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The Grand Tour Project

The Grand Tour of Italy was the ultimate educational rite of passage for eighteenth-century British elites, the experience of traveling abroad by which wealthy (mostly) male youth gained exposure to masterpieces of Western art as well as to the fashionable society of the continent. These eighteenth-century travelers were deeply steeped in a classical education. There is still a bit of the Grand Tourist in every classicist today: the very ways in which we view most classical monuments in Italy were shaped through the eighteenth-century traveling tradition. Thus the Grand Tour is an important segment in the history of Classics.   

My research on the Grand Tour is part of a larger Stanford-based digital humanities project, “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” which has taken off thanks to funding from Stanford’s Offices of the President and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, as well as from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Digging into the Data initiative. (See the project's website for more information or a New York Times article about the project.) Bringing together humanities scholars, computer scientists, and design researchers, our ultimate goal is to build a visual browser for a very large, heterogeneous data set on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century correspondences, people, travels, events, places, and publications.

In winter quarter of 2011, I brought the Grand Tour project to the classroom as a seminar course, involving students in active scholarly research as they experienced the new methods and challenges of digital humanities. This seminar, “Modern Journeys in Ancient Lands: Building a Spatial History of the Grand Tour,” required a great deal of specialized teaching assistance, which was generously sponsored by the Department, and offered by our own Ph.D. student Sarah Murray, a winner of the Centennial Teaching Assistant Award. In class, we read a great deal of secondary literature, which discussed current hot research issues such as gender on the Grand Tour and how to explore the Italian side of and contribution to the Grand Tour experience; and we cultivated an in-depth engagement with primary sources (accounts and documents left by travelers). We spent a lot of time in the Stanford Humanities Lab, where we attended mini-lectures from digital specialists from the “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project: Nicole Coleman introduced the current big questions in digital humanities and the longer history of scholarly visualizations, Sarah gave a lecture on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Elija Meeks demonstrated his work on the early visualization of the Grand Tour project. We also collaboratively analyzed the project’s current effort to create thousands of digital entries derived from John Ingamells’s Dictionary of British and Irish Travelers to Italy 1700-1800, and to design new ways to visualize them.

In the process of laying out the project’s research questions and methods for beginners, we learned a great deal ourselves. But the most striking and tangible success of this course belongs to the students who, after eagerly absorbing a tremendous amount of new information and skills, in their final projects, which focused on single travelers, laboriously and creatively designed original visualizations. The images speak for themselves, powerfully revealing the complexity and variety of Grand Tour experiences. These Stanford Classics students have now become active members of the digital humanities community, all the while deepening our knowledge of the modern history of Classics. - Giovanna Ceserani, 2011

Kimia Habibi focused on the British aristocrat and writer Lady Montagu, who, setting off for Italy in 1739 as a middle-aged, ambitious, intellectual, and fiercely independent woman, remained in the country until her death in 1762. Lady Montagu’s letters from Italy became a bestseller during her lifetime. After reading these letters closely, Kimia created a visualization that painstakingly reconstructs this influential woman’s Tour of Italy on a historical map. The timeline on the right of the map adds the temporal dimension, while the diagrams on the left give a sense of Lady Montagu’s intense social network, broken down by city as well as by nationality of the people she recorded having encountered.


Nimrah Kahn chose to work on a German tourist, the Baron von Riedesel, who in 1771 published an influential account of his travels in Sicily and South Italy (translated into English in 1773 as Travels through Sicily and that part of Italy formerly called Magna Græcia). Focusing on Sicily, Nimrah reconstructed Riedesel’s tour of the island; she also analyzed the text in terms of what she designated as positive, negative, or neutral assessments of the places visited. Her visualization renders Riedesel’s trip on a historical map, while also showing, by way of color-coding, how she thinks he evaluated the places he visited. In another set of visualizations Nimrah also broke down these assessments by categories—antiquity, city, government, people and society, women, market and produce—rendering the multilayered approach of this traveler, hailed as a founder of modern Philhellenism.

Cody Cox worked on a more typical—young, upper-class, and male—Grand Tourist: the British, Oxford educated Thomas Watkins, who published his Travels in 1792, three years after returning from Italy. Cody’s visualizations reconstructed Watkins’s trip, but also depicted, by way of color-coding, his impressions, positive, neutral, or negative, of various places. In other maps Cody categorized impressions in terms of architecture, art, and people. Watkins’s Tour emerges as less typical than first meets the eye: he visited the South extensively and recounted in detail his interactions with Italians, many of which he represented as positive.


Mariana Starke, whose 1800 Letters from Italy were the focus of Ann Rutherford’s final project, is a figure whose work is often taken to mark thtransition from Grand Tour to mass tourism. Starke’s letters read much more like a modern tourist guide: there are still narrative and anecdotal moments, but also an unprecedented wealth of practical information on sites to visit and the logistics of traveling. The pages dedicated to Rome, for example, are divided according to twelve day-long itineraries that promise to give a full tour of the city. Ann’s visualization maps these travel instructions, identifying each site mentioned by Starke on a historical map of Rome, color-coded by itinerary/day; on the right inside, Ann also represents how many “exclamations” each site was granted (color-coding these again by day/itinerary). These exclamations are the first instance of the star-rating system we know from the travel guides of today.