When I was in college, a popular English course on theater took place in London where students mainly read and attended plays throughout the term. I never got the chance to take this class, but almost everyone I knew who did returned with a souvenir tray depicting a map of the Tube, London’s subway system. Any time I spotted this tray in someone’s dorm room, I knew that person had probably spent time abroad on this educational adventure.

In many ways, this course served as an equivalent of the “Grand Tour” at my college, and the tray proclaimed that its owner had traveled overseas both to study and to experience similar “high culture” firsthand—and was able to afford to pay the extra money to make the trip. This coveted souvenir item, it turns out, was not unique to my college, as I would later see it in the possession of friends in graduate school who had acquired the same tray when they did a similar term abroad in England at their respective college or university.

The age of the Grand Tour of Europe—where the sons, and occasionally daughters, of aristocrats and wealthy merchants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spent a year or more touring the Continent to become cultured—also marks the birth of souvenirs as we think of them today. The young people with real wealth returned with paintings of themselves during the trip, not unlike the snapshots and selfies we take of ourselves while on vacation. Some acquired  prints and lithographs of ancient sites, not unlike the postcards we collect. And popular purchases included small stones with depictions of famous sites carved into them, not unlike the small trinkets sold in today’s souvenir shops.

The Rise of the Grand Tour

The Renaissance solidified the importance of studying ancient classical civilizations, which became a central component in the curriculum of anyone considered to be highly educated. With the rise of the merchant class in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more people beyond the aristocracy now had money to travel and experience firsthand as part of their formative education the cultural and archaeological achievements of European  civilizations, especially Italy and to some extent Greece. The highly publicized archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the eighteenth century only added to this intense interest.

Joseph Addison’s “Remarks on Several Parts of Italy” (Internet Archive).

Those who embarked on this trip were generally in their 20s and 30s, although some could be as young as 16. They often traveled in a group with a leader or tutor accompanying them to ensure that they learned what they needed to know and did not miss any important sites. In the early eighteenth century, guidebooks that directed travelers to key sites also began to be published, such as Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, which encouraged tourists to experience and enjoy Italy’s landscape, not just its antiquities. Most tourists were British, although people from other parts of northern Europe also made the trip south, and due to the expense of travel most of them were members of wealthy families, except for those lucky enough to have a benefactor sponsor their trip.

Justifications for embarking on a Grand Tour emphasized education. The voyage provided opportunities to learn more about foreign cultures, law, and politics in a way that could not be replicated at home. Such an expanded outlook on the world came in handy for anyone who would one day engage in international trade and nation building. The Tour was also a chance for young people to learn how to fend for themselves in strange lands and cope with potentially unsettling experiences. Along the way, travelers picked up practical skills, such as fencing, dancing, horse-riding, and foreign languages—everything that a gentleman, or at times a gentlewoman, would need to know. The concentrated popularity of such travels helped students develop key contacts with people who could benefit them later in their careers. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour had become a rite of passage for anyone from a wealthy family, not unlike the way going to college is today.

In the Western world, the Grand Tour marks the beginning of tourism as we think of it today, albeit for a highly privileged class. We have already seen how travel during the Middle Ages , unless undertaken for business or political reasons, was mainly consigned to religious pilgrimages. With the Grand Tour, people embarking on voluntary travel now did so mainly for secular reasons, namely education, social connections—and pleasure!

Grand Tour Souvenirs

An important part of the Grand Tour, of course, was collecting souvenirs. The most popular souvenirs included statues and sculptures. Originals were preferable, although most of those collected were likely copies, and at least some of the ones billed as originals were of questionable origin and quality. Some travelers skipped collecting statues and sculptures altogether and simply returned with crates of marble fragments hacked off from the Roman Forum and other ancient ruins, which they could then make into, say, a polished tabletop. Prints depicting ancient ruins and copies of fine Renaissance paintings were also popular, as were books and mosaics.

British tourists became fond of Murano glass from the famous glass-making island off Venice, especially glass handles imitating lapis lazuli. Cork models of classical monuments in Italy first appeared in the late 1760s and included models of temples, tombs, amphitheaters, and other buildings. In their choice of material, the cork models both evoked the grandeur and decay of Roman and Greek architecture, a popular theme as we will later learn. They remained well-known acquisitions for tourists into the nineteenth century.

1741 Lattimo glass plate, commissioned by Horace Walpole (British Museum)

Horace Walpole’s acquisition in 1741 of a set of Lattimo plates gives us some insight into the experience of souvenir collecting on the Grand Tour. The plates contain images of famous places in Venice, such as the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, and Walpole most likely had them specially commissioned since they were not sold in the general marketplace at the time. The images were taken from Antonio Visentini’s series of engravings, which were then made available for painters of the plates to copy, and the commission was most likely brokered by Joseph Smith, a British merchant and banker for English tourists.

Brokers were often involved in high-end souvenir acquisitions. In fact, employees at consular services set up by the British government were often enlisted to provide such services as part of their duties. Tourists often engaged Horace Mann, an English minister who worked in Rome, to obtain artifacts, such as vases, for them. If a consular official was not available, self-appointed guides could also broker commissions for pictures, prints, and other curiosities, for a fee of course.

Charles Townley, surrounded by his spoil of classical objects collected on the Grand Tour, with a few chosen friends in Johann Zofanny’s “Library at 7 Park Street in Westminster” (1782).

Large scale paintings, statues, vases, and bronzes were mainly the purview of the wealthiest of Grand Tour travelers. For those with less money, cameos (especially those of Roman emperors), and intaglios (i.e., engraved gems) became desirable souvenirs. Their small size made them easy to transport, yet they also contained desirable images connected to places that the educated tourists visited. Ancient intaglios and sealstones turned up by peasants while working in the fields could be found by the bowlfuls at the market in Piazza Navona and purchased for cheap. These ancient artifacts and their ready purchasers inspired craftsmen to set up workshops to reproduce the most popular of these engraved gems, which were reproduced so accurately from casts that it could be difficult to distinguish the copies from the originals. Small gems that depicted the most famous relics or ancient statues and could easily be mounted on a ring were highly popular.

The most coveted souvenir, though, was either a portrait painted in a place that was recognizably in Italy or a painting of the traveler surrounded by the relics of ancient antiquity that he had been studying during his trip to reinforce in the minds of its viewers his acquired education. In later posts, we will explore more closely two artists who took advantage of this market and produced highly innovative works for travelers on the Grand Tour: Giovanni Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

Works Consulted

Charleston, R. J. “Souvenirs of the Grand Tour.” Journal of Glass Studies 1 (1959), 62-82.

Gillespie, Richard. “The Rise and Fall of Cork Model Collections in Britain.” Architectural History 60 (2017), pp. 117-146.

Hulsenboom, Paul and Alan Moss. “Tracing the Sites of Learned Men: Places and Objects of Knowledge on the Dutch and Polish Grand Tour.” Memory and Identity in the Learned World: Community Formation in the Early Modern World of Learning and Science. Ed. Koen Scholten, et. al. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2022.

Mardueño, Melina. “The Grand Tour in Italy.” Piranesi in Rome. Web Exhibit: http://omeka.wellesley.edu/piranesi-rome/exhibits/show/grandtouritaly.

Seidmann, Gertrud. “Grand Souvenirs.” RSA Journal 144:5474 (November 1996), 37-39.

—. “The Grand Tourist’s Favourite Souvenirs: Cameos and Intaglios.” RSA Journal 144:5475 (December 1996), 63-66.

Add your thoughts