Centuries before the Internet shrank the world, wealthy young men of Europe full of book learning, embarked on a tour of the Continent—especially France and Italy—to complete their classical education. Learning, it was argued, was the fruit of experience, and beginning in the mid-17th century, these young aristocratic men traveled to see the art and architecture, speak and read the languages, and hear the music their university studies had introduced. Grand Tourists also gathered experience in fashion and courtly behavior, considered essential for future leaders. The pilgrimage had an appropriately striking name: The Grand Tour.
A Grand Tourist’s journey lasted many months to several years and typically began in London. His itinerary certainly included Paris, and some travelers journeyed to the Netherlands or Germany, even fewer to Greece and Turkey. Italy, however, was the primary destination, and Rome, the crown jewel of the trip. The city’s ancient ruins were a must-see for every traveler, and because few museums existed in Europe before the end of the 18th century, Grand Tourists often admired artworks in private collectors’ homes.
Not only did aristocrats believe that their young men should see these works to develop their minds and cultural sensibilities, but the Grand Tourists also used their travels to acquire goods: paintings, intaglios, antiquities, coins, medals, books, statuary, and other cultural mementos to display back home. These souvenirs were often replicas of the ancient works the travelers were visiting. What’s more, the patronage of these young men supported many artists, some of whom even joined an aristocrat’s tour for the sake of capturing vistas of his choosing. Other artists, such as Italian portraitist Pompeo Batoni, became famous for their work on behalf of Grand Tourists. (In Rome, for example, Batoni painted images of travelers surrounded by classical props.)
The tradition lasted about 300 years, during which Americans and even wealthy young women (with chaperones, of course) undertook the famous journey. The advent of rail travel in the early 19th century changed the Grand Tour, making it easier, more affordable, and safer, and therefore less exclusive. And of course, even today, the tradition lives on, as travelers continue to seek out antiquities, artworks, architecture and, ultimately, the stories behind them.
While the Grand Tour was indulgent, it also reminds 21st-century denizens—some of whom might be tempted to think that whatever happened before their lifetimes is of minimal importance—that each of us inherits a cultural legacy that’s beautiful and relevant. And if we can’t travel through the lands of our cultural roots, maybe we can follow in the Grand Tour’s philosophical roots and explore the stories that shaped our forbearers’ lives.
Get your own Grand Tour memento from The HighBoy’s exclusive collection.
1. Italian Grand Tour Paperweight | 2. 19th Century Greco-Roman Style Marble Head
3. Italian Grand Tour White Marble Bust of Napoleon
4. Greek Grand Tour Vase | 5. Grand Tour Bronze Figure of Young Man
6. Grand Tour Terracotta Figure of Leda and the Swan
7. Grand Tour Bronze and Marble Tazza | 8. Grand Tour Bronze Statue of Dionysus