A reconstruction of the Roman Forum by our staff co-author, Michael Madsen.

To an architect, the Grand Tour had a more spiritual meaning – it was more than simply versing oneself in the generic education provided for the aristocrat. Instead, it was an immersion into the ephemeral masters of the past and their grand accomplishments.

Vitruvius was a Roman architect, author, and military engineer during the 1st century B.C.

Beginning in Antiquity, Vitruvius was a Roman military engineer whose chronicle of his architectural feats earned him the title of the first ‘Western Architect.’ His work, De Architectura (Ten Books on Architecture), reveals his concept of what is considered ‘architecture’ as well as its importance to the everyday life of civilians. For Vitruvius, a building should always have these three characteristics: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, or firmness/durability, commodity/useful, and delight/beauty.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, an illustration of the human body inscribed in the circle and the square derived from a passage about geometry and human proportions in Vitruvius’ writings.

The Gates of Paradise. A pair of bronze doors to the Battistero di San Giovanni by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

By the fifteenth century and sixteenth centuries, Renaissance masters such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Da Vinci, and Alberti all built upon the tradition of ancient Roman and Greek architecture with their treatises and realized designs. They kept some of the medieval innovations, especially in church architecture, but gave them a new “classical” character and expression.

The front page of I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) by Andrea Palladio.

The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, built between 1566 and 1610, by Andrea Palladio.

Interior: The nave, looking east towards the high altar.

During the time of the Venetian Republic, Andrea Palladio was an architect greatly influenced by Ancient Roman architecture and Vitruvius’ treatise, so much so that he went to Rome to measure and draw the ruins in the Forum, which he included in his treatise entitled I Quatro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). His greatest contributions to Renaissance architecture include his use of the forms of sacred Roman architecture, such as the temple front, on civic buildings like palazzos and on private villas. Equally important are Palladio’s churches, which deal with the design of façades with an unprecedented rigor in the Renaissance by keeping the tectonic expression of columns and pilasters with their appropriate Vitruvian intercolumniations.

Portrait of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. 1756.

The Colosseum, etching, 1757.

The Arch of Trajan at Benevento, etching, 1748-1774.

By the eighteenth century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings of Roman Antiquity fallen into ruin had sparked in the imagination of society a nostalgia for Ancient Rome’s grandeur. Like Palladio, Piranesi looked back to Antiquity, but with an attitude that reflected the changing times as the seeds of Modernism were sown in the Enlightenment. Society began the search for an architectural expression of its time while still looking back to tradition.

John Soane by Christopher William Hunneman in 1776.

The bank of England by Sir John Soane.

The bank of England interior by Sir John Soane.

Sir John Soane was an English architect at the turn of the nineteenth century who is famously known for his design of the Bank of England, especially as rendered in Joseph Michael Gandy’s Piranesi-like ruins, and for his vast collection of models, casts, and drawings displayed in his English townhouse turned museum. This collection of historic objects reflects his two-year experience on the Grand Tour, where he not only wanted to study great art and architecture of Italy and France but wanted to physically take it back with him to England when possible.

Palace of the Republic in 1977 with the Fernsehturm in the background. Berlin, Germany. Featured in our blog, Reconstructing Beauty.

This attitude of museumification of art and architecture is still mainstream today in architectural practice, and reflects the change on tradition in architecture, severing it from how it was approached as a continuum in the Renaissance and Baroque. One only needs to look at Modernist interventions in historic settings in which the historic buildings or structures are assaulted with steel and glass enclosures to see how this process has continued to evolve (or really, devolve). While the Grand Tour was able to educate architects, giving them first-hand experience with great architecture spanning Antiquity to the Baroque, it also inadvertently contributed to this negative aspect on cities as new cultural ideas gained popularity.

Our own James Lenahan painting the Arch of Constantine during the 2018 Institute of Classical Architecture and Art Christopher H. Brown Rome Drawing Tour. (Off screen to his right in the Colosseum.)

Alice Arnn, painting the Lion’s Gate — the main entrance of the Branze Age citadel of Mycenae, southern Greece. It was completed around 1250 B.C.

Thankfully, the idea of studying the past to inform the present still has not been eradicated. Contemporary “Grand Tours” in the form of study-abroad experiences are offered in many schools of architecture and allow students to still learn from the great masters and their work because traveling to buildings and cities and seeing them in person is perhaps the best way to understand them and learn from them.