Where to go?
The Grand Tour
The Grand Tour
During the reign of the English Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), the concept of a “Grand Tour” of the Continent first became popular. The medieval style pilgrimages by noblemen had been decried by the likes of Erasmus. Now, excursions were for education and pleasure (utilitas et verits): Venice, Milan, Verona, Florence and Rome, of course, were the compulsory ports of call. But after Elizabeth I’s excommunication and aggressive actions against Spain, Protestant travellers would have been wary of journeying south to Naples and Sicily, then under the dominion of the Spaniards and their Catholic Inquisition. Slowly the Papacy endeavoured to woo the English. Aristocrats sojourned at leisure in Italy (the Earl of Leicester’s son, Sir Robert Dudley, was in Florence; Earl Arundel spent time in Padua); Inigo Jones (1573–1652) reported on the delights of Classical and Palladian architecture. Finally, after the Restoration (1660) of Charles II, the frontiers were opened once more.
The Age of Sensibility exalted Italy as the cradle of civilisation. Instructive journeys completed the education of young intellectuals. They travelled to the Continent, visiting places endowed with rich artistic heritage and cultural fervour. Richard Boyle, then Lord Burlington (1684–1753), and Robert Adam (1728–92) followed in the wake of Jones to study the antique monuments.
As the Age of Reason dawned, still Rome and its academic institutions attracted ambitious young artists to study, muse and enjoy life without responsibility. After the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), the Grand Tour became institutionalised: now not only the British (Sir William Hamilton, Gavin Hamilton, Benjamin West) came, but also the French, the Germans and the Dutch. Visitors extended their tours to Naples and the south following the exciting discovery and excavation of Pompeii (1740s) and the neighbouring Herculaneum (1750s). This provided a genuine and “scientific” view of Roman life, buried intact beneath layers of volcanic debris since the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, as had been described by Pliny the Younger. Scholars and tourists alike extended their travels to take in Paestum (documented by two other Englishmen, John Berkenhout and Thomas Major, in 1767–68). Before long, Sicily was also included in the itinerary. But these discoveries not only encouraged interest in things Roman relevant to Neoclassicism and the Greek Revival, they also precipitated an ever greater fascination for the latent power of volcanoes. This is encapsulated by Sir William Hamilton (Plenipotentiary at the Court of Naples 1764–1800) in his book Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna and other Volcanos (1773).
Napoleon’s invasion of Italy (1796) interrupted all forms of travel across the Continent. When peace was restored, the grandness of the tours evaporated. After 1815, Thomas Cook began operating his package tours and visitors urged the Italians to rise against their Austrian occupiers. Yet all the while, Italy provided a safe haven for those fleeing trouble at home, most especially those young and of a Romantic disposition (Byron, Shelley, Browning).
The first English traveller to compile a journal of his travels abroad is Sir Thomas Hoby (1530–66), who set out from England in June 1549 and travelled to Padua, Florence, Rome, Naples, Calabria and Sicily. John Dryden, Jr. travelled the Mediterranean in the early 18C (A Voyage to Sicily and Malta was published in 1776).
In 1770, the Scotsman Patrick Brydone visited the island: his impressions are contained in the entertaining letters that form his Journey to Sicily and Malta (published 1773), which library records prove to be the most popular book of the late 18C. The first thing that strikes him is the port of Messina, a harbour enclosed by a sickle-shaped tongue of land protecting it from all the winds. Here reality combines immediately with myth, in which the terrible monsters of Scylla and Charybdis lurk in the underground caves on either side of the Straits of Messina. The luxuriant vegetation also catches the traveller’s eye, alongside the more everyday crops of vines, olives and wheat, which alternate with flowers, bushes and prickly pears. Ever present in the background stands the menacing form of Etna, smouldering benignly – the ultimate “curiosity” in this southern region. Then Taormina, and the first leap into the classical past, and Etna looms up again, a sleeping giant, but ever vigilant and ready to prove its great power: “in the centre... we could just see the summit of the mountain raising its proud head, vomiting clouds of smoke.”
For travellers, Etna acts as a powerful magnet: the very antithesis of the peace and serenity of the past inspired by the Greek ruins of Girgenti (Agrigento). It symbolises life in the form of fire and heat, an uncontrollable, unpredictable phenomenon. The fact that it is visible from a long way off seems almost to endow it with the inevitability of something that man cannot control, like life and death. Brydone journeys on towards the larger towns on the island: Catania, Siracusa, Agrigento and the “beautiful, elegant” Palermo, to which pages and pages of description are devoted.
In Brydone’s footsteps followed Henry Swinburne, urged on by the other writer’s “lies” and “nonsensical froth”; he published his travels in four volumes entitled Travels in the Two Sicilies in the Years 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780. These, along with the Brydone account, were soon translated into French and German. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) used Brydone and JH Von Riedesel’s Reise (1771) when he undertook his Italian journey, writing his own Italienische Reise (1786-88).
As descriptions were penned, draughtsmen and painters flocked to the island, eager to depict the natural landscape, the topography of the cities and views, the ruins and the people. Towards the end of the century, Sicily became the key destination for anyone undertaking the Grand Tour: it was the gateway of things classical, but also a natural treasure trove of rare features that could not be found elsewhere.
The diary was the traveller’s faithful companion. In it, he would transcribe impressions, musings, pleasures and discomforts (Goethe’s descriptions of seasickness, for example) in an informal letter to himself or a close friend. What is remarkable is how perceptive these observations are, touching upon technical and scientific details, curious facts, encounters, and images of a Sicily that has changed profoundly since. Yet the portraits of the people, their kindness and hospitality are true for all time.