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“Rethinking the Grand Tour”: A New Narration of the Grand Tour at the Manchester Art Gallery

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Manchester Art Gallery

The Art Gallery in Manchester is now hosting a special free exhibition that will run until December 2025. "Rethinking the Grand Tour" is part of the project “Displacement Aesthetics”, led by the University of Manchester and the University of Melbourne, and which explores the fate of the cultural objects taken by the British Empire. The evocative title of the exhibition cleverly embodies the gallery's view on the subject. Although the Grand Tour finds its origin in the 16th century when architect Inigo Jones travelled throughout Italy to study the country’s architectural styles, it reaches its peak in the 18th century.[1] Young English aristocrats saw in the Grand Tour a rite of passage that would turn them into well-educated independent men ready to gain their place in London upper-class society. London was the starting point of the journey, and Paris a mandatory destination. However, Italy was the main place to go to. Because the Grand Tour was meant to provide deep knowledge of the Classics, Rome was considered the most important city to visit. There, the Grand Tourists could immerse themselves in a perfect mix of Greco-Roman culture together with some of the best examples of Renaissance and Baroque architectures. Often, the journey would also extend to Naples, Greece, and even Turkey. Due to its strong artistic element, the Grand Tour gave concrete shape to the Northern European ideas about the classical world and contributed to the development of Neoclassicism.

The new fascination for the classical world soon spread into all aspects of culture such as music, art, sculpture, and literature. The discovery of the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum contributed to a renovated interest in the marvels of the ancient world. Furthermore, German scholar Joahnn Jaoachim Winckelmann had a key role in raising fascination for classical antiquities and in contributing to the development of Neoclassicism. In his book, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1750), he encouraged contemporary artists to emulate Greek art, which was the embodiment of a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”.[2] Neoclassicist painting came to be famous for its simple and rather austere lines, subdued colours, and, mostly, mythological, historical, and biblical themes. One of the best examples of Neoclassical painters is the French artist Jacques-Louis David, who would also include in his work elements of morality and ethics. He was famous for celebrating the values of the Roman Republic, as it is possible to see in the renowned Oath of the Horatii (1784). Values such as austerity, simplicity, and heroism were used to draw parallelisms to how overcome the struggles of contemporary France, which was on the edge of the Revolution. Sculptures also abandoned the excesses of Baroque and Rococo traditions for more gentle and more elegant lines, and Antonio Canova still remains the best celebrated sculptor of his time. Here again, the subjects come mostly from classical mythology, such as Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1783-1793), or the Three Graces (1814-1817). Even the works displaying historical figures have a strong mythological echo, as in the case of Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix (1805-1808), or Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802-1806). Overall, despite the medium, Neoclassicism stood for classical antiquities, formality, and decorum, and, in the 18th century, shaped the very idea that people had of the past.

Focusing the attention again on the Grand Tour, although its most basic elements, such as cultural tourism, appreciation of classical antiquities, ruins, and idyllic landscapes, were harmless in themselves, the reality of the Grand Tour and its legacy speak for imperialism, colonialism, and the looting of antiquities. The journey in fact developed in people a strong fascination with collecting antiquities. The Grand Tourists would often bring local "souvenirs" back to England, where they would form fine and exotic cosmopolitan collections, still existing today, which contributed to the rise of connoisseurship.[3] Despite the several paintings actually purchased, these young gentlemen were known for taking whatever was appealing to their taste, and this resulted in a massive trafficking of antiquities from their country of origin to England.

The most famous example of this attitude of superiority is obviously the case of the Parthenon Marbles. Lord Elgin asked for permission to visit the archaeological area and take drawings of the ruins. Acknowledging that the ongoing dispute over the Marbles includes people who found Lord Elgin’s actions legal because of the vague content of the permission granted by the Sultan at the time, shipping the frieze and the metopes of the Parthenon back to London was not part of the deal. However, his fascination with the Greek culture, and the belief that England would take better care of the marbles led him to simply remove them from the Acropolis and take them home. Back in London, he was applauded as a saviour of the ancient heritage, and the British Museum gladly stepped forward in order to be the Marble’s forever home.[4] The result of this “selfless” action was a change in the very name of the artworks, from the Parthenon Marbles to Elgin Marbles, an actual mis-care of the objects, which were damaged during a cleaning process, and an absolute lack of context. Although we can attribute the damage caused by the cleaning to a lack of knowledge, the marbles’ name has not been changed back, and they are displayed in the same wrong fashion.[5] The dispute around the Parthenon Marbles is an ongoing struggle over ownership, law, and morality. However, the effect of the Grand Tour and colonialisation are visible in every gallery of the British Museum, which seems to be not interested in aligning itself to modern and more ethical museums’ standards.

