cassiano dal Pozzo’s paper museum to George III, by a repeated preference for British excavators in the granting of licenses, and in the privileges accorded the Duke of Gloucester in the 1770s.[v] Gustav III of Sweden, among others, enjoyed this sort of diplomatic privilege – in return for greater toleration of Catholics within his dominions he was allowed to purchase and export a classical sculpture of Endymion with which he was particularly infatuated– but the British gained most.[vi]

There were several effects of these policies of state control (which were in turn part of an agenda of Enlightened absolutism), but perhaps the most important was to place an enormous amount of power in the hands of those intermediaries who had connections to the Vatican and who understood how to negotiate the complex politics of the Papal See.   Here three figures dominated affairs at the time of the Westmorland’s capture: the Jacobite, Catholic and Scots cicerone and dealer, James Byres; the Scots artist, archaeologist and dealer, Gavin Hamilton, the man with “more true taste than any body at Rome”; and the Italian born English artist turned dealer and banker, Thomas Jenkins.[vii] All three were rivals, but all three also worked together, and they operated something like a cartel, controlling travelers and collectors’ access to antiquities, art and Roman society, and managing and influencing artists’ access to potential patrons, as well as to major works of art they wished to copy. There were other dealers and cicerone, notably the modest and upright Scotsman, Colin Morison, but none had the power and influence of these men until the unstable politics of the 1790s and the French invasion of Italy opened up possibilities for a new generation of middlemen.

As the Welsh artist, Thomas Jones, commented in 1780, Byres and Jenkins had “for years had the Guidance of the Taste and Expenditures of our English Cavaliers, and from [their] hands all bounties were to flow”.[viii]   The two men came out of different environments. Byres was part of the Catholic, Jacobite and Scottish circles that had dominated the trade in culture in Rome for more than a generation – he was a client of the Jesuit and antiquary, Abbe Grant; Jenkins, whose original connections were Whig – and quite radical – and who the old leaders of the trade tried to shut out in the 1750s, built up a formidable network of his own.   The painter, James Northcote, who complained bitterly of “those cursed antiquaries” who controlled art patronage, moaned that Jenkins’s “gate and stairs used to be lined with petitioners as it was in his power to make the Pope do as he pleased”.[ix]   Jenkins was the special favourite of Ganganelli, Pope Clement XIV. Jones reported that “if that Pontiff had lived a little longer, it is said he might have been made a Cardinal if he chose it”, while the Jesuit antiquary Father Thorpe blamed Jenkins for a situation in which “no regard here [Rome] is for Catholicks, the protestants are the first in favour, & to whom nothing is to be refused”.[x]   Gavin Hamilton’s power came less from hard-nosed business acumen – Jones’s forte – but from his acknowledged expertise as an antiquarian, and from his energy and skills as an archaeologist who was responsible for some of the most important discoveries of the 1760s and 1770s.[xi] But like Jenkins, who survived Ganganelli’s premature death and remained in the good graces of his successor, Hamilton knew the importance of papal support. When Pius VI was elected to the Pontificate, he gave him one of his best antiquities, a magnificent bust of the Empress Sabina.[xii]

The power of these middlemen had a number of effects. First, it was well nigh impossible to acquire antiquities of any quality without their cooperation.   For the richest and most ambitious collectors like Townley and the earl of Shelburne their work was essential.   But this also meant that the middlemen had an opportunity to shape taste. They were, after all, buying and recommending works that they had either discovered, bought or for which they were acting as consignees.   The collectors were sometimes buying sight unseen, though they were usually supplied with drawings of the pieces on sale. The surviving correspondence between Gavin Hamilton and Lord Shelburne, in which he promised to “make Shelburne House famous not only in England but all over Europe”, shows clearly the extent of the formers ambition, his determination to shape not just Shelburne’s collection, but the manner and environment in which it would be displayed.[xiii] Art historians, finding him a little too close to trade, have been more reluctant to give Jenkins a part as tastemaker. But in a case like the Newby Hall collection, it is difficult not to accept Jenkins’s assertion that he had Weddell’s confidence ‘in the Choise [sic] of his Collection of Paintings and Sculpture”. [xiv] Weddell spent a mere twelve weeks in Rome, spoke little French and less Italian, and bought the bulk of his collection from Jenkins’s stock.   He could never have formed such a collection so swiftly without the help of such a broker.

The powerful middlemen at the height of the Grand Tour were also the conduit to the growing tourist trade in simulacra, copies, pastiche objects and souvenirs that, as the hold of the Westmorland testifies, were a large part of the collections of the tourist. The difficulty of securing genuine antiquities and old master paintings, explains the vigorous trade in casts – in a wide range of qualities – and copies of different sizes and in different media.   The presence of large numbers of artists in Italy – not merely the British, but German, French, Swiss as well as native engravers, jewelers, sculptors, and painters – sustained a flourishing business not just in original contemporary work, much of it designed to commemorate the experience of Italy and the tour (vedute of the countryside and antique ruins, drawings of antiquities, portraiture of the tourist in both two and three dimensions, modern history painting), but also versions of the masters like Raphael and Guido Reni, and copies of the canonical statues whose originals could only be seen in museums.   From workshops like those of the famous engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi (dubbed disparagingly by Jenkins as “Cavalier Composito”) came works made up of antique fragments or furnishings such as candelabra and fireplaces in the antique manner, as well as the more famous volumes of prints that made up such an important part of the Westmorland’s cargo.[xv] Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, the chief Papal restorer, and his pupils, including the British sculptor Joseph Nollekens, were all implicated in a trade that produced not just heavily restored antiquities with modern appendages, but high quality copies.[xvi]   Many great works and grand objects were reproduced on a smaller scale: in bronze statuettes little more than a foot in height and (by the 1780s) as biscuit-ware figurines. There were other keepsakes: Nathaniel Marchant’s exquisite gems after sculpure in the Pio-Celemtino, smalti filati mosaics, decorated fans and the feather flowers packed in the Westmorland’s hold.[xvii]

