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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The term “virtuoso” originated in Italy and was used
earlier there than in England. The first English use
listed in the Oxford English Dictionary was in John
Evelyn's Diary on March 1, 1644, when Evelyn had
been travelling on the continent for some time. Writ-
ing from Paris, he mentioned “one of the greatest
Virtuosas in France, for his Collection of Pictures,
Achates, Medaills, & Flowers, especially Tulips &
Anemonys.” Walter E. Houghton, Jr., the first to write
extensively on the subject, cites an earlier use by
Henry Peacham whose Complete Gentleman (1634)
became a sort of handbook to the virtuosi. Discussing
classical antiquities such as statues, inscriptions, coins,
he said that the possession of rarities, because of their
cost, “doth properly belong to Princes, or rather to
princely minds,” then added, “such as are skilled in
them, are by the Italians termed Virtuosi.

But the movement in England had begun much
earlier than the use of the word. As the term came
to be used before the Restoration, it implied a collector
or connoisseur of objects d'art, i.e., a gentleman—Mr.
Houghton points out that the movement was extremely
class-conscious—a man of wealth and leisure, a student
but not a scholar. His studies were not devoted to such
utilitarian ends as professional success or commercial
gain. There seems to have been a fusion of the long
traditions of scholar and courtier, the result being
neither the one nor the other. The idea behind the
term emerged in England particularly during the reign
of James I in a period of wealth and comparative
leisure. Sons did not feel the devotion to public service
with which many of their Elizabethan fathers had been
occupied. Gentlemen lived less at court than on coun-
try estates, occupied with “learned Pleasure and de-
light.” James's son, Prince Henry, who died in 1612
at the age of eighteen, had been well on the way to
becoming the leader of the virtuosi. His Highness,
wrote one of his subjects, perceiving the nobility and
the gentry “too much given to ease,” attempted to
attract them to the study of antiquities and painting
in which he himself took great pleasure. The heir
presumptive had already made a good beginning on
the fine gallery of paintings which his brother further
developed. John Evelyn, writing to Samuel Pepys much
later in the century, remembered that the prince had
collected books and statues, and “a Cabinet of ten
thousand Medals, not inferior to most Abroad, and far
superior to any at Home.”

In a lengthy passage in The Anatomy of Melancholy
(Part II, sec. 2, member 4; first ed. 1621) Robert Burton
seems almost to give a recipe for virtuosi, although
his purpose was to recommend study as a cure for
melancholy. He urged the melancholic to put himself
to school to “Maps, Pictures, Statues, Jewels, Marbles.”
He advised him “to view those neat Architectures,
Devices, Scutcheons, Coats of Arms,” and added that
he should “peruse old Coins, of several sorts in a fair
Gallery, Artificial Works, Perspective Glasses, Old
Reliques, Roman Antiquities.” In his usual lavish fash-
ion, he added other lists of objects, interest in which
would distract the mind from melancholia and pre-
sumably produce a collector and a connoisseur. It is
interesting to notice that at the conclusion of his
lengthy account Burton turns to collection on the part
of melancholy women, almost seeming to introduce a
type that we shall find called the “virtuosa.”

A contrasting attitude is shown in one of the most
familiar passages in The Advancement of Learning
(1605), in which Francis Bacon implied that what was
to be called the “virtuoso” was really a dilettante. A
majority of men who “entered into a desire for knowl-
edge” did so for the wrong reasons from Bacon's point
of view: “sometimes upon a natural curiosity and
inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds
with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and
reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory
of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and
profession.” The true end of learning, to Bacon, should
be “the benefit and use of man... the relief of man's
estate.” Bacon did not use the word “virtuoso” but the
distinctions implied in his passage were to become
overt when the term took on new meaning in the
period of the Restoration.

John Evelyn is the best single example of the English
virtuoso both before and after the Restoration.


