The Grand Tour – The 18th Century Aristocratic Rite of Passage

Canaletto - Piazza San Marco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [late 1720s] (Flickr) Canaletto - Piazza San Marco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [late 1720s] (Flickr)
Guardi Francesco - Idyllic marina.

Guardi Francesco – Idyllic marina. Sold for €1,196 via Einszwei Gallery (May 2023).

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It was the ultimate artistic gap year for nobility and the wealthy, as young aristocrats furthered their classical education with an extended continental excursion that would become known as The Grand Tour, which introduced the art and culture of France and Italy to the world and transformed architecture in Britain.

From the 17th- to early 19th-century, an extravagant trip through Europe to Italy was a an essential part of any self-respecting aristocrat’s artistic education, as the wealthiest toured the continent in search of classical antiquities, Renaissance-inspired art, and objets d’art. And, while The Grand Tour of the 18th century was in itself an indulgent excursion, it didn’t just benefit the privileged few who could afford it, as it also led to a revival in classical styles that would sweep through art and architecture in Britain, and later the United States.

Francesco Guardi – Two seascapes.

Francesco Guardi – Two seascapes. Sold for €53,000 via Dorotheum (May 2023).

This wasn’t a scholarly pilgrimage or a religious excursion, but instead The Grand Tour offered something far more enticing to young, wealthy aristocrats with an artistic leaning – a liberal education and the chance to buy crates full of books, works of art, scientific instruments, and cultural artifacts that were otherwise be unavailable in their own country. These would be displayed with great pride in libraries, cabinets, gardens, and galleries, as status symbols that carried a sense of gravitas and showcased their worldliness.

Usually accompanied by a knowledgeable guide or tutor known as a “cicerone”, the artistic-minded tourists would often start their journey in London, before exploring the great towns and cities of the Renaissance, as classical culture was the driving force behind the pilgrimage. Paris was often a compulsory destination along the route, while many also passed through Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany, and some even ventured as far as Spain, Greece, or Turkey – but the ultimate final destination was Italy.

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A plate of the ruins of the Acropolis from Mark Twain's grand tour, a five-month 20,000 mile excursion of Europe satirized in his Innocents Abroad (Wikimedia Commons)

A plate of the ruins of the Acropolis from Mark Twain’s grand tour, a five-month 20,000 mile excursion of Europe satirized in his Innocents Abroad (Wikimedia Commons).

As transportation became more accessible to the masses at the advent of the industrial revolution with rail and steamship travel becoming more affordable, early mass tourism took hold by the 1870s following the creation of Thomas Cook’s “Cook’s Tour” and the desire for classical culture began to wane and the tradition began to decline.  This didn’t necessarily mean the end of the Grand Tour, as new faces from the United States in the 19th century discovered the cultural wonders of Europe. This was due to the rise of industrialization as the Gilded Age nouveau riche followed in the well-healed footsteps of their European counterparts to absorb the sophistication of Europe. The pilgrimage became so well-known and established on both sides of the Atlantic that Mark Twain satirized the trip in Innocents Abroad.

These cultural wonders of Europe and beyond are today highly-prized and the artists that produced them have enjoyed a reputation that has endured over the following centuries, with many artists and travellers producing and purchasing era-defining items that remain greatly admired today.

Giovanni Antonio, aka “Canaletto”

Among the artists most sought after by the travelling Grand Tourists was Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. His views of his hometown of Venice were highly prized for their remarkable detail and this veduta, or ‘view painting’ that was popularised during the 17th century had Grand Tourists clamouring for his depictions of cityscapes and urban landmarks.

Canaletto’s idealised views of 18th century Venice have enjoyed an enduring appeal and were especially popular with Grand Tourists, who prized the heavily detailed scenes of the floating city’s landmarks and depictions of everyday Venetian life, from festive celebrations to bustling traffic on the Grand Canal.

After visiting the city, the future fourth Duke of Bedford, Lord John Russell, commissioned Canaletto to create 24 Venetian scenes in 1731. The artist not only proved his eye for detail and composition, but also his astute business sense, as he was known for his portable canvases that were a smaller size than the convention at the time, so they could be rolled up and shipped with ease.

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Inigo Jones

Queen's House in Greenwich, South East London (Wikimedia Commons)

Queen’s House in Greenwich, South East London (Wikimedia Commons).

