Venice and the Grand Tour by Bruce Redford - review by Jan Morris

Jan Morris

Make Him a Smooth Eunuch or an Enamoured Swain

Venice and the Grand Tour

By

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This sumptuous book promises badly. On its opening page its author, who is Professor of English at the University of Chicago, refers us to the first lines of Pride and Prejudice, currently much in vogue in the Austen-crazy United States: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’

‘On close inspection’, Professor Redford tells us, this proposition casts ‘an ironic shadow’ over its own certitude. You don’t say! On close inspection, an ironic shadow! If an author needs close inspection to see the irony in Jane Austen’s most famous sentence, one may wonder if he is best qualified to write a book about an institution so chock-a-block with ironies as the English Grand Tour of the eighteenth century.

It would be agreeable to report that he soon proves one wrong, but the truth is that Professor Redford faithfully honours his promise, and proceeds on his task with leaden-footed earnestness, employing such a plethora of notes and references and literary glosses that he would provide welcome fodder for the humorists who got so much amusement from the Grand Tour itself. The book, which looks so lovely, turns out to be no more than a learned thesis. We are repeatedly told, thesis-style, just what its intentions are: ‘In its second half the chapter turns to counter-narrative…’; ‘My account of Venice’s mythic aura makes use of three aspects or categories…’

Ah well, that’s academe for you, and if Redford is no lyricist, there is no denying his scholarship. His book contains a rich anthology of quotations from dozens of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Grand Tourists, and from contemporary commentators, and he is very good on the ideological urges that lay behind the Tour: the growing English instinct for international hegemony; the choices of Rome and Venice, in particular, as proper objects of study and comparison. He also considers with a new freshness the artistic effects of the whole enterprise, the blending of styles that sprang from it and the wonderfully revealing portraiture that it engendered. Bruce Redford is a Professor of English Literature, but he is also a perceptive writer about art.

The point about the Grand Tour (and the reason for Redford’s emphasis upon Venice) is that its purpose was essentially dual. On the one hand, the young Englishman, generally accompanied by a suitable tutor, set off to acquire the noble virtues of patrician responsibility, by seeing for himself the monuments of classical antiquity: Rome was the place for that. On the other hand, he was to be initiated into the ways of the world, don’t you know, give the boy a taste of real life, make a man of him, and nowhere was better for that kind of experience than Venice, itself both an inspiring model from the more recent past and an awful warning of what England might one day become: ‘where, eased of Fleets, the Adriatic main/Wafts the smooth Eunuch and enamour’d swain…’

Redford effectively illustrates this dichotomy by discussing two forms of portrait-painting that sprang directly from the Grand Tour. In Venice, Rosalba Carriera made herself famous, and set an international artistic fashion, by painting decorative pastel portraits of well-bred young Englishmen – ‘daringly modish’, thought the engraver George Vertue – and two of them are beautifully reproduced here. Both the sitters are young aristocrats – a Viscount Boyne, a Duke of Dorset – and they both look ridiculous, dressed up Carnival-style in ribbons and fripperies, as though Mummy lovingly got them up for a parish fête but they went on to sleep with the vicar. Androgynous, arrogant in a Hooray Henry-style, as Redford says, they breathe ‘an aura of hothouse luxuriance’.

Down in Rome, Pompeo Bationi was fulfilling the milords’ commissions in a different way. His oils show the future leaders of English society much more formidably, surrounded not by licentious suggestion but by the stern symbolisms of Roman architecture. Young Lord Charlemont looks like a City money-trader of the most predatory kind; Sir Gregory Page-Turner is apparently about to launch himself into an improving speech to his tenants; Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham, though decidedly no weightlifter, seems about to set off with his dog on some fairly heroic journey; and John Chetwynd-Turner looks rather as John Redwood might look if he were better-groomed, better-featured and dressed in silken breeches. Four young men to be proud of, in short, getting the very best from their expensive educations.

It is just this ironic contrast that so amused contemporary observers of the Grand Tour, and which Redford does his best to capture by uncountable quotes and references. The effect of the Grand Tour could really be very comical, and writers from Smollett to Sterne made effective fun of it. Of course the Tour worked for many of its participants, helping to make them an exceptionally cultivated and well-qualified national elite, but you would not know it from the satirists. For them, either the young man came back a stuck-up prig, or he came back a dilettante, a womaniser or a straightforward queer. Soame Jenyns saw the graduate of the Tour as ‘Half Atheist, Papist, Gamester, Bubble, Rook/Half Fiddler, Coachman, Dancer, Groom and Cook’. Pope thought he was ‘half cur’d, and perfectly well-bred,/With nothing but a Solo in his head’. A marvellous eighteenth-century cartoon shows a down-to-earth English squire joyously welcoming home from the Grand Tour his beloved son ­– who has been transformed into the most preposterous of coxcombs, with a mincing posture and a wig so towering that he has to take his hat off with a stick. ‘Welladay!’ cries the poor old boy in a state of shock, ‘is this my son Tom?’

The Grand Tour of Europe no longer forms part of an English higher education, but the Visit to America certainly does – remember the Martin Arnis character whose one claim to distinction was that he had not been to the United States? The wheel turned, and keeps turning. By the nineteenth century Italy, it seemed, no longer had lessons for England as the exemplar of civilisation. Things German, things French have gone in and out of cultural fashion. Now the young English, as soon as they can, go off to the Big Time across the Atlantic. The grass is always greener over the fence, but I am inclined to agree with Laurence Sterne that if you really want your children to cultivate the finer instincts, you may just as well keep them at home.

But welladay! Just you try.

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