Views of Rome in the Bank of England? Sir John Soane, the Grand Tour, and the Dilettanti Era of Archaeology

John Soane was an architect and proponent of neo-classical style during the late Georgian era, one of the first to make intelligent use of natural light in building designs for art galleries. Dulwich picture gallery, with its top-lit showrooms, set the standard for many later art gallery and museum buildings. Soane’s biggest building project, on which he worked 45 years, was the Bank of England, where he succeeded R. Taylor as architect and surveyor. The redevelopments and expansions of the Bank of England building overseen and designed by Soane in those years were manifold and took place on a grand scale. To name but a couple of salient features, Soane designed a Doric Vestibule, as well as the Tivoli Corner, which was based upon a model of the temple of Vesta at Tivoli.

Soane, who came from a family of bricklayers, was introduced to George Dance the Younger during a work engagement. Qua founding member of the Royal Academy, it is believed that Dance encouraged Soane to attend lectures at the Academy, since they were free, and Soane began following courses of lectures on architecture and perspective. He excelled as a student, with many of his designs winning medals at academy competitions. Under these circumstances, John Soane was awarded travel scholarships to go on the Grand Tour, and starting in 1778, he set out for first Paris, then Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Cumae, Vesuvius, Herculaneum, the Pontine Marshes, Syracuse, Malta, Venice, Florence, Vicenza, and many more places, in the company of various new friends that he made on the tour.
The Grand Tour, a kind of aristocratic „gap year“ (or perhaps even „gap decade“) of the 18th century, consisted of travel to Italy and other parts of Europe to see Roman ruins, ancient temples, sculptures and other remains of antiquity, with the aim of educating one’s sense of style and beauty, and developing the young traveler’s sense of virtue, in line with the contemporary ideals of the English enlightenment.
It was a group of Grand Tour alumni who formed the London Society of Dilettanti, an exclusive club dedicated to the delights of ancient Rome—and to heavy drinking. The Dilettanti were keen sponsors of the study of ancient art, and were founders of the Royal Academy as well as the British Museum. Many pieces inside the British Museum, like the Knidian lions and the statue of Demeter of Knidos, were excavated by the Dilettanti themselves or their sponsees, in the late 18th or early 19th century.

John Soane remained faithful to the Royal Academy throughout most of his life and continued to exhibit designs there for many decades. Through the sponsorship he received, Soane was able to rise from modest origins in bricklaying to the top of the architectural profession in his day. Friends whom he first met on the Grand Tour later became clients, so that prior to taking up the Bank of England project, which would occupy him for the best part of his life, Soane worked on numerous domestic projects, leaving his distinctive mark of style on many townhouses, galleries, country residences and gardens in and around London.
Over the decades of his life, he accumulated a growing collection of antiquities, which he housed at his home at 13, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The collection contained Greek and Roman bronzes, candelabra and urns, Roman mosaics, Greek vases, various statue-heads and other architectural salvages, Roman glass, Chinese ceramics, and copies and miniatures of famous sculptures such as Diana of Ephesus. Soane also acquired the architectural collection of his late teacher Henry Holland, and owned paintings by Canaletto, Hogarth, and Turner, to name but a few. Some 250 architectural models are gathered in the house, as well as a library with Incunable texts and a 13th century English Vulgate, various rare manuscripts, and many works on architecture and design. There are many and special editions of the Roman architect Vitruvius, and of Winckelmann, whose idea for a scientific study of classical archaology was all the rage also in the English 18th century, and was practiced with great verve especially by the Dilettanti’s Robert Newton. Sir John Soane was knighted in his later life, and made his house a Museum of Architecture, by Act of Parliament, in 1833.

More than 30,000 architectural drawings are assembled in his bequest, and the Museum has one of the richest holdings of graphic works by Piranesi. Particularly famous for his etchings of views of Rome, in which he used his knowledge of design and architecture to provide the missing parts of Roman ruins, Piranesi’s graphic work offers a recreated, full view of ancient Rome and its buildings. These views of Rome were a strong influence to neoclassical architecture, which John Soane embraced from early on. Now on show at the Sir Sohn Soane’s Museum, there are fantastical objects taken from the sketchbooks of Piranesi: 3-D printing technologies have been used to create, for the first time, objects that were designed, but never realised, by Piranesi, and which John Soane had made sure would be preserved in his archive and library. Soane would, I’m sure, be very happy to know that his efforts of design sketch preservation ended up gifting people from the future with a whole new set of beautifully designed objects and sculptures.


photo courtesy of the Sir John Soane’s Museum