A few Augusts ago, in Positano, a precipitous town on Italy’s Amalfi coast long favored by tourists, I encountered a custom that I assumed was long dead. A group of Americans—three mothers, two fathers and five teenage sons and daughters—checked into my hotel. I asked one of the girls where they were coming from. She said they had already “done” Venice, Florence, and Rome and were about to do Pompeii, Capri and the Bay of Naples.
Those were all classic destinations on the Grand Tour, a tradition dating from 17th-century England, of sending the children of the educated classes to the Continent to imbibe the cultural riches of the Old World. Not to expose them to Europe’s churches, monuments, and museums was to bring them up half-civilized.
But I thought the tradition ended with World War II—specifically, with the Grand Tour my sister and I were taken on in the summer of 1939. War was declared while we were sailing home on the Statendam, and when it was over, in 1945, travel was no longer the possession of the privileged few; seven million American servicemen had joined the club. Within another decade jetliners would bring hordes of tourists to remote sites where only individual travelers had gone before. Angkor Wat was as reachable as Westminster Abbey.
But in 1939 we were typical Northeastern WASPs, living out America’s last age of innocence and isolation. It wouldn’t have occurred to my parents to venture outside our cultural orbit; we were still tethered to the countries across the Atlantic that our ancestors had come from. The churches we visited were Christian churches, the paintings we saw were Old Masters, the languages we heard and tried to speak were the one we had studied in school.
The Grand Tour, first mentioned in a book published in England in 1670, is defined as “a tour of continental Europe taken by young men of the British aristocracy to complete their education.” Parents were not yet part of the touring unit; their role was to put up the money and to push their sons across the English Channel: to the Low Countries, to Heidelberg and Weimar, and, above all, to Italy. “Sir,” said Samuel Johnson, “a man who has not seen Italy is always conscious of an inferiority from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”
The idea of Italy extended beyond Roman ruins and Renaissance art and came to embody a constellation of virtues, one of which was scenery; the view of Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples was deemed particularly uplifting. Other potent elements were southern sun and southern sexuality—forces of nature hardly imaginable to Anglo-Saxons trapped in cold northern climates and cold Protestant genes. By the early 1800s the rush to Italy was on, galvanized by Byron and other Romantic poets, two of whom—Keats and Shelley—went so far as to die there, romantically.
Since then, generations of English novelists, especially E. M. Forster, have found a rich theme in Italy’s agitating effect on the thin blood of their countrymen. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread—in which a 33-year-old Englishwoman, touring Tuscany with a female companion, impulsively marries a virile young Italian—is typical of the literature of the Grand Tour as a transforming rite.
I am no longer the insular lad who sailed home from Europe on the Statendam, cocooned in my pre-war universe of steamer chairs and deck stewards. When I next crossed the Atlantic it was on a troopship called the General Mann, which deposited me in North Africa. That immersion opened my eyes to the Arab world and would make me a lifelong traveler to remote parts of the Middle East and Asia and Africa. Those cultures would teach me to look and listen differently. I’ve seen art where there was no museum to certify it: calligraphy dancing across the walls of mosques, elegant pottery in African villages, ornate jewelry on tribal women. I’ve sat through infinite varieties of religious experience—temple dances in Bali, Buddhist ceremonies in Luang Prabang, condomblé rites in Bahia—and felt the spirit at work. I’ve heard Balinese gamelan music that I wouldn’t trade for Mozart.
If I were sending teenagers on a Grand Tour today I would tell them to go grandly in all directions—to discover that “grand” has a multitude of faces. Grand is Kyoto and the Great Wall of China. Grand is the Taj Mahal and the Mogul palaces of Rajasthan. Grand is Fez and Petra. Grand is Karnak and Angkor and Borobodur and the Shwe Dagon pagoda. Grand is Istanbul seen from an arriving ship. Grand is Jerusalem. Actually the young don’t need a push from me. Earlier this month The New York Times reported a huge jump in the number of American college students who spend their junior year abroad in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern countries, studying Arabic and absorbing their culture.
And yet I can’t help thinking of those young Americans in Positano. I enjoy reconstructing their route. They had just seen Brunelleschi’s dome for the first time, and Ghiberti’s baptistery doors, and Fra Angelico’s frescoes, and Michelangelo’s David. They had hiked all over Rome and stood in the nave of St. Peter’s and wandered among the ruins of the Roman Forum. Did they have the same powerful moments of elation that I still vividly remember when I first saw Florence and Rome at their age? I’m guessing that they did. They were lucky to have parents who may have heard that the Grand Tour was dead but didn’t believe it.
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