Micromosaics and Other Souvenirs of the European Grand Tour

  • January 09, 2020 11:12

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St. Peter's Square Micromosaic, a relic of the European Grand Tour.

The practice of the Grand Tour introduced young European nobility to the art and culture of Europe with a focus on France and Italy, and occasionally included classical sites in Greece. The requisite stops were Paris, Florence, Venice and Rome. Young nobility became adept at languages, viewed famous antiquities and architecture and made important social contacts. As a result, the Grand Tour produced gentleman scientists, authors, antiquaries and patrons of the arts.

The term “Grand Tour” was introduced by Richard Lassels in his 1670 book Voyage to Italy. Additional guidebooks, tour guides, and the tourist industry were developed and grew to meet the needs of the young travelers and their tutors across the European continent. These tourists often spent two to four years traveling around Europe in an effort to expand their knowledge of the world by learning about language, architecture, geography and culture.

Since there were few museums anywhere in Europe before the close of the 18th century, Grand Tourists often saw paintings and sculptures by gaining admission to private collections, and many were eager to acquire examples of Greco-Roman and Italian art for their own collections. When they traveled they carried letters of reference and introduction with them as most of the fine arts and antiquities were housed in private homes. With the right connections, you might have been invited to the home of a private collector like Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800.

Grand Tourists set out accompanied by a chaperone, usually a teacher or guardian, and were expected to return home with souvenirs of their travels as well as an understanding of art and architecture formed by an exposure to great masterpieces. Artists also benefited from the patronage of travelers eager to procure mementos of their travels. Classical taste and an interest in exotic customs shaped travelers' itineraries as well as their reactions.

This aristocratic tradition gave concrete form to Northern Europeans' ideas about the Greco-Roman world and helped encourage the popularity of Neoclassical ideals and motifs in art and culture. Travelers visited excavations at sites such as Pompeii, Herculaneum and Tivoli, and purchased antiquities to decorate their homes. Ancient sculpture formed the centerpiece of any collection, but copies, both in large and small scale in the form of Grand Tour souvenirs, were highly coveted. Early private museums combined collections of manmade and natural objects. Tourists could also collect Italy itself, in miniature, through guidebooks and printed views. Sir William Hamilton published illustrated catalogues of his vase collection and a compendium of views of the volcanic landscape. Artists made their own souvenirs, carrying back sketchbooks of studies after art objects, ancient ruins and the Italian landscape.

Some other examples of souvenirs that would have been attractive to travelers during their Grand Tour were artworks, objets d’art, furniture and jewelry utilizing the ancient technique of micromosaic. Historically, glorious mosaics of unprecedented beauty and complexity enjoyed great popularity among the ancient Romans who decorated their homes with massive mosaic masterpieces. The art of the mosaic re-emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably in the workshops of the Vatican, finding favor among the surge of affluent Grand Tourists. Unprecedented in beauty and complexity, these extraordinary creations were masterfully crafted utilizing thousands of tiny fired colored glass tiles, or “tesserae” meticulously placed to depict an array of subjects, from architectural wonders of the ancient world to flora and fauna.

Italy being the primary destination of the Grand Tour greatly encouraged the fashions and the tastes of the period. Both 18th and 19th century taste revered the art and culture of the ancients. The British, in particular, were lured to Italy by their admiration of antiquity and their desire to see firsthand such monuments of ancient civilization as the Colosseum in Rome, along with wonders of nature like the volcanic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius near Naples.

While nobles came to view the art of ancient Rome, art students also came to Italy to learn from ancient models. The art produced in Italy during the age of the Grand Tour shows close observation of the natural landscape and ancient artifacts, celebrates modern Italian customs and commemorates the visits of wealthy patrons.

In the absence of photography, paintings, etchings, and drawings of ancient monuments and historically important sites served as mementos of a trip to Italy, while at the same time showing off the traveler's taste and wealth. Images of Venice were particularly admired as it was regarded as medieval Europe's gateway to the East, and for 18th-century travelers it retained an exotic character. Some of the greatest view painters and engravers of the 18th century executed works from Venice and the surrounding area. In their works they capture the splendor and excitement of Venetian ceremonies and also the peculiar quality of light that reflected off of the city's many canals.

The Grand Tour as an institution was ultimately worthwhile for national culture as well as for individuals as the Tour has been given credit for a dramatic improvement in British architecture and culture. The exposure to ancient art and architecture that was a key component of the Grand Tour encouraged an appreciation for the art of ancient Greece and Rome and set a standard for beauty and culture that 18th-century Europeans hoped to copy and surpass. Original works done in the style of the ancients, called Neoclassicism, were and continue to be highly valued.

Beginning in the 16th century and lasting for over three-hundred years, the Grand Tour was considered by many to be a necessary tradition. Even today, ambitious travelers set out on international adventures to see a variety of sights in exotic locales and to gain a better understanding of the contemporary world we live in. A traveler's collection of images, sculptures, paintings and a variety of other souvenirs create a fascinating record of their adventures. Over three-hundred years ago the beginning of a process in the creation of fine objects d'art were created by artisans as luxurious mementos of Grand Tours for those who could afford the extravagance. M.S. Rau has a tremendous collection of enchanting and magnificent objects related to the history of the Grand Tour.

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Beauty, Rarity, History: The M.S. Rau Blog

A New Orleans institution for over 100 years, M.S. Rau is among the premier fine art and antiques galleries in the world. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, our gallery overflows with incredible antiques by names including Tiffany & Co., Paul Revere and Fabergé. Our unparalleled selection of important, original paintings and sculpture spans the 16th through the 21st century, including legendary artists such as Brueghel, Monet and Rockwell, while our diverse selection of exquisite jewels, including rare colored diamonds, Kashmir sapphires and Burma rubies is without equal.

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