Wherever he went on his extensive travels he collected
curios, pictures, books, varieties of objets d'art. He
visited museums and the estates of nobility and gentry,
reporting their collections in dozens of letters and
passages in the Diary. One entry for September 29,
1645 may give an idea of the range of his curiosity:

I went... to see the Collection of a Noble Venetian Signor
Rugini; he has a stately Palace, richly furnish'd, with statues,
heads of the Roman Empp, which are all plac'd in an ample
room: In the next was a Cabinet of Medals both Latine
& Greeke, with divers curious shells, & two faire Pearles
in 2 of them: but above all, he abounded in things petrified,
Walnuts, Eggs, in which the Yealk rattl'd, a Peare, a piece
of beefe, with the bones in it; an whole hedg-hog, a plaice
on a Wooden Trencher turnd into Stone, & very perfect:
Charcoale, a morsel of Cork yet retaining its levitie,
Sponges, Gutts, & a piece of Taffity: Part rolld up, with
innumerable more; In another Cabinet, sustained by 12
pillars of oriental Achat, & raild about with Chrystal, he
shew'd us several noble Intaglias, of Achat, especially a
Tiberius's head, & a Woman in a Bath with her dog: Some
rare Cornelians, Onixes, Chrystals &c in one of which was
a drop of Water not Congeal'd but plainly moving up &
down as it was (shaken); but above all was a Diamond which
had growing in it a very faire Rubie; Then he shew'd us
divers pieces of Amber wherein were several Insects
intomb'd, in particular one cut like an heart that contain'd
in it a Salamander

(Diary, ed. de Beer, 1955).

In the years following the Restoration Evelyn com-
bined with his other varied interests a knowledge of
contemporary science.

In 1662 was established the Royal Society of London
for Improving Natural Knowledge which brought to-
gether a group of what we today call “scientists,” who
added to their number intelligent laymen—divines,
aristocrats, philosophers, men of letters. Scientists, in
any technical sense, were in the minority. An excellent
example of the inclusion of amateurs may be seen in
the election of Samuel Pepys, then a naval official.
Pepys, to be sure, was a “collector” of sorts—of ballads,
pictures, music, books. Amateur of science though he
was, Pepys became President of the Royal Society in
1684. It is interesting to notice that Pepys seldom
referred to the organization as “the Royal Society.”
In many of his notations it was, as at his first meeting
on February 15, 1667, “the college of vertuosoes.”

With the establishment of the Royal Society, the
term “virtuosi” came to take on new meaning, applied
as it was to “collectors” in science. The term was used
seriously by the scientists themselves. Robert Boyle, for
example, frequently called himself and his fellow-
workers “virtuosi,” and one of his works was named
The Christian Virtuoso. But the prevailing use of the
term outside of the Society was satirical. Science—not
yet so-called—was still in its infancy, and a man who
devoted himself to collecting in such a field seemed
to outsiders, particularly satirists, an Autolycus, a
snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. Laughter was led
behind the scenes by no less a person than King
Charles, officially the patron of the Royal Society. His
Majesty prided himself on being a scientist, and had
his own laboratory in which he experimented, particu-
larly in chemistry. But Pepys reported in his Diary on
February 1, 1664 that the King spent part of an evening
laughing at the Royal Society. “Gresham College [the
Royal Society] he mightily laughed at, for spending
time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else
since they sat.”

