The Grand Tour: Art and Travel of the 18th Century

Course instructor Birgit Urmson, Ph.D., explains how to get more enjoyment out of your museum visits

What is an allegory, a symbol, or an emblem? How do we distinguish Rococo from the Baroque? Why the rise in Neoclassicism in the mid-18th century? Tourists may encounter famous art without really seeing and understanding it for lack of grounding in art history.

In Birgit Urmson's course, The Grand Tour, Art and Travel of the 18th Century, she asks you to accompany the upper-class English-speaking traveler of the 18th century to Rome, with stops in Paris, Turin, Venice, Florence, and—perhaps—Naples and Pompeii. Through the eyes and experiences of those renowned travelers, you learn to recognize the different art periods: Classical Greek/Roman, Renaissance, Baroque and Late Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical.

Through a systematic approach, you see styles, trace their evolution and recognize themes so that paintings, sculpture and architecture share their richly evocative stories of time and place.

Go beyond oohing and aahing at the splendor of French Baroque at Versailles, and understand how that sumptuous detail reflects and buttresses absolute royal authority.

Palace of Versailles

Art and architecture have deeper stories to tell beyond the apparent form, volume, line and color. And these stories help develop your eye for what makes fine art important. The Roman Baroque’s magnificence served powerful Roman families and the Papal Court. In Paris, the Louvre’s famous East Front expresses self-confidence and Louis XIV’s French superiority. French painter Jacques-Louis David’s sensational works at the end of the 18th century shout out revolutionary zeal.

In painting, the allure of color, the beauty of line, the mystery of pictorial space, and the drama of the composition tell stories. In portraiture, we see images of saints, gods, and sovereigns. Famous historical scenes cover panels and ceilings in churches and palazzos. We will learn about the role of imagination, the dialogue between a painting and its viewer. What was the message? How does painting reveal and confirm a social and mental universe? How, for example, does Michelangelo’s famous Last Judgment reveal shock caused by the Protestant Reformation, and the Papacy’s attempt to triumph over it?

Grand Tourists of any age need to understand the context in which art was created. This is particularly true for statuary in public spaces, such as the royal equestrian genre, busts of important personalities, and the innumerable statues of saints and martyrs on the facades and in the cavernous interiors of Italian churches.

Tiepolo ceiling painting in Venice's Ca' Rezzonico

The English traveler first encountered Rococo’s playful, light ornamentation in France. Later, Venice’s sweet decadence was sure to seduce with its refined aesthetics. Venice’s famous annual Carnival, which went on for seven months, and Tiepolo’s light-handed painted universe, full of delights, proved irresistible. With the 18th-century’s birth of freedom of thought, the Enlightenment, frolicking gods and visions of martyrdom give way to art’s increasingly personal and private turn, becoming more accessible, developing a fascination for the natural world, and feeling more modern.

Greek Temple in Paestum, Italy

Sumptuous Rome with its imposing structures such as St. Peter’s Dome, its theatres and its music, was on every Grand Tourist’s plan, and what occupied and fascinated most was the discovery of antique Roman art. Antiquity was new, and became a veritable craze. Tourists visited Greek and Roman ruins, viewed ancient sculpture, and read classical authors.

“Noble Simplicity and Calm Grandeur”... J.J. Winckelmann, considered the first art historian, used these words to describe Roman marble copies of Greek statuary. The Torso of Belvedere and the Laocoon Group, aesthetic points-of-departure for painting and sculpture since the Renaissance, became “must-sees.” Copies of ancient Roman and Greek temples began to appear, in variations, throughout England, along with temples to Venus and Italian paintings, both originals and many good copies. Elegant neo-classical decorations appeared in dining and drawing rooms. A little later, these appeared in North America as well. Classical ideality, ideal nudity, and classical orders in architecture can be seen throughout subsequent periods in Western art.

View of San Marco from San Giorgio Maggiore

Grand Tourists also had an effect on the local economy. Travelers were anxious to acquire, and this spawned a lively trade in restored and copied artifacts from antiquity, and portraits done by Italian masters. Clever artists developed the Veduta, a view over the city by, among others, Canaletto in Venice and Piranesi in Rome. Artists also developed the Capriccio, a fantastic painting where the city’s topography and its relics from antiquity are presented together in one space in a captivating mix of the real and the imaginary.

Urmson's The Grand Tour: Art and Travel of the 18th Century starts March 17 in San Francisco. Open your eyes, mind and imagination to a world of infinite creation, and prepare yourself for your next big adventure.