What Did the Eighteenth Century Travellers
Gain From the Grand Tour?

                                                              

 

Peter Engholm

Monash University, 2000

 

 

 

ABSTRACT:

Many written accounts exists from predominantly British travellers that embarked on the so called ‘Grand Tour’ in the end of the eighteenth century - a period considered to be the ‘Golden age’ of the British ‘Grand Tour’. The aim of this short paper is to discuss some gains a ‘typical’ ‘Grand Tourist’ could expect to receive as a result of his travelling, keeping in mind that the experiences and gains were always individual and varied from one traveller to another

KEYWORDS:

Grand Tour, Boswell, travelling, 18th Century Europe

 

FULL TEXT:

Many written accounts exists from predominantly British travellers that embarked on the so called ‘Grand Tour’ in the end of the eighteenth century, particularly between 1764 and 1796 - a period considered to be the ‘Golden age’ of the British ‘Grand Tour’[1]. These accounts give us some insight into what the travellers experienced and thought about different places, practices and customs throughout their journeys. It is not always easy, though, to follow the ‘thinking travellers’ train of thought as he reflects upon his adventures’[2], and it is not easy to reach to a conclusion to what the travelers gained from their journeys since the written journals varies greatly, both in contents, as well as the writers’ underlying purposes with their stories.

Yet, the aim of this short paper is to discuss some gains a ‘typical’ ‘Grand Tourist’ could expect to receive as a result of his travelling, keeping in mind that the experiences and gains were always individual and varied from one traveller to another. To be able to assess some of these gains, it is necessary to first come to a definition of a ‘typical’ ‘Grand Tourist’, and look at the motives and purposes behind his decision to embark on a Grand Tour.

The ‘typical’ ‘Grand Tourist’ was a British young upper-class man who often went on a trip for educational purposes - to experience and study foreign cultures, and maybe also incorporate aspects of them into his own society[3]. These men were encouraged to travel to ‘increase their knowledge of literature and the arts, of ancient and modern history, of commerce and diplomacy; to widen their experience of music and the theatre, local customs and folklore; and to become acquainted with cities and countries quite different from their own’[4]. Many British men were already studying abroad at universities and colleges, and foreign travel was seen as the culmination of their education - equipping them socially and providing them with useful knowledge and attainments[5]. One writer defines them as ‘high-spirit Grand Tourists who went to southern lands in order to discover themselves or at least explore their sensibilities in relation to some ‘country of heart’’[6].

For many of these young men, foreign travel was also a convenient way of removing oneself from public view - a private, but temporary, exile[7]. To embark on such a journey was also a way for a young man to become a ‘real’ or ‘better’ man - a man of ‘quality’[8]. In a period of peace all over Europe, the military could not offer this service, and hence, the idea of continental travel was often seen as a way to complete and complement one’s education, polishing one’s manners and perhaps offering some additional status and valuable contacts.

Not everyone believed that the ‘Grand Tourist’ would gain this new insight and become a ‘better’ man. Adam Smith once wrote that although it was generally believed that young people returned home much improved by their travels, his opinion was that most of the privileged youth returned home more ‘conceited, unprincipled and dissipated’ than before[9]. In 1795, John Moore also criticized these travelers by writing the following:

The wiser tourist would perceive how odious those travelers make themselves, who laugh at the religion, ridicule the customs and insult the police of the countries through which they pass, and who never fail to insinuate to the inhabitants that they are slaves and bigots[10].

Whether or not this criticism is justified, it cannot be denied that for most travelers the Grand Tour was the adventure of their lifetime. Consider this statement by Rev. John Nixon in 1750:

On joyous situation… you see two of the happiest fellows in life having left every care behind them in their native land, in high spirits, breathing the most delicious air in the world, in a fine summer-morning, rolling along on a broad smooth causeway considerably elevated above the plain, as it were on purpose to show us the adjacent country to the greatest advantage[11].

Italy, and particularly Rome, was often the goal of the journey - the reason being that Italy was seen as the source of everything that was important in their culture, both ancient and modern. It was the home of the Roman civilization and of the great Renaissance artists[12]. Italy was seen as ‘the female goddess’, being the birthplace of Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Vivaldi, Galileo, and many others[13]. In Rome were the greatest number of impressive ancient sites and an outstanding collection of classical sculptures, which was displayed in the Museo Pio-Clementino of 1771. The size and setting of St. Peter almost always impressed the Protestant visitor, and the paintings of Michelangelo and Raphael in the Vatican were of utmost significance to visiting artists[14].

Several professional artists met their patrons in Italy and after returning home many of them rose to important positions both professional and social, for example Sir Joshua Reynolds, who probably not would have become the President of the Royal Academy had he not visited Italy. It is true that many of them were educated in ‘right’ schools and colleges, but the Grand Tour, with the close personal contacts and friendships it established abroad, was a further qualification[15].

It was also in Rome that most Grand Tourists sat for their portrait. For some two hundred British sitters to Pompeo Batoni, before his death in 1787, it was a privilege to sit for a portrait incorporating a clear reference to the antiquity of Rome. This became an integral part of many travellers’ Grand Tour[16].

Traditions, festivals and ceremonies formed another important part of the experiences in Italy and other visiting countries. They made a significant contribution to the knowledge of the country and the people. As noted by a traveler in 1766: ‘The public festivals and entertainments of a nation, where everything is done in accordance with established tradition, may help us to understand it, and must be regarded as an essential part of its history’[17].

