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The Periods of the Grand Tour

The 'golden age' of travel

Temporary swings of fortune did not undermine a preeminence that remained solid throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and that became unassailable in the latter in particular, a “golden age” of travel which did not come to a complete end until the eve of the 19th century, when the Napoleonic storm broke over the continent. Building on its foundations in the 17th century, therefore, the “golden age” did nothing but expand the phenomenon out of all proportion, so that between 1760 and 1780 a chorus of complaints could be heard from foreigners besieged by their fellow countrymen not just in the major cities but even in the minor ones (including Lucca and Siena). There was also an enormous growth in the host of attendants, always commensurate with the traveler’s rank and means: physicians, cooks, valets, painters, musicians and couriers, who often, in their turn, became practiced compilers of travel accounts. Women also began to make their appearance in the itinerant community, precursors of the great female travelers of the Romantic era.

The 1740s

An important watershed in the history of the journey to Italy came in the 1740s, when the extraordinary archeological discoveries at Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748) added new coordinates to Italian itineraries. Up until then it had been possible to recognize the origin of travelers, and it was said, quite rightly, that the English could be distinguished from the French by the fact that the former preferred Venice, while the latter had favored Rome ever since the time of Rabelais. Around the middle of the 18th century, however, there occurred what has been called the “internationalization” of the Grand Tour (De Seta, 1982), which unified the itineraries (from north to south) hinging around the epicenter constituted by the two cities. This “internationalization” represented the material aspect of a supranational concept of Europe, a typically 18th-century idea and a mark of the cosmopolitan culture that was emerging. At the same time the duration of the journey began to shorten, a sign of a reduction in the financial means available and in the willingness to devote time to it.

How the idea of the tour was transformed

After the Congress of Vienna, in fact, new myths grew up around Romantic Italy and the tour, with the modernization of society, took on new tempos and embodied new values. The cultural aspirations diminished, overshadowed by those of pure diversion. The discoveries made on the journey became less and less personal and more and more attuned with the information provided by the ‘guidebook’, the new instrument available to the traveler, who no longer made his own arrangements but was led by the new figure of the tour organizer. The latter, thanks to the brilliant intuition of Thomas Cook and with the help of the new railroad system, took charge of the educational possibilities of the journey, determining them on the base of economic rather than cultural needs. This marked the beginning of the still flourishing phenomenon of organized and mass tourism. The philosophy of travel that this implied, aimed at a broader and more homogeneous sector of the public, was more accessible and cruder than the mindful and high-flown one of previous centuries, when Grand Tourists used to travel the roads of Italy in well-equipped carriages.


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