Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour of Italy is a clever, fun, educative trip through nearly all of Italy over the course of a ten-part series. Sewell’s tour mirrors the ones taken by aristocratic young British gentleman of the 18th century who took these tours as a sort of finishing school. Those young men were naïve, unsophisticated and incredibly young when they embarked on what Sewell calls an alternative education, usually for months, sometimes for years at a time throughout the whole of Italy.
The grand tour was, according to Sewell, “intellectually stimulating and morally debauching”, and so we see not only the masterworks that drew grand tourists to Italy, but also the prostitutes and gambling dens they also frequented.
Sewell, known as much for his acerbic wit as for his reputation as an art critic for the London Evening Standard is by contrast to his predecessors, nearing the end of his life. He has traveled through Italy many times before and though he follows the path laid out by those aforementioned 18th century gentleman, the trip marks as he notes several times throughout the series, the 50th anniversary of his own first trip to Italy as a young man.
The trip is an incredible undertaking and as Sewell notes “I’m beginning to think that ‘grand’ was not quite the right adjective for this educative tour. ‘Tough’ is much nearer the mark.” Though the grand tourist may have been well off, we also learn that his travel conditions—crossing the Alps in a hand pulled cart or sometimes on hands and knees for instance—were often less than first class. Because travel was so difficult and long, grand tourists also often stayed in small towns where accommodations were cold and shabby and were therefore susceptible to disease and sometimes death.
Still, most of the tour was enjoyable and Sewell makes his own journey remarkably entertaining. Beginning in Turin, working his way down to Naples and then back up to Venice as a finale, Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour is a sea of picturesque towns and cities and above all a tour of breathtaking art coupled with Sewell’s own wit and haughty opinions. He deems Leonardo Da Vinci “a genius who wasted his time on frivories and achieved nothing…no great works of art.” In a cathedral in Orvieto, Sewell draws your attention to the male nudes and their “perfectly formed buttocks” just above the pulpit and asks you to imagine sitting through mass, looking up and “seeing that bottom up there.”
Yet he can also be caught up in the rapture of some of his favorite works of art even after having seeing them numerous times. He chokes up when visiting works of Michelangelo in Florence, wiping a tear from his eye and describing Michelangelo as “a soul filled with genius…there has never been anybody who could match it.”
Much like the 18th century grand tourists, Sewell detests most of his fellow tourists, most notably in Venice where he attends a tacky, gaudy modern day version of the carnival. As he approaches the party by boat and prepares for the indignity of attending the event he laments “Four Hundred Euros to go to the ball and pretend! How fraudulent can you get? They’re all tarted up in tat and tawdry and look vaguely like armchair upholstery because of their vile fat figures. It’s absolute hideous nonsense. It’s a freak show.”
Not that Sewell has many kind words for the 18th century tourists whose footsteps he is following, either. He notes that they often overlooked important works of art on their trips, detested Italian food and that “very little rubbed off on them. They went home as boorish as when they came.”
Despite his sometimes scathing snobbery and curmudgeonly ways, Sewell is no fuddy-duddy and is in fact a fascinating and utterly engaging companion. His knowledge of history and art is both erudite and accessible and traveling with him through St. Peter’s Basilica or the canals of Venice is a true delight. Still, this four-disc set is best seen in parts rather than straight through as even the armchair viewer can become overwhelmed by all this travel.
In the end, the series becomes just as much about Sewell’s personal journey back to Italy as the grand tourists’. When his director asks him to sum up the trip on their final day in Venice Sewell, normally fairly unemotional gets quiet and sad. “This series has been very complicated for me… I’m recalling my own life exactly fifty years ago and trying to evoke the what the young grand tourist experienced three hundred years ago. It has been sometimes rather amusing…sometimes tearful. This was a last chance. I’m seventy-three and falling to pieces.”
Sewell may be near the end of his life but his wit and intellect are well intact and make him an ideal guide for this grand tour of Italy.