Boldly going

How come the Grand Tour was ‘grand’? The simplest explanation is that, writing in 1670, the travel writer and Catholic priest Richard Lassels called it ‘grand’ and, once in print, the description stuck. His book about the overland trek into Italy may be one of the earliest examples of cultural marketing, although five-times tour-leader Lassels was not around to benefit from its popularity – his Voyage to Italy was published two years after his death. And the tour was grand. Two thousand miles of pitted roads yielded unique experiences for young men from London, Shropshire, Dorset, Northumberland or wherever their families had bettered themselves in Britain and stacked their piles. The scions of gentry and aristocracy gazed upon what the pronouncements of assumed authorities told them were the highest achievements of civilised man and nature – at Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, the Pantheon in Rome, the struggling figures of the Laocoön and into the gaping vaporous maw of Vesuvius as the volcano’s pumice crust simmered warm beneath their well-shod feet. Nevertheless, the trip was as tough and rough in progress as it was grand in scope and intention. Admittedly, the patricians who made up the eighteenth-century’s gap-year tourists travelled with more apparel than their backpacker successors. They were received by right into the palatial homes of their social peers in Europe. But from the moment their entourage got moving in England – and that convoy included a guide (the ‘bear-leader’), servants, perhaps a fencing or dancing instructor and maybe a private launderer or two – the travelling milords were also managers, taking decisions on what to pay, where to stop and who to leave behind that affected not just themselves but their companions too. Why did they set off? For most it was because their parents sent them. Universities were regarded as no good so to learn the intellectual, social, ethical, and political realities of the continent, the sons were sent packing into what Lassels called ‘this great booke, the world’. From those exalted pages it was hoped they would acquire the personal attributes required by the true cosmopolitan gentleman. In Turin, for instance, they could expect training in the superior etiquette of the continental nobility. And among the most important of the remaining qualities in which their elders hoped they would be schooled was the attainment of a particularly slippery accomplishment, taste. The ages of these prowling undergraduates while first abroad generally corresponded with those cantering through higher education in our own time. Richard Boyle, the wealthy third Earl of Burlington, was aged 20 when he embarked on the first of his three tours in 1714; Edward Gibbon was 24 and had just completed six years’ service in the South Hampshire militia when he began his journey in 1763; and in that same year the seriously priapic James Boswell set out for Utrecht to start his tour, aged 23. Boswell was already a graduate from Edinburgh and he had just met Samuel Johnson in London. So it is probably correct to think of the Grand Tour as almost the default activity for heirs to wealthy British families in the eighteenth century. Although touring began in the century before and continued, conflict permitting, into Victoria’s reign until the call of Empire took over, it was quintessentially the affluent Georgian male’s right of passage to knowledge. The practice extended to some Americans, and European youth was not immune from having their late adolescent sights set on the south. But it was, to labour the point, a rough ride. Some travellers reckoned they could get by in Italy on £100 a year (in their money) although quite a few were packed off with a thousand, the equivalent of £100,000 today. So how rough was that? Bandits, for a start, were commonplace and assumed that this reservoir of liquid cash (or access to it) had to be bottled up somewhere in the unventilated carriages that were tossing their contents on rutted tracks in the summer heat in, for instance, the brigand country of the Roman Campania. If there was no cash or valuables, the tourist might pay in another form – with his life or, just as easily lost, his dignity. Often there was an Alp to scale on hands and knees: in the long decades before engineers bypassed the summits by burrowing through the mountains, the only route to the sunlit lowlands was up. The Grand Tour season (the word ‘tourist’ was not in common use until 1800) had no fixed dates but it was thought good to see Italy in warm weather. When covering 30 miles in a day was regarded as better than good going, Mont Blanc had to be tackled in zero temperatures (but when does it rise much above zero?) to get to the cultural hotspots beyond on schedule. By common consent, the entire enterprise – from the French ports to Florence, Rome and Naples, then back up the peninsula to cross the Apennines to Venice and, from there, head for home – entailed enduring the hardship of bad roads and often worse wayside inns. Overcharged, under-washed, curious about sex and frequently under the weather, Britain’s genteel young adults staggered through six months, or a year or three on the tour, or even four or five if they were really keen. For many of them, however, being enmeshed in a unique and costly experience left very little trace. The protracted customs searches at national borders could be a daily or twice-daily obstacle in politically pixelated Italy, and suppers of crows’ gizzards and mustard eaten in bug-infested roadside tavernas made more of an impression than Michelangelo on some British psyches. It is no surprise, then, that some preferred to turn back in France – or at Dover. Others carried on, and on. Those with the deepest pockets returned with packing cases of ancient monuments and contemporary masterpieces, stacks of architectural drawings and, above all, a taste for the Classicism with which they proceeded to pepper the English landscape. Regardless of whether they aspired (or were predestined) to a place in public life, many tourists acquired an aesthetic arsenal that was far more powerful in securing their cultural hegemony over the rest of British society than the military might of the emerging Empire. They also brought back the kind of dirty washing their personal laundrymen could not wash clean. Putting aside tales of tapeworms of prodigious length coaxed from young intestines by learned foreign surgeons, these men’s importation of illness may well have been as notable as the numerical strength of their donation to the country’s cultural patrimony – the portraits by Pompeo Batoni, Palladian villas, ‘improved’ vistas with temples and the Grecian urns of genuine and disputed origin. Malaria was endemic in certain parts of Italy (and remained so until the 1950s) and mosquitoes often found British flesh to bite. And flesh was the source of other maladies for those who, released from the constraints of home (if any existed), indulged Venetian courtesans (in a city historically well stocked with these distractions) as well as the healthy (and not so healthy) demands of nature. For the less amorous, there was drinking and gambling in the gaming houses where, one commentator noted, ‘noblemen keep the bank and fools lose their money’. For the remainder, there was art and, of course, music. If there was one location in which the English visitor’s knowledge was on a par with the locals, it was probably the opera house. The venue was devoted as much to being seen as it was to listening and, with little coaxing, the grand tourist could be relied upon to submit himself to both. The Grand Tour thrived in an era when life could be lived to the perilous maximum by the privileged few who could afford to expose themselves fully to the gamut of opportunities. With passing decades and centuries, the tour has not merely survived but adapted itself to become immensely more democratic and international. And for the legions of young people who undertake it – those who are both guided and misguided – the experience is no less direct, uncomfortable, sporadically dangerous, emotionally intense and (arguably, for a notable few) formative to the choices of later life. At least it is for those who travel in person in Europe, America, Africa and Asia. The competition, however, comes from the alternative reality that is virtual, sedentary, private and increasingly HD in only two dimensions. These modern grand tourists can visually girdle the globe in five minutes on YouTube, still preyed on by brigands but safe from importuning customs officials and disease. And, tragically, protected from the more pleasurable and the most educative experiences of the senses – from seeing in the round and from touching, smelling, tasting and hearing new worlds. The virtual is today’s idea of real and we accumulate more information, if not knowledge, from scanning a screen than aristocrats did three centuries ago by trudging across rocky landscapes with their cumbersome equipages. Are the new pioneers digital? And do they return from their explorations like many of their eighteenth-century predecessors – with their inheritances, assumptions, prejudices and lavish entitlements still intact?

© Martin Holman 2014