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Blasphemy, Irenicism and Collecting: The Improbable Friendship of Francis Dashwood and Antonio Niccolini

Lecture – Peter Björn Kerber

  • 21 February 2018
  • 6:00 – 8:00 pm

In February 1740, the cardinals convened in Rome to elect a successor to Pope Clement XII. In an open mockery of the ritual, Sir Francis Dashwood (1708–1781) and a group of fellow Grand Tourists staged a parody of the conclave. The irreverent young Englishman impersonated Pietro Ottoboni, Dean of the College of Cardinals and one of the greatest art collectors of his day. At the same time and in spite of the public scandal erupting over his blasphemous behaviour, Dashwood struck up a friendship with Antonio Niccolini (1701–1769), a Florentine nobleman closely connected to the family of the recently deceased pontiff and friend of the soon-to-be-elected Benedict XIV.

The two men were multifaceted characters: Dashwood was a notorious rake fond of satirising religious ceremonies, yet he compiled (together with Benjamin Franklin) and privately printed a simplified version of the Book of Common Prayer. Niccolini, a lawyer and theologian charged with a secret irenic mission to reconcile the Church of Utrecht with the Holy See, was an important behind-the-scenes contributor to the monumental Museum Florentinum, Anton Francesco Gori’s catalogue of Florentine antiquities and paintings. While spending almost two years in London in 1746–48, Niccolini frequented major collectors such as Henry Howard, 4th Earl of Carlisle, and Sir Hans Sloane in addition to Dashwood. This paper will retrace the intellectual, religious and artistic dimensions of the ill-matched pair’s twenty-year friendship and consider how Niccolini’s influence is reflected in the art collection Dashwood assembled at West Wycombe Park.

Portly man with strong chin with decorative coat and boots

, Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674–1755), Antonio Niccolini, circa 1725, pen and ink over graphite on laid paper, 306 × 218 mm, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Joseph F. McCrindle Collection, 2009.70.126

About the speaker

  • Peter Björn Kerber is a curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery and author of Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe. As a member of the Paul Mellon Centre’s research project “Collecting and Display: The British Country House“, his focus is the art collection at West Wycombe Park.