The Invention of the Grand Tour

Life lessons from the first explorers on the road to elsewhere

I HITCHED A RIDE TO LONDON in the fall of 1978, where I purchased a one-way ticket to Dunkirk, to begin my own invasion of Europe. After a night train carried me to the harbor, I assumed my position on the bow of a Channel ferry, pretend-captain of my fate. The clouds reflected the light and promise of the Continent, seventy miles away.

I felt, at the time, that I personally was inventing the Grand Tour. But I was late by three hundred and sixty-six years. Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, kicked off GT mania in 1613, with his cicerone Inigo Jones, the classicist architect.

Lesson #1: Be careful when picking your portrait artist

While I was collecting odd words and torn theater tickets, Howard, guided by Jones, was picking up paintings by da Vinci, the Holbein brothers (Ambrosius and Hans), Albrech Dürer, and Raphael. He also hired laborers to dismantle Roman ruins and move them into his castle. And Howard commissioned this portrait, by Holbein the Younger, showing off his nose, which takes a grand tour of his face, along a longitudinal route.

Howard and Jones established the combo-platter of arts studies, language practice, old-master acquisition, plus girl chasing, that was included in the adjective “grand.” When William Wordsworth impregnated, and then abandoned, Annette Vallon in post-revolution France, he was following in the footsteps of Howard and Jones. Lord Byron, who was married at the time of his Grand Tour, in the early 1800s, wrote to his mother that he had fallen in love with the black-eyed wife of his Roman landlord. His letters home were different than mine, as when he suggested that he and his landlady were “one of the happiest unlawful couples on this side of the Alps.”

Lesson #2: What you’re wearing is as important as what you’re not wearing.

It was de rigueur to extend the tour to Venice, for the wonders of its stone and human architecture, as Sir James Hall noted in 1820. “The shameless women of Venice made it unusual, in its own way,” he wrote in his journal, overjoyed at seeing “more handsome women this day than I ever saw in my life…How flattering Venetian dress [was] — or perhaps the lack of it”.

James Boswell, the horny biographer, recorded his own canal-side adventures with one Madame Micheli. “Talked of religion, philosophy,” he wrote, in 1765. “Kissed hand often. Yesterday morning with her. Pulled up her petticoat and showed whole knees… Touched with her goodness. All other liberties exquisite.”

Aren’t they always?

Lesson #3: Sensations are more fun than thoughts

There was a philosophical underpinning for The Tour, as well. John Locke, in his 1689 Essay on Human Understanding, kicked cogito ergo sum to the curb, and swapped in sensation and reflection as the fonts of all true learning. The heat of experience, rather than chilly rationalism, was now certified to warm the hands and loins of the rich, who could afford to wander for a few months or years. Not much of a leap from there to William Wordsworth dancing with the daffodils and plunging his stamen into a perfumed French pistil.

The Grand Tour soon took on a preening aspect, as the travelers began commissioning selfies, in oil paint, with exotic backdrops. It was a living for continental artists, who were hired to paint portraits of fops and aristos, squeezed into their satin pants and standing in front of foreign rubble. Maybe a dog on the side, a metaphorical gesture toward fidelity, or a skull, to remind everyone that death was imminent. Abandoned shoes in a portrait signified the marital compact, possibly because a long-married couple might be expected to hurl them at one another.

Lesson #4. People can always tell when you’re faking it.

One of my favorites in the genre is a 1768 portrait of Sir Gregory Page-Turner who, distressingly, was not the father of the suspense novel. He was painted by Pompeo Batoni, the most sought after Grand-Tour portraitist of his day. He outfitted Page-Turner in a red ensemble (the color of royalty and money) standing in front of a stack of books (erudition, though you can bet he didn’t read any of them), with a bust of a Roman soldier sneering over his shoulder (martial prowess), and his back turned to the Coliseum (typical), which is falling to pieces behind him. You can see a sword (innocent of blood) at his side, at least implying deadly intent.

Batoni excelled at flattering his paycheck-writers. His portrait of Lord North, who was equally renowned for being a) ugly, and b) the guy who fumbled away the American colonies, depicts a pensive dandy pausing while writing a letter, and possibly considering how he’d be treated when a hip-hop musical history of the U.S. Revolution made it to Broadway.

Lesson #5: You can’t go home again, especially if you don’t know where it is.

I didn’t need Balboni, or even Kodachrome, for my journal was with me. As I turned the page from England to the Continent, my journal was transformed as well. For the first time since its inception, my journal became a Grand-travelogue: Went here, fell in love with her, talked to him, drank that, and agonized about it all.

I stood on the deck of the Dover ferry, feeling it vibrate, and quivering a bit myself. Whatever my proximate destination then, the ultimate one loomed, and every departure brought me closer to it. I would soon be going home, wherever that might be. After the French deckhands cast the last lines off, I watched sadly as England receded into the night. Then I turned my eyes toward the horizon, and France offered its usual come-hither.

It was, in fact, time to move on.

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Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Where, Exactly? Hope you’ll join me for this picnic.