The Grand Tour

17/12/2018

In the 18th century, an increasing number of British travelled abroad for pleasure. Many undertook what became known as the Grand Tour, which included visiting the principal Italian cities, namely Rome, Florence, Naples and, especially, Venice.

Travelling to northern Italy was not without its problems. We have reports of rivers changing course, the bad influence of married women and their male companions, as well as of an ill-regulated police.

Venice was very attractive with its unique setting on the sea, great opera and theatre, and public spectacles – especially Carnival. It seems that there were always quite a few British tourists in Venice despite their harsh criticism of the city. Some described the pleasures of Carnival as ‘insipid diversions’, and the famous canals and gondolas as not worth the trouble to ‘return a second time to row through stinking canals in those coffin-like gondolas in the heat of that unwholesome climate.’

The cost of the Grand Tour was significant, and some tourists had to change plans or shorten their experience.

Travelling at the time meant spending a considerable amount of time on the road (or at sea). Many favoured travelling in France and Italy as German roads were thought very poor. Yet travelling in Italy was made difficult by natural barriers; the Apennines road would often be blocked by snow in the winter, while many roads would be flooded in spring and autumn.

Art was a very important aspect of the Grand Tour. British tourists would employ painters to paint their portraits in classical surroundings; others desired paintings of places they had visited. It is not surprising that virtually all of Canaletto’s paintings, which showcased the various important sites in Venice, were purchased by British tourists.

While the accounts and experiences of Grand Tourists may vary, the impact of the Tour was considerable in disseminating knowledge about European art and culture. The French Revolution put an end to the Grand Tour. The escalating dispute with Britain over Pacific trade and the destruction of the Ancien Régime discouraged further travel. Venice lost its independence in 1797, becoming first Austrian and then French in 1805. British visitors after these events would be conscious that they were seeing a different world to that toured by their pre-Revolutionary predecessors.

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