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‘A brighter Hellas’: rediscovering Greece in the 19th century

William Gell and the Society of Dilettanti

View of a landscape scene with three male figures in the foregroundView from the monastery of ArchangellThe antiquarian Sir William Gell (1777-1836) travelled widely in the eastern Mediterranean in the early part of his career. In 1806, in the company of fellow-antiquarian Edward Dodwell, Gell visited the island of Ithaca in the Ionian Sea.

The plate on display indicates the location of ‘Homer’s School’, an ancient site on Ithaca. Europeans were captivated at that time by the identification of ‘Homeric sites’ and Gell, motivated by an interest in topographical studies, explored the authenticity of the locations on Ithaca. Gell notes:

Our Papas [priest] told us that Homer visited this spot in order to wash in the source called Melainudros, which restored sight. We could not, however, satisfy ourselves whether this was a tradition among the inhabitants, or only the invention of the priest …

In 1807 Gell became a member of the Society of Dilettanti, an institution which promoted the study of classical antiquitiesand sponsored archaeological expeditions. The Society was founded by a group of gentleman who had met during their grand tour in Italy, and held its first meeting at Covent Garden in1736. A prerequisite for membership included travel in Italy, and later travel in Greece.

The Society’s early patronage included James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Athenian expedition which resulted in the publication of the first volume of The antiquities of Athens in 1762. An archaeological expedition to the Ionian Islands by Richard Chandler, Revett and William Edmund Pars brought about the publication of Ionian antiquities in 1769.

The Society later founded a scholarship to fund students of the Royal Academy to study in Italy and Greece. By the early 19th century a new generation of members, such as Gell, were elected to the Society. Gell’s topographical skills attracted their attention and he became the leader of the Society’s second expedition to Ionia and Attica in 1812.

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