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The Places of the Grand Tour

The love of Italy

It was Richard Lassels, in his An Italian Voyage, who first used the expression Grand Tour, a neologism that from that moment – the year 1670 – on would be adopted universally. The term became so popular that another expression would be coined on its model, the Petit Tour, used to refer to a shortened version from which several legs were omitted. These might be, depending on the case, France, the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria), Switzerland, occasionally Flanders and the culmination and purpose of the whole journey, Italy.

While in the 16th century the statistics assigned the greatest number of months of residence to France (eighteen, as opposed to nine/ten in Italy), in the 17th Italy took over the top position, retaining it from then on. The visit to the peninsula was in fact the true reason for the journey undertaken by Grand Tourists.

It was the myth of Italy to which the early travelers went to pay their respects: the myth of an open-air museum where the exorbitant quantity of works of art, the liveliness of its politics, the glorious and sunny climate which people from other parts of the continent who often lived under leaden skies found so extraordinary, the vestiges of the most authoritative past in the world with its wealth of archeological sites, the still vibrant legacy of the Renaissance, preserved in the libraries and kept alive in the monuments of art and the extraordinary musical inspiration that had long made Italian opera the epitome of the genre were all powerful and unimpeachable attractions.

The real Italy was perhaps no longer so splendid, but it had been once, and it still bore the traces.

Divergence between the ideal Italy and the real Italy

There were, as is only logical, moments of decline in the centrality of the peninsula among European destinations. These were linked above all to the recognition of the dissonance between the Italy of myth and the real one. The visible conditions of the country (impoverished rural areas, faded cities, lifeless ports, listless and dusty cultural activity) began to dim the esteem in which its political institutions were held (at a time when much more advanced models were being followed in Europe, and especially in England) and above all tarnished the image of the Church of Rome following the severe condemnations of the Reformation. And yet, however constant the expression of astonishment and indignation at the precarious conditions of the peninsula may have been in the accounts of travelers, the real state of affairs did not unduly reduce the influx of travelers or leave them disillusioned.


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