The Grand Tour

The Grand Tour was a fashionable adventure for well-to-do northern Europeans in the 18th century. They undertook long uncomfortable journeys to visit the lands of classical antiquity, mainly Italy, to improve their minds and become educated in the values and arts of the ancient civilizations.

Tourists from Britain had to brave a Channel crossing before setting out across France. Most of the travellers were young, relatively wealthy, men. But women also undertook the journey. Once on the continent those who could afford it purchased private carriages to avoid the discomfort of public transport. However for those who had to take the mail coach, which was often badly sprung, the rough European roads and frequently bad accommodation, available at each staging post, left many travellers feeling weary and exploited.

Some tourists took ship at Marseilles or Nice and sailed to northern Italy. Others had to cross the Alpine passes in very difficult conditions, their carriages being dismantled and carried over in pieces. Once in Italy, English Grand Tourists, who were the most numerous, favoured visiting Florence before Rome, then going south to Naples before returning home via Venice.

A large community of foreign tourists grew up in Italy, focused on Rome. After the long journey most settled in for a lengthy stay of months or even years, and established a social routine in salons and coffee houses, at concerts and galleries. Many had their portraits painted as mementoes of their visit, choosing to pose in front of the classical monuments they had come to see. Pompeo Batoni was the most popular portrait painter among the Grand Tourists in Rome.

The more serious collectors of antiquities progressed to Naples to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius. Sir William Hamilton, antiquarian and British Ambassador to Naples, played a central role in the social scene there.

The lure of the antique was a key element of the Grand Tour, and visiting archaeological excavations in the hope of seeing a vase or sculpture emerge from a tomb was an important part of a tourist's experience. Visitors flocked in large parties to newly-discovered archaeological sites, often led by the excavator, where tables would be set up so that tourists could examine bronzes, vases and other finds before buying their souvenir.

Selling antiquities became a profitable business; some artists doubled as dealers and many specialists traded with collectors who, having purchased large collections of gems, statues and vases, would arrive home, after a tiring journey, with classical ‘booty' to grace the stately home.

The souvenirs of a Grand Tour inspired architects and decorators to construct buildings and interiors to enhance them, and manufacturers, such as Josiah Wedgwood, to copy them to satisfy a fashion-conscious market. Connoisseurs built galleries in their houses where their friends could come and study the antiquities from Italy. Visitors from Europe, notably Germany, who included England on their Grand Tour, would include them on an itinerary.








Tourists participating in the opening of an antique tomb in Italy, an illustration from d'Hancarvil

Tourists participating in the opening of an antique tomb in Italy, an illustration from d'Hancarvil