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The Debate over the Grand Tour: Supporters and Opponents

Birth of the idea in England

The birth of the idea of the journey as an instrument of education, as a means of intellectual exchange and intercourse that, through comparison, would stimulate and promote the traveler's critical awareness, had its origin in England and spread from there. English culture's fondness for the empirical approach led to a preference for firsthand experience instead of the dogmatism of knowledge of which the medieval scholastic tradition had been a champion.

The precepts for a good journey

Francis Bacon's precepts provided the philosophical basis for the educational journey undertaken by the English, ensuring its chronological antecedence and earning it the unconditional support of the Crown. Bacon's essay entitled Of Travel (1625) already comprises the full range of motivations and rules that were later – in a surprising publishing success – to be listed in detail, extended, repeated and reorganized in a production of handbooks that is enough in itself to give an idea of the scale of the phenomenon. As the initiator of these manuals for the practical organization of journeys, in which the duration (fixed at three years at the outset), the traveler's material and cultural needs, the stages of the journey and many other instructions would be given in detail, Bacon set a trend. He suggested that the young man about to head off on the Grand Tour should have some knowledge of the language of the country he was going to, and that he should take with him written guides and a tutor. He recommended that he keep a diary, that he not stay too long in any one city or town and that, during his stay, he should change his lodging several times so as to accustom himself to “ removes.” Finally, he should be equipped with letters of introduction in order to make his entrance into polite society.

The other side of the coin

These were the precepts for a useful journey. But the opponents of the Tour looked at the other side of the coin: Italy, after all, was also the home of Machiavelli, i.e. of cynical attitudes and the justification of any means to obtain the end; the home of Catholicism, in which the pomp displayed by the Counter Reformation might dazzle the non-Catholic (on top of the risk, for those who did not enjoy the protection of diplomatic papers, of getting caught in the net of the Inquisition); and a place where the looseness of conduct was dangerous. Nor was this all. Many pages of the accounts told of a real country very different from the mythical one idealized by travelers. And yet these shadows were not the source of the strong current of opposition to a practice that also gave rise, as is the case with all fashions, to many objections. In fact, the altered situation in the peninsula, its diminished (but never quite destroyed) prestige as a beacon of human and cultural development for the young ruling class, would not be sufficient to invalidate the principle that nurtured the phenomenon of the European tour: the fact that it permitted comparison and, in itself, generated understanding.

But it was on this “philosophical” side that the most pernicious criticisms focused, the ones that really acted as a counterweight in public opinion, although without having much effect on the number of travelers. The dissident voice, collecting the scattered clues that could be garnered from the accounts into a dossier, made it its ideological weapon. Not all the tutors, in fact, were trustworthy. Indeed many squandered the money provided for the educational journey, skimping on the “education” and permitting themselves luxuries of every kind. Not all young men, moreover, were so keen on carrying out their artistic and cultural apprenticeship that they would not allow themselves to be seduced by the sirens of the theater, the promiscuity of the taverns, the lavish and disorderly life of Rome, in short by “adventure.” How could knowledge and learning be instilled under such unfavorable conditions? And, above all, opponents argued, what gain could be made that could not be obtained at home, given that the indolent customs of other nations would only lead judgment astray and cloud understanding? The question was still open in 1781 if John Moore could write in his A View of Society and Manners in Italy: « It is held that by means of an early education abroad, all the ridiculous English prejudices might be avoided. This may be so: but who will guarantee us that other prejudices, perhaps equally ridiculous and much more harmful, will not take root?».

The position of England

Although the 'roots' of the Grand Tour were English, it was from England that the greatest objections came. The seesaw predominance of the pros and cons made the journey to Italy, for the whole of the 16th century at least, a prospect that was at once alluring and feared. A disputed reputation, that of the Grand Tour , but one that was to overcome all resistance in the following century, and spread, on a massive scale, to the other countries of Europe as well.

The position of France

There were pioneers of the journey to Italy in 16th-century France as well, for many of the country's best artists chose to go there for their studies. But here too the phenomenon did not really take off until the next century, changing its character in the process: from a private initiative to a state program, as is demonstrated by the foundation of the Académie de France in Rome in 1666, a solemn act of consecration of Italy as a fount from which to drink, a magnet and home for artists from all over Europe. A curious fate for the journey, this, to end up promoting its exact opposite, the need to stay in one place.

Overcoming of the controversy in the 'golden age'

The “golden age” of travel took the heat out of the debate. It continued only in the form of the experience of the individual traveler or as a controversy prompted by contingent factors, such as the enormous success achieved by the printers of travel books. In England above all, this publishing phenomenon prompted many to resort to the antidote of irony and parody.


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