Tate on the Grand Tour and the birth of tourism

The new exhibition displays over 250 works in a journey around the art inspired by the eighteenth-century infatuation with Italy and antiquity


“Were our amphitheatre portable, the English would carry it off”, was an Italian saying of the 1730s. The comprehensive exhibition: “Grand Tour: the lure of Italy in the eighteenth century” at the Tate Gallery from 10 October to 5 January 1997 rather proves this point.

It began life as a hugely ambitious project to examine pan-European responses to Italy by looking at the Grand Tour tradition in its European context. Winckelmann and Goethe are still included, but the vast amount of material contained in the exhibition now has an overwhelmingly English bias.

The exhibition builds on a number of smaller shows which have examined Grand Tour-related material in the past, from the Norwich Castle Museum, Grand Tour exhibition in 1958, through the studies of country house collecting in the 1970s and 80s, to the British Museum’s recent exhibition, “Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his collection”, which dealt with the life and loves of the British envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary in Naples (see The Art Newspaper No.61, July-August 1996, p.21).

The themes examined in the Tate show are divided into sections. The first of these looks at “Travellers”, those who went on the Grand Tour, and who painted them. Interestingly, portraiture was not a particularly Italian phenomenon but in view of Protestant antipathy for religious imagery it probably seemed the safest form of commission with which to travel home. Certainly, the comparative cheapness of a Batoni (£15 for a half-length canvas compared with £25 for one by Joshua Reynolds) must have persuaded many a grand tourist to sit to him. Batoni’s portrait of Thomas Dundas is one of his most exciting creations. A later, but important, grand tourist, who made six visits to Italy between 1765 and 1803 was Frederick Hervey, Fourth Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, painted by Hugh Douglas Hamilton in the English Garden of the Villa Borghese.

“Most of ye young Gentlemen that come abroad have money enough they spend it freely everywhere which makes ‘em well received”. The expense of the Grand Tour meant that it developed into the finishing school for the aristocratic classes and as the eighteenth century progressed, their itinerary became increasingly regularised. The main focus of the journey was Rome, imperial capital, Eternal City, home of the antique and a major European centre for artists and scholars. Views such as Richard Wilson’s “Rome: St Peter’s and the Vatican from the Janiculum” represent the type of work commissioned in Rome by grand tourists who wanted to remember their visit.

Visitors to Rome usually passed through Florence, whose importance as a Grand Tour centre is represented by Zoffany’s “Tribuna degli Uffizi”, commissioned by Queen Charlotte in 1772, one of the most famous evocations of eighteenth-century connoisseurship. Naples came next on the itinerary, inspiring views such as Volaire’s “Eruption of Vesuvius by moonlight” and Thomas Jones’s “The Bay of Naples”. Venice had a slightly different attraction, tending to inspire views and cappriccios from the brush of Luca Carlevariis, Bernardo Bellotto, Marieschi, Guardi and Canaletto which were sold as souvenirs via agents rather than commissioned from artists on site.

One of the most important reasons why the grand tourists visited Italy was to satisfy their thirst for the antique. A section of the exhibition spells out the eighteenth-century fascination with newly-excavated sites and the scramble to purchase antique marbles, such as those displayed in the collection of Catholic antiquarian, Charles Townley. The show looks at what was acquired and how, including the sources of supply through purveyors such as the dealer Thomas Jenkins and the painters and excavators Gavin Hamilton and Robert Fagan. Part of the absorption with the antique was expressed in the rise of Neo-classicism and the development of antiquarianism. Drawings of archaeological sites and ruins by Robert Adam and Charles-Louis Clérisseau illustrate this eighteenth-century rediscovery of antiquity which was such an important inspiration behind the Grand Tour itself.

The Earl of Chesterfield criticised the visitors who ran through Italy “knick-knackically”. Not surprisingly, however, a number of grand tourists were keen to take home souvenirs of their visit and commissioned views from Giovanni Paolo Panini; copies of antique bronze statuettes by sculptors such as Giacomo Zoffoli and biscuit-ware reproductions by the likes of Giovanni Volpato. Horace Walpole indicated the inspiration the grand tourist provided to the trade in souvenirs when he commented: “I am far gone in medals, lamps, idols, prints &c. and all the small commodities to the purchase of which I can attain; I would buy the Coliseum if I could”.

One must not imagine that the “lure of the Grand Tour” was overwhelmingly high-minded. Examination of the antique and study of the classics may have been the official excuse for the trip, but frequently, as the introductory essay to the catalogue shows, other activities seemed more attractive. The brothers John and George Damer, who visited the Uffizi in 1764, were probably not unique in their reaction to the great collection. Apparently, they “submitted quietly to be[ing] shown a few of the pictures. But seeing the gallery so immensely long, their impatience burst forth and they tried for a bett who should hop first to the end of it”.

The “Grand Tour: the lure of Italy in the eighteenth century” is organised by Andrew Wilton and Ilaria Bignamini. It is accompanied by a catalogue 204 pp. 160 col.ills. 100 b/w ills. £25 (at the gallery) and moves to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni , Rome 5 February to 7 April 1997.

What is the Brinsley Ford Archive?

The Grand Tour exhibition owes a considerable debt to the great connoisseur and collector, Sir Brinsley Ford, former chairman of the National Art Collections Fund and Secretary of the Dilettanti Society, who, in the 1950s began collecting material relating to eighteenth-century English travellers in Italy. Sir Brinsley’s point of departure was research into the work of artist Jonathan Skelton, whose Roman correspondence he published in the Walpole Society Journal in the 1950s. The project snowballed, becoming a survey of British artists, followed by amateur-artists, further extended to include general visitors to Italy during the period.

In 1987, Sir Brinsley handed his archive to the Paul Mellon Centre in London, on the understanding that it would be published. The Centre commissioned additional archival research, particularly from Italian sources. The material being collated, now in about eighty foolscap files, includes private and State correspondence, parish registers from Venice and Rome, lists of foreign visitors and collections of Italian artefacts acquired during the Grand Tour.

Since 1992, John Ingamells, former director of the Wallace Collection, has been in charge of the project to publish the material, which finally comes to fruition in January 1997 with A Dictionary of British and Irish Visitors to Italy, 1701-1800, to be published by Yale University Press.

The dictionary will list over 6,000 visitors to Italy in the eighteenth century, printing an itinerary of where they went and when, accompanied by a narrative section on their activities. As Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Centre, points out, the dictionary will be compulsory reading for “art historians and historians of eighteenth-century culture, literary historians and anyone tackling aspects of the eighteenth-century in Italy.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Grand Tour and the birth of tourism'