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Though the exact date is unknown, the Society is believed to have been established as a London dining club in 1709 Kelly, Jason M. The Society of Dilettanti: archaeology and identity in the British enlightenment. New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2009.</ref> by a group of people who had been on the Grand Tour. Records of the earliest meeting of the Society were written somewhat informally on loose pieces of paper. The first entry in the first minute book of the Society is dated April 5, 1736.
In 1743 Horace Walpole condemned its affectations and described it as such; "...a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk: the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy"
The group, initially led by Francis Dashwood, contained several dukes and was later joined by Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, among others. It was closely associated with Brooks's, one of London's most exclusive gentlemen's clubs. The society quickly became wealthy, through a system in which members made contributions to various funds to support building schemes and archaeological expeditions.
The first artist associated with the group was George Knapton.
The Society of Dilettanti aimed to correct and purify the public taste of the country; from the 1740s, it began to support Italian opera. A few years before Sir Joshua Reynolds became a member, the group worked towards the objective of forming a public academy, and from the 1750s, it was the prime mover in establishing the Royal Academy. In 1775 the club had accumulated enough money towards a scholarship fund for the purpose of supporting a student's travel to Rome and Greece, or for archaeological expeditions such as that of Richard Chandler, William Pars and Nicholas Revett, the results of which they published in Ionian Antiquities, a major influence on neo-Classicism in Britain.
The Society has 60 members, elected by secret ballot. An induction ceremony is held at a London club. It makes annual donations to the British Schools in Rome and Athens, and a separate fund set up in 1984 provides financial assistance for visits to classical sites and museums.