The years of the Romantic crusade coincided with a period of European history characterized by an interest for the past of nations and peoples, for a Neo-Gothic style and for a unique sensitivity, which led to re-evaluate the past and its artistic expressions. Thanks to the diffusion of the so-called “Grand Tour”, Rome became a special destination, which draw visitors from all over Europe. Its ruins were an enticement that could not but attract the nostalgic sensitivity of the romantics, fascinated by the dream, the mystery and the beauty of the past.
The “Grand Tour” was the itinerary of a journey undertaken by many young European aristocrats through various regions of Europe. This trend spread starting from the seventeenth century and through the following centuries. The explorers remained travelled for months or even years, and usually their final destination was Rome or Greece, two countries rich in relics and testimony of the history of the past. The journey became so important that it was considered an essential tool for the cultural education of a European aristocrat.
With its monuments and works of art, together with Naples, Pompeii and Sicily, Rome was, in fact, a greatly desired part of this journey. Students and art lovers could get in touch with the original beauties of classical antiquity, practicing in drawing and reproductions right there, on the spot. Rome was an open-air museum, a city where the ancient ruins were stratified with those of the Christian period as well as those of the modern era. The Capitoline Museums, for example, were opened in 1734, and in 1771 the Pio-Clementino Museum. Even the outskirts of the capital fascinated the visitors: Frascati, Nemi, and especially Tivoli with its Villa Adriana became essential travelling destinations. This gave birth to the fashion of collecting and interest for antiques.
But who first used the term “Grand Tour” and who explored Rome?
The term Grand Tour is linked to Richard Lessels’ guidebook, “The Voyage of Italy” published in 1670. The famous writer, Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote “Journey to Italy” (Italienische Reise), published between 1816 and 1817. The two volumes that form this publication are the narrative of a real journey that Goethe himself undertook at the end of the nineteenth century. In Rome he could admire the works of Guercino, like the “Santa Petronilla”, or the “Madonna di S. Niccolò dei Frari” by Tiziano, or the “Annunciation” by Guido Reni, all works of art of the seventeenth century.
But Goethe was not the only one to visit the “Urbe” (i.e. Rome). Up to 1828 Stendhal visited the city several times and his “Promenades in Rome” is a testament of how travelling to Rome was a continuous discovery. Many poets, writers, aristocrats lived in the centre as witnessed by the Keats and Shelley Memorial House in the heart of Piazza di Spagna, where Keats, in fact, died in 1821. The historic Caffè Greco, also in the very centre, next to the villas of the prominent figures of Roman’s high society, was a famous place of gathering.
Visitors strolled through the city driven by a great curiosity not only for the ancient ruins of Rome, but also for the realizations that the modern age had produced, such as those of Raphael. In brief, starting from the archaeological sites, such as the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, the well preserved works of art in the new-born nineteenth-century museums, to the sites of the paleo-Christian and medieval ages and the modern works of art, Rome offered a complete experience and appeared to the eyes of the visitors from as a treasure chest that preserved the history of Western culture in all its stages.