Classical education – a classicism that, in the British case, emerged from the reading of the great authors of Roman antiquity – produced, by the late eighteenth century, neo-classicism, a commodified and commercial version of classical culture which prized the original but also valued the copy and simulacrum. Ancient texts produced modern décor; erudition spawned an aesthetic vision. Major works of antiquity, the embodiment of classical virtue, were seen and admired by many in their captive state, safely shut up in Italian museums; they were pursued by some, and successfully collected by a very few. In their place, as the crates from the hold of the Westmorland attest, Grand Tourists, with the aid of a formidable army of helpers, agents, artists and accomplices, were able to assemble a version of their experiences in Italy which would, in happier circumstances, have been displayed as a memory of Italy and a monument to their owner’s taste.




Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice is a version of the James Clifford  delivered at the American Society of Eighteenth-century Studies annual conference, Pittsburgh, 2 April 2016.  Thanks to Kathleen Wilson, then President of ASECS and colleagues for  the Invitation.  One of the issues that I would like to have discussed more fully was the question of the female sublime, as discussed by Anne Mellor, Carolyn Merchant and Patricia Jaeger, the last someone I worked with closely at History and Literature at Harvard, and whose premature death was a loss in so many ways.

clifford                  (This is the link to the powerpoint that goes with the talk)

“Fire and Ice: Travel and the Natural Sublime in the age of Enlightenment”.

“When we reached the little plain on Vesuvius, our labours were richly recompensed by the sight of five distinct streams of fire issuing from two mouths, and tumbling wave after wave, slowly down the mountain, with the same noise, and in the same manner, as the melting Glaciers roll into the Valley of Chamouni : indeed, while I contemplated this awful and extraordinary scene, I could have fancied myself transported to the base of the Montanvert, had it not been for the crimson glare and excessive heat of the surrounding scoriae.”

Mariana Starke, Information and Directions for Travellers on the Continent (5th edition, revised, Paris, Galignani, 1826), 257.


In the spring of 1814 a consortium of London booksellers published the final, seventeenth volume of John Pinkerton’s A General Collection of the best and most interesting Voyages and Travels in all parts of the World. Many of which are now first translated into English. Digested on a new plan. * In 1804 Pinkerton, a Scottish antiquary, forger and historian, friend and correspondent of Edward Gibbon and Horace Walpole, had published his Modern Geography, which claimed to systematize knowledge of the known world, and his General Collection published a decade later offered its readers a global history of travel from a predominantly European point of view.   Its geographical scope is remarkable.   Beginning with a volume on the Arctic, the North East Passage, and Iceland, it includes two volumes on British travel, and individual volumes on France, on Italy, Spain and Switzerland, and on the northern countries of Germany, Scandinavia and Russia. Two volumes are devoted to Asia, and one to the so-called Asiatic isles – including Australasia.   North and South American travels take up a further three volumes, Africa another two. The final tome in the series includes an annotated bibliography of travel writings that runs to a staggering 255 pages, and a justificatory essay entitled, ‘retrospect of the origin and progress of discovery’.


Pinkerton’s massive work was only one of a series of projects, promoted by the booksellers, to synthesize both the world and its discovery by Europeans. They including William Fordyce Mavor’s General Collection of Voyages and Travels, published in 1800 in 28 volumes, and Robert Kerr’s A General History and collection of voyages and travels.   Similar projects were launched in France, notably Gilles Boucher de la Richarderie, Bibliotheque universelle des voyages, au notice complete et raisonne de tous les voyages ancient et modernes dans les different parties du monde (Paris 1808, 6 vols.) Every group of booksellers in the first decades of the nineteenth century seems to have needed its collection of travels, all of which – at least in Britain – were marketed as part books, appearing in monthly segments, and all of which made certain claims to comprehensiveness.


At one level this phenomenon does no more than to speak to the well-known general fascination with works of travel, but something more is happening here. Pinkerton’s volumes begin with an essay on astronomy in which the entire earth is treated as a scientific object.   The history of the travel accounts he goes on to reprint and eventually examine are then framed as a progressive and increasingly rigorous account of the world, that brings – or so it seems – the entire earth within its orbit.   What we have here is planetary thought, connecting geography, natural history, history and political economy. Nature and culture march in step. Exploration and the account of its achievement merge together into one larger narrative of gradual systematization. The conquest of knowledge and the textual incorporation of territory advance together. * William Mavor takes a similar view: Speaking of the ancients , he writes, “The most monstrous fables disfigured their accounts, and credulity received, with undistinguished eagerness, truth and fable, wisdom and error. It was reserved for modern times to create, as it were, a new region in the world of knowledge; it was reserved for modern times to enlarge our acquaintance with human nature, by carrying our researches into modes of life original and distinct, and separated in all their characteristics from all the systems of civilized Europe.”

