1.3 The Grand Tour

Read the following excerpt from Sarah Goldsmith’s book, Masculinity and Danger on the Eighteenth-Century Grand Tour.


Eighteenth-century Britain was a society in constant motion. As the country’s trading empire grew, vessels set sail to explore and trade around the globe. Within the British Isles, aristocratic households moved regularly between the town and country, labouring communities migrated for work, and domestic tourism was on the rise. Between the extremities of global and domestic travel lay the destination of continental Europe. Diplomatic, military, trade, intellectual and artistic networks facilitated travel across the channel at almost every level of society. These occupational travellers frequently took the opportunity to enact the role of tourist and were joined by a growing body of travellers from elite and middling backgrounds whose purpose for going abroad rested entirely on reasons of pleasure, curiosity and health. This nascent culture of tourism could result in short week- or month-long trips or in years spent in expatriate communities. It was stimulated by a developing genre of travel writing, which was also highly influential in the diffusion of key cultural trends, including the novel, sentimentalism, the sublime and picturesque, and Romanticism.

In the midst of this was the Grand Tour, a well-established educational practice undertaken by the sons of many eighteenth-century aristocratic and gentry families. The Tour, which dates back to the Elizabethan era, had its roots in a long tradition of travel as a means of male formation, which included the medieval practice of raising young boys in noble households and the Renaissance custom of peregrination. Its participants were young elite men in their late teens and early twenties, often travelling after school, home tutoring or university but before the responsibilities of adult life. As this was the most expensive, time-consuming and socially exclusive of the early modern options of educational travel, a Grand Tourist was typically the family heir, often with companions. These were mostly tutors (part companion, part in loco parentis) and servants, but could also include younger brothers, friends of a lesser rank and older male companions. These groups embarked on journeys that typically lasted between three to four years, although they could be as long as five years or as short as several months. During this time, Grand Tourists received a formal education, through tutors, academies and universities, and an experiential one, via encounters with a wide variety of European countries, societies and cultures. Key destinations included the cities, courts and environs of France, the Netherlands and Low Countries, the German principalities, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, with occasional excursions further afield.

As a practice of travel that catered exclusively to the young, elite and male, the Grand Tour had a distinctly educational purpose that distinguished it from other cultures of eighteenth-century travel. The Tour was understood as a finishing school of masculinity, a coming-of- age process, and an important rite of passage that was intended to form young men in their adult masculine identities by endowing them with the skills and virtues most highly prized by the elite.[1] ¹ As a cornerstone of elite masculine education, it was a vital part of this social group’s understanding, practice and construction of masculinity, and of their wider strategies of self-fashioning and power.² This intrinsic relationship between the Grand Tour and elite masculinity is at the heart of Masculinity and Danger on the Eighteenth-Century Grand Tour.

Studies of the Grand Tour have typically focused on the destinations of Italy and France, and asserted that the Tour’s itinerary and goals prioritized polite accomplishments, classical republican virtue and an aesthetic appreciation of the antique. On the Grand Tour, elite young men were supposedly taught to wield power and social superiority primarily through cultural means. Through this, it is argued, male tourists were formed in a code of masculinity that was singularly polite and civil. This conclusion is influenced by the history of masculinity’s early theory – adapted from the sociologist R. W. Connell – which argued that historical understandings of maleness were dominated by a succession of hegemonic expressions of masculinity. As a cultural institution exclusively associated with the polite man, the Grand Tour has been viewed as a tool used to propagate and enforce a hegemonic norm. It is a principal contention of this book that these approaches have masked the full depth, breadth and complexity of the Grand Tour and, correspondingly, of eighteenth-century elite masculinity. As the book’s title suggests, it offers a reassessment of the Tour’s significance for the history of elite masculinity by investigating its aims, agendas and itineraries through bringing together archival evidence around the theme of danger.

The Grand Tour was an institution of elite masculine formation that took place in numerous environs across Europe, resulted in myriad experiences, and imparted a host of skills and knowledge. In his memoirs, published after his death in 1794, the historian and MP Edward Gibbon reflected on the ideal capacities of a Grand Tourist. Alongside ‘an active indefatigable vigour of mind and body’ and ‘careless smile’ for the hardships of travel, the Tourist, or traveller, required a ‘fearless’, ‘restless curiosity’ that would drive him to encounter floods, mountains and mines in pursuit of ‘the most doubtful promise of entertainment or instruction’. The Tourist must also gain ‘the practical knowledge of husbandry and manufactures … be a chemist, a botanist, and a master of mechanics’. He must develop a ‘musical ear’, dexterous pencil, and a ‘correct and exquisite eye’ that could discern the merits of landscapes, pictures and buildings. Finally, the young man should have a ‘flexible temper which can assimilate itself to every tone of society, from the court to the cottage’. In a line later edited out, he concluded that this was a ‘sketch of ideal perfection’.³

