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					            Amsterdam 22-28 August 2010, 21st ICHS (International Congress of Historical Sciences)

Paola Bianchi
(Università della Valle d’Aosta)

Exploring modern Italy.
The Changing Culture of Grand Tour during the Eighteenth Century
1. Introduction
Much has been written about the Grand Tour, but travel journals, memoirs and even the
correspondence sent by travellers represent some of the most difficult sources to interpret. The play
of mirrors between fiction and reality often means that these first-hand accounts describing the
customs of a foreign country are unreliable. However, by analysing the interplay between
observation and stereotype, fact and myth, there is no question that the phenomenon of the tour and
the educational tour that is the focus of this paper allows us to highlight important aspects of the
cultural experience of European ruling groups. While it is well known that the “discovery of Italy”
and Renaissance culture represented a key turning point between the late fifteenth and the first half
of the sixteenth century, and that the travel literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth century was
characterised by greater originality than that of the eighteenth century, it is equally justifiable to
identify an accelerated circulation of men and ideas in the eighteenth century that in many ways
reflected the consolidation of the new wave of nationalism and the reinterpretation of antique and
modern concepts.
In the eighteenth century Italy was the favourite destination for travellers seeking to round off their
education. No longer a fertile breeding ground for magnificent Renaissance courts, neither was it
simply the setting for the political crisis that had developed since the late sixteenth century nor just
a vast open-air museum for Greek and Roman antiquities. While music, architecture and painting
continued to foster exchanges and “cultural exports” between the Peninsula and Europe, it is also
true that many gentlemen continued to reflect on the forms of power and diplomacy.
In this paper I would like to focus on this particular aspect, one that has not been extensively
studied but which attracted various groups of students. In the first place I will analyse some of the
experiences of young noblemen who arrived in Italy to frequent the main artistic and archeological
centres, the social gatherings or “salotti” and theatres, but also the colleges, academies and courts. I
will refer, in particular, to those groups of noblemen who chose to further their education in an
academy that trained the sons of the nobility for military and civil service. By the eighteenth
century, a profound osmosis had been formed between the so-called Ritterakademien and other
cultural institutions, although the latter continued to guarantee exclusive privileges: their students
had access to court life where they could familiarise themselves with the ceremonies of government
and diplomatic circles. These academies represented a training ground that offered access to active
politics and aristocratic social life.

2. The Ritterakademien and Italian society
The Ritterakademien first developed in France, as well as in the Italian and German states, during
the sixteenth century, but during the seventeenth century they became a typical expression of
baroque culture, superseding the stylistic elements that had become established during the
Renaissance. The survival of these institutions in the eighteenth century allows a study of their
ability to dialogue with a political and social context that was by then very different.
Paris held the accolade for being one of the most visited destinations in France since the sixteenth
century. In Germany, a significant antecedent was the college founded in Tubingen in 1596. This
model had influenced the choices of other local rulers. The Landgraf Maurice of Hesse and King
Christian IV of Denmark had established the Collegium Adelphicum Mauritianum of Kassel and
the Kongelige Adelige Akademie of Sorø, respectively. After the crisis of the Thirty Years’ War a
number of similar institutions were founded in the second half of the seventeenth century. In 1687
the Ritterakademie of Wolfenbüttel was established, becoming the model for the academies of

            Amsterdam 22-28 August 2010, 21st ICHS (International Congress of Historical Sciences)

Berlin, Lignitz and Copenhagen. From the last years of the century, members of the German and
imperial aristocracy were attracted by the academy set up by Duke Leopold of Lorena in 1699 in
Lunéville, where it survived until 1736, namely until the court of Lorraine was transferred to
Florence in Tuscany.
In Italy, cities like Treviso, Vicenza, Bologna and Padua had shown a lead in this sense during the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But the institutions created there were on the whole short-lived
and attracted a relatively small number of students. During the seventeenth century, when the Grand
Tour route followed by the higher ranks of the aristocracy had already been clearly traced, the
colleges controlled by religious orders (seminaria nobilium) started to compete with the military
academies. Parma, Modena, Bologna and Siena had successfully welcomed the Jesuit-inspired ratio
studiorum, while the military academies had not yet achieved the harmonious blend of physical
exercise and the study of theoretical subjects that was the goal of the religious colleges. The closing
decades of the seventeenth century saw a change in this situation: the leading Ritterakademien
rationalised their programmes, adding the teaching of mathematics, civil and military architecture,
history, geography, ethics, civil law and a number of modern languages (French, German and
Italian, in particular) to the chivalric arts (horsemanship, dancing, fencing). Moreover, since the mid
seventeenth century, an important trend had emerged that would transform the educational journey:
princes consolidated their patronage of the military academies by linking them to their courts, to the
schools for pages and to leading courtiers. These political and cultural phenomena had a marked
influence on the choices made by noblemen planning their journey to Italy.
Turin, capital of the Duchy of Savoia, a small state with a growing reputation, which was promoted
to the rank of kingdom (first of Sicily, then of Sardinia between 1720 and 1861), was ideally placed
to exploit this phenomenon. Located on one of well-established routes linking France to Piedmont,
the Duchy founded a military academy, the Accademia Reale di Torino, in 1678 to guarantee a
lasting flow of foreign visitors, members of the leading European aristocratic families. The
Accademia was inspired, on the one hand, by the models of the French paggerie and the seminaria
nobilium from the courts in the Po Valley, and on the other by the academies developed by the
German courts. From the outset, the Accademia in Turin had included physical exercise (dance,
vaulting, riding, mock battles and attacks on fortresses) alongside the study of mathematics,
drawing, Italian and French (both languages habitually spoken in Turin, both in the city and at
court), geography, heraldry, history and chronology. A series of eighteenth-century reforms finally
clarified the timetables, subjects and student classes, the so-called appartamenti. After 1730, there
were three appartamenti: one for those who wanted a military and chivalry education, the second
for those studying subjects that would lead to the courses taught at the nearby university, and the
third for the youngest students who were given a rudimentary education at a lower level. After 1769
the students in the second appartamento were allowed to leave the Accademia not only to attend
courses at the university but also those at the theoretical and practical schools of Artillery and
Military Engineering, the Reali Scuole teorico-pratiche d'Artiglieria e Genio of Turin, which were
established in 1739 and were typical of the trend towards the so-called “learned arms”. The third
appartamento of the Accademia Reale was closed in 1778.
So much for the institutional structure of this academy, which played an important role in
encouraging many foreign gentlemen to visit Italy during the eighteenth century. Instead how can
we evaluate how these aristocratic groups perceived the contemporary situation in Italy given that
although they shared a cosmopolitan taste, they were also influenced by the national stereotypes and
models that were becoming increasingly evident at the time? I will use two methods: biographical
and prosopographical studies, as well as a study of the network of relations created around these

