- Grand and Ghostly Tours: The Topography of Memory
The Grand Tour has often been defined as a practice of travel, to be set within the context of European social history over the period between—roughly—1600 and 1830. Another way of approaching the Tour is to view it as a set of assumptions and arguments about travel which, over this same period, can be identified within the writings in which travelers map out a specific imaginative topography of the foreign. Travel writings, for example, assume that the Tour entails a movement from the cold North of Europe towards the warm South (and back again), a desire or intention to visit Rome, and some sort of commitment to appropriating the foreign as a source of both pleasure and “improvements.” 1 Travel books also take for granted that the Grand Tour entails a formalized itinerary of sights—an itinerary which individual travelers may adapt and revise to suit their own interests, but which they need to acknowledge in some way in order to claim the authority and prestige that participation in the Tour is seen as conferring. This essay examines some of the strategies employed to extract pleasure and “improvements” from a particular category of sights—sights that serve as repositories of memory—in British and French accounts of travel in Italy (both first-person narratives of travel and works of fiction) during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The sights of Italy, as travel writings define them, include a large number of ruins and antiquities. One rhetorical precondition for the fascination with which these particular objects of commentary are invested can be discerned by considering, in a very general sense, the range of desires and demands that travelers consistently impose on the foreign. Travelers of all periods express a wish that the foreign should proclaim itself as dramatically different from the familiar. At the same time, they also register a hope that the topography will not in the end prove entirely resistant to intellectual and imaginative appropriation. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, vestiges of the classical past readily supply metaphors for both the two qualities demanded of the foreign: mystery, on the one hand, and relative accessibility, on the other. Ruins and antiquities are assumed to be resistant to understanding by virtue of their origins in a remote past; they are also, however, defined as objects that are not entirely beyond the reach of the traveler’s efforts to understand and assimilate them. Alexander Gerard, in his Essay on Taste (1759), emphasizes the gratification to be derived from this paradoxical mixture of mystery and accessibility when he uses antiquities to illustrate the principle that “the exercise of thought, which moderate difficulty produces, is a principal source of the pleasure we take in study and investigation of every kind . . . . Witness the delight, with which antiquaries bestow indefatigable pains on recovering or illustrating ancient fragments, recommended only by their age, and obscurity, and scarce apprehended to be, on any other account, of great importance.” 2
Travel writings regularly select objects of interest from another domain that offers this same combination of the mysterious and the relatively accessible: women. The female inhabitants of the various parts of Italy are easily defined as resistant to enquiry, both within the context of baffling foreign customs such as cicisbeism (the custom by which an Italian married woman was expected to have an official male admirer, who escorted her to social occasions and spent much of his time with her) and within the setting of the convent, in which visual features such as the nun’s habit, the imprisoning walls, and the bars of the parlatory grate serve to invest nuns with an intriguing inaccessibility. 3 Patrick Brydone, in his Tour through Sicily and Malta (1773), notes that several nuns in a Sicilian convent that he visits are “extremely handsome,” and comments: “but, indeed, I think they always appear so; and am very certain, from frequent experience, that there is no artificial ornament, or studied embellishment whatever, that can produce half so strong an effect, as the modest and simple attire of a pretty young nun, placed behind a double iron...