The Grand Tour - An Early Version of Today's "Gap Year"
Updated: Feb 16
As the cold dark months of January set in, our thoughts today often turn to travel to foreign places. For the well-to-do of England and America, this was true in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in the form of “The Grand Tour” – an opportunity for youth to broaden their horizons, experience other cultures, and perhaps indulge in activities that would be frowned on by their parents.
The Grand Tour
Beginning in the late sixteenth century, it became fashionable for young aristocrats to visit Paris, Venice, Florence, and above all Rome, as the culmination of their classical education. In the 18th century the so-called Grand Tour became a rite of passage for aristocratic young men and for a few American men as well.
Several colonial artists were not content to remain in America, traveling abroad to gain exposure to European art and to pursue an art education. Benjamin West began his career as a portrait painter in Philadelphia. In 1760 he left to make the Grand Tour of Europe, permanently settling in London three years later. There, West met with remarkable success: in 1772 he was named Historical Painter to King George III and in 1792 he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy. Understandably, West’s story became mythic in the Colonies and his London studio became a mecca of sorts for Colonial American artists.
The Americans fully adopted the program of The Grand Tour in the 1820s, endowing it with the character of a high-minded literary expedition. Prominent authors, among them Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, were followed to Europe by a procession of their faithful readers in search of all things venerable and exalted.
Travel was arduous and costly throughout the period, possible only for a privileged class—the same that produced gentleman scientists, authors, antiquaries, and patrons of the arts. The Grand Tour might supplement a college education, or in some cases, replace it entirely. The intention was to give a young gentleman the polish and education he necessary to fulfill his role in society. Led by a tutor, known colloquially as a “Bear Leader”, the young men traversed the Continent for a few months up to five years. During their travels, these students would become immersed in the Classical world of the Greeks and Romans, the artistic world of the Renaissance, and the atmosphere of royal courts and halls of diplomacy.
ORIGIN OF THE GRAND TOUR
Richard Lassels introduced the term “Grand Tour” in his 1670 book Voyage to Italy. Other guidebooks, tour guides, and the tourist industry developed and grew to meet the needs of the 20-something male travelers and their tutors across the European continent. The young tourists were wealthy and could afford the multiple years abroad. They carried letters of reference and introduction with them as they left from southern England.
A Tourist would not carry much money due to the risk of highway robbers, so travelers presented letters of credit from their London banks at the major cities of the Grand Tour. Many Tourists spent a great deal of money abroad and due to these expenditures outside of England, some English politicians were very much against the institution of the Grand Tour.
The typical Grand Tour usually began in Dover, England and crossed the English Channel to Ostend in Belgium, or to Calais or Le Havre in France. From there, usually accompanied by a tutor (known colloquially as a "bear-leader") and (if wealthy enough) a troop of servants, could rent or acquire a coach, or he could opt to make the trip by riverboat, travelling up the Seine to Paris. There the traveler might undertake lessons in French, dancing, fencing, and riding. The appeal of Paris lay in the sophisticated language and manners of French high society, including courtly behavior and fashion. This served to polish the young man's manners in preparation for a leadership position at home, often in government or diplomacy.
From Paris he would typically stopover in urban Switzerland, often in Geneva (the cradle of the Protestant Reformation) or Lausanne. From there the traveler would endure a difficult crossing over the Alps (such as at the Great St Bernard Pass), which required dismantling the carriage and larger luggage.
Once in Italy, the tourist would visit Turin (and sometimes Milan), then might spend a few months in Florence, where there was a considerable Anglo-Italian society available to Englishmen "of quality" and where the Tribuna of the Uffizi gallery brought together in one space the monuments of High Renaissance paintings and Roman sculpture. The traveler might also make side trips to Pisa, then move on to Padua, Bologna, and Venice. The British idea of Venice as the "locus of decadent Italianate allure" made it an epitome and cultural set piece of the Grand Tour.
From Venice the traveler went to Rome to study the ancient ruins and the masterpieces of painting, sculpture, and architecture of Rome's Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Some travelers also visited Naples to study music, and (after the mid-18th century) to appreciate the recently discovered archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii, and maybe an adventurous ascent of Mount Vesuvius.
From here the traveler traversed the Alps heading north through to the German-speaking parts of Europe. The traveler might stop first in Innsbruck before visiting Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, and Potsdam, with periods of study at the universities in Munich or Heidelberg. From there, travelers visited Holland and Flanders (with more gallery-going and art appreciation) before returning across the Channel to England.
While the goal of the Grand Tour was educational, travelers often spent a great deal of time on more frivolous pursuits such as extensive drinking, gambling, and intimate encounters. The journals and sketches that travelers were supposed to complete during the Tour were often left blank.
The French Revolution in 1789 marked the end of the Grand Tour until after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Afterwards, the “flavor” and exclusiveness of the Grand Tour changed due to railroads significantly reducing the cost, and difficulty of tourism across the continent. One example of these changes was more young women began taking the Grand Tour, not just the young wealthy men.
BENEFITS OF THE GRAND TOUR
Many historians consider the Grand Tour, credited with bringing about dramatic improvements in British art, science, architecture, and culture worthwhile as an institution. Its effect on American society tended to be more regional due to fewer American travelers who mostly came from fewer places in North America. Charlestonians, for instance, formed the single largest group of Americans to take the Grand Tour. Upon their return, society assumed that travelers were ready to begin the responsibilities of an individual of wealth and prominence. With its opportunities to study the ruins of ancient antiquity, as well as the works of the Old Masters, young painters and sculptors from America also took the Grand Tour if they could afford it.
Most wealthy travelers who took the Grand Tour typically arrived home in North America with crates of art, including antique artifacts, oil paintings, statuettes, medals, and coins. These souvenirs they displayed ostentatiously in cabinets, libraries, drawing rooms and gardens at their homes. In addition to recently produced paintings, drawings, and sculptures, they could sometimes buy collections of masterpieces sold by longstanding noble families reduced to dire poverty. For men and women of prominence, personal benefits of the Grand Tour, aside from the prestige of having made the trip, was the opportunity for networking with polite aristocratic society of the European continent, as well as exposure to European cultural and political ideas that served to advance social and political thought in North America.
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