The Grand Tour of Europe saw a flood of British, German and even American tourists to France, Italy and, in some rare cases, even further south to Greece.
So, what’s so special about this period of travel from the 17th-19th centuries? We know that man has traveled near and far since antiquity, feeding a human desire for discovery, but the Grand Tour was a somewhat more radical period in the history of travel. It gave rise to what we consider modern day tourism, and some of its trends have stayed with us for hundreds of years.
Here’s a look at 7 ways tourism hasn’t changed in over 300 years.
Grand Tour Travelers Popularized Itineraries We Still Use Today
Grand Tourists didn’t go to Italy with a pocket itinerary like:
See Sistine Chapel in the morning; take selfies from Pincian Hill at noon with Michelangelo’s Dome in background, have a glass of wine with locals at Piazza Navona overlooking Bernini’s Baroque architecture.
Or did they? 16th-century tourists embarked on 1-3 year European tours to learn about the highlights of master works of art – something not so different from a modern-day gap year, or study abroad trip.
One thing hasn’t changed in 300 years, must-see European cities have pretty much remained the same; we still dream about seeing Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples. Traveling nobility knew what they were doing when creating itineraries for some of the most notable art cities in the world.
The Grand Tourist’s Portraits Are Just Selfies in Disguise
Back in the day, if you had embarked on this expensive, formative journey through Italy to immerse yourself in art and culture, you wanted to lord it over others when you got back home. The wealthy (not to mention healthy) elite who could allow themselves such a lavish journey, proved it by commissioning portraits of themselves with famous Italian landscapes in the background. Sound familiar?
Arguably, the concept of the bragging selfie didn’t originate with the Grand Tour. Depicting oneself through art is as old as time, with ancient Greek and Roman busts giving us an idea of how people want to be remembered. But portraiture mixed with travel reached its height during the Grand Tour, with nobility packing artworks by Pompeo Batoni and Angelica Kauffmann, who both still adorn many a nobleman’s wall.
The Glorification of the “I Saw It First” Culture
Grand Tourists got to Italy by crossing the Alps on foot – no direct flights or highways back in the 17th century. Not an easy journey by any means. So why would they do it?
In a pre-photography world, it was a small price to pay to study the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, or to sit and sketch ancient ruins like the Colosseum, which most people only heard stories about. If you were one of the privileged few to have access to the Sistine Chapel or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, you were indeed entitled to say, “I saw it first”.
Not an uncommon concept when it comes to modern day tourism. Keith Haring’s fans are more than happy to have themselves overheard during an exhibition at the Guggenheim saying, “I knew his work long before everyone else, when he was still just an unknown NYC graffiti artist on the streets.” The “I saw it first” culture gained some healthy traction during the Grand Tour and has, for better or worse, persisted for over 300 years.
Grand Tourists Were Travel Bloggers Without Internet
"My purpose in making this wonderful journey is not to delude myself but to discover myself in the objects I see." Goethe perfectly sums up travel writing. Grand Tourists and modern day tourists have something in common that separates them from those that went before – both share an interest in “storytelling” found in diaries and letters, a narrative inspired solely on lessons learned from travel.
The “original” travel writing, like Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, Goethe and plenty more, have inspired generations to not only experience, but also chronicle, the beauty that travel and culture offers.
Travel for Pleasure, Not Business
What do you get when you mix a group of young, wealthy Brits with a group of Renaissance-inspired Italian artists? A good time.
The concept of travel for its own sake underpinned The Grand Tour, an idea that was previously almost unheard of. Spending time in art cities, exploring and enjoying new cultures, seeing masterpieces that you only heard stories about – this drive for enlightenment was at the heart of the tour.
From the 17th century onwards, travel for pleasure became more of a social-standing-boosting, fashionable trend than ever before, not only among the British but throughout Europe. 300 years later, we still have this need for breaks from the drudgery of work.
Naples Is Still an ‘Off the Beaten Path’ Destination
“See Naples and die”, as quoted in Goethe’s Letters from Italy, says it all. Naples, Italy wasn’t one of the must-see art cities on a nobleman’s itinerary during the Grand Tour, though it was home to extraordinary Caravaggio works, and funnily enough, this remains somewhat true today. Yes, modern day tourists flock to the Amalfi Coast but the authentic culture that Naples exudes is explored by too few both now and 300 years ago. Perhaps most travelers simply get stuck in the beauty of nearby Rome. Whatever the case, Naples and its authenticity captured the heart of Goethe and countless modern travelers after him, and will always remain an Italian gem.
Sun, Sex & Travel – Recreational Activities of the Grand Tour
Some speculate it was the sunny climate of Italy, others say the plentiful drink, but whatever the cause, the Grand Tour saw its fair share of “sinful” frolics behind closed doors. Tony Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour gives us a look at the naughty side of tourism back in the day.
Giving into temptation during these formative years was easy. After all, we’re talking pre-Victorians, when casual sex was glorified by the likes of Casanova from Venice and erotic bathroom frescoes – painted by the great Raphael himself – adorned the Vatican.
Grand Tourists by no means invented casual sex during travel, but they did give rise to plenty of stories that modern day travelers may find themselves still blushing at 300 years later.