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The Protagonists of the Grand Tour

Young men

The Grand Tourists were a broad and varied bunch. The majority of them, however, were young men, aged between sixteen and twenty-two. It was they, often accompanied by older and more experienced tutors , who traveled the roads of Italy.

The heirs of aristocratic families were soon joined by the less titled but often more prosperous sons of the rising middle class, who aimed to ennoble their cultural qualifications through the educational journey. The predominance of youth is explained by the character of learning and edification attributed to the experience of the Tour . The link with the idea of instruction was so close that in England the Crown was prepared to finance travelers, on receipt of a properly justified request, with the sum of 300 pounds a year.

Men of culture

Yet the journey of 'instruction' did not remain the prerogative of European youth alone. Seen more broadly as a means of formation, it closely involved the category of tutors , often chosen from among artists, scholars and men of culture who, while lacking funds, were endowed with a stock of wisdom to administer to their young masters. This was a sort of modern patronage, which offered a truly substantial group of artists or art lovers the possibility not just to learn but also to exchange ideas. The intercourse fostered by meeting foreign intellectuals would be mirrored in the trade in objects, works of art and views that began to develop between the countries visited and the motherlands of the visitors, increasing the opportunities for comparison and realizing, in concrete terms, the universalistic idea of culture that Europeans felt to be a necessity.

Professionals and the plain curious

But this does not exhaust the catalogue of travelers: many politicians, diplomats and then poets and writers, merchants and businessmen, who were interested chiefly in collecting, and finally whole families went on the Tour. The reason the desire for travel spread so widely in European society lay in the riches of Italy, of a place that constituted a goal and myth that was at once cultural, naturalistic, scientific, political, adventurous, artistic and religious, and yet worldly too. The Italy of monuments, of archeology, of the Tuscan countryside and the “sublime” panorama of the Alps, of the Venice carnival and the Roman festivals, of theaters and opera houses; the Italy of the balmy climate which made Pisa a refuge for many Anglo-Saxons suffering from consumption, the Italy of the academies and libraries, of the hundred cities and towns: its many faces became a prism in which the whole of European society was reflected, encouraging its citizens to vie with one another in their determination to take part in the indispensable journey.


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