De­lights and dan­gers of the Grand Tour

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - IAN THOM­SON

The Grand Tour usu­ally cul­mi­nated with Naples, raga­muf­fin cap­i­tal of the Ital­ian south, where Ve­su­vius of­fered a vis­ual ed­u­ca­tion in the grand style. Some Grand Tourists, among them Lord Byron, got as far as Greece; but Italy was cov­eted as the glit­ter­ing birth­place of the Re­nais­sance — a haven of art on the Arno. In some ways, then, Bri­tain be­came civilised through its con­tact with Italy. ‘‘A man who has not been to Italy,’’ Sa­muel John­son ob­served in 1776 (per­haps iron­i­cally), ‘‘is al­ways con­scious of an in­fe­ri­or­ity.’’

The grand habit of tour­ing the Con­ti­nent for its art and clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity flour­ished from the mid-17th cen­tury un­til the ad­vent of rail trans­port in the 1840s. Though trains were of­ten of a bi­b­li­cal slow­ness and un­re­li­a­bil­ity (not least in Italy), they spelled the end of soli­tary aris­to­cratic travel. The Grand Tour was over­whelm­ingly the pre­serve of no­bil­ity and landed gen­try. Ac­com­pa­nied by a Cicerone (schol­arly guide), young men em­barked on their ed­u­ca­tional rite of pas­sage through the gra­cious suavi­ties of Paris and on south across the Alps to Italy, where the liq­uid soft­ness of the Mediter­ranean worked on them like a so­porific.

To­day, sadly, Naples serves merely as a spring­board for those vis­it­ing the lava-trapped civil­i­sa­tions of Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum. Tourists are put off by the pres­ence of the Neapoli­tan Mafia — the Camorra —and the dark, cor­ri­dor-like streets strewn with litter. Naples al- ways did have a dis­rep­utable edge. (A Neapoli­tan gam­bling man­ual advises: “Rule Num­ber One — al­ways try to see your op­po­nent’s cards.’’) With­out the crowds of cam­era-click­ing tourists, how­ever, one is able to visit Naples to­day as a Grand Tourist might have done in the 18th cen­tury: alone. The city, one-time Ar­cady of Bour­bon kings and queens, re­mains a glory.

Sex, gam­bling and drink­ing were all part of the Grand Tour ex­pe­ri­ence. Florence, for all its Medicean splen­dour, was viewed as a sodomit­i­cal hot­bed where the “Ital- ian vice’’ of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was, as it were, ram­pant. In 1641 the Old Eto­nian chemist and philoso­pher Robert Boyle claims to have been ha­rassed by bi­sex­ual fri­ars in a Florence brothel (“gowned sodomites’’, he called them, with “goat­ish heats’’). Those in Eng­land might have thought Boyle had it com­ing. A Protes­tant milord trav­el­ling through pa­pal lands dur­ing the Re­for­ma­tion was bound to get poxed and pil­laged, or at best swin­dled. To be loyal to Eng­land meant to stay at home.

Italy pre­sented a civil­i­sa­tion in ru­ins. Typ­i­cally the Grand Tourist vis­ited the Colos­seum, the Fo­rum and, fi­nally, Pom­peii. Large parts of Pom­peii had re­mained buried un­til 1748, when the Neapoli­tan au­thor­i­ties ex­ca­vated what turned out to be shops, brothels, inns and sta­bles. (In­cred­i­bly, only half of Pom­peii has so far been un­cov­ered.) English milordi must have thrilled at the sight of ex­ca­va­tors dredg­ing car­bonised bars of soap, rope-soled shoes, dates, olives, onions and phal­luses carved into stonework.

What we know of ev­ery­day life in an­cient times de­rives largely from Pom­peii, so a visit to the ash-so­lid­i­fied town was es­sen­tial if the Grand Tourist was to demon­strate a clas­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion ac­quired abroad. The ruts worn by wagon-wheels in the streets of Pom­peii, its baths and buried vil­las brought Ro­man Italy thrillingly to life. Up Pom­peii, down Pom­peii: the town was a de­light.

THE SPEC­TA­TOR

Pom­pei’s ru­ins were a must for Grand Tourists

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