Stealing a bit of the Pope’s floor


The second half of the nineteenth century saw the final decline of the Grand Tour; the leisurely ramble around the great artistic centres of Europe – particularly the cities of Italy – that had first become popular among young British aristocrats in the early part of the previous century.    The Grand Tour took up months or even years in the lives of the offspring of  the wealthiest families.  The idea was that during his time abroad, a young man would be able study great art, architecture and music first hand.   A sensitivity to the ideas of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, it was believed,  would complete his education and help make him aware of the responsibilities that went hand-in-hand with his privilege.  It would also enable him to contribute to the intellectual development of the nation as a whole on his return home.  Of course, he might also expect to have a bloody good time while he was about it.

. . . . when a quarter of the world was pink and the sun never set on the Empire.

By 1898, the year, which has our attention here, the idea of the Grand Tour had become a little more democratic.  Now the sons of the middle classes, aided by steamships and railway trains and the early travel companies, might well be able to afford scaled down versions of the trips made by their betters of the previous century.   And there was never a better time to do it.  The Empire was at its height and a young British chap with a few bob in his pocket travelled in confident expectation that he would be treated with respec t.   Alpine sightseeing, the art galleries of Paris and the pleasures of the Mediterranean were all within the reach of young men whose fathers might barely have travelled beyond their home county.  Classical Italy remained the pre-eminent destination for most though.  There was kudos in doing what the aristocracy did.

Stonehenge – no wonder there’s not much of it left.

Mind you, although it seems blindingly obvious these days that historic buildings and structures should be treated with reverence, this was not so for the Victorians.  It was commonplace at the time for example, for visitors to Stonehenge to carry a hammer so that they could chip bits off to take home as souvenirs. 

This cavalier attitude to the fabric of history combined with the widened horizons of  Victorian travel, goes some way to explaining the object we have here.  In the eighteenth century, young aristocrats on the Grand Tour bartered for real Roman statuary and forked out fortunes for old master paintings.  Shipped home with the greatest of care, these fine objects were installed in the great houses, where many of them remain to this day.  By the late nineteenth century things were a bit different.  In April 1898, a young chap whose dad  had probably made his money in trade, bent down in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and casually filched a bit of centuries-old marble floor tile.  One suspects that this is not all the kind of thing that the heir to a dukedom would have done.

That evening in his hotel room the young traveller took out his pen and his travelling inkwell and made a quick note directly on to the tile – presumably so that it wouldn’t get confused with the rest of the stuff in his historic rubble collection.  Then he popped  it into his trunk to bring home.  112 years later, I found it in a box of bits and bobs in a local auction saleroom.  And here it is.

Yes, it really does say “Marble from Peter’s floor, Rome. April 1898”.

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