3. An overview of modern Italy: the example of Turin, a training ground for politics and diplomacy
The literature written by travellers, including memoirs for private use, was not immune from
influences from other published works. For example, the international aristocratic culture that

            Amsterdam 22-28 August 2010, 21st ICHS (International Congress of Historical Sciences)

united the European ruling classes made extensive use of successful guides like Joseph Addison’s
Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705) or Voyage en Italie by the French astronomer Joseph-
Jérôme Le Français de Lalande (1765, published in Paris in 1769). It was no coincidence that Abbot
Joseph Delaporte’s Voyageur français ou la connaissance de l’ancien et du nouveau monde (written
in the 1740s but circulated in the 1760s) emphasised the duality between antique and modern.
Young gentlemen, travelling in order to further their education, would spend time searching for
ruins as well as focusing on various aspects of modern Italy.
While Italian cities were traditionally seen as focuses of the past, Turin was singled out by several
foreign visitors as an exception to this rule: its appeal lay in its contemporary qualities. Of all the
travelling groups, the English undoubtedly proved the most sensitive observers.
It is worth stressing that foreign noblemen came to Turin not only to complete their studies but also
to serve in the army or in diplomatic delegations. In this sense, the German presence was
particularly strong throughout the eighteenth century. The turning point came in the late
seventeenth century, as John Dodington, the secretary to the English delegation in Turin, was
careful to note (1670). Already at this time Dodington stressed the excellence of the Turinese court
compared to other Italian courts, and the good reputation it enjoyed throughout Europe. A number
of French travel journals, also written in the late seventeenth century, agreed that Turin was a city
of liberal and social customs compared to the rest of Italy where instead there were more statues
than men. French was spoken as much as Italian at the court in Turin with the result that the city
was perfectly in harmony with the international relations undertaken by diplomatic missions.
Furthermore, as a centre for court life, the court was much less pompous than its French
counterpart, while still remaining extremely elegant.
The flow of foreign visitors became even more intense after the ruling dynasty, the house of Savoia,
obtained a royal crown in 1713. During the first half of the century, for many noblemen the court of
Turin represented the only real opportunity to socialise. The free access to the salotti and
aristocratic gatherings or “conversazioni” that would characterise Turin during the latter half of the
century were still missing. The hierarchies within the court taught young gentlemen how to behave
in society, without being, according to some travellers, too rigid and formal. For example, at the end
of King Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoia’s lifetime, an English traveller, John Breval (1726), and a
Frenchman, Etienne de Silhouette (in 1729), noted a growing lack of transparency and a rather
gloomy emphasis on devotion. But again in 1734 Jeremiah Milles, an expert on antiques and
archeology educated at Eton and Oxford, appreciated the vitality and modernity of life in Turin.
Carlo Emanuele III of Savoia, who succeeded Vittorio Amedeo II, had allowed foreign
ambassadors to establish their own residences and had not objected to the establishment of salotti
where the nobility and bourgeoisie could meet. Beside the Accademia Reale, the Teatro Regio also
welcomed an international audience with ballet and opera performances shared with the leading
European theatres.
It was well known that no public figure of rank would fail to participate in the rituals of the court in
Turin, and this explained why Lord Chesterfield, among others, had sent his son to the Accademia
Reale. It was also a topic covered by the press, as is clear from the pages of the London Gazette.
However, by the second half of the eighteenth century criticism of the court of Turin had begun to
appear. The authors of these reports are well known, but the meaning of their comments must be
seen in context. Some were French, and therefore they were generally more prejudiced towards
Piedmont than the English. The opinions of Charles De Brosse (1709-1777), president of the
parlement of Bourgogne, have often be used to reveal a monotonous and austere image of the
Turinese court. But De Brosse had arrived while the royal family were in mourning for the death of
Carlo Emanuele III’s second wife’s brother-in-law. Other Frenchmen had different, more positive
impressions of the court.
Edward Gibbon and James Boswell were unenthusiastic. As a young man Gibbon had arrived in
Turin in 1764, writing to his father to describe one of the most sophisticated courts in Europe, but
one that had latterly fallen prey to bigotry. During the same period (1764-1765) Boswell, then aged

