Monday, December 19, 2011

The Grand Tour: A Life Of Privilege

Travel & Education

 The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of heading home.
Paul Theroux

Interior of the Pantheon: Rome's Pantheon was one of the essential stops of the Grand Tour for the 18th century privileged class.
Artist Credit: Giovanni Paolo Panini [1691-1765]

When you have read a lot of European literature, as I have done, you often come across the expression, "The Grand Tour," an educational rite of passage primarily associated with the British upper classes. The primary destination of the Grand Tour was Italy, home of the art and culture of ancient Rome, which represented the height of classicism to the 18th century mind.

Why it was so limited to the wealthy is clear, says the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. "Travel was arduous and costly throughout the period, possible only for a privileged class—the same that produced gentleman scientists, authors, antiquaries, and patrons of the arts."

It was a finishing school and more, says the BBC Radio 4 in a May 2002 broadcast, "The Grand Tour":
The idea was for wealthy young travellers to finish their education with an extensive trip to Europe to experience its natural beauties, its cultural treasures and, if they were lucky, its sexual permissiveness.
The standard route took in Paris and The Alps and some tourists, including Byron, made it as far as Greece. But the destination, par excellence, was Italy, with its Renaissance glories and classical splendours.
Such rites of passage into adulthood lasted from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, when horse-drawn carriages were still the norm. When rail transport become more advanced and thus more prominent, such excursions became less prominent; and, concurrently, when travel became less expensive, first with railway transport, then the automobile and to a lesser extent the airplane, ushering in a new class of people and travelers—the middle classes—such expeditions for the upper classes became unnecessary. To a large degree, technological advances in mass transit became a wonderful leveling force for the good and betterment of society.

The result is that persons today can travel on limited budgets to far-away locations, some with the intent to learn about other cultures, some with other desires. That is, if  you can and are willing to put up with all kinds of intrusive and time-consuming safety measures at airports. As well, many might not enjoy meeting many others along the crowded roads, in museum lines, notably at the Sistine Chapel, part of the Vatican Museum;  the Pantheon in Rome; and the Louvre in Paris.

Lions of the Serengeti: Close-up on a pair of male lions basking in the sun on a rocky outcrop in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, April 2008.
Photo Credit:Williiam Warby, London, England: April 2008.
Source: Wikipedia
Although one can complain, it's over-all a good thing that travel has been democratized. You can learn about other cultures by waiting in line with someone who is also from a foreign country. I have had many wonderful conversations with strangers while waiting in line, or on planes and trains. It turns a tiring experience into an energizing one. Viewing and engaging with a culture and its artifacts and people first-hand and up close is always the preferred way, and there are modern Grand Tour packages to all kinds of destinations, including China, India and the African Serengeti.

If, however, budgets are severely limited, making travel a luxury once again, as is now the case for many of us, there is always the virtual world. It is getting better and better, which allows one to view distant art and culture up close and personal, albeit once removed. With a huge database of sites, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can learn about other cultures and locales, visit the famous museums and view the art—all from the safety and comfort of one's residence.

It's the Grand Tour for the less privileged.