In the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy young men from England but also from countries like France, Germany, Poland and Russia, and later, America, undertook a crucial rite of passage, a sort of gap year, by visiting France, Italy, Switzerland and Greece. These tours could take up to 3 years. In the beginning, a key focus of the tours was on the Renaissance period in Italy – buildings, paintings and sculptures – but by the 18th century, that focus had moved to Roman and Greek antiquities. Museums were relatively rare in the 17th and 18th centuries, with exceptions like the Uffizi Museum in Florence which opened in 1582 and some of the papal museums. Forerunners of many museums were collections gathered by wealthy families who would allow other wealthy people to visit. So the Grand Tour offered a way to access these private collections of sculptures, paintings and other art works as well as natural curiosities. Also, Herculaneum was excavated in 1738, Pompeii in 1748, and Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli in 1769 and these sites were able to be visited by tourists.

There was a halt to the Grand Tour due to the Napoleonic wars at the end of the 18th century and when it resumed, it had changed in terms of who was doing it and what they collected as souvenirs of their trip. In the 17th and 18th centuries though, the young wealthy visitors brought home sculptures, paintings and furniture. The other thing these young men brought back were small valuable items like intaglios and cameos.

Roman intaglio ring (in Navette on Ruby Lane)

What is an intaglio? An intaglio is a design incised or engraved into some sort of material. It comes from the Italian intagliare, to cut into. In the case of rings or seals, the material might be transparent gemstones like a garnet or emerald or hardstone gemstones like agate or carnelian. Intaglios could be bought as precious stones (or sometimes paste) with carvings of people, animals or objects incised on them or as plaster casts with engraved images. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a picture (dated between 1777 to 1779) of members of the Society of Dilettanti admiring precious gemstone intaglios brought back from overseas tours.

Collection of intaglios

The intaglios could be actual ancient Roman ones or they could have been gems carved by the many engravers in Italian cities who could skillfully copy ancient ones. These craftsmen were able to copy from the original Roman and Renaissance plaster cast collections that existed.

Antique shell cameo of Dionysus (in Navette on Ruby Lane)

Cameos were also collected. Roman cameos were often made of glass, shell, gemstones or hardstones and featured the heads of Roman emperors and statesmen, philosophers, and gods and goddesses. There were copies of these cameos made during the Renaissance as well as cameos made of Italian rulers, and copies were again made during the 17th and 18th centuries to sell to tourists.

Next week, I will look at the Grand Tour in the 19th century.