Grand Tour

Pantheon in Stourhead
Pantheon in Stourhead
Pantheon in Rome
Pantheon in Rome

The English upper classes regarded the Grand Tour as an indispensable part of a young man's education. So much so, that a prolonged tour was often substituted for a college education rather than being a mere addendum to a college degree. Since the Grand Tour was intended to be more edifying than amusing, a young English sojourner traveled with a tutor to supervise his lessons and conduct. The group might also be augmented by a Bear Leader, a retired military man to act as protector and 'tamer' of wild young men. The Tour usually lasted from one to five years.

When packing for a trip that could take years, Grand Tour guide books recommended a medicine chest, a necessaire containing cutlery and toiletry items, firearms for holding off bandits, and bedbug proof leather sheets. Generally an entire carriage was devoted to baggage.

The Grand Tour particularly emphasized France and Italy, which were much admired, but also nearly always included highly civilized Vienna. Amsterdam in Holland and Brussels in Belgium were also frequently included in the Grand Tour. Whether to enter Italy by ship and risk encountering pirates or by sedan chair through the Alps where "there was scarce room for a cloven foot," as one terrified tourist pointed out, was problematic. Only the most intrepid went on into Germany where roads were bad, inns were often infested with bedbugs, and thieves often attacked travelers. The border customs inspectors of the many German states added to the general misery of German travel by being officious and meddlesome.

Once undertaken, the crossing from Dover to Calais could take anywhere from 3 to 12 hours depending on the wind and waves. A traveler might have to wait in dover for a week or more for the wind to be in a direction that favored crossing the English Channel. In 1772, Dr. Burney, the music historian, spent nine days waiting for good weather. From Calais, it was on to Paris, by carriage, where an English traveler rented rooms in the fashionable quarter of St. Germain and hired servants. Then off to the tailor for a suit in the French style, silk trimmed with lace. He spent his days on lessons in fencing, riding, and French conversation. The young man learned how to carry himself as a man of fashion and wit. Finally, he was ready to enter high society and court life at Versailles. English tourists overwhelmed and awed by the splendors of Versailles, still stoutly maintained, as Tobias Smollet did "that the King of England is better, I mean more comfortably, lodged." While there was much to be admired in Paris like: scents, patterned waistcoats, and fine undergarments; the English felt contempt for the foppish French aristocrats and great ladies who were painted and roughed so heavily that their countenances, in the opinion of one tourist, "seem to have no resemblance to human faces." Once Parisian circles had been moved in, other French cities such as Dijon, Lyons, and Marseilles were duly visited.

There were no coach roads through the Alps until the end of the eighteenth century, so, to cross the Alps, the entire coach had to be disassembled and packed over the mountains on mule back. The Mount Cenis pass on the route from Lyons to Turin was the most traveled route into Italy during the heyday of the Grand Tour. The tourists were carried over the mountains by Swiss chairmen in a device like a chair without legs mounted on poles, a sort of open sedan chair. A Miss Wilmot, who was one of the rare women to make the Grand Tour, reported that the Swiss chair carriers were happy men who burst into song as they approached the Alpine villages. Crossing the Alps generally took 8 days. Sometimes tourists had the thrill of sledding down a steep slope, as Thomas Pelham did in 1777. Once in Turin, the carriage was reassembled and the tourist began the slow trip around Italy.

If the Grand Tour traveler chose to sail to Italy, he would first travel to the south of France. The English were enchanted by the warm weather, sunshine, and the fields of lavender, calling Provence almost Paradise. To sail across the Gulf of Genoa, a tourist engaged a fishing boat in Marseilles or Nice and had the coach once again hoisted onto a boat. Then they embarked for Genoa. The Gulf of Genoa was known for its sudden squalls. The specter of storm and shipwreck or attack by pirates hovered over this route. However, it could be much quicker than the long arduous trek through the mountains, and Alpine passes were closed in the winter. The tourist might cross safely but find himself quite seasick as William Theed, the painter did. He complained in a letter to a friend that he was seasick during all the crossing and for sometime afterward.

