It’s the Summer Solstice! That means lots of people officially have one thing on their minds— vacation. Time off. Holidays in the sun full of romantic adventures. Before I get all Mary-Kate and Ashley movie on you, let me clarify that I’m here today to discuss rest and relaxation of a loftier, more erudite sort.
During the seventeenth century, much scientific and philosophical discussion bubbled up concerning what man learns from external cues and his five senses, and notions of traveling for the sake of curiosity and self-improvement became more readily embraced. Among the upper crust of European society and those of humbler origins favoured by wealthy patrons, it became commonplace for young men to embark on a pilgrimage of sorts across the continent, the Grand Tour. Flurries of landed gentry and precocious artists were blown across Europe’s cultural hives from the mid-1600s until the 1840s, when the taste for neoclassicism went stale and steam-powered travel made excursions abroad accessible to rabble without titles. In its heyday, the Grand Tour was undertaken according to a customary itinerary, a progress lasting months or years which solidified into an educational rite of passage for those who would be in the know.
Accompanied by trusty tutors and guides, called Ciceroni or bear leaders, the young gallants and artists were exposed to all the necessary doses of Greco-Roman classicism, the achievements of the High Renaissance, masterful technique, new kinds of light in the sky, rare music and the glitzy French-speaking haute société of western Europe. The quick lionization of the ultimate gap year is easily understood within the context of an international cultural hegemony which greatly helped keep power and plentitude safely where those who had them wanted them. However, the Grand Tour was also a genuine educative tool. It is a widely documented phenomenon; the proud tradition, privileged knowledge and lewd interludes of it all are widely recorded in graphic personal journals and lordly oil paintings alike, as it was nearly obligatory to report back and gloat to those poor unfortunates stuck at home.
Most British travelers of means and good breeding began their trek off the pale coast at Dover and hopped the Channel as they fancied, either anchoring in Ostend in the Netherlands or heading to the north of France. There they would scout out their seasoned bear leaders and perhaps a troop of manservants for the road. Many then carried on by boat, pleasure cruising up the Rhine river to Basel or, more likely, the Seine to risqué old Paris. In the City of Light, Grand Tourists would feast their hungry eyes on the treasures guarded in the Louvre, enroll in riding, dancing and fencing lessons and uncover the secrets of locals known abroad for their high style and elaborate rules of etiquette. Then it was off to Switzerland, where alpinism became all the rage among bold young bucks during the nineteenth century. After staying a spell in Geneva or Lausanne, and laboriously crossing the treacherous Saint Bernard Pass, mountain-ravaged souls found succor in the earthy sophistication of northern Italy, bouncing from Turin to Milan and eventually settling for some months in Florence.
There, having gorged on Medici-bankrolled artworks and architecture galore, after spoon-feeding on all the marble statuary and Renaissance masterpieces in tempera garrisoned at the Uffizi Gallery, there was a profusion of charming and modish Anglo-Italian society for an Englishman of quality to get twisted up in. Bear leaders then hauled their charges and their retinues through Pisa, Padua, Bologna, badda bing, badda boom, on to the pungent canals and lascivious palazzos of Venice, the city of holy San Marco, great colourists like Tintoretto and many circus-like establishments where one could be acquainted with Titian’s undone Venus for a night.
Carnival masks in hand, tour-takers ventured south to Rome, where a young scholar could slough away wine-soaked memories of Venetian debauchery in the stony tepidariums of ancient bathhouses, absorb lessons on perspective and form from Early Christian, Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces and frolic amid the crumbling pillars and arcades of emperors’ pipe dreams. The musically inclined might then take a side trip to Naples, where the truly daring also rendered homage to Mount Vesuvius’ combustible majesty. Archeological digs during the latter bit of the eighteenth century turned up the remnants of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and these remarkably preserved sites, complete with unsullied frescoes, arenas and ash-conserved mummies alike, drew droves of bookish wayfarers in turn. Those with yacht-sized pockets might now acquire a sleek vessel and take to the blue Mediterranean, sailing for Sicily and its Greek ruins, hitting Malta and perhaps Greece itself, where Logic and Beauty were born and the primordial waters of civilization still swill about the rocks.
In heaving wooden carriages crafted of collapsible parts, travelers crossed the snow-crested Alps once more for the last leg of their Grand Tour, dipping their court-shoed toes into the German-speaking lands of Innsbruck, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin and Potsdam. The truly studious paid visits to the lauded universities at Munich and Heidelberg, while those already stuffed to the brim with academia proceeded directly to Holland and Flanders, strongholds of Protestant thought and illusionistic painting of a very different flavour. Well-rounded, well-stocked with a gentleman’s head of knowledge and collections of costly souvenirs, nursing a quelled sense of wanderlust, our prodigal drifters took to the Channel once more, bound for muddy England and her well-furnished drawing rooms built for boasting in.
So you’re not an average Lord Byron, with moneybags serving as stout crutches for your club feet, but I wager it’d be worthwhile to follow the trail markers etched in time by the voyages of such men. Why not save up and head out on the Grand Tour yourself one day? Perchance without the gaggle of personal cooks, livery-clad coachmen and duteous valets. Travel economy-class, hole up in hostels, grab a secondhand guidebook, bring back postcards, not a Canaletto. Travel cheaply, but travel wisely, with aspirations to enrich your mind and find yourself within the edifying material remains, the chipped Doric columns and yellowing pages, of man’s shared cultural journey. Just skip the Hard Rock Café and leave the selfie-stick at home.
Source: Christopher Hibbert, The Grand Tour