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The Birth of the Grand Tour

 Incisione con due personaggi in cammino

The journey to Italy prior to the Grand Tour

The journey to Italy has roots stretching deep into the past. Ever since the Middle Ages, a period characterized by a great wanderlust, the roads of Italy have been trodden by many pilgrims, as well as by merchants, artists, preachers and scholars, along with the bandits, ne’er-do-wells and adventurers whose arena has always been the open road. The journey to Rome in particular, even when it lacked its predominantly penitential character, remained a fundamental stage in many people’s lives. These included a new kind of traveler, who saw it as a worldly occasion and, over the course of the 15th century, turned it into a secular and erudite journey. New destinations soon emerged alongside Rome: Milan, Venice, Florence, Bologna. Other components came to be emphasized, those connected with culture, intellectual curiosity and psychology. But travelers, whether absorbed in prayer books or ledgers, often barely took any notice of their surroundings. And, if they did so, recorded them in a pragmatic way (an account book, for example, that tells us about the goods available and the prices charged for them) or a partial one (a collection of mirabilia, for instance, which medieval man was wont to see all around him): the figures supplied by travelers were not accompanied by an equivalent amount of information (even without taking the literary merits of their reports into account). So the remote origins of the journey to Italy did not always produce the quality of writing that was to emerge in the 17th and 18th centuries, and this is the first noteworthy element which leads us to reflect on a phenomenon which had, during that period of history, the proportions of a true vogue.

A new idea of journey

That was in fact a moment, in the history of the collective European mentality, when the journey acquired a value of its own, stemming from its intrinsic properties. Independently of the satisfaction of this or that need, it assumed the character of an end in itself, in the name of a curiosity that grew ever bolder, in the name of knowledge and understanding on the one hand and the pleasure of escape, of pure diversion on the other. This new idea began to take hold in Europe toward the end of the 16th century and was embodied in the vogue for the ‘journey to Italy’. Even though it had been practiced for many centuries, this did not take on the form of an institution until the end of the following century, when it became the preferred stage on a ‘tour’ that young members of the European aristocracy, artists and scholars started to undertake with regularity. The ‘tour’ quickly became a fashion and was assigned a label by which it was recognized internationally: the Grand Tour.

The meaning of the term Grand Tour

By this name was meant the educational journey undertaken by the scions of aristocratic families all over Europe, with the aim of forming the young gentlemen through the salutary exercise of experiencing the different. The term tour, which superseded that of “journey” or “voyage,” makes it clear that the vogue was specifically for a “round trip” – making a particularly long and wide-ranging journey without a break, which started and finished in the same place – that might also pass through other countries of the continent but which had Italy as its primary and indispensable goal. No longer the Italy of the medieval itineraria, to be sure, but the Italy of the hundred cities and towns whose dense urban fabric became the favorite destination of a new pilgrimage.


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