Water, Windows, and Women: The Significance of Venice for Scots in the Age of the Grand Tour
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Eighteenth-Century Life 30.3 (2006) 1-50


Water, Windows, and Women:

The Significance of  Venice for Scots in the 
Age of the Grand Tour

Iain Gordon Brown

National Library of Scotland


At the age of seventy, the Reverend Professor Adam Ferguson of the University of Edinburgh, father of the science of sociology, historian and philosopher of world renown, founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and sometime keeper of the Advocates’ Library, found himself in Italy for the first time. His was to be a quite unusually late experience of that remarkable cultural institution and social phenomenon that had long been known as the Grand Tour. This may be considered as something between a carefully orchestrated experience in the acquisition of taste and manners, and a scarcely controlled adventure in the sowing of wild oats. It was customarily undertaken by well-to-do aristocratic youths in their late teens or rich young men in their early twenties in pursuit of cosmopolitan polish and a fashionable knowledge of art and antiquity.1 Scholars or artists also made versions of the Grand Tour as a way of enriching their professional knowledge and experience at the classical fountainhead, but few such men postponed a southern European tour until so late in life as Ferguson. His was the generation that had heard Dr. Samuel Johnson pronounce (at a mere 67, and conscious of the inferiority he felt at not having been to Italy, whither he still hoped to go) that “the grand object of traveling is to see the shores [End Page 1] of the Mediterranean.”2 Though Ferguson had visited North America, and was celebrated as the author of a history of Republican Rome, he had not previously traveled to Italy. Now, in old age, he made Rome his goal, as it was of all Grand Tourists. But, in October 1793, he paused in Venice to write to his wife at home in Edinburgh. He could not know that La Serenissima herself, the most serene republic, had only some three-and-a-half years to live, and that Venetian liberty, so long a wonder of the world, was soon to be snuffed out by the all-conquering Napoleon. So, in what were to prove the dying days of the Venetian state, Ferguson delivered his verdict on the spectacle before him. 


My dear Katey, I am now in Venice, . . . a town built in the Sea & with Streets & lanes paved with Water with Boats for Coaches & Chariots without which you could not Stir from the threshold of your Door without plunging into the Sea. All this you knew but knowing & seeing I find is different. I am strongly impressed with wonder at such a Place but do not delight in it any more than I do in Wapping or the Pier & Shore of Leith. There are numberless Palaces all of Marble & loaded with ornament but my feeling is not pleasure but Still wonder how the Devil they got there. I have lost all relish for what the Sailors call Ginger bread work even in Marble & in the designs of Famous Architects & so I shall bid this Amphibious Town farewell as soon as I have seen what it is the fashion for Travellers here to see or at least some part of it. . . . My Blessing to my Dear Children if they follow all the Dates of my letters on the Map it will help forward their Geography, I shall endeavour as soon as Possible to lead their attention back again through some Route to Edinburgh.3

The water, windows, and women of my title need some explanation, and Ferguson’s letter, together with my commentary that follows, helps somewhat. By water I mean the spectacle that Venice afforded the Grand Tourist. It was, quite simply, a sight like no other, an argosy of curiosity and wonder. Ferguson makes that clear. Venice had no ancient past like Rome, but it symbolized all that was most remarkable in the present or recent...


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