Satire after satire poured from the press, but we shall
here concern ourselves only with the most popular one,
The Virtuoso of Thomas Shadwell, first performed at
the Dorset Theatre in May, 1676. This included the
many themes satirized in most of the others. The ex-
periments which Shadwell reduced to laughter were
all real ones that had been performed before the Royal
Society, several by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke,
whose places in the history of science have grown more
and more important as time has gone on. Sir Nicholas
Gimcrack, the “Virtuoso,” is discovered lying upon a
laboratory table where he is learning to swim by
imitating the motions of a frog in a bowl of water.
When asked whether he had practiced swimming in
water, he replies that he hates the water and would
never go near it. “I content myself,” he said, “with
the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the
practical. I seldom bring anything to use.... Knowl-
edge is my ultimate end.” Robert Boyle's many studies
on luminescence are parodied in the Virtuoso's reading
the Geneva Bible by the light of a leg of pork. Robert
Hooke's important microscopical observations, which
laid the basis for modern microscopy, are reflected in
Gimcrack's reiterated enthusiasm for his own expensive
microscopes. Gimcrack's nieces, resenting his misuse
of their money, say that he has spent two thousand
pounds on microscopes to find out the nature of eels
in vinegar, mites in a cheese, and the blue of plums,
which he finds to be living creatures. He has made
a profound study of spiders but is not concerned to
understand mankind. Gimcrack offers his visitors a
lecture on ants, whose eggs he has dissected under a
microscope. One visitor says in an aside “What does
it concern a man to know the nature of an ant,” to
which the other replies, “O it concerns a virtuoso
mightily; so it be knowledge, 'tis no matter of what.”

In common with many of his countrymen, Gimcrack's
creator made him greatly interested in experiments by
the Royal Society, a decade before The Virtuoso, on
blood transfusions. These had begun with transfusions


between dogs, continued with cross-transfusions be-
tween various animals, and came to a climax with
human transfusions, performed in France a little earlier
than in England. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, too, had
performed his first transfusions on dogs, but in human
transfusion he went beyond the Royal Society, when
he transfused the blood of a sheep into an insane man:

The patient from being maniacal or raging mad became
wholly ovine or sheepish; he bleated perpetually and chew'd
the cud; he had wool growing on him in great quantities;
and a Northamptonshire sheep's tail did soon emerge or
arise from his anus or human fundament.

Gimcrack's uncle, well-named Snarl, may have the last
word, so far as The Virtuoso is concerned: “If the blood
of an ass were transfus'd into a virtuoso, you would
not know the emittent ass from the recipient philoso-

Satire upon the virtuoso continued throughout the
century and was still lively in the time of Addison and
Steele. In Tatler 216 for August 26, 1710 appeared
“The Will of a Virtuoso.” At his death, all that Sir
Nicholas Gimcrack left to his family were rarities such
as “a dried cockatrice... three crocodile's eggs...
my last year's collection of grasshoppers... my rat's
testicles... all my flowers, plants, minerals, mosses,
shells, pebbles, fossils, beetles, butterflies, caterpillars,
grasshoppers and vermin.” The third Earl of Shaftes-
bury in his Characteristics (1711) attempted to restore
to their original position the “virtuosi or refin'd wits
of the Age,” and make them what he felt they should
be, “the real fine Gentlemen, the Lovers of Art and
Ingenuity,” but throughout the eighteenth century the
word largely denoted the pseudoscientist rather than
the collector of objets d'art.

Since the New Science interested women almost as
much as men, it is not surprising to find the develop-
ment of a feminine counterpart to the virtuoso, the
virtuosa or “Philosophical Girl,” as she was frequently
called. Her prototype may well be considered
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, whom
Charles Lamb called “a dear favorite of mine in the
last century but one,” but who has frequently been
considered “mad Madge.” A voluminous writer, an
encyclopedic reader, she was much interested in sci-
ence. One of the more embarrassing occasions faced
by the Royal Society was that upon which this spec-
tacular noble lady practically ordered it to give a
command performance for her. The most familiar ac-
count of the visit on May 23, 1667 is given by Pepys:

Anon came the Duchesse with her women attending her.
... The Duchesse hath been a good comely woman;
but her dress is so antic, and her deportment so ordinary,
that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say anything
that was worth hearing, but that she was full of admiration,
all admiration. Several fine experiments were shown her of
colours, loadstones, microscopes, and of liquors; among
others, of one that did, while she was there, turn a piece
of roasted mutton into pure blood, which was very rare.
... After they had shown her many experiments, and she
cried still she was full of admiration, she departed, being
led out by several Lords that were there.

