Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mission Possible: Italian Grand Tour

"Excuse me sir; which way is Leonardo's Statue of David?"
Your mission should you choose to accept it: Travel all around Europe and...eh, that's it. For two hundred years starting in 1660, the mission of young men of means was to tour the classic sites of the Old World and bring back what they learned, but sometimes they found a bit more than they bargained for.

My own European Grand Tour involved run-ins with the police of Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia and had absolutely nothing to do with Art or Culture whatsoever, but that's a story I'm going to keep until we meet sometime for a beer.

Of course, for most people, carousing around and being waited on hand and foot seems like a luxury and, well, it is. The ability to breeze around Europe implies lots of free time and money. The traditional Italian Grand Tour was taken by pretty much everyone of means; aristocrats, intellectuals, the curious and bon vivants alike. Stendhal seemed to speak for a generation of over-indulged rich kids when in 1817 he wrote of his impending voyage: “Outbursts of joy, heart pounding. How crazy I still am at twenty-six! I’m going to see beautiful Italy!” I probably wouldn't have burst into flames like Stendahl, but I do know what he means. Viva Italia!

Antique map of Urbino, home of the famous Palazzo Ducale with it's remarkable intarsia studiolo
Grand Tourists passed through the Alpine wonderland of South Tyrol on their way to Italy
Hippolyte Taine wrote that "Venice is the pearl of Italy. I have seen nothing equal to it."

Grand Tourists were often drawn to Italy by Romantic notions of languorous evenings sketching under crumbling ruins. Pampered toffs from all over Northern Europe wore pot-pourri bags under their armpits and foreswore bathing for months on end to endure such physical hardships as dozing under trees and endless social engagements in Venice or Florence. Poor Rupert must be exhausted.

But while on one level it was all a "larf" to the English, they also took it all very seriously. Almost like doing military service. Young men [I'm not sure if any women were included in this rite of passage] galloped off as cultural spies to bring back all they could glean from the Old World to use as valuable fodder for Empire, King and Country.

Thomas Cole, 'The Course of Empire - Desolation', 1836
British historian E.P. Thompson explains that the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th Century was a very serious matter: If the British were to maintain control of their Empire they must be seen to be at the forefront culturally, and that meant studying the classics at their source. According to Thompson, "ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power."

"The primary value of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent. In addition, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music. A grand tour could last from several months to several years" New York Times

Giuseppe Agostino Vasi illustrated St. Peter's Basilica in 1774

18th Century street scenes of Florence and Rome

Rome was, of course, the main destination. Sure there was always Florence, which according to Kenneth Clark, was a "city of hard heads, sharp wits, light feet, graceful movement", but it was still Rome with all it's bustling humanity, "a city that is like a huge compost heap of human hopes and ambitions, despoiled of its ornament, almost indecipherable, a wilderness of imperial splendor", that enticed countless young suitors from England's shores.

An Assassination at the Porto Del Popolo
No wonder it struck travelers from England as a bit of a shock when they arrived. Charles Dickens himself seems to have been not a little grossed out when he arrived "travel-stained and weary" at the Roman gate of Porta del Popolo in 1844 (his few lyrical descriptions of monuments notwithstanding). Perhaps he came like the rest; expecting to learn Empire from the best, only to find a dissipated soup of Old and New.

Dickens complained in Pictures from Italy that Rome is filled with "a multitude of chattering strangers" and "narrow streets choked by heaps of dunghill rubbish." At one point, he turned a corner and ran right into the Dead Cart, with the bodies of the poor on their way to an unofficious dumping outside the city walls.

He seemed underwhelmed by other tourist destinations too, saying of St.Peter's Basilica that he'd "been infinitely more affected in many English Cathedrals when the organ is playing." The Jewish Quarter he described with casual anti-semitism as a "miserable place reeking of bad odors, but where the people are industrious and money-getting." He even called Bernini's monuments "intolerable abortions"! Ouch.

Beautiful Albumen Silver print of a panorama of Rome, 1885
"Italy and in particular the State of the Church had come out of the Napoleonic wars very impoverished. Pope Gregory XVI, then aged 80, was afraid of novelties and considered the railway an invention of the Devil. According to the French poet Lamartine, Italy was the "Land of the Dead" and for the Austrian Chancellor Metternich it was "a mere geographic expression"."(source)

Dickens went to bed that night "with a very considerably quenched enthusiasm."

I traced the traditional Grand Tour route in red on this antique map of Europe.
The traditional Grand Tour route was to travel from London by boat through Holland and Germany down the Rhine to Mannheim. Then hop in a coach to Munich, before crossing the border to Austria. Typically they'd travel on horseback or by foot over the Brenner pass into Italy, and on to Venice. From Venice the itinerary was to trace a meandering path through Vicenza, Verona, Mantua, Reggio, Bologna, Florence, Siena and then onwards to Rome and Naples.

I don't know, it all sounds pretty good to me. I remember my days traveling around Europe with not a care in the World as being some of the best of my life. All these old prints are making me want to hit the road again. Who's with me?

The famous Bay of Naples, and Sorrento

 "How I long to return to Sorrento,
To the lonely sea and sky,
I left my vest and socks there,
I wonder if they're dry"
Spike Milligan

Albumen photo (circa 1820) of an incredibly animated street scene in Naples by Giacomo Brogi
Ruth Orkin's classic 'An American Girl in Italy' speaks volumes about being a stranger in a strange land.


  1. Nice post! I really adore travelng in Europe and always have. that last photo is a memory, a distant one at my age, but i recall at 17 being really shocked by that kind of attention, but it was really great to be able to go to so many places so cheaply and fearlessly, and to feel connected with a cultural past we seem to lack here in the US. It is so much more difficult and expensive to travel now as it was then, seems impossible for a kid to do such a thing anymore. , and then you get there and there is a fence around the forum and they want 15 euro to get in.

  2. An entertaining post! I remember reading up on Mark Twain's scathing evaluations of the treasures of Italy. Also Byron's comment on the Medici chapel in Florence: the chapel was comprised of 'fine frippery in great slabs of various expensive stones, to commemorate fifty rotten and forgotten carcases.'

  3. Great quote, Alison. Thanks!

  4. This is indeed a crime to go back home without some of the exotic and delicious Italian cuisine. Italian cuisine, has been the most popular around the world. Pasta, pizza or pasta, all ages, whether it is a favorite food.

    Rome Tourism

  5. This is one of your best posts Alan! "Cultural spies"...! and "travel -stained and weary"...great quotes. I would love to wander in Italy more often than I do, but, no longer a rite of passage; it is a financial commitment to even consider going!

  6. Yes, OK ... on the other hand .... I also remember an old Chinese Man who once said to me while smiling from his rosewood chair " I can see the Tao from my Living Room."

  7. You and me brother! Let's take a group on a painting expedition. I have a line on a good guest house in Orvieto.

  8. You and me brother! Let's take a group on a painting expedition. I have a line on a good guest house in Orvieto.

  9. Ha! nice to see Italy from your point of view.


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  11. I'm in the midst of planning a trip to Italy for next spring. My husband and I are looking at villas for rent in Tuscany. I've been reading about other peoples experiences while they were there so I can plan what I want to see and do while I'm there.
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