Pinkerton (patriotically) sees the accounts of James Cook’s first voyage (1768-71) as a turning point in travel writings:

The voyages of Cook may therefore be regarded as forming an illustrious epoch ; the observations being so candidly and carefully stated, as to excite the emulation of succeeding writers, who have conspired to introduce into the accounts of all countries a superior discernment, and more important topics, than had been formerly traced. Few countries can be named that have not, within the last fifty years, been described in a manner so superior to the former weak narratives, that very few of them retain any other interest, than that of amusement. The old catalogues of pictures and statues, with trifling adventures by sea and land, which were called books of travels, have sunk into obscurity before the new and important works, which illustrate the phenomena of nature, and display the politics and ethics, the agriculture and commerce, the state of the arts and sciences. (17, xxix)


Many of the major genres of travel writing are reproduced in his volumes – narratives of seaborne exploration (Columbus, Dampier, Cook etc), scientific inquiry (Lazzaro Spallanzani, Deodat de Dolomieu), political economy and improvement (Arthur Young), antiquities and natural history (Thomas Pennant), as well as plans, maps and inventories from surveyors like Carsten Niebuhr in the Persian Gulf and Francis Buchanan in Mysore; but there is one conspicuous absence. There are no sentimental journeys in the manner of Laurence Sterne, and precious little that could be described as picturesque or anecdotal.   Pinkerton is interested in system not sentiment. What Pinkerton and his fellow hacks, producing these vast syntheses and systematizations, were doing was to create a global grid for the reader, in which history and geography locate climates, societies and cultures all in relation to one another.  Such claims to universality are, of course, as bogus as those associated with our contemporary cult of globalization, but they speak to the often-made assertion in the period that the greater number of particulars examined, the more robust the science.


Of course, rather like the mission statements of modern universities, Pinkerton’s claims are a mix of wishful thinking, hyperbole and willful omission. They are designed to reinforce the truth claims of travel accounts that many scholars, notably Nigel Leask, have emphasized were deemed to be exceptionally weak, to overlook the lack of coherence of many accounts, which mixed personal narrative with factual enumeration, and to assert a control over the world that was far more fragile and much less complete than Pinkerton’s synthesis might suggest.


But Pinkerton’s account effectively identified what had become an enduring tension or fissure in travel writing. When the English editors of the Genevan artist and naturalist, Marc Theodore Bouritt’s, Description des Glacieres de Savoye originally circulated their translation among friends in the 1770s, they were shocked to find that adding the term ‘picturesque’ to Bouritt’s title meant that “it gave room, it seems for a presumption that it was a mere descriptive Trifle, which though it might delight and entertain the Fancy, could not merit the attention of a man of sense; as if it were indubitably certain, that what is recommended to the Taste, must therefore be unworthy of judgment.”   The editors complained bitterly that “writing has been separated into two distinct classes, the scientific and diverting”, leading them to mount an elaborate defense of accounts, such as Bourrit’s, that they claimed successfully combined both taste and truth.


Such tensions, between narrative and enumeration, vivid description and precise observation, which can be seen as operating between certain genres of travel literature, and which the commercial pressures of travel publishing sought to deny, were more often found within texts, and its these that I now want to explore.   I choose to do so by focusing on two natural environments, those of fire and ice, because such landscapes were widely held to be or held to produce the sensation of the sublime, what Edmund Burke in his Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, dubbed “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”. They were also the sites of some of the most intense scientific scrutiny in the period.   More specifically I have chosen to focus on European mountains, notably the Alps but also the Pyrenees, and on the Italian volcanoes, chiefly Vesuvius but also Etna, because in the period before the French revolution these sites assumed a particular importance both in travel narratives, scientific investigation, and genteel tourism. Together with the accounts of the Pacific Islands and their inhabitants, they were the ground on which there was a determined attempt to ensure that natural philosophical description should become a necessary part of travel literature, and they were the site where a self-consciously heroic view of the natural philosopher as travelling investigator was fully elaborated.   And unlike the South Seas, these European sites were relatively accessible to a class of traveller who could follow in the footsteps of the savant.

In discussing the sublime, my approach is one that is not concerned to trace an intellectual genealogy from its most famous eighteenth century proponents – Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant – but to follow in the path sketched by Peter de Bolla and Andrew Ashfield, which emphasizes the richness and variety of the tradition of sublimity. My treatment, then, follows that of Noah Herringham’s work on geology in treating the sublime, “not as a unitary mode of representation, but as a category animated by culturally specific practices” (Romantic Rocks, 28), in my case specifically travel narratives, tourism and natural philosophy.


Pinkerton’s travel narratives, especially those dealing with mountains, whether of ice or fire, are littered with the language of the sublime, usually used at the beginning and/or end of a description, bracketing a detailed account. This framing, which establishes a degree of separation between what is described as sublime and the author/viewer, reinforces the sense that sublimity is best felt or described by the subject at a distance.   Hence the frequency with which the adjective sublime was applied to the noun ‘prospect’.   Travel narratives, intended to draw in the reader, are rarely the site of precise usage and critical distinction, and Pinkerton’s selection is no exception; it is replete with clichés of the sublime.   Typically, wonder, admiration and awe is provoked by objects described, for example, as “undoubtedly formed for astonishment and delight, and …the source of the sublimest ideas”.   The same phrases recur: “awful grandeur and gloomy greatness”, “imposing majesty”, “dreadful” (Arthur Young); “immensity”, “darkness”, “unbounded prospects”, “fear and pleasure” (Coxe).