Safely in Italy, after the hazardous crossing from France: Turin, Genoa, Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples offered much to admire in the way of Roman ruins, Renaissance architecture, paintings, sculpture, and scenery. In Florence, the student might study at the Uffiz Gallery. A room called the Tribuna housed the best paintings and Greek sculptures. The museum official, Bianchi, was highly admired by connoisseurs until he robbed the gallery and set it on fire. The Tribuna became so famous a part of the Grand Tour that the Royal Family had this English mecca painted by Johann Zoffany.

The time to visit Venice was winter Carnival season, when as many as 30,000 tourists flocked to the city of canals. Amid the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark's Square, the visitor mingled with cosmopolitan crowds from all over Europe and the Near East. Even the most jaded sightseer found the masquerades, regattas, comedies, operas, and street parties dazzling. Venice was notorious for its courtesans. It was clearly understood that they were a chief attraction for young Englishmen doing the Grand Tour.

Europe catered to the wealthy English tourists even as wealthy American tourists are capitalized on today. When asked to revive a certain neglected Holy Week ceremony one Pope replied, "Why not? It will amuse the English." The ideal time to visit Rome was in time to see the Easter pageantry. The guidebooks of the day recommended spending three hours a day for six weeks on seeing the many sights of Rome. Tourists gazed at the Coliseum, the Pantheon , the Spanish Steps, and works by Michael Angelo to name a few.

At Naples, there was the beautiful bay and across the Bay of Naples lay the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The cities were stumbled on in connection with well digging in 1748 and 1710 respectively. Pompeii was known as Civita until its name was uncovered in 1763. Naturally, every Englishman wanted to try his hand digging at the sites. Often he was led to a spot where his guide had thoughtfully reburied a coin or marble fragment, which might be discovered in the first spade or two of excavation. The English were financing the organized excavations at the buried cities. Visits by Englishmen making the Grand Tour and Thomas Hope's drawings of Classical furnishings made Pompeian styles so popular that they sparked a neoclassical revival. In 1790, an English writer declared, "Everything we now use is made to imitation of those models lately discovered in Italy." Mount Vesuvius erupted several times in the Eighteenth Century providing the perfect accompaniment to a tour of the buried cities.

Young men traveling in Italy generally also visited the ruins of the Greek city Paestrum. Tourists eagerly flocked to the site after its discovery in 1752, since travel in Greece was difficult under the current Islamic government. Poets and artists including Goethe, Shelley, Canova, and Piranesi visited and wrote about or drew the ruins. Englishmen found the Doric simplicity of the Greecian ruins stately.

Vienna, Austria offered concerts, beautiful palaces, and Europe's largest zoo. But Paget's tutor had trouble getting him to go out at all, after attending only one ball. Young Henry Paget complained of being bored to death by the strict Austrian etiquette.

Brought Home

British patrons and designers sought to re-create the 'landscapes of antiquity'. Their visions of how this landscape might have appeared were formed from reading Latin poetry and from places visited on the Grand Tour, and from the landscape paintings of Claude, Poussin and others. William Kent met Lord Burlington, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, in the course of a Grand Tour and they later designed Chiswick House. Charles Hamilton went to Italy after leaving Oxford and later designed Painshill. Henry Hoare was in Italy when he inherited Stourhead. All these men admired the Augustan age and, in the course of making gardens that reflected this taste, the predominant geometry of garden plans became increasingly serpentine.

The very word tourist derives from the Grand Tour. A whole economy of travel, book publishing, and art grew up around the practice. This experience common to most of the landed elite and many artists would stamp an idealized classicism on English architecture and gardens. Italy was also brought home in a very concrete way in the many paintings of the Italy, called vedute, purchased by travelers and classical remains that were shipped home.

For a wonderful video recounting the Grand Tour try Brian Sewell's Grand Tour of Italy.


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