Anyone familiar with the School’s history will know the name Ruspini as the Institutor. However, this post is less about what he did and more about the person discerned from a multitude of references. These often don’t agree leaving the researcher to try and find a pathway through. For example, the date of his birth is most frequently given as 1728, possibly drawn from his declared age when he married in 1767. Christine Hilliam states unequivocally that he was born on 21 February 1730 at Ca Bonoré, Romacolo, in the parish of Grumello de’ Zanchi ‘the eldest of the eight children of Giovanni Andrea Ruspini (1707–1769) and his wife, Bartolomea (1708–1788).’ https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/55276 He was baptised 4 days later ‘il 25 febbraio 1730, figlio di Andrea Ruspini’ https://www.parrocchiazogno.it/uploads/3/7/1/2/37124147/zogno_notizie_ago.-sett._2006.pdf The map shows the area as the last conurbation before the mountains, next stop Switzerland.
Of his life in Bergamo little appears to have been recorded. One aspect of his upbringing, however, may perhaps have had a bearing on his character. The Ruspinis were a patrician family and charitable giving was based on social obligation. In Italian ‘the words assistenza (poor relief) and carita (charity) are used interchangeably’ (Cavallo, Sandra, ‘Charity as Boundary Making’[i]). La famiglia Ruspini would have felt this obligation and it may have inculcated a desire in Bartholomew Ruspini to offer assistance wherever he could. We can’t know this to be the case but it seems a reasonable supposition. There are many examples of Ruspini’s desire to help others. Just one example in 1785 reads:
‘Mr Ruspini presents his compliments to Mr White hearing that Chevalier de Grignard de Fontenelle has to receive five pounds from the committee, the money is in the hands of Mr Niclas’.
At some point Ruspini attended the University in Bergamo and from there went to Paris, then the centre of excellence in dentistry. No dates are given but when Ruspini was the first trader summonsed under The Medicines Stamp Act (of 1783) for evading the tax imposed on druggists with no medical qualifications, he produced an accreditation from Bergamo University dated 1758 and the case was dropped. Interestingly, by 1758 he had been practising dentistry for some years. Make of that what you will.
Another point of disagreement is when he first arrived in England. The most frequent references give about 1758 but this does not always fit the facts. He was certainly advertising in English provincial newspapers by 1752 and there are references to previous dental success in Manchester.
This is from Caledonian Mercury 13 August 1753, Gavinlock’s Land being in Edinburgh.
None of this advertising necessarily implies residence but in 1757 he married Elizabeth Stiles and declares himself to be of the parish of St James, Westminster. They were married on 19th February at St Bartholomew the Great, the bride’s parish.
This image from https://alondoninheritance.com/london-churches/the-priory-church-of-st-bartholomew-the-great/ shows the church in 1739
The balance of probabilities is that he arrived in England early in the 1750s and set about establishing himself. It also implies societal connections as the English, notoriously xenophobic, appear to have accepted him and he built up a good practice in elevated circles in a short amount of time, ultimately becoming dentist to the King.
His societal rise could have been the result of who you know not what you know but it could also have been that Ruspini was liked. He appears to be what modern parlance terms ‘a people person’: he got on well with other people. In the Bath Chronicle of 1 Nov 1787 there is an article about a gentleman who cut his hand badly one evening.
‘Someone recalled Mr Ruspini was at Mr Phillott’s, sent for some of his styptic. Mr Ruspini with his usual good humour got out of bed & sent a bottle of his styptic which stopped bleeding & pain immediately’ Bath Chronicle 1709/1787 article:3 d
It is the phrase buried in the middle that is telling – ‘with his usual good humour’. The comment is not pertinent to the outcome. The report could merely have said ‘Mr Ruspini sent a bottle of his styptic’. The additional colour draws upon what was perhaps well known with the Chronicle readership.
He certainly was well known. He once instructed his brother to address letters to him as ‘Ruspini, London’, stating that, as he was often away from home, this would enable his correspondence to find him!
In another example of his prominence, the Morning Advertiser 29 August 1807, a report about a fraud by someone using Ruspini’s name, has the jeweller stating:
Fortunately for the jeweller, the ‘one of that name’ was prepared to testify that it had not come from him.
