Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 64, entry Jan 2003, rev. Oct 2010 

he Grand Tour

I was chugging down Via Caracciolo the other day on my four 14-year-old cylinders. The 18th-century Royal Gardens —now a public park— were on my left, and coming up on the right was the Castel dell'Ovo, built on the site of the original Greek settlement of Naples, later also the site of the last prison of the last emperor of Rome. I was sort of enjoying the 'history' of it all, when I noticed a gigantic tour bus in the rear-view mirror, about ready to blast by me. They were in a hurry — definitely not on a Grand Tour. 

If you define 'grand' as 'extravagant' or 'leisurely' or 'relaxing', then whatever else traveling is these days —fast, convenient, cheap— one thing it is not is 'grand'. I say this in spite of being totally seduced by the idea of sub-orbiting from Europe to Japan in two-and-a-half hours aboard a hypersonic ram-jet spaceplane. But it will still take me forever to fight my way through traffic from my house to the hypersonic ram-jet airport, and once aboard, I will be force-fed hypersonic ram-jet spaceplane food, and at my destination be corralled into a holding pen waiting for one surly bureaucrat to rummage through my underwear while another compares my passport photo to Interpol mugshots. Good, you get there, but 'grand' it ain't. 

'Grand', as in the Grand Tour, means going back to the 1700s and early 1800s and taking a few months off to travel around Europe and complete your education on lots of daddy's money. You traveled by ship, train (from the early 1800's onward) and horse-drawn barouche or dormeuse. You didn't wear bowling-shirt and tennis shoes, either. You packed burnouses, cloaks, frocks, spencers, waistcoats and a selection of cravats and collars. You would be dressing for dinner, a leisurely affair with educated conversation before, during and after, enlivened, of course, by your own sparkling wit.

The Grand Tour was the last act in the eighteenth-century English and northern European gentleman's coming of age. You had just spent your entire formative years studying things like alea iacta est ("The die is cast"). You had totally ignored, of course, the glorious daredevilry of Caesar's words as he crossed the Rubicon, and had concentrated, instead, on what the correct Latin would have been had Julius wanted to say something like, 'The die would have been cast,' or, maybe, 'Might have been cast,' or, even 'Hey, what happened to the other die?' 

Now you were off to do some cultural empire building of your own: around the Continent —Paris, Vienna and then the grand finale of the Grand Tour, south to Italy —across the Alps and down into sun, music, art, romance, hurtling back to the dark intrigues of Renaissance Italy, then back further to the glories of Imperial Rome, to the beginnings of Christianity and then the ancient Greek outposts of the southern peninsula. For well over a century, young northern gentlemen swarmed through Italy so they could get what a thousand books could not give them, so they could personally explore millennia of history upon which their civilization was built, so they could tread where Michelangelo, Dante, Augustus, Virgil, Peter, and even Ulysses had trod. 

Byron, Shelly, Goethe, Mozart, Stendahl… and on and on —they all came to Italy, and most of them came to Naples, the southernmost point on the standard Grand Tour. In the 18th century, visitors to Naples found a city rebuilt by Charles III of Bourbon: royal palaces, broad streets, the finest opera house in the world, a city entirely to suit the opulent tastes of the monarch and then of his Hapsburg daughter-in-law who would run the kingdom (while her milksop husband 'ruled') until well into the 19th century. 

Visitors thus enjoyed the splendor of the modern absolute monarchy. It was here that Stendahl, at the reopening of the San Carlo Theater said that he felt as if he had been "…transported to the palace of some oriental emperor…my eyes were dazzled, my soul enraptured. There is nothing in the whole of Europe to compare with it." It was here, too, that even the sombre Goethe, who complained that his "German temperament and determination to study" kept him from amusing himself, relaxed enough to write:

I can't begin to tell you of the glory of a night by full moon when we strolled through the streets and squares to the endless promenade of the Chiaia, and then walked up and down the seashore. I was quite overwhelmed by a feeling of infinite space. To be able to dream like this is certainly worth the trouble it took to get here.

Perhaps he begrudged the natives their easygoing approach to life more than a little when he observed that in Naples "…as long as the queen is pregnant and the king is off hunting, all is right with the world." 

But, primarily, they got the past they had come for. Naples is where classical Greece first came ashore beyond the Aegean; even the mysterious Etruscans and Samnites had been in Naples; Hannibal had laid siege to it, and Spartacus had led his revolt on the nearby slopes; here Brutus plotted the assassination of Julius Caeser; here the last emperor of the Western Empire was exiled; nearby was the mythological descent into the Underworld, and Virgil wrote the Aeneid here —indeed, the poet is buried in Naples, and his tomb is a shrine now as it was during the age of the Grand Tour. Visitors were fortunate enough, too, to get in on the first massive modern excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They could climb famed Vesuvius, the eruption of which had killed Pliny the Elder and destroyed Pompeii, an event that moved Grand Tourist Shelly, 1,800 years later, to pen in his Ode to Naples

I stood within the city disinterred; 
And heard the autumn leaves like light footfalls 
Of spirits passing through the streets; 
and heard The mountain's slumberous voice at intervals 
Thrill through those roofless halls. 
The oracular thunder penetrating shook 
The listening soul in my suspended blood. 
I felt that Earth out of her deep heart spoke…

So, as the bus went by me I frantically signaled to the tourists trapped within. I made what I was sure were universal gestures for "18th century royal gardens" and "…the last prison of the last emperor of Rome". Stop, I said, beckoning them to tarry a while and partake of genteel discourse —in short, to 'get grand'. It was too late. They were gone, on their way back to the airport. 

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