Beginning in the late sixteenth century, it became fashionable for young aristocrats, artists and intellectuals to visit Venice, Florence, Naples and, above all, Rome, as the culmination of their classical education. Thus was born the idea of the Grand Tour, a practice which introduced Englishmen, Germans, Frenchs, Scandinavians, and later also Americans to the art and culture of Italy for the next 300 years.
The Italian peninsula attracted the Grand Tourist with its cultural treasures, fascinating landscapes and cities and the promise of warm climes and luminescent atmosphere. This especially included the artistic patrimony of cities such as Venice and Florence, the archeological sites surrounding Naples and its bay and most importantly Rome herself, the latter being the undisputed center of Western Civilization and the favorite destination for such a cultural journey. Rome was unsurpassed for its classical heritage, still visible in its picturesque ruins throughout the city and in museums and private collections. Contemporary examples of Rome’s artistic rebirth served no less as an important attraction as practicing artists and architects made Rome the most important cosmopolitan center in Europe and the virtual artistic capital of Europe.
A Grand Tour could last from a minimun of 6 months up to 3 years. It was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor. The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance; as E. P. Thompson stated, “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 Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend weeks in smaller cities and up to several months in the main key cities. The main means of transportation was the carriage and a retinue of servants would attend to the traveler’s needs, the number depending on status and economic resources. This artistic pilgrimage reached its height during the 18th century which with some justification may be called the Age of the Grand Tour.
Unexcelled works of art and architecture by Renaissance and Baroque masters propelled the traveler as much as the classical past. Religious and secular architecture of great renown such as St. Peter’s and the Spanish Steps were among the important attractions that would entice the traveler. There were at least two important aspects of the tour insofar as they addressed the visual arts. The first was to see first hand the great paintings, sculpture and architecture of the places visited. The second was to visit places—both landscape and cityscape–that gave birth to those treasures as if by experiencing Rome first hand one could better savor those works of art, divine its genius loci and commune with the great artists that created them. As Joshua Reynolds observed in his Seven Discourses (1778), “Raphael did not have the benefit of studying in an Academy; but all of Rome, and the works of Michelangelo in particular, were for him an Academy.”
Given the enthusiasm for all things Italian, it was quite natural that visitors should want to capture their experiences in a more permanent form, much as a big game hunter might want to return with a trophy of some wild animal. In order to preserve their impressions the well to do Grand Tourist would likely purchase one of the diminishing supply of original works of art by the masters (a desire which gave rise to a flourishing market in frauds). Barring this, they would commission contemporary artists to paint original works along set genres such as historical paintings, portraiture, landscape and city views or vedute. The most famous Roman portraitist of the century was Pompeo Batoni 1708-1787) who would typically surround his subject with appropriate props and city landscape which lent an air of authenticity.
Others were commissioned to record those places of genius that gave birth to such treasures. A growing taste and appreciation for the veduta on canvas or more affordable as a single engraving or as a complete volume of such printed matter became one of the prizes that could be easily carried home. Like their compatriots in Venice, Canaletto (1697-1768), Francesco Guardi 1712-1793) and Bernardo Bellotto (1720-1780), Roman artists of the late 17th and early 18th century tapped into this thriving market. Their realistic depictions of places in the city and its social life has left us with one of the most accurate and evocative pictures of the Eternal City ever created.
“There is certainly no place in the world where a man may travel with greater Pleasure and Advantage than in Italy. One finds something more particular in the face of the country and more astonishing in the works of nature, than can be met with any other part of Europe. It is the great school of Music and Painting, and contains in it all the noblest Productions of Statuary and Architecture, both Ancient and Modern ….There is scarce any part of the Nation that is not Famous in History, nor so much as a Mountain or River that has not been the scene of some extraordinary Action.”
Joseph Addison, 1745