The minute-book of the Royal Society contains a list
of the various experiments performed for the benefit
of the Duchess. They were largely in the hands of
Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, except for the one
that Pepys considered “very rare.” This, the interested
reader may be glad to know, was “the dissolving of
meat in the oil of vitriol.”

Under the influence of her husband, Mistress Pepys
became to some extent a virtuosa. After Samuel Pepys
had engaged a tutor to teach him arithmetic which,
like a majority of his contemporaries, he had never
learned, he noted on October 21, 1665, when a pair
of globes had been delivered to him: “This evening
... I begun to enter my wife in arithmetic, in order
to her studying the globes, and, I hope, I shall bring
her to understanding many fine things.” He noted on
February 15, 1663: “After prayers to bed, talking long
with my wife and teaching her things in astronomy.”
On August 13, 1664 Pepys bought a microscope,
through which he and Mistress Pepys attempted to
observe, encountering characteristic beginners' prob-
lems: “my wife and I with great pleasure, but with
great difficulty before we could come to find the man-
ner of seeing anything.”

The learned lady had already become a type, as
Molière's comedies show, but Molière's were not
virtuosae. The “Philosophical Girl,” like the femme
came into her own in France. In 1686 Bernard
le Bovier de Fontenelle published his Entretiens sur
la pluralité des mondes.
It is doubtful that any treat-
ment of a woman character has ever been so successful.
Seven editions had appeared by 1724, four more were
published during the eighteenth century, and at least
nine in the nineteenth century. The work became a
world-classic with a total of almost one hundred edi-
tions in at least six languages. Within two years of its
French publication it was translated into English three
times, one of the translations, fittingly enough, by a
woman, Aphra Behn's A Discovery of New Worlds.
From the French
(1688). Far from being satiric, the
Entretiens is a charmingly sympathetic treatment of
a beautiful Marchioness who for six evenings strolled
with a Philosopher between clipped hedges of roses,
while he taught her the elements of Cartesian astron-
omy, together with some principles of microscopy. The
lady was an interested and highly intelligent auditor,


who learned her lessons well. Here we find disquisitions
on planets, the stars, the moon, Cartesian vortexes, the
possibility of life in other planets, all that had been
observed in the new universe of space discovered by
Galileo's telescope, on the one hand, Giordano Bruno's
philosophy on the other, with occasional excursions
into the other new universe of microscopic life.

English women were not behind the French in read-
ing Fontenelle. Joseph Addison left an amusing picture
in The Guardian for September 8, 1713:

It is always the custom for one of the young ladies to read,
while the others are at work.... I was mightily pleased,
the other day, to find them all busy in preserving several
fruits of the season... reading over the plurality of worlds.
It was very entertaining to me to see them dividing their
speculations between jellies and stars, and making a sudden
transition from the sun to an apricot, or upon the Coperni-
can system to the figure of a cheese-cake.

In more sober mood, Addison devoted part of The
paper for October 25, 1712 to Fontenelle's
discussion of a universe of life containing in large and
small all possible varieties of life. Fontenelle's work
set a pattern, both on the contient and in England
for the writing of works on popular astronomy
intended for the layman. Various of these imitations
have been discussed by Gerald Dennis Meyer in The
Scientific Lady in England,
listed in the Bibliography
of this article. The closest approach to the Entretiens
was by Francesco Algarotti in Il Newtonianismo per
le dame
in 1737, in which the author clarified for ladies
the theories of light and color in Newton's Opticks.
Like Fontenelle Algarotti used the device of dialogue
between a noble lady and a philosopher. Fittingly
enough, this was translated into English by a virtuosa,
Elizabeth Carter, one of the most learned ladies in
England, who published in 1739 Sir Isaac Newton's
Philosophy Explain'd. For the Use of Ladies.