            Amsterdam 22-28 August 2010, 21st ICHS (International Congress of Historical Sciences)

twenty-five, complained of the easy habits and libertinism at the salotto of Contessa di Saint Gilles,
a place outside the court but frequented by the same set of courtiers and in particular by travellers
and English delegates. Between the lines of Boswell’s attack one can detect not just Gibbon’s
detachment so much as the easy English moralism towards the customs of a Catholic country.
Apart from these criticisms, in the late eighteenth century Turin retained its reputation as a centre
for fashionable aristocratic society. The city also garned positive opinions of its artistic collections
and buildings. In 1779, for example, Philip Yorke, the son of an English Lord Chancellor, was
introduced to an audience with the King of Sardinia during which he spoke about economic,
diplomatic and military matters, and also took the chance to visit Palazzo Reale. “We saw the
Palace, which is very extensive and contains some elegant apartments,” he noted in his diary. “The
collection of picture is numerous … The Flemish collection is the best in Italy.” These excerpts
from Yorke’s journal are far from the only indication of how, having initially attracted connoisseurs
for the political opportunities linked to its court, Turin gradually started to narrow the gap
separating it from the centres of Italian culture. Having visited the Accademia Reale and the court
in Turin, some of these gentlemen continued their tour around the rest of Italy but retained
memories of Turin even after they had returned home, recreating in their own homes the “modern”
architectural styles (rectilinear, regular, uniform) they had seen in Piedmont.
In the early nineteenth century Louis Dutens, an Englishman whose family was of Huguenot origin
and who was secretary at the English embassy in Turin on various occasions between 1758 and
1781, nostalgically reminisced about the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Savoy capital: “Ce qui me
plaisoit de Turin étoit la facilité d’y rencontrer les étrangers de distinction, qui y abordoient de
toutes parts pour visiter l’Italie.” It was this cosmopolitan Turin, with its countless salons,
stimulating “conversazioni”, theatres and Masonic lodges that had been catalysed by the presence
of the court. Yet by the time Dutens was writing, the old regime had long disappeared. The climate
was very different in Piedmont after the period of French rule (1800-1814), during the so-called
Turin, therefore, was both a stopping point during the eighteenth century, as well as a point of entry
for the journey to Italy. But Turin was also an exception compared to other Italian cities that were
capitals of a state: “British tourists in Italy were presented often to the Pope, the Kings of Naples
and Sardinia, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Dukes of Parma and Modena and the Governor of
Milan, but their courts did not dominate the pastimes of British tourists to the peninsula, with the
exception of the King of Sardinia’s court at Turin. Versailles was visited by many British tourists
but few spent much time in court society,” wrote Jeremy Black (1992, p. 216). During the
eighteenth century, the court of Turin was the expression of a political vitality far removed from the
stylistic features of the Renaissance and Baroque courts. Its cosmopolitan nature had helped to
forge links between the culture of the early eighteenth century and the later years of the century
when, also in Italy, the circuit offered by the salon, “conversazioni” and theatre provided
opportunities for meeting and for the expression of a burgeoning public opinion.
It was not only Turin that was perceived as being “modern”. Cities like Venice, Milan, Florence, as
well as Naples and Rome were seen as appropriate places to make friendships and contacts that
would lead to successful military and diplomatic careers. Yet unlike Turin (a centre for “reform”
even before it became a focus of the “Enlightenment”) the vitality of political debate in these other
Italian cities was revived above all in the wake of the spread of the idées philosophiques, thanks to
scientific academies, the cafés and Masonic lodges. The interest shown in a city like Turin helps to
highlight the connection between the late seventeenth century and the rest of the eighteenth century,
a period when interest in Italy’s variegated political scenario never really died, as is shown by the
differing accounts given in the writings left by travellers. Ancient and now fossilised Republics
coexisted with the decadent splendour of the medieval cities (Pisa, Padua, Siena) and, lastly, with
the capitals of widely differing monarchical States (Turin, Florence, Rome, Naples). During the
eighteenth century, Italy continued, in all respects, to be a textbook for the study of history, but
above all, to reflect on the nature of contemporary society and politics.

               Amsterdam 22-28 August 2010, 21st ICHS (International Congress of Historical Sciences)

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              Amsterdam 22-28 August 2010, 21st ICHS (International Congress of Historical Sciences)

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                                                                                           Paola Bianchi, PhD
                                                                                Researcher in Modern History
                                                                               Université de la Vallée d’Aoste


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