Shall I ever forget the sensations I experienced upon slowly descending the hills, and crossing the bridge over the Tiber; when I entered an avenue between terraces and ornamented gates of villas, which leads to the Porto del Popolo, and beheld the square, the domes, the obelisk, the long perspective of streets and palaces opening beyond, all glowing with the vivid red of sunset? – William Beckford describing his Grand Tour in a letter, 1780
When Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight returned from his grand tour, he brought back as one of his souvenirs the solemn portrait that we have come to associate with his image. Since the 17th century, it was de rigeur for young English gentleman of privileged background to embark on a 2-4 year trip to see the historic and cultural places of Europe with their tutors.
Ideally, a young man sent on the Grand Tour would return home not just with souvenir portraits painted against a backdrop of Roman monuments, but with new maturity, improved taste, an understanding of foreign cultures, and a fresh appreciation of the benefits of being born British. – Norton Anthology of English Literature
There was a marked difference between a gentleman who had gone on such a life-altering excursion and one who hadn’t, a certain polish, if you will, and knowledge of the world that distinguished such a person. Armed with letters of introduction and letters of credit, the young gentleman would set off by boat and cross the channel, landing in Calais. This crossing was fraught with danger. Sea sickness was not uncommon, and ships were known to capsize during heavy storms. Once the pair landed on the continent, they would visit a number of popular Grand Tour sites: Paris, Rome, the Netherlands, Germany, Venice, Florence and Naples were popular destinations.
The Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend weeks in smaller cities and up to several months in the three key cities. Paris was definitely the most popular city as French was the most common second language of the British elite, the roads to Paris were excellent, and Paris was a most impressive city to the English…Other locations included as part of some Grand Tours included Spain and Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic. However, these other spots lacked the interest and historical appeal of Paris and Italy and had substandard roads that made travel much more difficult so they remained off most itineraries. Click here to take an interactive Grand Tour online.
Such a protracted trip came with a hefty price: during the 18th century, a grand tour of three years could cost as much as 5,000 pounds to visit these “museums of history, civility, and culture.”* Many young men, such as Edward Austen-Knight, returned with portraits painted of themselves; others returned with entire collections, influencing the styles at home. It was no coincidence that Neo-classicism and the Palladian ideal were popularized during this era. “In high society, milord anglais on this Grand Tour pillaged the Continent for old Masters (genuine, fake or retouched), took an artist or two in tow, and built and embellished at every opportunity.” (Porter, p 243).
Grand Tours did not always turn out for the best. Some young men, rather than taking the opportunity to acquire as much cultural knowledge and polish as possible, gambled away fortunes, formed mesalliances, or contracted venereal disease during their sexual exploits. Tutors were also known as bearleaders, a title that hints at the unruly behavior of their charges. (Norton Anthology) Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his natural son, who was on the Grand Tour, sought to remind him of how a gentleman ought to conduct himself at all times. After their tour was over, a number of young men in the latter half of the 18th century, continued to copy the tastes and styles of continental society. Marked by their dress and behavior, these dandies were known as macaronis (see image).
The Grand Tour was momentarily suspended during the Napoleonic wars, but was quickly revived once the conflict was over. Young ladies, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, would also embark on these journeys with their companions, however these tours were not expected to round out her education or develop her character in the same manner as a man’s. Princess Caroline, who died in childbirth in 1817, had gone on a Grand Tour after the Napoleonic Wars ended, and was romantically involved with an Italian courtier, Bartolomeo Pergami. During the Edwardian era, it was common for a young lady to travel abroad on a relatively short trip with a companion. Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View (click here to read my review of the 2007 movie) was one such girl. Jo March from Little Women had hoped to accompany her Aunt Carol to Europe, but it was her sister Amy who was invited along instead.
- The grand tour
- The Grand Tour Journals of Edward
- Italy on the Grand Tour: The Getty Museum
- Pyranees Mountain Views: 1823, Marianne Colston
- The Grand Tour: Adventures in Reading
- The Grand Tour
- Grand Tour Georgian Index
- The Grand Tour
- Porter, Roy. English Society in the 18th Century, Penguin Books, London, 1991.