by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Grand Tour and the Crusades

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME, Italy 15 March 1997
Burnley Art Gallery & Museum
Charles Townley in his Sculpture Gallery
by Johann Zoffany, 1782



The precocious British mania for recreational continental travel meant, for a time, that almost any wandering foreigner who turned up on the shores of the Mediterranean from the north might find themselves being described by the locals as 'inglese' (or its variants), including the Dutch, Germans and even Swiss.

Many early travelers were not only British but wealthy and aristocratic, though by no means all of them. The trail-blazing grand tourist Thomas Coryat, having no other way of getting there, walked to Venice in 1608, hanging up the remains of his shoes in the parish church at Odcombe, Somerset, when he walked back again.

However, it was in the following century, particularly after the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, which turned out well for Britain, that the idea of a trip to the Italian peninsula as something that every educated Englishman (and, increasingly, woman) should attempt at least once in a lifetime, became widespread. An exhibition of over 300 pictures, sculptures and other objets d'art, 'Grand Tour: The Fascination of Italy in the 18th Century' (which appears with some variations from the Tate Gallery version last year), re-evokes the period at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (until 7 April).

The principal destinations, then as now, were Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice (the latter, with its notoriously easy-going life style and prostitutes catering to all tastes, a particular favorite for sex-tourists of that era). Whereas Venice had long-established friendly relations with London (and was one of the first states to recognize the newly-independent American colonies), the Vatican, which recognized the Stuart Pretender Bonny Prince Charlie as the legitimate heir to the unified English and Scottish thrones, had no formal diplomatic ties with Britain at all. This did not prevent a stream of British visitors to Rome, and some seeking audiences with the Pope (very much a touristic activity for these mostly non-Catholic excursionists).

By the end of the 18th century many Britons knew more about Italy than any other European country, with effects that lasted throughout the next century - despite the cataclysmic interlude of the Napoleonic Wars, when Britons could no longer travel freely on the Continent. Half a dozen 19th-century British prime ministers had a good command of written and spoken Italian, and Gladstone was an adept composer of verse in the language. The artistic influences were yet more pervasive - from the introduction of Palladian architecture to the flowering of the view-painting genre (inspired by Canaletto and others) to the opening of the British Museum in 1751 (yet another Italian, Antonio Panizzi, being responsible for the BM's cataloguing system and its glorious round Reading Room, inaugurated in 1857).

The minimalist presentation of the Rome show precludes the investigation of such wider implications, but the exhibition and catalogue do nonetheless provide an interesting compendium of pieces associated with the golden age of the Grand Tour, and bring together some outstanding pieces, such as Johann Zoffany's brilliantly colorful, almost photographic canvases of assorted connoisseurs, dilettantes, con-men and well-heeled tourists crowded into rooms stuffed with marbles, bronzes and pictures, and Joseph Wright of Derby's explosive visions of Vesuvian eruptions and Roman festive fireworks. But, in the end, the show is much less successful in conjuring up the atmosphere, texture, attitudes and eccentricities of the period than last year's more imaginatively-conceived British Museum 'Vases and Volcanoes' exhibition devoted to Lord and Lady Hamilton and their world in Naples.

The search for souvenirs in the form of sculptures, archeological remains and paintings was a key element in the Grand Tour - it was said that the English would have taken the Colosseum home with them if they had been able to - but the Papal and other states had well-established laws against the export of major works, and surprisingly few really first-class pieces were removed from Italy during this period (though the local copies and fakes market enjoyed a boom, and a painter like Pompeo Batoni did a roaring trade portraying upper-crust tourists amid the ruins).

Emblematic of Italian consciousness of the need to hang on to their patrimony is the story of the Venetian nobleman Grimani's attempt to sell an important classical statue to a foreign buyer. The government promptly sent round the chief of police who, doffing his hat, gravely addressed the statue, noting its decision to leave the Republic, and bid both it and its owner adieu - at which point the vendor hastily thought better of the deal.

The incident was, of course, riddled with ironies, given that Venice was encrusted with works pillaged from the East, from the body of St Mark and the Four Bronze Horses adorning the facade of the Basilica, to hundreds of pillars and acres of marble cladding. Much of the loot was acquired (like the British Empire) not as a result of planned policy but in a fit of rampant opportunism, notably during the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), when Orthodox Christian Constantinople became the target rather than Muslim-held Jerusalem. The West's seven great religiously-inspired expeditions are the subject of 'The Crusades: The East and West from Urban II to St Louis (1096-1270)', at Palazzo Venezia (until 30 April).

Alternating peaceable and bellicose pilgrimage to the Holy Land continued throughout the middle ages, sometimes taking on bizarre, mass-hysterical forms, such as the Children's Crusade in 1212, when thousands of mermerized minors died of violence and disease, were drowned at sea or ended up as slaves. Among Europe's chivalric classes the Crusades took on the aspect of a Grand Tour avant la lettre, driven as much by the inexorable logic of primogeniture, peer-group pressure and the desire for adventure and booty as by religious fervor. The acquisition of relics also became a vital part of the enterprise, and just as an 18th-century gentleman could raise his standing by the ownership of marbles and paintings, the possession of a fragment of the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns or a top-notch saint's bones could immeasurably increase the prestige of an individual, family, an entire city.

Byzantine and Islamic cultures were in many ways more advanced than those in the West at this time, and prolonged contact with these alien worlds ultimately had a profound effect on a Europe still recovering from the Dark Ages, as this exhibition of over 280 contemporary pieces from over 100 European and US metropolitan and provincial collections of paintings, mosaics, stone and wood carvings, glass, metalwork, enamels, ceramics and manuscripts - including almost all the important surviving ones actually created in the Holy Land at the time - amply demonstrates.

The special role and wider artistic spinoffs of relics and reliquaries is well suggested here, since the many beautifully-crafted secular, domestic containers in ivory, wood and inlaid metal that found their way to the West to be used to hold relics stimulated native artists and craftsmen not only to emulate skills and techniques but to create boldly new styles of reliquary, expanding the whole notion of design and composition in the process.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023