He was known for ‘his good looks, skills on the dance-floor, flamboyant character’ (Adrian Teal in a talk given in 2014) and Christine Hilliam, his biographer, wrote of him that his ‘delight in dancing and display made him an excellent masonic master of ceremonies’ (ODNB[ii]) He was described as the ‘soul of kindness, generosity, hospitality, conviviality, spontaneity, probity, and above all, charity.’ He entertained well and there are contemporaneous newspaper references of this. For example:
‘Mr Ruspini gave an elegant entertainment to the Neapolitan officers … and afterwards attended them to the play.’ (from The Times)
He was awarded the title of Chevalier in 1789 ‘for his professional skill and charitable works with foreigners and the poor’ (Paul Geissler[iii]) with his coat of arms drawing attention to his presiding values in the motto: Deo et amicis – to God and friends.
Whilst his main residence was in London, at 32 Pall Mall, Ruspini also frequented Bath and he was advertising his services and also his dentifrice (equiv. of toothpaste today), elixir (for easing toothache) and styptic for preventing haemorrhage in the Bath Chronicle for over 20 years. He also visited Ireland, possibly on professional grounds and at one point apologises to his clientele because he had been unavoidably delayed in Dublin.
It is not known when his first wife died and no burial record has yet been found. There is the intriguing possibility that this may have been the cause of his protracted stay in Dublin but this must remain as speculation. Certainly the death had occurred by 1767 as on 6 April of that year, he married Elizabeth Orde. She was 18 years of age and a minor and had to marry with her father’s permission. Her groom declared himself to be 40 (in reality 37) so significantly older than his bride. Although there is a danger here of reading too much between the lines, the fact that Ruspini was still regarded as a foreigner, that he had until recently been a Catholic, was a widower and so much older than Elizabeth does perhaps indicate how his personal charm overcame what could be regarded as insurmountable obstacles for someone else. The Orde family appeared to welcome their new son-in-law despite his societal ‘disadvantages’. Of course, that he moved in royal circles must also have given him quite a cachet!
It is impossible to say whether this was a love match. However, after nine children and 44 years of marriage, Ruspini refers to her as ‘my dear wife’ which may infer great affection between them. Sadly, not all of those nine children reached maturity. In fact, four of the Ruspini children died before their father but then he did live to a good age for the time. He was 83 when he died and two of his daughters also lived into their 80s so must have inherited the longevity gene.
The portrait by Nathaniel Horne (left) shows a family unit and was painted presumably about 1772 as it only shows the first three children.
The second image, held by the British Museum, is identified as Mrs Elizabeth Ruspini. Dated 1782, and presuming the child to be her own, the babe in arms must be Maria Sophia b.1781
We have already seen examples of his bonhomie but he also appears to be a man interested in many things. He read books in Italian, French and English: A Sentimental Journey through France & Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768), L’Ecole du Scandale by R B Sheridan (so an English play but translated), Rosmunda, by Giovanni Rucellai and Arcadia by Giacomo Sannazaro. Were it not for these brief subscription records, we would have no knowledge of his tastes and it is an indication of how we must use tiny snatches of information to try and recreate the man.
We also have his own writing in A Treatise of the Teeth published in 1768, in which were ‘made some useful observations that were not, at the time, particularly obvious, such as the adverse effects of sugar on teeth’ (Teal, 2014)
His first attempt to become a Freemason failed but, once accepted, he very quickly established himself and later founded a number of lodges. As for the School, Ruspini always maintained he was not the founder. The changes in charitable giving in the C18th meant that institutions no longer needed to be endowed but could be subscribed to by many with small amounts. Ruspini was eventually persuaded to accept the title Institutor, but he claimed that he had done nothing exceptional but merely been the prompt that enabled others to act. This is probably unduly modest but is another insight into his personality. He was a motivator without seeking glory for himself.
Ruspini died in 1813, the year that Grand Lodge was formed from the Antients and Moderns, something for which Ruspini had been a keen advocate.
Despite his moving in royal circles and amongst the ‘glitterati’, Ruspini’s estate was valued at only £450, largely attributed to his frequent entertaining and ‘his unerring devotion to numerous good causes’ (Teal).
In St James’, to honour the bicentenary of his death, there is now a memorial plaque.
But his greatest legacy, of course, remains the School.
[i] Cavallo, Sandra, ‘Charity as Boundary Making’, in Charity, Philanthropy and Reform from the 1690s to 1850, Hugh Cunningham & Joanna Innes, eds, Macmillan, London, 1998
[ii] ODNB is Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
[iii] Curator of the Menzies Campbell Dental Museum at the RCSEd