The Grand Tour

“A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”

Samuel Johnson (English poet, 1709-1784)

The Grand Tour, so named by Richard Lassels in 1670, was a voyage of discovery through Europe for the young and wealthy in the 18th century, which could last from several months to several years. It was a common experience for many British aristocrats, to improve their education and prepare them for their roles in politics and society on their return home.

The main focus of the tour was Italy, for the special appeal of its classical past, art and architecture, and to engage with its culture. The greatest attraction was the City of Rome, though other cities were visited en route, such as Turin, Venice, Pisa and Florence. Continuing south to Naples, taking in Mount Vesuvius and the newly-discovered archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their travels culminated at the ancient Greek temples of Paestum.

British Gentlemen in Rome by Katharine Read, c.1750. Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection [B1981.25.272] public domain

After crossing the English Channel to France by boat, they would make their way by horse-drawn carriage, sometimes on horseback, occasionally on foot. On more difficult terrain, when crossing the Alps into Italy, carriages were dismantled, baggage strapped to mules and passengers often carried in a chair by local ‘chair men’. The journey was long, uncomfortable, costly and dangerous, at risk of bad weather, bandits and wild animals.

The manner of passing Mount Cenis by George Keate, 1755. © The Trustees of the British Museum [1878,0209.304] CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Significant time, planning and expenditure were involved in any trip, so our tourists had to be wealthy individuals, often travelling with servants and large amounts of luggage. Contemporary advice to travellers was to take many essential items from home, including a bed, cutlery, and even their own carriage. Financial arrangements had to be put in place and the necessary permits obtained as, at that time, Italy comprised of separate states, each with their own border controls and currencies.

After the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, which ‘closed’ continental Europe for much of the period from 1789 to 1815, there was renewed interest in travelling to Europe in the early-19th century. The cost of living was cheaper in Italy than at home in England at this time. New methods of travel by steamship and rail made the tour more accessible to the middle classes, more travel guides to Italy were published, fuelling a rise in tourism for pleasure, with many more women, older travellers and families venturing overseas.