Partly under the influence of Fontenelle, but largely
because the English virtuosa was coming into her own,
editors found a new buying public for journals. John
Dunton's Athenian Mercury (1690-97) was intended
equally for men and women readers. John Tipper's
Ladies Diary (1704-1804) and Ambrose Philips' Free
(1718-21) were issued specifically for women
readers, who contributed letters to both. Some numbers
of the various periodicals edited or written by Addison
and Steele were expressly addressed to women. In
addition, Steele published in 1714 The Ladies' Library
in three volumes, each dedicated to a woman, and
pretending to have been written by a woman. Steele
himself posed only as a “Gentleman Usher,” leading
“the Fair into their Closets, to the perusal of this useful
as well as delightful Entertainment.” Some of the ex
cerpts of which the volumes were composed were on
religious, others on literary matters; a number were
devoted to teaching ladies philosophical and scientific
ideas. Again we find women instructed in astronomy
and microbiology. The latter proved particularly
interesting to women, many of whom by this time
possessed microscopes. Like publishers, glass-grinders
had found a new public (as advertisements show),
preparing for women exquisite glasses in special cases
which ladies could carry with them as gentlemen
carried snuff-boxes. Something of this sort Jonathan
Swift described in the Journal to Stella on November
15, 1710 when he offered to buy a microscope for
Stella: “'Tis not the great bulky ones nor the common
little ones, to impale a louse (saving your presence)
upon a needle's point; but of a more exact sort, and
clearer to the sight, with all its equipage in a little
trunk that you may carry in your pocket. Tell me, sirra,
shall I buy it or not for you?”

Popular science was growing apace in London in
the earlier seventeenth century, certainly as early as
1713 when Alexander Pope was enthralled by an
astronomical lecture given by William Whiston at
Button's coffeehouse. Ladies did not go to coffeehouses,
but when Whiston's lectures were removed to a larger
hall, they were free to attend them. Richard Steele
developed a lecture-hall, the Censorium, in which
lectures were given on science as on many other sub-
jects. In the advertising, the presence of women was
particularly stressed: “Which Room is conveniently
fitted for Ladies as well as Gentlemen.”

In the second quarter of the century appeared vari-
ous textbooks on science, particularly designed for
women, such as Charles Leadbetter's Astronomy: Or
the True System of the Planets Demonstrated
Joshua Charlton's The Ladies Astronomy and Chronol-
(1735). A few years later Charlton added A Com-
pleat System of Astronomy
(1742) “for the Benefit of
Young Students.” Astronomy, as one forgotten writer
phrased it, was coming to be “made clear to the
meanest capacity, even that of women and children.”
John Newbery, a writer and publisher, particularly of
children's books, published in the 1750's The Newto-
nian System of Philosophy Adapted to the Capacities
of Young Gentlemen and Ladies,
which went through
many editions. The little volume consisted of six lec-
tures supposed to have been delivered before the
Lilliputian Society by Tom Telescope, who seems to
some modern readers as obnoxious a prig as Elsie

Since eighteenth-century women had become an
important source of income to publishers of periodicals,
it is not surprising to find that later in the century two
women edited three of the most readable, all designed


primarily for women readers: Eliza Haywood edited
The Female Spectator (1744-46) and Epistles for the
(1749-50), and Charlotte Lennox brought out
The Lady's Museum a little later (1760-61). All three
included many scientific essays. The best of them, The
Female Spectator,
was widely read both in England and
in the colonies. This, says Gerald Meyer, was written
“by a scientific lady, about scientific ladies, and for
scientific ladies.” The Female Spectator, fortunate in
“an education more liberal than is ordinarily allowed
to persons of our sex,” was assisted in her editorial
labors by Mira, a “philosophress,” Euphrosine, whose
intellectual attainments surpassed even her admitted
beauty, and a nameless Widow of quality. With their
microscopes the ladies went out to the country, where
they made observations on caterpillars and snails which
they reported as “not ugly and insignificant as they
may seem to other people” but “peculiarly graceful
and majestic.” That did not surprise the Female Spec-
tator, since “nothing made by God is in itself contempti-
ble. Wonderful are all his works.” Their observations
led them to ponder on microscopic anatomy and to
raise the question whether dissection had proved any
fundamental distinction between the sexes, which in
turn led them to reflect upon the possibility of great
improvements in women's education. During their visit
to the country they spent their evenings, when weather
permitted, on visits to the roof of a friend who was
the proud possessor of a telescope. So popular was The
Female Spectator
that it was imitated and the charac-
ters borrowed by Eliza Haywood in the two-volume
Epistles for the Ladies.

