“According to the law of custom, and perhaps the law of reason, foreign travel completes the education of an English gentlemen,” thus wrote the British historian Edward Gibbon, who went on his own Grand Tour in 1763.
The Grand Tour played a pivotal role in promoting the aesthetic education of the British ruling classes. It gave young men the opportunity to experience at first hand the art and architecture of Roman antiquity and of the Italian Renaissance, and it ensured that they had access to knowledgeable guides, so that they would gain a genuine appreciation of what they saw.
By the eighteenth century, the itinerary for most tours had become standardised, with Rome and Venice always the main drawcards – as the paintings in this room bear out.
Tours of this kind could last for several months – or, in some instances, years – and Grand Tourists were expected to come home with plenty of baggage. The souvenirs they collected, trappings and trophies of their journey abroad, became coveted status symbols when they returned home.
Among the most sought-after souvenirs were painted vedute, or views, of Venice, Rome and their surrounds. Most artists in this room – Francesco Guardi, Claude-Joseph Vernet, Giovanni Paolo Panini and Giovanni Antonio Canaletto – were renowned for their vedute.
And in Venice, Canaletto was by far the most famous. His most celebrated subject was the Grand Canal. Some of the most popular events for tourists to attend while in Venice was the Carnivale and the Regattas, which are still held in Venice once a year on February 2nd.
In this painting, Canaletto captures a mellow afternoon sunlight, with the warm colours of the masonry contrasted with the translucent blue-grey of the water. He captures the lively atmosphere of the regatta with the festive banners hung everywhere from windows and balconies. The artist’s attention to detail is evident in the throngs of people he has included in the scene. Locals and tourists, in their hundreds are shown, many dressed for the carnival, cheering on the racing oarsmen as they near the decorated barges, called bissone, and the finishing line of the race.
Canaletto’s career took off when his sales were managed by the British consul, Joseph Smith. The paintings proved so popular with the grand tourists that Smith arranged for the artist to go to London in 1746. It was a good career move. So much so that Canaletto extended his stay in England for nine years. His painting of Eton College, which is also in this room, was painted towards the end of his English sojourn.
The collection of paintings in the National Gallery, London, many of which were came from the private collections of those who had taken the Grand Tour, testifies to the impact this phenomenon had on successive generations of British artists.
When you have finished looking at all the paintings in this room please move through to The Discovery of Spain to continue your audio tour.