The impulse to take in the entirety of a new wider world and bring that into frame is nearly irresistible for a tourist. Why do we endure arduous flights to far-flung places if not for the cultural enrichment? And why do we bother taking several gigabytes worth of photos if not to preserve that experience and bring its benefits back to our home countries? Although some aspects of travel may be fairly new, much of the ways of the modern tourist echo those of the wealthy English elites of the 17th and 18th centuries who embarked on long trips to continental Europe.
This pilgrimage abroad was de-rigueur for young gentlemen, who were expected to gain firsthand knowledge of culture, art, language, the classics, good taste, and the ways of the world. This tradition is called “The Grand Tour,” a term coined by Roman Catholic priest Richard Lassels in “The Voyage of Italy.” Lassels’s book reads as a travel guide for the governing class, with an introduction that is a full-throated exhortation:
If this world be a great book, as S. Augustine calls it, none study this great book so much as the Traveler. They that never stir from home, read only one page of this book. … Traveling preserves my young nobleman from surfeiting of his parents and weans him from the dangerous fondness of his mother. It teaches him wholesome hardship; to lie in bed that are none of his acquaintance; to speak to men he never saw before; to travel in the morning before day; and in the evening after day; to endure any horse and weather, as well as any meat and drink.
Comments about maternal affection notwithstanding, Lassels’s words might resonate with the Grand Tourist of today. The obvious modern-day equivalent may be the university students on semesters abroad or taking gap years. Since the English noblemen had nearly limitless funds for pleasure and self-edification, that idea should ring ever more true for travelers with ample means and leisure time to explore far-flung lands — to broaden horizons, learn new customs, enjoy seasonal food and drink, shop high-quality goods, practice a foreign language, interact with local people, experience daily living, and appreciate the art and architecture of the country.
In the Grand Tourist tradition, itineraries would primarily focus on important centers of art and culture. Paris, Rome, and Venice were chief among travel destinations, followed by Florence and Naples. Then and now, Italy was and remains a major draw, as visitors flock to the great cities of the Renaissance, study art in palaces and cathedrals, or reflect upon the remnants of bygone classical civilizations.
Of course, not all of the months abroad were spent on high-minded pursuits. Many Grand Tourists also indulged in drinking, gaming, and making merry. They not only admired antiquities and Renaissance art, but also commissioned some paintings of their own. Artists of the time painted portraits of visiting noblemen set against backdrops of Italian cityscapes or classical vistas. Vedutisti benefitted from the steady flow of tourists, as it was fashionable to bring back beautiful landscape paintings as souvenirs of travel along with sculptures and other mementos.
Some of these vedute or cityscapes, including those painted by Giuseppe Zocchi or Luca Carlevarijs, are shown here alongside photographs taken from the roughly same angle. At first the similarities will draw you in, but quickly you will start to note the many differences. The paintings are highly realistic, but the monuments seem more imposing, some details are crisper, and the light is softer. Landmarks, action, and all of the details from the Grand Tourist’s mindscape are heightened and set tightly together within the frame. There is that easy pleasure of observing people as they go about their daily business, which lends vitality and life to the paintings. Look long enough and a story will unfold. These paintings, as well as others, will be available for view at Sotheby’s and are featured in the Old Masters Evening Sale scheduled for July 3.