Beginning mid-17th century, young British noblemen would venture throughout Italy as part of what is known as the “Grand Tour.” The outward purpose of the journey was to educate the youthful men (most of whom were aged 18 to 20) in the ways of art, music, and culture. Of course, nothing is as simple as it sounds: one of the lesser-known objectives for the Grand Tour was to provide the lads an unbridled awakening into the world of drinking, gambling, and promiscuous sex.
Sounds good to me. It also sounded good to numerous upper-class British nationals. Three-hundred years after the Grand Tour was at its most glorified “peak,” famed English art historian, critic and writer Brian Sewell attempted to recreate the journey from the Alps down to Rome and back up to Venice. But, instead of making the trek in a horse-drawn carriage with the company of tutors, Sewell takes advantage of such modern luxuries as a Mercedes Benz and a television crew. The result is Grand Tour Of Italy, one of the most delightful and engrossing educational programs I have had the pleasure of seeing in ages.
Sewell takes us up and down Italy, all the while treating us to awe-inspiring architecture and artwork, and amusing us with his brutally-honest method of critiquing that has made him the controversial figure he is today. “It’s either late wedding cake or early water closet,” the sarcastic historian jokingly notes as he peers upon the San Miniato church in Florence (and rightfully so – it is pretty ugly).
From classical Roman to the wonders of the Renaissance, Sewell gives us the ins and outs experienced by one untried English boy after another during the 1800s. Often quoting from some of the boys’ own hand-written accounts, Sewell occasionally interjects his own personal experiences from when he took a more modernized version of the Grand Tour in 1955. Throughout the fascinating 10-episode series, Brian Sewell takes us to Rome, Florence, Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii, Milan, Bologna, Paestum, and Venice (among many other cities and towns), exploring the art and architecture of each — and, most importantly, keeping the whole thing fresh so as not to bore his viewers.
This four-DVD set from Acorn Media’s educational label Athena features all 10 episodes from the 2005 Channel Five series, beautifully transferred in glorious video 1.66:1 widescreen presentations. Accompanying the breathtaking imagery is a more-than-suitable stereo soundtrack and English (SDH) subtitles should anyone have difficulty with the English or Italian accents.
Several special features on Disc 4 are in the form of text-only and range in subjects from Bios to Tour Tidbits (such as the English use of the slang word “macaroni”). A small 20-page booklet is also included with the packaging, offering readers/viewers a guide to the episodes, as well as questions to consider (you’ll feel like you’re back in school with this one).
Whether he is teaching us about the works of Michelangelo, reminding us that just because some art is old, does not mean it’s good, or informing us how the present-day garden gnome evolved from gigantic phallic symbols in ancient Pompeii, Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour Of Italy is a marvel to behold. It’s informative, original, and damn funny to boot.