A common feature of all these descriptions is their invocation of the cliché that the sublime is unrepresentable, an assertion usually made just before the author embarks on a long description.   The Reverend William Coxe, author of the highly successful Travels in Switzerland, was particularly egregious in this regard.   Time and again he tells his reader, “I have not yet met with such astonishing scenes of wildness, horror, and majesty, as occurred in this day’s journey.”, only to add that, “Description generally fails in representing the most ordinary exhibitions of nature; how inadequate then must it be to the singular combination of sublime objects, which I shall now attempt to delineate?” Similarly, Patrick Brydone in his extremely successful A Tour Through Sicily and Malta, first published in 1774, regales the reader with an astonishingly vivid rendering of the sublimity of the Sicilian volcano of Etna (a description that was repeatedly reprinted in the magazines), while ruefully confessing of its summit that “here description must ever fall short, for no imagination has dared to form any ideas of so glorious and so magnificent a scene”.   One cannot help thinking that such professions are a none too covert way of promoting the literary skills of the author.

Overall, Pinkerton’s authors leave three major impressions. First their language is promiscuous. One hears echoes everywhere of a raft of authors on the sublime, not just Longinus and Burke, but Joseph Addison, James Thomson, Lord Kames, Archibald Alison and Hugh Blair. And secondly, the travellers describe a wide variety of relations between the feelings of the sublime, and those prompted by other aesthetic categories such as the beautiful or the picturesque: quite often the sublime is treated as a sort of beauty; on some occasions, the different affects are elided, as when sublimity is treated as “lovely” or “enchanting”.  In short, there is nothing philosophically rigorous in these evocative descriptions. Thirdly, most accounts, and notably those that were commercially successful, combine – albeit in a rather awkward manner – the aesthetics of travel and scientific observations.   This might be expected in such works as those by savants – Horace Benedict de Saussure on the Alps, Lazzaro Spallanzani on southern Italy and Sir William Hamilton on Vesuvius. Savants needed the sublime to propagate science.   But this sort of juxtaposition was equally common in more general travel writing.   Brydone’s account of his travels in Sicily and up Etna is peppered with calculations of temperatures and heights and barometric pressure. Coxe’s account of Switzerland marries quotes from Virgil with an extremely detailed discussion of the evidence for the height of Mount Blanc as compared with other mountains both in Antiquity and in the rest of the world, contrasting unproven assertion with modern measurement: “conjectures”, he writes, “are now banished from natural curiosity”.   By the 1760s and 1770s travel writers clearly felt an obligation to gesture – and sometimes even more – to forms of scientific description.

Of course, although they use the language of the sublime, there are important (and obvious) differences in nearly all accounts between descriptions of glacier covered mountains and fiery volcanoes.   The volcano, at least when erupting, is characterized by loud and unexpected noises (usually compared to cannon fire), and by movement – of lava and ash – and agitation. It was an image of instability: almost all accounts reiterate that what made the ascent of a volcano difficult was not its height (though in the case of Etna at 10,990 feet [3,350m] and more than twice the height of Vesuvius (4,202) this was a problem), but the quantities of ash and clinker that your feet sank into, rending the climb, as one commentator put it, more arduous than any climb ever.  The goal of a volcanic ascent was to observe the crater, a bubbling, burning, viscous, mass of indeterminate depth, a sort of fluid barrier between the atmosphere and the underworld.   In contrast, Mount Blanc, indeed all high snow covered mountains, were characterized as what the Genevan patrician and savant, Horace Benedict de Saussure, called “an abode of cold and silence”. Though avalanches and glaciers (often compared to lava flows) were signs of movement and mobility, on the whole the mountains were associated with a sort of massive, adamantine illegibility. Perhaps this is what Voltaire was thinking about when he wrote to volcanologist and savant, Sir William Hamilton in Naples, memorably contrasting the “eternal calm” of his beloved alps with volcanoes “full of caprice…too lively, that often become angry without reason”.   Volcanism was less about grandeur, about an adamantine monumentality or stability, which often entailed a certain static quality, than about violence and (e)motion.   Sublime action rather than sublime being.   And if one of the themes of the alpine sublime was imperviousness, the activity of the volcano – the outpouring of its innards, the extrusion of its viscera – entailed a certain active liminality, in which the interior secrets of nature were (threateningly) exposed. (Romantic rocks, 32.) It is not surprising that, although both the Alps and volcanoes were co-opted by the French revolutionaries, that the volcano – a sudden violence force of destruction that nevertheless had regenerative power – was much the most common metaphor and analogy with political and social change, and that fear of volcanic eruption also became a metaphor for fear of Revolution.

All of which is to say that the sublime feelings primarily though not exclusively associated with volcanoes were those of fear and danger, whereas those of high mountains were awe and exaltation, what the Swiss naturalist, Jean De Luc, described as “a kind of sensation of immensity it is impossible to explain”.   Whether in the form of a Rousseauian reverie on a pristine natural order or as a piece of natural theology, accounts of the Alps expressed the transformative spiritual effects of mountain air.   As Bourrit put it in his New Description of the Alps, “only one idea remains, but it is strong, it is the Sovereign of nature, who seizes all the faculties of your soul, His idea is sublime; nothing distracts; only he reigns here: that one feels is so strong, so transcendent, that one feels oneself changed. Neither the temples where one gives adoration, nor the view of its altars, produces nearly as profound a feeling of his presence.”

