Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Grand Tour

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Beginning in the late sixteenth century, it became fashionable for young aristocrats to visit Paris, Venice, Florence, and above all Rome, as the culmination of their classical education. Thus was born the idea of the Grand Tour, a practice which introduced Englishmen, Germans, Scandinavians, and also Americans to the art and culture of France and Italy for the next 300 years. Travel was arduous and costly throughout the period, possible only for a privileged class—the same that produced gentleman scientists, authors, antiquaries, and patrons of the arts.


The Grand Tour gave concrete form to Northern Europeans' ideas about the Greco-Roman world and helped foster Neoclassical ideals.

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The Objectives of the Grand Tour
The Grand Tourist was typically a young man with a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature as well as some leisure time, some means, and some interest in art. The German traveler Johann Joachim Winckelmann pioneered the field of art history with his comprehensive study of Greek and Roman sculpture; he was portrayed by his friend Anton Raphael Mengs at the beginning of his long residence in Rome (48.141). Most Grand Tourists, however, stayed for briefer periods and set out with less scholarly intentions, accompanied by a teacher or guardian, and expected to return home with souvenirs of their travels as well as an understanding of art and architecture formed by exposure to great masterpieces.


London was a frequent starting point for Grand Tourists, and Paris a compulsory destination; many traveled to the Netherlands, some to Switzerland and Germany, and a very few adventurers to Spain, Greece, or Turkey. The essential place to visit, however, was Italy. The British traveler Charles Thompson speaks for many Grand Tourists when in 1744 he describes himself as "being impatiently desirous of viewing a country so famous in history, which once gave laws to the world; which is at present the greatest school of music and painting, contains the noblest productions of statuary and architecture, and abounds with cabinets of rarities, and collections of all kinds of antiquities." Within Italy, the great focus was Rome, whose ancient ruins and more recent achievements were shown to every Grand Tourist. Panini's Ancient Rome (52.63.1) and Modern Rome (52.63.2) represent the sights most prized, including celebrated Greco-Roman statues and views of famous ruins, fountains, and churches. Since there were few museums anywhere in Europe before the close of the eighteenth 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. In England, where architecture was increasingly seen as an aristocratic pursuit, noblemen often applied what they learned from the villas of Palladio in the Veneto and the evocative ruins of Rome to their own country houses and gardens.


The Grand Tour and the Arts
Many artists benefited from the patronage of Grand Tourists eager to procure mementos of their travels. Pompeo Batoni painted portraits of aristocrats in Rome surrounded by classical staffage (03.37.1), and many travelers bought (Giovanni Battista Piranesi's prints of Roman views, including ancient structures like the Colosseum (59.570.426), and more recent monuments like the Piazza del Popolo (37.45.3.49), the dazzling Baroque entryway to Rome. Some Grand Tourists invited artists from home to accompany them throughout their travels, making views specific to their own itineraries; the British artist Richard Wilson, for example, made drawings of Italian places while traveling with the earl of Dartmouth in the mid-eighteenth century (1972.118.294).


Classical taste and an interest in exotic customs shaped travelers' itineraries as well as their reactions. Gothic buildings, not much esteemed before the late eighteenth century, were seldom cause for long excursions, while monuments of Greco-Roman antiquity, the Italian Renaissance, and the classical Baroque tradition received praise and admiration. Jean Rigaud’s views of Paris were well suited to the interests of Grand Tourists, displaying, for example, the architectural grandeur of the Louvre, still a royal palace, and the bustle of life along the Seine (53.600.1191, 53.600.1175). Canaletto's views of Venice (1973.634, 1988.162) were much prized, and other works appealed to Northern travelers’ interest in exceptional fêtes and customs: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's Burial of Punchinello (1975.1.473), for instance, is peopled with characters from the Venetian carnival, and a print by Francesco Piranesi and Louis-Jean Desprez depicts the Girandola, a spectacular fireworks display held at the Castel Sant'Angelo (69.510).


The Grand Tour and Neoclassical Taste
The Grand Tour gave concrete form to Northern Europeans' ideas about the Greco-Roman world and helped foster Neoclassical ideals. The most ambitious tourists visited excavations at such sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Tivoli, and purchased antiquities to decorate their homes. The third duke of Beaufort brought from Rome the third-century work named the Badminton Sarcophagus (55.11.5) after the house where he proudly installed it in Gloucestershire. The dining rooms of Robert Adam's interiors typically incorporated classical statuary; the nine lifesized figures set in niches in the Lansdowne dining room (32.12) were among the many antiquities acquired by the second earl of Shelburne, whose collecting activities accelerated after 1771, when he visited Italy and met Gavin Hamilton, a noted antiquary and one of the first dealers to take an interest in Attic ceramics, then known as "Etruscan vases." Early entrepreneurs recognized opportunities created by the culture of the Grand Tour: when the second duchess of Portland obtained a Roman cameo glass vase in a much-publicized sale, Josiah Wedgwood profited from the manufacture of jasper reproductions (94.4.172).

Jean Sorabella
Independent Scholar