It was, by any measure, the most expensive education ever devised. Its classrooms were the capital of Europe, its textbooks the ruins and monuments of eighteen centuries. From it the young aristocrat could learn, if he chose, how to eat,dress, dance, converse, fight, and make love.
Before the end of the seventeenth century, education in England, as elsewhere in Europe, was confined to a narrow compass. At a very tender age gentlemen’s sons were boarded out to a country vicarage, then at age nine or ten left the country parson to attend grammar school in a neighboring country town where they boarded with the master. There they rubbed shoulders with local tradesmen’s sons. They dressed alike and spoke the same dialect. In those days a difference in social rank did not inhibit close social intercourse. At adolescence their ways tended to part. After two or three years at Oxford and Camebridge, he returned to help his father with his estate. Apart from a rare visit to London, his traveling days were over. He lived and died in his neighborhood. And this, with few variations, was the pattern of education throughout northwestern Europe.
Generally, governments regarded foreign travel as dangerous. Protestant states feared the wiles of Romish priests might corrupt their young and Catholic ones dreaded the contact with heresy. By 1700 all this had changed. The grammar schools and universities were emptying fast. Shopkeepers preferred the new education provided by private enterprise and which taught bookkeeping, languages, geography, navigation and other arts necessary for commercial life and gentlemen now sent their sons abroad on what was referred to as a Grand Tour.
By 1720, no Englishmen or German pretending to a place in society could expect to be regarded as anything but a country bumpkin unless he had spent two or three years in a France or Italy. The aristocracy of Russian and Scandinavia followed suit. The effect was to give a homogeneity of manners and taste to the nobility of eighteenth century Europe. One reason for this being the disruptive powers of religion were no longer acute; the ferocity of religious conflict had been assuaged by the growing sophistication of the educated classes. There was a decrease in religious strife, which was also civil, although to be hinest, religious barbarities were still perpetuated in the name of God.
The spread of philosophy, the cult of a rational deity and rational universe became fashionable amongst the upper classes which made parents fear less the dangers their sons’ souls might encounter from a sojourn abroad. The main reason, not surprisingly, was money. Europe was growing rich on the commercial profits which the New Worlds, East and West, had brought into being. Sugar, tobacco, slaves, and spices made the guineas jingle in the pockets of nobleman and merchant from Bristol to Hamburg. Rich, they were also raw and unpolished.
Unlike the Italians, and even to some extent the Frenchman,the English, Germans, Scandinavians and Russians possessed no ancient glory. They had no magnificent heritage from the ancient world and no buildings of beauty to greet them, whether in decay or ruin. They had a broken military wall, and an arch here and there that was merely testimony to their ancient slavery to Rome. Apart from these, they possessed only what their age professed to regard as barbarous; the great Gothic cathedrals and the vast castles of their immediate feudal past. Their nations had grown up outside the pale of culture. They belonged to Europe’s remoter provinces, its backwaters and frontiers to an outer world. In addition, they knew themselves to be uncouth. This had been made even more self-evident to them by the splendors of the court of Louis XIV.
Throughout Europe developed the feeling that at last the long centuries of barbarism were over, and that life could be lived with an elegance and dignity which was the hallmark of Roman gentility. At Versailles, Louis ha
eated a world of sophisticated aristocratic grandeur. His palace was vaster than any that had been built since the days of Imperial Rome. The implication being that Louis had created an equivalent to that of the magnificence of Augustus and his age. The classical world, either in its reflection of the Italian renaissance or in its own right, entranced Europe.
Louis XIV had achieved far more than a mere imitation of imperial grandeur. He had developed the arts of war and diplomacy to an efficiency which no other kingdom could rival, although all desired to do so. It was the only place a nobleman could learn to live according to his station. There he could discover how an aristocrat should eat, dress, dance, converse, love and fight. Yet, France was not sufficient. Taste could be formed only by a visit to the fountainhead of antiquity itself which was Italy.
To learn manners, to learn the only trades open to an aristocrat, war and diplomacy, to learn the culture of his class, made a Grand Tour a necessity for the young English or german peer. Fortunately the new wealth that was seeping into Europe enabled him to afford what was the most extravagant form of education ever devised by European society. The young nobleman resided abroad usually for three or four years and more often than not was accompanied by two tutors; one for bookish study, the other for riding, fencing, and the arts of war.
The Tour started very modestly with a stay in a French provincial town, preferably where the English were few, so that the boy was forced to speak,. The days were meticulously regulated, but the regimentation waned once the Tour reached Paris, with its salons and sophistication. Naturally, the well born were amply provided with introductions to aristocratic circles and usually they were presented at court. Weeks of balls and parties followed, interspersed with buying luxury goods which could include porcelain of Sevres, terra cotta by Clodion and bronzes by Bouchardon. Before Paris endangered the morals or ruined the finances, the young nobleman’s steps would be diverted towards Italy.
It was the nature of the Grand Tour to increase in entertainment and diminish in education as time passed. Also, romanticism, through Rousseau, was making the transition easier by insisting that the feelings needed education as much as the mind.
Italy was the land of marvels, the antique shop of Europe. All Englishmen were expected to return festooned with works of art and they became dilettantes overnight, talking with assurance of patina and of significant form. The discoveries at Pompeii and other sites inflamed the imagination and speculators dug feverishly for Roman marbles and bronzes. Italy, however offered more than art. Better an Italian countess, Catholic and married, than an English actress, marriageable but impossible. Furthermore the Italian countess was likely to improve his style not only in the arts of elegant flirtation but also for training him for the marriage bed. Strenuous sight-seeing days followed by nights, equally strenuous, of amorous dalliance completed the education of the young nobleman abroad.
After one or two years in Italy, the long voyage home began. He returned sophisticated, urbane, and a ”cognoscente”. On his return to paris, the success of his Grand Tour could be measured by the ease with which he bore himself in the salons. Back at home, he joined a magic circle, that now truly defined the distinctions between the aristocratic classes and the rest of society. The cost was great. By modern standards about, a million dollars a year, if not far more. Expensive though it might be, it drew more and more people into its orbit; indeed, not only the young and aristocratic but also the middle aged and the middle class.
As steamships and railways replaced the sailing ship and the coach, the swarm became a flood and finally submerged the Grand Tour. Under the pressure of middle class values, aristocratic standards of education began to give way and the tutor and the Grand Tour were replaced by the public school and university. Entertainment became the aim of foreign travel rather than education and fine manners.