Many museums in England have been opened because of the collections assembled during the years of the Grand Tour, including the Manchester Art Gallery. The latter indeed does not deny its past and acknowledges the presence of paintings coming from that period. However,

“Rethinking the Grand Tour” wants to change the idyllic and romanticizing narration of those years by posing the attention on themes such as cultural appropriation, and racism. Doing so, the exhibition explores the effects of the Grand Tour in Asia and the Middle East. The exhibition has been curated as if the walls would have a sort of a challenging conversation. Entering the first room, the visitors are immediately surrounded by Neoclassicist paintings both on their right and left sides. Those artworks are a perfect embodiment of the stereotypical idea that people in the 18th century had not only of the ancient world but also of foreign and “exotic” cultures. However, there is an immediate shift in the vibe of the room that is characterized by the main wall in front of the door, where visitors are standing. That is indeed the starting point of the exhibition per se. The Manchester Art Gallery has selected four contemporary artists to respond to the legacy of the Grand Tour through artworks that speak of migration, displacement, cultural appropriation, and heritage loss. They presented not only their own works, but also selected pieces belonging to the Gallery.

The four artists, Mahboobeh Rajabi, Khalda Al Khamri, Kani Kmil and Kofo Kego Oyeleye deserve an extreme recognition for their work. I have personally visited the exhibition, and I was moved by their works. Mahboobeh Rajabi is a British-Iranian digital artist and creative producer who is interested in themes of migration, displacement, and women’s rights. The objects she picked for the exhibition are Dolls’ House and Suitcase (1920-30). In her own words;

“There are different reasons for displacement. Some reasons are tragic and beyond our control, like losing a loved one or a relationship ending. When I found the doll house and the suitcase, I thought of my Iranian heritage. It is always with me, even though I now live in Manchester as a proud citizen of this diverse city. My heritage is my home. It is as if I packed it in my suitcase at the age of 21”.[6]

Leaving your own home behind is a struggle no matter what circumstances led to that. However, being a refugee means being forced to leave. There is no choice, just the hope for a new life. That carries a sense of displacement, and loss of identity. However, the metaphor of the suitcase fits; people have the power to carry their heritage with them in order to preserve their roots and traditions.

The bond between individuals and heritage, and the fear of losing is also expressed by Khalda Al Khamri in Damascene House (2022). Despite the theme of the house, the painting is void of people. As the artist explains, the empty street and house symbolises the terror of the Syrian population towards the ongoing political conflicts. However, the bright colours, and the house itself stand for a sense of unity and belonging, even in the darkest hours. Syria has been through war for the last twelve years, which has caused death and devastation all around the country. In addition, in the last, approximately, seven years, Syria has suffered the destruction caused by ISIS. The bombing of Palmyra, and the damages at the Mosul Museum are priceless losses that will forever leave a deep scar in the country’s heritage. Nonetheless, as Damascene House states, people standing together in times of conflict keep their national identity alive and creates bridges of support, represented by the arches, among Syrians all around the world.