A further difference in accounts of the alpine and volcanic sublime is that alpine sublimity was figured as solitary, whereas volcanic sublime was – somewhat unexpectedly – figured as social.   Saussure’s comment during the first evening of his unsuccessful attempt of 1785 to climb Mount Blanc is often cited: “the repose and profound silence which reigned in this vast expanse, enlarged still further by the imagination, inspired me with a sort of terror; it appeared to me that I alone had survived in the universe; and that I saw its corpse stretched out at my feet.”   The reader would hardly know that the Genevan stood only a few feet from a cabin that contained eighteen sleeping men.   Leaving St. Gotthard nearly a decade earlier, the travel writer and cleric William Coxe commented that “I frequently quit my party, and either go on or before, or loiter behind, that I may enjoy uninterrupted, and with a sort of melancholy pleasure, these sublime exhibitions of nature in her most awful and tremendous forms.”

In contrast, the Vesuvian sublime was never that of the isolated individual confronting nature, but an experience that was emphatically social. In fact to ascend the volcano alone was seen as a diminished experience. There was a long history of male sociability on the mountain, and this sense that the experience of Vesuvius, and especially of an eruption, was an event that should be shared with one’s closest friends.   When the English painter, Joseph Wright of Derby finally made it up Vesuvius in 1775, his biggest regret was the absence of his friend, the clockmaker and geologist, John Whitehurst – “I wished for his company when on Mount Vesuvius, his thoughts would have centr’d in the bowels of the mountain, mine skimmed over the surface only; there was a very considerable eruption at the time, of which I am going to make a picture. ‘Tis the most wonderful sight in nature”.

Similarly, Sir William Hamilton, the British attaché, vulcanologist and antiquarian who did more than anyone else in the English-speaking world to propagate Vesuvius’s volcanic activity, wrote to the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, that his greatest disappointment was not to be able to share with him the experience of the 1778? eruption: “I long’d for you, [David] Solander and Charles Greville, for tho’ I have some company with me on these expeditions sometimes yet they have in general so much fear & so little curiosity that I had rather be alone”.   Perhaps Hamilton was thinking back to the most important homo-social moment of the northern Enlightenment in Italy, which occurred during the eruption of October 1767, when Hamilton, the great antiquary and scholar, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the libertine pornographer, the Baron d’Hancarville, together with Baron Riedesel, the author of an important travel guide to Sicily, collectively, and at considerable risk, descended into the volcano’s crater. The heat was so fierce they were forced to strip naked, while they dined on a picnic of pigeons they roasted in the lava streams.

If the sense of male friendship and solidarity was in part a function of shared danger, this was also one of the circumstances that enhanced romantic love between men and women.   Of course it is not just danger that fuelled romantic passion. It was the power and force of the volcano itself, the way it ignited the energy and the enthusiasm that fuelled desire and romance. The French artist, Madame Vigee Le Brun, climbing Vesuvius in 1790, wrote to her friend the architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart, “For a while I became Vesuvian, so much do I love this superb volcano. I believe that he also loved me, because he celebrated and welcomed me in the most grandiose manner”.   This sense of the volcano as a stimulus to desire had a long pedigree.   Sir William Hamilton described how in December 1770 during what he called “quite a lady’s eruption” he fell for a young woman [Lady Hampden] who was half his age: “nothing can express the glorious scene of Saturday – There were numberless Cascades of fire, the Scoria of the Lava formed arch’d bridges from Space to Space and the Lava ran rapidly under these arches whilst we stood upon them with great security. Mrs. Hampdens beautifull face lighted up by the reflection of the fiery Streams was not a circumstance to be forgot – I was half in love with her before we went to Vesuvius but her courage & the passion she has taken for my favourite object here, has quite undone me.”

The question for the savant however (even one as ardent as Sir William Hamilton) was still that of how these descriptions of mountains as sites of (different sorts of) emotional intensity connected with a more deliberate and colder discourse associated with the tasks of scientific observation.  Observation, as Lorraine Daston has emphasized, was central to scientific practice in the Enlightenment, and entailed an active engagement of the senses and intellect. As the Genevan pastor and botanist, Jean Senebier commented in L’art d’observer (1775), : “attention alone renders the observer master of the subjects he studies, in uniting all the forces of his soul, in making him carefully discard all that could distract him, and in regarding the object as the only one that exists for it at that moment”.   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe endorsed this view that scientific investigation demanded painstaking attention: “As soon as an observer gifted with acute senses happens to pay attention to objects, he becomes both inclined to make observations, and excellent at them”. The aim, however, was not to observe individual curiosities – the modern savant was very concerned to distinguish himself from the casual collector and admirer of naturalia – but to use particulars to reconstruct a picture of nature and, above all, to understand its laws, identifying what Daston calls “uniform particulars” to create a system.   So when Saussure ran into Hamilton’s nephew, Charles Greville, a lifelong collector of gems and crystals, at the St Gotthard pass in 1775, he dismissed him because “he was not a serious student and did not attempt to generalize”.  This did not, by the way, prevent the British Museum from paying £xxxxxx for his collection in 1


