Conventionally understood, Grand Tour describes European and especially Italian travel undertaken in the 17th through 19th centuries, often by the scions of English and French elites, furthering their cultural educations. In fact, though, at the heart of the Tour is something very much more interesting, which goes to the uncertainties of that period and still echoes in our own time. The crucial, crowning, inevitable destination of the Tour was, of course, the Eternal City: ancient Rome, still relevant today as it was in the 18th century, for its very old (nearly ancient) role as metaphor, as cautionary tale.
British historian Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in 1776, a portentous year of colonial revolt, was a very thinly veiled suggestion that England’s empire was well along the path of its ancient Roman counterpart: catastrophe on the horizon. In the 17th through 19th centuries, English and French visitors to the Eternal City, whose home countries were at some summit or other of their respective empires, were struck by the spectacle of stupendous, thoroughgoing collapse given provocative form in the city’s ruins.
To be offered on October 14: lots 72-82 from the Collection of Piraneseum, specializing in 17th-19th century architectural souvenirs: models, paintings, works on paper, and decorative arts. In 2017, their extensive exhibit at the SFO Museum in San Francisco Airport's International Terminal, All Roads Lead to Rome: 17th - 19th Century Architectural Souvenirs from the Collection of Piraneseum, was viewed by millions of travellers.
Memories of the Past
Souvenirs of the Grand Tour served several purposes, from prosaic to profound, from simple memento to darker, more complex memento mori. Almost always overlooked in the discussion of these remarkable objects is the origin of their materials. Nearly without exception, those Roman Grand Tour souvenirs crafted in stone are made from ancient marbles, alabasters and porphyries, quarried two thousand years ago at the edges of the Empire, and brought by ship to Rome, where they formed the literal fabric of the city until serial sackings, across centuries, reduced the ancient stones to rubble. And thus the consequential truth that, grasping these mementos, we hold in our hands the corpus of the Eternal City.
Embarking upon the Tour, 19th century travelers from London would first alight at Paris, where they might view the recently installed monuments of the Luxor Obelisk, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Columns Vendôme and Juillet (July). Lot 72, a French Grand Tour gilt-bronze model of the Luxor Obelisk, Paris, possibly by Frères LeBlanc, circa 1840 ($5,000-8,000), is an exceptional example of French craftsmanship in bronze. 1833 saw the arrival in Paris of the ancient Egyptian Obelisque du Luqsor and, three years later, its erection at the center of the Place de la Concorde. In 1832, a French ship – Le Luqsor – had sailed up the Nile to retrieve the monument and bring it to Alexandria, where another French vessel – Le Sphinx – took it in tow for what proved a perilous passage to Cherbourg. Finished in fire-gilded bronze, this model of the 75-foot-high, 250-ton monolith is exactingly turned out (originally as a thermometer), an apogee in French craft of the period.
Lot 74, a pair of French Grand Tour patinated bronze models of the Colonnes Vendôme and Juillet, by Frères LeBlanc, circa 1860 ($6,000-8,000), demonstrate the changing landscape of the city throughout the Revolutionary 19th century. The figure of Napoleon atop the Colônne Vendome has proved surprisingly variable over time. In 1810, when the monument was completed, he appeared in Roman costume – toga and laurel wreath. By 1833, he was clothed in military garb, complete with tricorn hat – the so-called Little Corporal, as he appears on this model. In 1863, this figure was replaced with a mirror image of the earliest statue.
Traveling on from Paris, through Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, one finally arrived in Italy. While on an extended stay in the Renaissance capital of Florence, a trip to Pisa to see the famed leaning tower was de rigueur. Lots 77, an Italian Grand Tour model of the Torre Pendente, late 19th/early 20th century ($1,500-2,500); 78, an Italian Grand Tour alabaster model of the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, circa 1860s ($4,000-6,000); and 79, an unusually large Italian Grand Tour alabaster model of the San Giovanni Baptistry, circa 1870s ($6,000-8,000), are an exceptional group of Pisan monuments carved of alabaster quarried from nearby Volterra. This stone, first in use by the ancient Etruscans as early as 500 B.C.E, was frequently employed for models in Rome, Florence, Pisa, and elsewhere by the third quarter of the 19th century. It is soft and easily carved, while appearing similar to much more expensive and difficult to work white marbles such as that from Carrara. Unlike present day Italian alabasters, which are bright white with a granular finish, earlier specimens included a range of colors – a 19th century text describes 55 different hues – which are easily visible in the finely modeled examples offered here.
Following their education in the arts and architecture of the Renaissance, travelers moved on to their ultimate destination: Rome. After Rome’s fall, the ground had been littered with colorful shards of imported marbles, which, by the 17th century, were being gathered and worked into tourists’ mementos, among a variety of decorative objects. This method of scavenging marbles was not new: indeed, the last monument built in the Roman Forum, the Byzantine-era Column of Flavius Phocas (602-610 C.E.) was comprised of a column salvaged from another building, built atop the foundation of a previous monument, and the dedicatory inscription on the base written over an earlier text. Even the now-absent figure atop the Column may have been re-purposed. Lot 82, a large Italian Grand tour bronze mounted giallo antico and nero antico marble model of The Column of Phocas, Rome, circa 1880 ($4,000-6,000) celebrates this monument in the desirable and, by the 1880s, rare giallo antico marble.
As the Grand Tour gained popularity and the supplies of ancient marbles were exhausted, the best clues to the dates of Roman architectural mementos are the materials from which they are fashioned, which changed over the course of the history of the phenomenon. Lot 81, a large and very carefully carved Italian Grand Tour model of Trajan’s Column ($3,000-5,000), can be dated to circa 1830s though its fashioning in rosso antico marble. Rosso antico, quarried in Greece and Turkey, was largely employed from about 1810 through about 1840, when the supply of this material ran dry.
By the 1880s, souvenir makers had turned to readily available Italian alabasters for their current production. To make the brighter white stone resemble souvenirs made from earlier marble, artisans color-dyed the newer alabaster. Exhibited in lot 80, two Italian Grand Tour tinted and untinted alabaster models of the Temples of Vespasian and Castor & Pollux, circa 1880s ($3,000-5,000), the alabaster has been tinted to resemble ancient giallo antico marble.
Freeman's is grateful to David Weingarten, the architect, author, and founding partner of Piraneseum, for his contribution of this essay.