From around the middle of the 17th century, young, wealthy graduates of Oxford and Cambridge Universities began embarking on voyages around the Mediterranean, usually accompanied by a chaperone, such as a family member. The purpose of these expeditions was to discover the roots of European culture through art, literature, and archaeology. Later, it became fashionable for young women as well; a trip to Italy, with a spinster aunt as chaperone, was part of the upper-class woman’s education, as described in E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View.
Below: Still from the 1985 film adaptation of A Room with a View, directed by James Ivory
“Grand Tours”, as they became known, were both educational and social rites of passage among the nobility. They could last any length of time – from months to years and take their travelers through countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, Egypt and the Holy Lands — and most importantly, Italy. The primary value of the Grand Tour lay in its exposure to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to the aristocratic society of the European continent. In addition, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music. Giovanni Paolo Panini’s 1757 Ancient Rome (left) and Modern Rome (right) represent the sights most prized, including celebrated Greco-Roman statues and views of famous ruins, fountains, and churches.
With deep pockets and aristocratic connections, these privileged travelers would socialize their way across the Continent, perfecting their language skills, visiting ancient ruins and meeting with local artists and dealers. Since there were few museums anywhere in Europe before the end of the 18th century, Grand Tourists often saw paintings and sculptures by gaining admission to private collections, and many were eager to acquire examples of Greco-Roman and Italian art for their own collections. Grand Tourists would return with crates full of books, works of art, scientific instruments, and cultural artifacts – from snuff boxes and paperweights, to altars, fountains, and statuary – to be displayed in libraries, cabinets, gardens, drawing rooms, and galleries built for that purpose. Their souvenirs would serve as symbols of their owner’s worldliness and appreciation for ancient culture.
Below from Milord Antiques (left) a beautiful and rare pair of 19th century, Rosso Antico marble grand tour columns depicting the Roman Triumphal columns in Rome and (right) a rare Grand Tour patinated bronze and Rouge Royal marble inkwell from France, circa 1800.