The piece offered by Kani Kamil is deeply moving, and I sat in front of it for a while before finding the energy to leave. At first glance, A whisper behind the Grand Tour (2022) is a just a box. There is nothing special about it, but two simple words “Embroideries, Moorish”. The interesting, and sad, element of this box comes from its label, which only says “others”. When Kani Kamil, born and raised in Iraq, came across the box, she was looking for labels mentioning Iraq, but she could not find any. Instead, she opened the box and discovered a Hashimi dress dated before 1910. It was like a dress her mum used to owe, but that she had to sell for food. The nostalgia and joy for her finding part of heritage must have been mixed with a sense of anger for the way it was treated. Labelled as “others”, it shows the disrespect towards her culture, and the very poor knowledge that Western galleries had of foreign cultures at the time of the purchase, which was around the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, the dress cannot be displayed. The extremely poor attention that it received through the decades have spoiled it so much that it cannot be unboxed, or it would get permanently and irremediably damaged. The dress was brought to the country by Grand Tourists, as one of the several souvenirs that would prove the rights of these gentlemen to take their place in the society. Nobody saw it as anything else than a piece of cloth, while it mirrors traditions, culture, and the poor condition of the population at the time.

Finally, Kofo Kego Oyeleye in his works promotes African stories with “accuracy, balance, and dignity”.[7] In “Rethinking the Grand Tour”, he focuses on colonialism, posing the attention on the relationship between Britain and Nigeria. He comments on colonial displays Nigeria’s exports, and A N**** Fisherman, which also shows an unrealistic image of Nigerian society. The latter was commissioned by the Empire Marketing Board to promote inter-Empire trade, and perfectly summarise the racism, colonialism and the “oversimplified manner, typical of the Grand Tour’s colonial perspective”.[8]

These four artists have presented powerful and moving testimonies on the themes of migration, displacement, and cultural loss. The presence of Neoclassicist artwork all around the room fits that idea of fiction v reality that history has ignored for so long. The Grand Tour was seen a rite of passage. A journey through culturally rich and exotic countries; the people of those countries were instead almost ignored. At the same time, rich arrogant “gentlemen” felt entitled to take possession of something that did not belong to them. The result is countries deprived of their cultures, artworks without context, and objects in forgotten boxes. Four voices are not enough for fulfil the mission of decolonisation of a gallery, but it is an important step that should be emulated.

I went to the Manchester Art Gallery because I was visiting the city for the time, and I am passionate about art. I did not know I was about to embark on a journey that would have restored a bit of faith on the way in which British cultural institutions deal with a past they would rather forget. The Manchester Art Gallery does the opposite: it does not forget but takes responsibility. It states, “We acknowledge that our origins are entangled with colonialism and capitalism and that our prosperity and collections were built on manufacture, trade and empire”.[9] If it is true that history cannot be changed, correcting the narration in the present can be a good starting point for making up for the mistakes of the past.

About the Author:

Ilaria Bortot is a Global Contributor & Consultant working across Art Legal's Cultural Heritage, Research, Provenance, and Repatriation Departments. Ilaria's areas of expertise and interest include Nazi-looted art, repatriation issues, looted antiquities, provenance research and the illegal trafficking of art.

Ilaria graduated in Art History and International Affairs from John Cabot University in Rome, achieved an LLM in Art Law from the University of York, and studied Foundation of Art Law at the Institute of Art and Law in London as well as attending the Geneva Summer School program in International Cultural Heritage Law with the Centre du Droit de l’Art / Art-Law Centre and the UNESCO Chair in the #internationallaw of the Protection of #culturalheritage, and completed postgraduate course in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime with the University of Glasgow. She published her dissertation on the repatriation of the Discobolus Lancellotti with the Journal of Art Crime and wrote an article on the use of 3D printing on the Parthenon Marbles to facilitate their return to Greece for the Center of Art Law in New York.

[1] “What was the Grand Tour?”, Royal Museum Greenwich [2] Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and the Art of Sculpture (1750). Published online by Cambridge University Press (2014) [3] Andrew W. Moore, Norfolk & the Grand Tour. Eighteenth-century Travellers Abroad and Their Souvenirs (1985), Norfolk Museum Service. [4] Ivan Lindsay, “History of Loot and Stolen Art from Antiquity until the Present Day” (2013), Unicorn Press Ltd, London, 190. [5] In the Victorian period, people believed Greek marbles to be white. Hence, the British Museum tried to clean the Parthenon Marbles and the result was a permanent yellow shade on them. [6] “Rethinking the Grand Tour”, Manchester Art Gallery [7] Ibid [8] “Manchester Art Gallery and decolonisation: Has it been successful? (2023)” [9] “Rethinking the Grand Tour”, Manchester Art Gallery

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