Gibbon’s list was wide-ranging, but even so he included only some of the Tour’s agenda. He made no mention of one of the most common expectations surrounding the Tour: that young men would gain an insight into the politics, military establishment, economy, industries and, increasingly, the manners and customs of other nations. The impressive diversity of the Tour’s agenda was intentionally ambitious and unified by a single aim: to demonstrate, preserve and reinforce elite male power on an individual, familial, national and international level. Acknowledging the full breadth of the Grand Tour’s ambition allows one to consider how this goal was achieved through a complex, calculated use of practice, performance, place, and narrative. This book starts the process of unpacking the full extent of the Tour’s diversity by offering an in-depth examination of its provision of military education and engagement with war; the Tour as a health regime; Tourists’ participation in physical exercises, sports and the hardships of travel; and their physical, scientific and aesthetic engagement with the natural phenomena of the Alps and Vesuvius. Each episode in this agenda is united by two factors: it was understood to harbour elements of physical risk, and it has been largely neglected by existing scholarship. During these activities, encounters with danger were often idealized and used as important and formative opportunities that assisted young men in cultivating physical health, ‘hardy’ martial masculine virtues of courage, self-control, daring, curiosity and endurance, and an identity that was simultaneously British, elite and cosmopolitan.

In identifying the significance of ‘hardy’, martial masculinities to eighteenth-century elite culture, this book is not arguing that the masculinities of polite connoisseurship were any less important. Rather, it contends that the Grand Tour’s diversity of aims, locations and itineraries was intentionally used to form men in multiple codes of elite masculine identity. To have a ‘flexible temper’ that could be assimilated in ‘every company and situation’ was not simply a hallmark of polite sociability.4 It was evidence of a masculine trait of adaptability. Acknowledging that adaptability and multiplicity were crucial components to elite masculinity as a whole is central to moving the history of masculinity beyond the search for a hegemonic norm. Examining these issues through the theme of danger and hardy masculinity adds another degree of complexity to understanding the types of men that the eighteenth-century elite wished the next generation of British political, military and social leaders to be.

The itineraries, agendas and mentalities explored throughout this book are not easily visible in the contemporary published literature surrounding the Grand Tour and have, for the most part, been recovered through an analysis of archival sources. The Tour’s highly prized status has meant that related correspondence, journals, tutor reports and financial records were often carefully preserved. This book draws on research into more than thirty Grand Tours, taking place between 1700 and 1780, and closely follows the experiences and writings of these gentry and aristocratic Grand Tourists, their tutors, companions, servants and dogs. These men exchanged correspondence with a wider range of male and female family members, friends, diplomats and members of a continental elite befriended during their travels; they also wrote diaries and memoirs, commissioned and purchased portraits, artwork and mementos and, in the case of some tutors, published literature based on their travels. Recovering an individual and familial perspective allows one to delve beyond the cultural representation of the Tour into richly textured accounts of lived experience in all its complexity. Probing the differences between published and archival accounts enables a fuller, nuanced understanding of how the British elite as a community understood the Grand Tour, the masculinities that families hoped to cultivate in their sons and that these sons desired for themselves, and the ways in which this cultivation was undertaken. By investigating the priorities, agendas and beliefs evident in these sources, a collective elite agenda can be distilled while still allowing for individual approaches, divergences and disagreements.



  1. For scholarly discussions of the Grand Tour as a form of initiation, see B. Redford, Venice and the Grand Tour (New Haven, Conn. and London, 1996), pp. 7–9, 14–15; M. Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1996), pp. 54–63; R. Sweet, Cities and the Grand Tour: the British in Italy, c.1690– 1820 (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 23–5.
  2. H. Greig, The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (Oxford, 2013), pp. 24–5; S. Conway, England, Ireland and Continental Europe in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2011), ch. 7.
  3. British Library (Brit. Libr.)., Add. MS. 34874 C, ‘Memoirs of the life and writings of Edward Gibbon, written c.1789–90’, fos. 29–30.
  4. Brit. Libr., Add. MS. 34874 C, ‘Memoirs of the life and writings of Edward Gibbon, written c.1789–90’, fos. 29–30.



“Introduction” in Masculinity and Danger on the Eighteenth-Century Grand Tour by Sarah Goldsmith published by University of London Press, Institute of Historical Research is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. For scholarly discussions of the Grand Tour as a form of initiation, see B. Redford, Venice and the Grand Tour (New Haven, Conn. and London, 1996), pp. 7–9, 14–15; M. Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1996), pp. 54–63; R. Sweet, Cities and the Grand Tour: the British in Italy, c.1690– 1820 (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 23–5.


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