In short, a grid of local facts was to be turned into a global view of nature. This entailed precision, repetition and comparison in order to construct a general object – not Vesuvius or Etna or Stromboli – but volcanoes, not Mount Blanc, Dome du Gouter or Mont Buet, but Alpine mountains. So scientific knowledge depended, in the first instance, on a mass of detailed observations such as those of Vesuvius undertaken between 1779 and 1794 by Padre Antonio Piaggio at the behest of Sir William Hamilton, or those which Saussure undertook at the summit of Mount Blanc in 1787, when he measured temperature, air pressure, magnetic field, humidity and the colour of the sky using thermometers, a hygrometer, electrometer, two barometers, and a cynometer.   Such findings were written in notebooks, sometimes later redacted for publication, and included diagrams, measurements and numbers, often produced by instruments such as thermometers, hygrometers, barometers and theodolites.    Such knowledge was not, as Daston points out, intended to prove but to discover – to produce rather than test hypotheses about nature through patient discernment.

Much investigation, as several savants recognized, was repetitive, dull and unexciting; nevertheless skilled observation became increasingly associated with the idea of genius, with virtuosity and ingenuity, both in fashioning more precise instruments and in deftly recording nature.   Tabular results may have been prosaic and routine, but their recovery and constitution, especially when it put the observer at risk or in danger, was not. The heroic genius of the savant, embodied in a figure like Saussure, shifted the site and nature of sublimity which now lay in the actions of the philosopher rather than in the materials he surveyed. The engraving after the painting of Saussure by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, which as Martin Rudwick points out, was circulated throughout Europe, embodies this juxtaposition, in which the sublime sky and mountains are depicted together with Saussure and his instruments of science: a miner’s hammer, collecting bag, clinometer, hygrometer, and telescope.   Cian Duffy has made this same point more abstractly: “one effect of the remediation of the encounter with the ‘natural sublime’ to the general public through many of the cultural texts…is that the sublime which the individual describes becomes implicated with their own persona through the act of description.”

Perhaps then the narrative that combined sublime reflections on nature’s powers and majesty and scientific facts was largely unproblematic.   Perhaps the translators of Bourrit were right when they argued that science and aesthetic pleasure were compatible. After all the most commercially successful – best-selling – travel accounts were often a combination of the two. The spectacle of natural philosophy was not just enacted, as Simon Schaffer reminds us, in the lecture theatre and public exhibition spaces, but also in the textual descriptions of making observations in the field, descriptions that gave general epistemic authority to such accounts.   We can see this very clearly in the carefully orchestrated self-fashioning of Sir William Hamilton as a volcanic savant through a whole series of publications for very different audiences between the mid-1760s and 1790s, or in the flurry of rival accounts of the Alps published by De Luc, Burrit, Raymond, Dr. Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Saussure.   Almost all of these accounts, even when quite technical, were reproduced in a whole range of contemporary periodicals, and not just in scientific publications. They were not just contributions to knowledge but rival claims for scientific ‘genius’.


The context of these works was commercial and touristic as much as scientific.   Both the Alps and Vesuvius (Etna was, at least at this time, too remote) fostered well developed tourist industries in the last quarter of the century.   As a Franciscan friar pointed out to Hester Piozzi, the former Mrs. Thrale, when she visited Naples in 1785, “that’s our mountain, which throws up money for us, by calling foreigners to see the extraordinary effects of so surprising a phenomenon.” Vesuvius boasted a well developed system of guides, a souvenir lava and rock trade, and a vast array of pictures and models for the visitor; in Chamonix, at the foot of Mt Blanc, there were no hotels in 1760; but there were three well appointed inns by the 1780s. Visitor figures to Chamonix rose from a meager 30 in 1772 to 2,000 in 1785. Jacques Balmat, who together with Dr. Paccard was the first to reach the summit of Mt. Blanc was financially rewarded by the Sardinian authorities who ruled the region because, in the words of the Sardinian envoy in Geneva: “this [ascent] is regarded in the area as an epochal event which will attract even more foreigners and the curious to the Glacieres”.


Curiosity, wonder, aesthetic appreciation – these were the feelings that were known to draw the traveller or tourist to the spectacles of fire and ice on the slopes of Vesuvius and Mt Blanc, but how was he and she to be persuaded to see nature as the savant intended, not just as an emotional stimulus but as part of the order of things?  One way to achieve this was for savants to portray the sublime and aesthetics more generally as both the precursor and stimulus to a more sober analysis.   As John Playfair, the Scottish mathematician and natural philosopher put it in his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth(1802): “as soon as he [the savant] has recovered from the general impression made by the novelty and magnificence of the spectacle before him, he begins to discover the footsteps of time”.   Similarly Brydone on Etna: “the senses, unaccustomed to the sublimity of such a scene, are bewildered and confounded, and it is not till after some time, that they are capable of separating and judging of the objects that compose it.”


