For nearly 300 years there was a tradition among the aristocracy of Europe to take a Grand Tour of prominent cities and their holdings of art in young adulthood.

As I’m developing an Art History Curriculum, I’ve been excited to share the shape and scope of what I am working on. Art is a wonderful visual exploration of history, culture, religion, and philosophy.  As I considered the ways I could share and get feed back, the idea of a Tour began to take shape.

Unlike the wealthy of the 1700’s, few of us have the time or resources to take off for 2-4 years of travel to absorb culture and view amazing works of art.  However, we can view reproductions with the click of a mouse. (Of course, if you have the opportunity to travel to view some of these marvels DO IT. Reproductions are a poor substitute for the originals)

So a Grand Tour of Art via this blog, and more formally through my Art Curriculum seemed in order.

Now that those explanatory comments are out of the way, let me give you a bit more information about the 300 year history of The Grand Tour.

Giovanni Paolo Panini , The Ruins of Rome

Starting in the mid 1600’s young European aristocrats started going on what is called The Grand Tour. Classically educated, these young people finished off their studies with a 2-4 year trip to see the culture, architecture, and art of France and Italy. (Depending on their wealth and station in life, more countries would be added to the itinerary.)

On a quick aside, older Europeans also began to take the tour to expand their connections and learning. Toward the end the tour had become much more inclusive.

Richard Lassels wrote a book that was published in 1670 entitled, Voyage to Italy, which contributed to the growing interest in Ancient Rome and it’s culture. English, American, German, and Scandanavian parents believed it would be beneficial for their adult children to take a few years to travel and learn before settling down to the responsibilities of adult life.

The purpose of the tour was exposure both to the cultural legacy of antiquity and the Renaissance, along with exposure to what was considered the fashionable society of the European continent. At the time most art was either in churches or private collections, so young people carried letters of introduction to the important people in each city that they hoped to visit. This would provide the only opportunity to view specific pieces of art or to hear the musical compositions of the best composers.

Of course, it would be naive to think this wasn’t also a trip about drinking, gaming, and engaging in a few flirtations. I’m sure the tour sounded like a brilliant adventure, however, we need to remember that travel was difficult, often dangerous, during this era. The Alps needed to be crossed, and the fear of highway robbers was disturbingly real. In fact, the development of railroads, facilitating easier travel was one of the factors that contributed to the decline of the Grand Tour.

While Paris, Rome, and Venice were considered mandatory for a Grand Tour, often Naples and Florence were also included. For those with the means the trip might be extended into Spain, Portugal, or the Netherlands. When archaeological excavations began in Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 1730’s and 40’s they were added onto itineraries.

Giovanni Paolo Pannini Roman Ruins with a Prophet, Pannini was a vedutisti, or ‘view painter’ who often painted the Roman ruins.

Many artists in Italy and France began to make their livings from producing artwork for these travelers. Although most travelers brought along sketchbooks and journals to record their journey, procuring more substantial works to ship home developed into a lucrative trade.

The Grand Tour has been given credit for many advances in both architecture and culture throughout Europe. Exposure to new ideas began to influence building projects, art, literature, and government. As the upper classes absorbed other cultures and embraced classicism, the cultures of their home countries began to change. Many of these ideas and influences spread across the Atlantic to inspire the culture of the developing identity of America.

As railroads changed the tourist trade and travel across Europe, and the French Revolution in 1789 made travel to Paris perilous, the Grand Tour came to an end. However, there is still the lingering remnants of the Grand Tour in our thinking today. When we travel abroad, many feel that they really must see Paris and Rome and all the treasures that remain.

Welcome to the virtual Grand Tour.