The first significant British architect of note, Inigo Jones, was one of the earliest Grand Tourists to make the artistic pilgrimage. He would later become recognized for his use of Vitruvian rules of strength, utility, and beauty in his building.

For a year he toured Italy between 1613 and 1614 with his patron Thomas Howard, who had the impressive and quasi mythical title of the 14th Earl of Arundel. They followed a familiar route and visited Parma, Venice and Rome, but it was Naples and its San Paolo Maggiore church captured Jones’s heart; he described as “one of the best things that I have ever seen.”

Jones’s time in Italy had a huge impact on his architectural style, as well as the architecture of Britain as he introduced the classical architecture of Rome and the Italian Renaissance to his homeland. Two years after returning from Italy, he designed the Queen’s House in Greenwich for the wife of King James I, Queen Anne of Denmark. It employed ideas found in the architecture of Palladio and ancient Rome that made it the first classical building in England and Jones’s earliest-surviving work. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in London, as is Covent Garden square, also designed by Inigo Jones, and which became a model for future developments in the West End.

Pompeo Batoni

For many Grand Tourists there was only one artist of note they wanted to paint their portrait and that was Pompeo Batoni. He was one of the most esteemed artists of the age and anyone who was anyone sat for Batoni. It was an opportunity for the Grand Tourists of the 18th century to display the new found worldliness, clothes, and fineries they had acquired on their trip.

Batoni - Anton Von Maron.

Batoni – Anton Von Maron. Sold for $60,550 via Sotheby’s (January 2002).

The portraits were often a reflection of the men’s standing within society and having a portrait produced by Batoni was a significant status symbol. Sir Humphry Morice was one Grand Tourist who procured the ultimate memento of his travels in a fine portrait that included his dogs as he reclined in beautiful scenery. The portrait was reminiscent of a landscape Batoni had used in a painting of the Roman gods, Diana and Cupid.

Similarly, Sir Gregory Page-Turner’s portrait by Batoni provided an opportunity to show off freshly developed sophistication, as he proudly stands in his highly flamboyant gold-trimmed frock coat, in the pose that brings to mind the antiquarian statue of the Apollo Belvedere.

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Pannini, Maratti, and Wilson

There was a pecking order to sophistication when it came to acquiring paintings and antiquities on The Grand Tour, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prints of Roman views proved immensely popular with those who were on a comparative budget. His paintings of ancient structures like the Colosseum, as well as the Piazza del Popolo, which was the Baroque entryway to Rome during the Roman Empire.

Carlo Maratti, was another artist who benefited from the throng of Grand Tourists and he was first patronised by John Evelyn as early as 1645. The vedutisti, Giovanni Paolo Panini was similarly popular and was noted as one of the most celebrated and popular view painters in 18th century Rome.

And, the British artist Richard Wilson was invited to accompany the Earl of Dartmouth who painted views specific to his host’s itinerary and produced a number of drawings of Italian scenes while traveling in the mid-18th century.

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The Grand Legacy

Sir Christopher Wren’s monument to the Great Fire of London

Sir Christopher Wren’s monument to the Great Fire of London (Wikimedia Commons).

For those fortunate enough to have the means to make the expensive pilgrimage, The Grand Tour had a significant impact on those who toured Europe in search of indulgence and fine antiquities. It offered them the opportunity to explore the continent and fill their country homes with the finest of paintings, before the French Revolution in 1789 made travel treacherous. It wasn’t an entirely selfish pursuit, though. It led to a revival in classical styles, which influenced artists, designers, and architects who applied those ideas back in Britain, while the art that was brought back to Britain and the USA would also influence collections throughout the country, including at the National Gallery, which itself is an ode to the artistic pilgrimage.

The Grand Tour also had a transformative effect on British architecture that can still be seen today. Architecture was an aristocratic pursuit at the time, as the noble tourists applied what they saw in the villas of Palladio in the Veneto to their own country houses and gardens.

Its impact is most evident in London’s West End, where the neo-classical taste brought back from Italy in the 18th century is proudly displayed. From the Doric columns of the National Gallery designed by the Greek Revival architect William Wilkins in Trafalgar Square to Sir Christopher Wren’s monument to the Great Fire of London, parts of London remain an ode to the Grand Tourists of the 18th century and well worth a pilgrimage of your own.

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Sources: NationalGallery.org.uk | MetMuseum.org | HouseandGarden.co.uk | Royal Museums Greenwich