The Modern Italian Grand Tour

Despite the start of the Italian Grand Tour tradition 300 years ago, many of the same customs are practiced by students today.

Italian Grand Tour Venice
Rialto Bridge at sunset, Venice. Photo: Rebe Adelaida on Unsplash.

Every year, tens of thousands of international students flock to Italian shores as part of their study abroad experience. During their term in Italy, students take in the art, architecture, food — and, of course, wine. The Bel paese is unsurprisingly the most popular destination for study abroad excursions. This tradition, however, is nothing new. The practice of educational excursions is rooted in a long history dating back to the 17th century, and many aspects of the tour haven’t changed over 300 years. One could consider these new waves of students the ‘Modern Italian Grand Tour’.

What we know today as the Grand Tour started in the late 1600s, as a means for aristocratic young men — and some women — to see their classical education come alive in the halls of the Uffizi and at the Roman Forum. The trips were obviously limited to graduates and families of a certain social class that could afford the expenses of travel to the continent. Some travelers would go for a few months, others would stay for years, and others still would relocate indefinitely. Most students were accompanied by chaperones or teachers that would guide their activities and visits.  

The journey typically originated in London. Students would then travel by ship from Dover on the English coast across the Channel to Calais on the French side. A stopover in Paris was a must in order to catch the Louvre. From here, tourists would either be transported over the Alps or across the Mediterranean to reach their final destination: Italy. The most attractive Italian cities on the Grand Tour were Venice, Florence and Rome — all of which remain favored sites for study abroad students to this day. To think how simple international travel is today and that students from all over the world come to study and live in Italy for a brief period of time.

Activities on the Grand Tour did not differ so dramatically from the frivolities of today’s student population. Despite the educational motive of the trip, the young people of the original Grand Tour found ways to let loose, including, gambling, sampling the local spirits and even trysts with Italian lovers. Visitors also made sure to enjoy traditional Italian festivals, such as Carnevale in Venice and Holy Week in Rome. For many, this was the first time away from their family’s watchful eye, and the freedom was exotic. Similar to students of today, many used their travels as an opportunity to escape the confines of their lives at home in favor of adventure abroad. 

Today, students have the ability to FaceTime family and friends in their home country to recount their travels. They blog their experience, which of course, is full of anecdotal mishaps and life lessons. Back in the 17th century, however, journaling and letters home were the only means of communication and recollection. Moreover, many travelers were inspired by the beauty and art that surrounded them, so much so that they took to their notepads to scribble original impressions themselves. Lord Byron and John Keats were among the notable Grand Tourists that, inspired by the luscious countryside and magnificent villas, penned some of their most famous poetry against the Italian backdrop.

Souvenirs from grand touring have evolved over time, as well. Whereas current students stuff their bags with leather goods and bottles of limoncello, Anglo tourists of yore set their sights on spoils a bit more refined. Travelers acquired replicas of classical sculptures, monuments and buildings or ruins,” which were often cast in quality stones, such as bronze, alabaster and marble. Clearly, these tourists were not bound by the strict baggage rules of contemporary airlines (Ryanair). The original Grand Tourist’s version of a selfie was a tasteful painting commissioned by local artists, and the landscape photos were instead oil paintings by Canaletto

Although the start of the Italian Grand Tour tradition was over 300 years ago, many of the same customs are practiced by students today. Modern day academic tourists to Italy follow a long legacy of visitors in their appreciation for the country’s art, natural beauty and finer delicacies. Although, tourism and educational travel have suffered during the pandemic, if history tells us anything, it is that all roads will lead to Rome (and the rest of Italy) again soon.

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