Despite all these experiences, it is argued that the majority of Grand Tourists appeared to have returned home with confused memories and relief, strengthened in the conviction that their country was superior in every way[18]. The Grand Tour often became a ‘comparison’ between the host country and the countries the travelers visited, and the general view was that the British society was more free and less constrained by social distinctions and the privileges of rank[19].

Some travelers did not like at all what they saw, for example Tobias Smollett, who made harsh comments about France and the French people: ‘Vanity, indeed, predominates among all ranks, to such a degree, that they are the greatest egoists in the world…’[20].

As to whether Smollett and his party were exceptionally unfortunate in their road-faring experiences must be left an open question. In one of his later letters, he summarised his Continental experience like this:

‘Inns: cold, damp, dark, dismal, dirty; landlords: equally disobliging and rapacious; servants: awkward, sluttish, and slothful; postillions: lazy, lounging, greedy, and impertinent[21].

It is also argued that few countries in Europe changed in some material way as a result of what had been seen and thought in Italy and other countries during the Grand Tours. The British were not the only nation to reconsider the architecture of their houses and public buildings - classical inspired buildings also sprang up in countries such as Holland, Germany, Sweden, and Russia[22].

For most travelers, however, the Grand Tour was a positive experience. James Boswell, for example, is one of the most famous Grand Tourists and his journeys are well documented. What influenced him most were not his several visits to the infamous Rosseau and Voltaire, but his visit to the island of Corsica, where he aroused strong sympathy for the Corsicans against their Genoese oppressors backed by a threat of French intervention[23]. Many years after the completion of his Grand Tour, Boswell remarked that it was wonderful what Corsica had done for him: ‘I had got upon a rock in Corsica, and jumped into the middle of life’. The events in Corsica were a turning-point in his life, and when he returned to England, he returned as ‘a man who had acquired a knowledge of the world and men that reduced heroes to more normal proportions, so that Rosseau had diminished in his eyes’[24]. Yet if Corsica was the central factor in his new attitude towards himself and others, the whole journey had contributed to that change.

Hence, Boswell felt himself a better man after his journey. So did William Beckford, and Byron, who declared that ‘all young men should be sent abroad to learn about life and manners’[25]. In the end, the gains were mainly individual, although the upper societies became more aware of the current achievements of Continental society and culture[26]. One may argue that the Grand Tours helped strengthen nationalistic attitudes among the travelers, and spread stereotypes, which would have later consequences for Europe as a unity, but that is beyond this topic.

 

Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.

 

REFERENCES:

P. Anderson, Over the Alps, (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1969).

I. Bignamini, “The Grand Tour: Open Issues”, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 31-35.

J. Black, The British abroad: The Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992).

F. Brady & F. A. Pottle (eds.), Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France 1765-1766, (New York, 1955).

J. Ingamells, “Discovering Italy: British Travellers in the Eighteenth Century“, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 21-30.

P. Lamers, “Festivals and Folklore”, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 188-189.

A. Maczak, Travel in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).

C. de Seta, “Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century“, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 13-19.

T. Smollett, “Travels Through France And Italy”, http://www.cmerk.com/mmmm1.htm.

L. Withey, Grand Tours and Cooks’ Tours: A History of Leisure Travel, 1750-1915, (New York: 1997).

A. Wilton, “Memories of Italy“, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century,(London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 271-273.

FOOTNOTES:



[1] I. Bignamini, “The Grand Tour: Open Issues”, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 33.

[2] A. Maczak, Travel in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 277.

[3] P. Lamers, “Festivals and Folklore”, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, 188-189.

[4] C. de Seta, “Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century“, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 14.

[5] J. Black, The British abroad: The Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 289.

[6] P. Anderson, Over the Alps, (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1969), 21.

[7] Maczak, Travel in Early Modern Europe, 271.

[8] Ibid., 258.

[9] Anderson, Over the Alps, 28.

[10] Ibid.

[11] J. Black, The British abroad: The Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 288.

[12] L. Withey, Grand Tours and Cooks’ Tours: A History of Leisure Travel, 1750-1915, (New York: 1997), 7.

[13] C. de Seta, “Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century“, 15.

[14] J. Ingamells, “Discovering Italy: British Travellers in the Eighteenth Century“, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 23.

[15] I. Bignamini, “The Grand Tour: Open Issues”, 31.

[16] J. Ingamells, “Discovering Italy: British Travellers in the Eighteenth Century“, 23. cf. http://europeanpaintings.com/exhibits/xviiicent/batonpor.htm.

[17] P. Lamers, “Festivals and Folklore“, 189.

[18] J. Ingamells, “Discovering Italy: British Travellers in the Eighteenth Century“, 29.

[19] J. Black, The British abroad: The Grand Tour in the eighteenth century,234.

[20] T. Smollett, “Travels Through France And Italy”, http://www.cmerk.com/mmmm1.htm.

[21] T. Smollett, “Travels Through France And Italy”.

[22] A. Wilton, “Memories of Italy“, in A. Wilton & Ilaria Bignamini (eds.), Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Tate Gallery, 1996), 271.

[23] F. Brady & F. A. Pottle (eds.), Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France 1765-1766, (New York, 1955), 154-155.

[24] Ibid., 219-220.

[25] Anderson, Over the Alps, 21.

[26] J. Black, The British abroad: The Grand Tour in the eighteenth century,310.