Imago Urbis: Giuseppe Vasi's Grand Tour of Rome

18th Century Rome and the Grand Tour

The idea of the Grand Tour began in the mid 17th century gaining popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries continuing to this day as popular reference for travelers. Initially it was conceived as a mobile finishing school in art and manners. The custom was practiced by royalty and aristocratic families from Northern Europe and especially England, and later adopted by wealthy Americans. The latter shared a common enthusiasm for travel and recognized the benefits it could bring not the least of which would be to confer a pedigree of ‘good breeding’ to the traveler. The Grand Tour was an opportunity for elevated social status, educational enhancement, new cultural experiences and adventure.

The idea of a cultural pilgrimage was popularized by travel writers and chroniclers such as John Evelyn (1620-1706) and earlier by Richard Lassels (1603-1668), a Roman Catholic priest who wrote The Voyage of Italy, published in Paris in 1670 and is credited with having coined the term. The Grand Tour could take extended periods of time and would last, depending upon one’s wealth and inclination, several months and even years. A retinue of servants would attend to the traveler’s needs, the number depending on status and economic resources. This artistic pilgrimage reached its height during the 18th century which with some justification may be called the Age of the Grand Tour. The phenomenon gave birth to the modern tourism a condition which was accelerated in the 19th century with the rise of safer and more commodious forms of transportation like the railway.

Italy and Rome as Destination
The Italian peninsula was the primary destination for the Grand Tourist who was attracted to its cultural treasures, fascinating landscapes and cities and the promise of warmer climes and luminescent atmosphere. This especially included the artistic patrimony of cities such as Venice, the archeological sites surrounding Naples and its bay and most importantly Rome herself, the latter being the undisputed center of Western Civilization and the favorite destination for such a cultural journey. Rome was unsurpassed for its classical heritage, still visible in its picturesque ruins throughout the city and in museums and private collections. Contemporary examples of Rome’s artistic rebirth served no less as an important attraction as practicing artists and architects made Rome the most important cosmopolitan center in Europe and the virtual artistic capital of Europe.

Unexcelled works of art and architecture by Renaissance and Baroque masters propelled the traveler as much as the classical past. Religious and secular architecture of great renown such as St. Peter’s and the Spanish Steps were among the important attractions that would entice the traveler. There were at least two important aspects of the tour insofar as they addressed the visual arts. The first was to see first hand the great paintings, sculpture and architecture of the places visited. The second, and for our purposes more important, was to visit places—both landscape and cityscape--that gave birth to those treasures as if by experiencing Rome first hand one could better savor those works of art, divine its genius loci and commune with the great artists that created them. As Joshua Reynolds observed in his Seven Discourses (1778), "Raphael did not have the benefit of studying in an Academy; but all of Rome, and the works of Michelangelo in particular, were for him an Academy.”

An 18th Century Postcard: Collecting and Reflecting

Given the enthusiasm for all things Italian, it was quite natural that visitors should want to capture their experiences in a more permanent form, much as a big game hunter might want to return with a trophy of some wild animal. In order to preserve their impressions the well to do Grand Tourist would likely purchase one of the diminishing supply of original works of art by the masters (a desire which gave rise to a flourishing market in frauds). Barring this, they would commission contemporary artists to paint original works along set genres such as historical paintings, portraiture, landscape and city views or vedute. The most famous Roman portraitist of the century was Pompeo Batoni 1708-1787) who would typically surround his subject with appropriate props and city landscape which lent an air of authenticity.

Others were commissioned to record those places of genius that gave birth to such treasures. A growing taste and appreciation for the veduta on canvas or more affordable as a single engraving or as a complete volume of such printed matter became one of the prizes that could be easily carried home. Like their compatriots in Venice, Canaletto (1697-1768), Francesco Guardi 1712-1793) and Bernardo Bellotto (1720-1780), Roman artists of the late 17th and early 18th century tapped into this thriving market. Their realistic depictions of places in the city and its social life has left us with one of the most accurate and evocative pictures of the Eternal City ever created.

Jim Tice, Erik Steiner, Allan Ceen, and Dennis Beyer
Department of Architecture and InfoGraphics Lab, Department of Geography, University of Oregon
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