The Art That Made Grand Tourists Flock to Italy

There were many reasons that travelers decided to embark on the Grand Tour of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, but the primary one was to see the artistic gems of Ancient and Renaissance Italy. As many still do today in fact.

As well as visiting history’s greatest treasures, Grand Tourists were also in the business of commissioning new art during their travels. Oftentimes, wealthy Grand Tourists would bring professional sketch artists along with them, whose whole purpose was to create souvenirs to take home. If this was not possible, Grand Tourists would have artworks made for them in Italy. A Venetian sketch artist who was widely popular during the Grand Tour was Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose prints are still passed down through noble families today. And some more creative tourists would sketch Italian scenes themselves. After all, learning the arts first hand was, in essence, central to a formative intellectual voyage like this one.

From Rome to Venice, embark on a virtual tour of Italy’s art hotspots, to discover the art the Grand Tourists pursued, as well as the art they produced.

Rome: The Capital of the World
A Grand Tourist’s base itinerary for Italy included must-see cities like Venice, Florence, Naples and sometimes Sicily. And then, of course, there’s Rome. Each Italian city offered immense historic importance in Greco-Roman antiquity, Renaissance art and culture or Baroque architecture. But Rome had it all.

Rome was considered the ultimate stop during the Grand Tour, as it was both a portal back in time thousands of years, as well as a modern-day marvel of Baroque art and architecture. It was lauded as the land of Cicero, the birthplace of Julius Caesar, and home to some of Michelangelo’s most prized works.

Having only heard stories of masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel, tourists understood that the only way to truly experience Italian art and culture was to see this city in person.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Baroque masterpieces left their mark across Rome, making extraordinary art commonplace in areas such as Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps. Tourists were drawn to spots like the Arch of Titus, the Colosseum and Porta del Popolo.

“Shall I ever forget the sensations I experienced upon slowly descending the hills, and crossing the bridge over the Tiber; when I entered an avenue between terraces and ornamented gates of villas, which leads to the Porto del Popolo…” – William Beckford, letter from the Grand Tour, 1780

Venice: The Floating City of Wealth and Art
Venice is often seen as one of the most intriguing and magical cities in the world, and it was no different for the Grand Tourists. It was a must on any Grand Tour itinerary, largely thanks to the wealth the city had built itself from merchant trading and a strong navy. These were admirable qualities to an 18th-century British traveler.

Its reputation may be what brought tourists to Venice, but Venetian Renaissance art and culture is what kept them coming back.

Tourists visited Venice to see paintings by the great Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Jacopo Bassano and, of course, they wanted a Giovanni Battista Piranesi sketch to take back home with them.

One well-known cityscape artist was Canaletto. His acute attention to detail set him above the rest, capturing a lifelike scene that made tourists feel like they were almost taking a real slice of the city home with them.

Pompeii & Naples: Ancient Ruins, Sun & Light
There were some Grand Tourists who championed lesser visited cities, oftentimes taking a direct journey to Naples – the land of sun, culture, opera buffa and a few of Caravaggio’s greats. Naples became more of a popular stop in the latter part of the Grand Tour, becoming something of a winter retreat for British tourists, with travelers like J.W. Goethe praising its glories.

“Naples is a Paradise: everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognize. Yesterday I thought to myself: Either you were mad before, or you are mad now.” – Goethe

Places like Pompeii and Herculaneum only added to the appeal of traveling further south in Italy, in search of the ruins that tied the present day to its historic roots. When Italian authorities began excavations of Herculaneum in 1738, and then later at Pompeii in 1748, tourists had even more reason to delve into the mysteries of an ancient past... and enjoy a bit of the coastal sun along the way.

Florence: British Nobility Meets the High Renaissance
Known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, early Grand Tourists rarely skipped a stop to Florence, which, simply put, was a haven for art – no doubt thanks to its ornate grandeur in architecture, with examples including the Florence Cathedral and, of course, Filippo Brunelleschi’s Dome.

But there was one attraction which almost perfectly coincided with the new arrival of tourism to Italy – Cosimo I de’ Medici's idea to gain magisterial control of a series of Florentine “offices”, better known in Italian as the “uffizi”. These administrative offices were soon to become both administrative and tribunal, with a gallery on the second floor so that newly acquired art could be properly enjoyed.

The Uffizi Gallery as we know it was not open to the public until 1765, but some fortunate Grand Tourists (who for the most part were nobility or of high social status themselves) were privy to a viewing of works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Upon seeing the Uffizi collection, Thomas Beckford, a noted art collector, said…

“…I fell into a delightful delirium which none but souls like us experience, and unable to check my rapture flew madly from bust to bust and cabinet to cabinet like a butterfly bewildered in a universe of flowers…’’

The Uffizi Galleries still remain one of the highlights of Florence.

Words by Louise Vinciguerra
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