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The Costa del Panache: The Bad Behaviour of 18th-Century Tourists

Posted: 05/08/2013 18:45

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I don't know if Luigi had Mafia connections, but everyone in Sorrento seemed suspiciously well primed to do his bidding. He was a cheerful local police officer, who befriended my family when we visited Italy in the 1980s, and ferried us about in his faintly preposterous but fabulous squad car. Why he took such a shine to my parents and my eight-year-old self I have no idea, but nothing was too much trouble. He took us to Pompeii one day, but we arrived after closing time. As our self-appointed fixer, Luigi had a discreet word with the kiosk attendant, and the gates were reopened within moments. My fondest memory of the holiday is having the broken streets and houses of that archaeological wonder entirely to ourselves for a few magical hours one balmy afternoon.

Unlike 18th-century tourists, however, we left Pompeii exactly as we found it. Its discovery in the mid-1700s hugely reinvigorated interest in the classical world, and gave new impetus to the phenomenon of the 'Grand Tour'. Of this rite of passage Dr. Johnson remarked, 'If a young man is wild, and must run after women and bad company, it is better this should be done abroad'. Moneyed English gentlemen, unshackled from parental control, gambled, drank and whored their way around the sights of Europe for a year or two, often with a hireling bearing hammer and chisel in attendance. The ransacking of continental antiquities notwithstanding, however, it is undeniable that our Georgian forbears pursued European travel with a great deal more panache than you will now find on the average package-holiday fortnight in Alicante. Many characters in my book The Gin Lane Gazette, who were destined to become prominent Georgian citizens, had colourful, formative experiences in foreign parts.

Italy was the destination most revered by nearly all Grand Tourists, and this was certainly true of Charles James Fox (1749-1806), who wintered there in the 1760s, learnt the language, and read its classical authors avidly, prior to travelling west with some fellow Old Etonians. Fox then roistered his way around France, and became a lifelong Francophile as a consequence. He met Voltaire, had flings with the wives of a jeweller and a silversmith, contracted numerous poxes and claps, and travelled from Paris to Lyons simply to buy some waistcoats. Fox invented a persona for himself called 'Carlino', whose raucous exploits he relished recounting in letters to friends. Fox the youthful and licentious toper later became Fox the middle-aged but equally licentious toper who led the Whig party, supported the early French Revolution, and recruited the Prince of Wales as his wing-man in wenching exploits.

Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) abandoned nearly all propriety on the continent, although a story about him horsewhipping penitents in the Sistine Chapel is probably exaggerated. From the age of 18, he visited France, Italy and, more unusually for the time, Russia, where it is said that he dressed up as King Charles XII of Sweden in hopes of winning the Tsarina's heart. He later ventured to Turkey, which had a profound effect on him. Always a clubbable man, Dashwood formed the Divan Club, whose members had visited 'the Sultan's dominions', liked to dress up in turbans and robes, and who had enjoyed the brothels of Constantinople. He was also a founder member of the Society of Dilettante, established exclusively for connoisseurs of Italian culture, although Horace Walpole scoffed that the only real qualification demanded of its toga-clad adherents was a love of drinking. Before he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dashwood founded his infamous hell-fire club at Medmenham and West Wycombe, 'The Brotherhood of St. Francis' (Dashwood himself taking on the guise of St. Francis). Members included the Earl of Sandwich, and the courtesan Fanny Murray. The esoteric and sexually symbolic architecture in which Dashwood and his fellow 'friars' disported themselves was heavily influenced by buildings he had seen in Europe and beyond.

Tourism was by no means a male preserve. After her feckless husband's suicide over crippling gambling debts, Anne Damer (1749-1828) discovered a taste for travel, and was once kidnapped by a privateer during a sea passage. Anne and her boon companion Mary Berry visited Paris, and met Napoleon, who made them a gift of a snuffbox encrusted with diamonds. They were also granted an audience with Boney's mother. In return, Anne gave him her portrait busts of Charles James Fox and Horatio Nelson.

Anne also sculpted the botanist and Royal Society member, Joseph Banks (1743-1820). As a wealthy and precocious 25-year-old, Banks scorned the conventional European Grand Tour, proclaiming, 'Every blockhead does that; my Grand Tour shall be one around the world'. He resolved to make his name sailing the Pacific with Lieutenant James Cook, and paid a staggering £10,000 for the privilege of boarding HMS Endeavour in 1768, with a retinue that included two assistant naturalists, two artists, two footmen, two black servants, and his spaniel and greyhound. It is sometimes forgotten that on the ship's triumphant return, it was Banks as the 'gentleman', not the low-born but brilliant Cook, who enjoyed the lion's share of the plaudits, and emolument followed. It seems that maritime projects should have been left to the experts, however, as he later sponsored the ill-fated mission of HMS Bounty.

When it came to retinues, the profligate novelist William Beckford (1760-1844) was not messing about. He arrived in Portugal in 1787 with a doctor, a tailor, a barber, and train of twenty servants, including valets, cooks, footmen, and 24 musicians. He took books, prints, furniture, a collapsible bed, cutlery, plates, and even had a picturesque flock of sheep shipped over from Wiltshire. So great was his entourage, and so long was his baggage-train, that he was once mistaken for the Emperor of Austria on his way to visit the Pope.


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