We may conclude with an earlier portrait of a
virtuosa written by a woman, a play The Bassett-Table
by Mrs. Susannah Centlivre (1705), a most attractive
and amusing picture of what its author called “a Philo-
sophical Girl” and “the little She Philosopher.” Instead
of elegant trifles, her lover sends her specimens for
microscopical dissection. We first see Valeria running
across the stage in pursuit of “the finest Insect for
Dissection, a huge Flesh Fly, which Mr. Lovely sent
me just now, and opening the Box to try the Experi-
ment, away it flew.” Lady Reveller shrieks with horror
to learn that Valeria had dissected her dove “to see
whether it is true that doves lack gall.” Lady Reveller
sarcastically suggests that Valeria might found “a Col-
lege for the Study of Philosophy, where none but
Women should be admitted,” which Valeria would
gladly do if her fortune was under her control. The
“bedroom scene,” familiar in Restoration comedy, has
undergone a change. Valeria has transformed her
chamber into a laboratory, the center of which would
seem to be a laboratory table fitted with microscopes,
where fish are laid out for dissection. When her lover
enters, she bids him look through the glass “and see
how the Blood circulates in the Tail of this Fish.”
Paying no attention to his finding the circulation of
the blood much more attractive in Valeria's “fair
Neck,” she shows him, among other of her curiosities,
the “Lumbricus, Laetus, or Fossile, as Hippocrates calls
it, or vulgarly in English, the Tape-Worm.” There is
a nice variation, too, upon the “concealment,” popular
in Restoration comedy. When Valeria hears her father
approaching, she hides her lover in a tub, in which
she usually keeps fish, then warns her father not to
touch it because it contains “a Bear's young cub that
I have bought for Dissection.” There are few more
amusing rejoinders of a virtuosa than Valeria's when
her lover proposes that she elope with him: “What!
and leave my Microscopes?”

The term “virtuoso” has become much rarer in the
English language since the eighteenth century, al-
though it is occasionally used, particularly in the field
of music; as women's education has caught up with
men's, “virtuosa” has disappeared.


Mary Benson, Women in Eighteenth Century America:
A Study of Opinion and Social Usage
(New York, 1935).
Mrs. Susannah Centlivre, “The Bassett-Table” (1706), in The
Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre,
Vol. I (London,
1761). Sir Lionel Henry Cust, History of the Society of
comp. by Lionel Cust, ed. Sidney Colvin (London
and New York, 1914). John Evelyn, The Diary of John
ed. E. S. de Beer (Oxford, 1955). Walter E.
Houghton, Jr., “The English Virtuoso in the Seventeenth
Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 3 (1942), 51-75,
190-219. Gerald Dennis Meyer, The Scientific Lady in
England, 1650-1760
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1955).
Majorie Nicolson, Science and Imagination (Ithaca, 1956);
idem, Thomas Shadwell: The Virtuoso (Lincoln, 1966), with
David Rodes. Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England,
(Boston and New York, 1920). Louis Booker
Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England
(Chapel Hill, N.C., 1935). Thomas Wright, The Female
Virtuoso's. A Comedy: as it is acted at the Queen's theatre

(London, 1693).


[See also Atomism in the Seventeenth Century; Baconian-
; Biological Conceptions; Experimental Science; Newton
on Method;
Optics; Satire; Women.]