Popularizers of science like Humphry Davy, who gave the first series of lectures in England on geology in 1805 at the Royal Institution, were emphatic that “the beauty, the majesty and the sublimity of the great forms of nature have their effect in the imagination rather increased than diminished by being connected with the view of philosophy” (13).   As he went on to explain, “the imagery of a mountain country, which is the very theatre of all science, is in almost all cases highly impressive and delightful, but a new and higher species of enjoyment arises in the mind when the arrangements in it, their harmony and subserviency to the purposes of life are considered.”   Davy wants both the sublime and the beautiful. If, on the one hand, he is pointing to the beauty and harmony of nature, he is also pointing out that the capacity to see things scientifically enhances sublimity. As he says, “To the geological enquirer every mountain chain offers striking monuments of the great alterations that the globe has undergone. The most sublime speculations are awakened, the present is disregarded, past ages crowd upon the fancy, and the mind is lost in admiration of the designs of that great power who has established order in which at first view appears as confusion”.   The words echo those of Bourrit on the top of Le Buet a quarter of a century earlier: “By contemplating these enormous monuments to the decay of the universe, thoughts are moved back many centuries and fixed on an imposing antiquity so well attested in this place”. Davy is playing a subtle game here, one that seeks to combine the aesthetics of confusion and deep time with an assertion of what is key for him, the order of nature, which can only be seen scientifically.

But as Adam Smith realized natural philosophy was just as easily understood as a process of demystification in which sublime feelings of fear and awe were dispelled by an understanding of the beauties of the connected system of nature. “Thus”, he writes in his Essays on Philosophical Subjects, “the eclipses of the sun and the moon, which once, more than all other appearances in the heavens, excited the terror and amazement of mankind, seem now no longer so wonderful, since the connecting chain has been found which joins them to the ordinary course of things.”… “Philosophy”, Smith argues, “by representing the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects, endeavours to introduce order into the chaos of jarring and discordant appearance, to allay the tumult of the imagination, and to restore it, when it surveys the great revolutions of the universe, to that tone of tranquility and composure, which is most agreeable in itself, and most suitable in its nature.”.   Just as he saw the market, so Smith sees the economy of nature as a beautiful system.   Davy, for all his confusion, concurs: At the end of his tenth lecture he explained, “Even the most terrible of the ministrations of nature in their ultimate operation are pregnant with blessings and with benefits. Beauty and harmony are made to result from apparent confusion, and all the laws of the material world are ultimately made subservient to the preservation of life and the promotion of happiness”.

It is this commitment to understanding system and to searching out order that distinguishes the rigorous natural philosopher from the traveller with only desultory curiosity; it is also what and makes his activity sublime.   In an astonishingly self-congratulatory remark in his preliminary discourse to Voyages in the Alps, Saussure gives himself almost God-like qualities: “What language can reproduce the sensations and paint the ideas with which these great spectacles fill the soul of the Philosopher? He seems to dominate above our Globe, he discovers the sources of its motion, and to recognize at least the principal agents that effect its revolutions.” Placed at the summit of the highest mountain in Europe, where “I saw placed under my eyes those majestic summits …I seized their relation to each other, their connection, their structure, and a single glance cleared up doubts that years of labour had not been able to dissolve.” Saussure is jostling for status on the summit with an all-seeing God.

As part of a progressive narrative of modernity, the natural philosopher not only contrasted himself with the unsystematic inquirer, but even more prominently with ordinary people who lack education.   Kant, in his discussion of the natural sublime in his Third Critique contrasts the response of a Savoyard peasant, whom he concedes is good and intelligent but also uncultured, to that of Saussure himself. According to Kant, the response to the Alps and Mount Blanc of Saussure, who uses his “soul-stirring sensations” for “the instruction of men”, is quite different from that of the Savoyard peasant, who “in the indications of the dominion of nature in destruction, and in the great scale of its might,… will only see the misery, danger, and distress which surround the man who is exposed to it”.

It is striking how often apparently ‘scientific’ reports penned by savants include accounts of the responses of indigenous peoples, usually dubbed ignorant, superstitious and fearful.   Hamilton’s reports of volcanic eruptions on Vesuvius usually included stories (for which there was very little philosophical justification) of popular turmoil and terror, and of the invocation of the relics of St Gennaro, to save the city of Naples from its sins. Such narratives set up an explicit contrast between a vision of natural disaster as divine retribution for human sin, and eruptions as an example of a benign natural order, their occurrence a part of a self-regulating nature. This was the message that Davy offered his lecture audience as the climax of his geological survey.   “Volcanoes when superficially examined appear rather as accidents than as orderly events in our system. But when they are accurately considered, it will be found that their effects are not unimportant in the economy of things and that they bear a distinct subservience to the general harmonious series of natural operations (136)…the earthquake and the subterraneous fire have their uses in our system. They at first terrify and destroy, but a few years only pass away and their desolating effects disappear; the scene blooms with the fairest vegetation and becomes the abode of life”.

So the act of overcoming fear in the face of the erupting volcano was never simply a matter of physical security; it also depended, as Adam Smith understood, upon a cognitive move in which understanding and knowledge dispelled fear based on ignorance.  The savant had every reason to play up the difficulty and danger of his investigations, as long as his fortitude was made clear, a determination that grew out of scientific curiosity, his determination to extract the system of nature from his researches.


