The English Virtuoso: Art, Medicine, and Antiquarianism in the Age of Empiricism

August 13, 2009

Look up the word "virtuoso" in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you will find an unusual admission that the various senses of the word are particularly difficult to discriminate. The first meaning given is: "one who has a general interest in the arts and sciences ... a learned person; a scientist, savant, or scholar". This is said to have been the prevailing sense when the word began to circulate in England in the second half of the 17th century. The OED gives examples of its use by individuals of that era who could themselves be described as virtuosi, including John Evelyn and Robert Boyle. But it also notes a contemporaneous meaning of "a student or collector of antiquities, natural curiosities or rarities", and admits that this sense tended to be applied in a derogatory or satirical way. Illustrative quotations include Bernard Mandeville's sarcastic invitation of 1729 to "Look upon the mighty labours of antiquaries, botanists, and the vertuoso's (sic) in butterflies, cockle-shells, and other odd productions of nature".

In distinguishing these two meanings, it looks as if the editors of the OED wanted to shield individuals of genuine learning from the deprecation often directed against the virtuoso. But such a demarcation of categories would be too simple a solution. As Craig Ashley Hanson shows in his beautifully illustrated book, the same individuals who pioneered the methods of modern experimental science in the late 17th century also shared a very un-modern passion for natural curiosities, antiquities and rarities - a passion that laid them open to satire, as Boyle found when he was ridiculed by Thomas Shadwell in his play The Virtuoso, of 1676.

Hanson's ambition is to rescue the virtuoso's reputation from such derision. This requires him to display some interdisciplinary virtuosity himself, moving between the histories of science, art and antiquarian scholarship. His footnotes amply document his immersion in all of these. He has selected a few virtuosi to examine in depth, mostly medical practitioners with interests in art or antiquarianism. This inevitably limits the scope of his study. He begins with medics from the early 17th century, including William Harvey and Richard Haydocke. The artistic and scholarly interests of these doctors provided a model, Hanson claims, for those who styled themselves as virtuosi later in the century.

Moving on to the Restoration, he selects John Evelyn and Christopher Wren as representative virtuosi. Both combined medical with artistic and scholarly interests; both were leading lights of the early Royal Society. Evelyn donated to the society the set of four anatomical tables he acquired in Padua, which can be seen in the remodelled Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons; he also shared Wren's enthusiasm for architecture, translating works on this and other arts.

Less well remembered is William Aglionby, a physician and diplomat who compiled a work on the history of art in the 1680s. Hanson contrasts Aglionby's work with that of William Salmon, a quack doctor and plagiarist, whose popular book on the arts freely pilfered from earlier works on the techniques of drawing, painting and printing. The final chapter focuses on Richard Mead, a leading medical practitioner, whose scholarly and artistic interests demonstrate that the virtuoso tradition was still strong in the first half of the 18th century. Hanson's reconstruction of the intellectual passions of these men shows that the figure is still worthy of serious attention from modern scholars.

The English Virtuoso: Art, Medicine, and Antiquarianism in the Age of Empiricism

By Craig Ashley Hanson. University of Chicago Press 344pp, £34.50. ISBN 9780226315874. Published 1 June 2009

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