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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

British historian discusses countrymen’s love of art and travel

Published: October 8, 2010
Section: News

PHOTO BY Ingrid Schulte/The Hoot

John Brewer, professor of literature and history at the California Institute of Technology, delivered his lecture “From Grand Tour to Tourism?: Neo-classicism, Modern Sentiment and the Business of Travel in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries” in Rapaporte Treasure Hall Tuesday, offering students a trip through Europe and through time.

Brewer spoke of the “Grand Tour” in great depth: Young aristocratic men in 18th century Britain made this voyage, often accompanied by their tutors. It was a rite of passage before these men became landlords or husbands and had to fulfill more serious duties.

The trip constituted a journey throughout Europe, usually starting in France and ending in Italy. Young men of aged 18 or 19 would go on this “maturity trip” for a period of time that typically lasted eight to nine months. Tutors would act as their guardians to make sure that the educational goals of the trip were at least partially fulfilled.

Depending on the man’s wealth, one would buy as many paintings, sculptures and memorabilia as possible—the trip’s after-effects were to increase personal and family prestige through art.

These items were purchased in order to show one’s own knowledge of the classics, rather than used for display and exhibition. Sometimes, these men would also have a self-portrait painted of them to serve as a souvenir.

However, though the British loved Italy, there was a common belief among them that Brewer quoted a bystander as saying, “Italy would be a delightful country if there were not so many Italians.”

In cities like Rome, British people would form their own communities and move in packs or flocks. The British built hotels where everything was English, including the food, the language and, of course, the sport: cricket. They would also train Italians to cook British cuisine and would build English gardens: essentially, they created a world for themselves in an entirely different culture.

The British also viewed Italy as a place to go when they had been badly behaved in their motherland. Men and women who had just gotten out of a complicated marriage would flee to Italy. It was also the fugitive spot for giving birth to an illegitimate child and for women who wanted the freedom to be more sexually promiscuous, Brewer said.

Though in the end, “contamination” of other cultures was the main fear of grand tourism, these countries served as very useful for the British and allowed them to lead freer and more enjoyable lives than if they had remained in Britain alone.