This contrast between the savant and the superstitious layman can be seen very clearly in the work of the most important artist portraying Vesuvius in the later eighteenth century, Jacques Volaire, known as the Chevalier Volaire. He arrived in Naples in 1767 and, apart from brief excursions, remained there until his death in 1799.   During his time in the city he produced a steady stream of pictures of the volcano in eruption, depicting the eruptions of 1767, 1771, 1774, 1776, 1779 and 1794.   His clients included diplomats like Sir William Hamilton, the Cardinal de Berni (the French ambassador in Rome), the Austrian ambassador, and Francois Cacault, a consular official in Naples who also traded in pictures for Parisian clients. He sold pictures to Charles Townley and Henry Blundell on their 1777 visit to Naples, to Mrs Piozzi when she was there in 1785-6, to French aristocrats like the tax farmer, Bergaret de Grancourt and Viconte de Saint-Pardoux (on his Grand Tour of 1777), and to monarchs such as Catharine the Great, the Duke of Savoy and Ferdinand IV of Spain. Many of these paintings were very large, approximately four feet by eight, though he also produced smaller versions of his pictures approximately 15 x 30 inches. Almost all of his works were night scenes – Vesuvian tourism was nocturnal, and most of Volaire’s works claimed to depict a specific moment or event, and sometimes claimed to have been produced on the spot and with a high degree of exactitude. (Only a very few of his paintings were fantasy pictures, such as those that combined the effects of the eruptions of 1771 and 1779.)

Volaire’s pictures, for all their startling effects, were works that told tales that chimed in with the attitudes and beliefs of the philosophical travellers and Enlightened figures who were his patrons and customers. Most, though not all, of Volaire’s paintings adopt one of two points of view: close to the volcano on the so-called Atrio del Cavallo, or at a distance, looking south east towards Vesuvius from the Ponte della Maddalena and the city of Naples. In the former, as in the painting now in the Chicago Art Institute, inscribed “Vue de l’Eruption du mont Vesuve du 14 mai 1771”, we see both the artist and the genteel observers gesturing towards the lava flow in a manner that indicates that they are engaged in observing a natural phenomenon that might inspire sublime feelings, but which does not entail fear.

One recalls the Royal Society’s praise of Sir William Hamilton’s “philosophical fortitude in the midst of the Horrors of Vesuvius”, and their admiration for his “resolution” and “constancy” in observing a phenomenon that he had “so minutely as well as philosophically accounted for and described”. Or Simon Linguet’s description of Giovanni Mario della Torre as a savant avec “une attention et un courage rares”.  Here we see the figure described by David McCallam: “when the intrepid savant faces down the terrible danger of the volcano, the volcano yields to him not only its secrets, in the form of scientific data, but also its sublimity”.

On the Ponte della Maddalena however, as the painting now in the North Carolina Art Museum depicts, the response is very different. Neapolitans are fleeing from the eruption, they pray, superstitiously, to San Gennaro, to intercede on their behalf, or hold up his image in an attempt to ward off the danger of the volcano. The painting depicts a persistent cliché about the Neapolitan populace – that they were superstitious and fearful rather than modern and enlightened. Volaire’s paintings thus establish the difference and distance between the Grand Tourist or philosophical traveller, who was his patron, and the Neapolitans he depicted. Volaire’s work was the most conspicuous instance of this topos, but not the only one. It can be found in the work of the German artist Jacob Phillip Hackert, the Austrian Michael Wutky, and in at least one of Pietro Fabris’s works for Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei.

The construction of the heroic savant marginalized or obliterated those who were deemed to be of restricted vision – either because unable to transmute the local into the general, or to see beyond their superstitions.   Thus, as we see, it was a commonplace among travellers that the Neapolitan lazzaroni were either indifferent to or terrified of their volcano, despite the fact that savants’ visits to the volcano could only be made with local guides, and their safety only ensured by their local expertise. Similarly, a comparable process of erasure happened in the case of Mount Blanc. Jacques Balmat, a smallholder and crystal hunter (note not collector) and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, a doctor, both from Chamonix, were the first to reach the summit of Mount Blanc, but their achievement was immediately downplayed, portrayed as a preparatory expedition to the ascent of the savant, Saussure.   Saussure’s swiftly published account of his own expedition (which included Balmat who was vital to the ascent) circulated first as a brief relation and then in much longer form, and overshadowed the achievements of Balmat and Paccard.   When Immanuel Kant published his Physical Geography in 1802, he declared, “Saussure was the first mortal to climb the summit of Mount Blanc”.

As we have seen what may at first sight have seemed a weakness on the part of natural philosophy, its dryness – what Brydone called “its cool and tasteless triumphs”, associated with “the hard and impenetrable temper of philosophy” – was successfully overcome by savants and scientists in the second half of the eighteenth century. They did not fight the powerful expressions of feeling associated with the sublime, which might have threatened to overshadow their precise descriptions and data. Instead they made such feelings the handmaiden of science, while crafting themselves as heroic, sublime figures enduring danger and discomfort in the pursuit of philosophical truth. Their sublimity derived from their actions in nature, including the prosaic activities of measurement and precise description that seemed so removed from an aesthetic that spoke of boundless horizons, obscurity and darkness.   Narratives such as those of Saussure and Hamilton were never just philosophical interventions; they were also guarantors of intellectual and social prestige, spread through publications designed to claim priorities for their authors, and often to secure their places politically.   They also, as we have seen, excluded or downgraded others who were in fact a part of the story.   As we have learned repeatedly, narratives of modernization and progress are often of great benefit to their proponents; for others, they are much more of a mixed blessing.




What’s it about?

This blog is designed to provide access to my unpublished work – drafts of papers, longer and revised versions of works that have appeared in print, pieces elsewhere on the web, or thought pieces.  I make these accessible because I believe in open access, and also because I would be interested to hear the responses of readers, whether critical or complimentary, and to engage in debate about issues around my work.