ABSTRACT

The late nineteenth-century art historian, feminist intellectual, and trade unionist Emilia Dilke wrote of the eighteenth century: ‘the subject is so vast that to attempt to treat it … may be likened to the child’s effort to “put the sea in yonder hole’”. 1 Her sense of the futility of attempting to encapsulate the period did not prevent her publishing a vast four-volume study of French art in the eighteenth century, which covers painting, sculpture, engraving, drawing, architecture, furniture, and decoration. Published from 1899 to 1902, it was her last book-length study devoted to the history of art. Twenty years earlier, at about the time when Dilke, under the name E.F.S. Pattison, published her first book, The Renaissance of Art in France (1879), another woman also produced her own first major historical study. Vernon Lee’s Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy 2 appeared in 1880 when she was just 24, and also marked the beginning of a long and productive writing life as an art historian and aesthetician, in which she too was to write important books on the Renaissance as well as the eighteenth century, only while Dilke’s centre of interest was always France, her own was Italy. The approaches of these two women to the eighteenth century are differently inflected, as one might expect. Dilke had famously reviewed Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873, just a few years before Lee published her own Studies, criticizing the impressionistic aestheticism that the younger woman admired and emulated, and Dilke’s own brilliant studies of both the Renaissance and the eighteenth century exemplified the ‘scientific method’ that Pater and Lee abjured. 3 The encyclopaedic comprehensiveness at which she aimed is part and parcel of such an objectivist methodology. Lee’s book, by contrast, although also well researched and scholarly, is consciously subjective and fanciful, and avowedly partial. Her subject is carefully circumscribed, her focus not ‘the universal character of the century itself’, a character which she finds to be ‘far 224more spontaneous and strongly marked in other countries’ than Italy (2), but rather the art forms that were national in their origins and characteristics, and had their roots deep in Italian history and civilization; namely the musical, dramatic, and performing arts of the period. Furthermore, her engagement with her material is highly personal and performative. She was later to write of her ‘unaccountable passion’, as a child, ‘for the people and things of the eighteenth century, and more particularly of the eighteenth century in Italy’: ‘How it arose would be difficult to explain; perhaps mainly from the delight which I received from the melodies of Mozart and Gluck, picked out with three fingers on the piano. I followed those sounds; I pursued them, and I found myself in the midst of the Italian eighteenth century.’ Stressing that she means this ‘literally’, she adds: ‘I really did find my way into that period, and really did live in it.’ 4 Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy is the intriguing product of this Orlando-like excursion, and is fascinating amongst other things for its ficto-historical negotiations of the present and the past, the real and the imaginary.