by Diane Hersh, OLLI member
Birgit Urmson is uniquely qualified to help us explore the history and meaning of the experience of the Grand Tour. She has a deep background in the arts and art history, an opus which extends from documentary film to her historical novel of Madame de Stael: Germaine, and a rich and hard-won understanding of the nature of human experience.
For her, the idea of the Grand Tour extends far beyond the experiences that formed the basis of culture for upper-class Englishmen and for a few daring and exceptional women. Her introduction to the topic came from a very non-English source, the tour that Mozart's father used to bring culture to his magnificently talented but inexperienced son and to bring the world's attention to that talent. Exposure to the great cities of Europe had become a kind of obligatory graduate course for the upper crust, a way of breathing life into an education grounded in Greek and Latin classics. The tour was an exposure to art, to architecture, and to the diverse languages and ways of life of the continent, but it was often only an exposure.
With Birgit Urmson's guidance, we will be able to look beneath the veneer of knowledge by exposure to see the place in history and culture of the artifacts that the Grand Tour visited and the collected fragments and souvenirs that the tourists brought home. For the English, the tour began in Paris and she has lived and studied there. With her, we will see how the great accumulations of native and pillaged art presented an overload of information that we can learn to organize, but that the "grand tourists" could only strive to apprehend.
The English grand tourists were usually young, well-off, and accompanied by a cicerone or "bear leader," an older experienced tutor whose tasks were to keep his charge out of major trouble and to instill the basic knowledge required to appreciate the waterfall of experiences. We are not going to follow the path of the tour in a humble imitation of this process. Instead, we are going to be introduced to the meaning of structures, sculptures, paintings and architectural spaces with the informed eye of modern art history. Every piece of art, every building, every monument served a purpose at its creation and most were repurposed over time as context changed and living memories were replaced by legends. In six weeks, we cannot visit everything. We can learn to see more comprehensively and deeper, in ways that will enrich our memories and our experiences to come.