In the eighteenth century travelers from north of the Alps flocked to Italy, for “the most interesting of all possible voyages,” as the Abbé Gabriel-François Coyer put it after his own journey in 1763. Dotted with the monuments that northern cultural and social élites knew from their readings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and populated by influential contemporaries who might be encountered in the flesh, the Italian peninsula held out the promise of an educational rite of passage rooted in humanist ideals of classical origins.

The story of the “Grand Tour,” as this journey was known, is the story of nations as well as of individuals, and as such it holds enormous cultural and historiographical importance today. To study the Grand Tour, to think about its participants and to re-create their pathways, is to encounter an increasingly diffuse community whose travels helped shape the modern world as we know it. This was a community of travelers consisting of the Enlightenment’s most sensitive minds and influential writers, of reluctant youths and intrepid women, of scientists and artists – the crossing of whose paths led to exchanges and interactions that contributed to a massive reimagining of politics and the arts, of the market for culture, of ideas about leisure, and of practices of professionalism.

Eighteenth-century travellers to Italy left a substantial footprint. There are countless published and unpublished travel journals, letters and other accounts; private and public collections hold a wealth of art, antiques, books and other objects; and records of visitors, from passport stamps to museum entries are found in numerous archives. Yet this very abundance, dispersed so widely, poses a significant historiographical challenge. There is no single or clearly defined archive for the Grand Tour. And while it is understood that the Grand Tour was a widespread phenomenon, with innumerable individuals traveling across vast expanses (and this long reach a crucial feature of its influence), the fact remains that we barely glimpse its totality when we define and understand it through the writings of a small selection of the most well-known travelers.

The Grand Tour Project uses digital approaches and tools in order to widen our understanding of eighteenth-century travel to Italy and to produce new insights about it. The project focuses on John Ingamells’s 1997 prosopographical Dictionary of British and Irish Travelers to Italy 1701-1800 (Yale University Press, 1997). Ingamells’ 5213 entries, ordered alphabetically by last name, vary greatly in length and depth—of some travelers precious little is known about their time in Italy, while of others enough is known to fill pages. Taken together Ingamells’ entries contain a tremendous amount of information on the Grand Tour, and it is the goal of our project to use digital tools to make the most of this wealth of information.

Fig 1. The digitized Ingamells dictionary is huge, containing thousands and thousands of pieces of information, so we must make our decisions about data with care, since each repurposing of the database can require hours and hours of labor to implement.

We started by manually drawing from Ingamells and entering information about travelers’ journeys and biographies into a database structure. This material allowed us to experiment with possible data visualizations. We explored widely, mapping the Grand Tour data in terms of time and relationships and in terms of geography and space, all the while becoming attuned to both the richness and the limits of the Dictionary’s entries (see archive for this first phase of the project 2009-2013).

A focused study of sixty-nine architect-travelers in Ingamells inspired a new approach that has marked the current phase of the project. Close attention to the architects’ entries revealed the regularity of expression in the initial paragraphs of each entry, which in turn allowed us to parse and undertake structured text mining and disambiguation. The Grand Tour Project is engaged in a digital transformation of the Dictionary that facilitates the multidimensional searching and browsing of its entries; the organization of this information into structured and usable data; and the analysis and visualization of this data. Out of this work we are developing theGrand Tour Explorer as an interactive scholarly resource. We are working to make the Grand Tour Explorer as extensive as possible in terms of data extracted from the Dictionary’s entries—as a research tool that allows us to search by category across multiple dimensions and also across a number of built-in visualizations. The objective is to be able to ask questions—‘Who was in place x at the y time?’--across the extent of the dictionary, as well as to visualize travel by individuals, by aggregates, and by overall trends. Freeing the information from the alphabetic constraints of the print form and enriching it by multidimensional association permits us to cast an unusually wide net on the eighteenth-century Grand Tour of Italy, bringing into the picture more than five thousand travelers, who together represent a diverse scope of touristic experiences.

Fig 2. An example of an entry from the Grand Tour Explorer—note that in blue we have actionable data, so that, for example, if you click on ‘1724’ you will find all travelers in our database that were born that year, and the visualization of the travels’ route, including places visited and sized for length of stay, on the right inside.

We are also well aware that, while it is unprecedented in its coverage, Ingamells’ Dictionary is not exhaustive. We called our research tool ‘Explorer’ precisely because we see its main function as opening up questions and research avenues on the basis of the rich information in our database. But there is more information on eighteenth-century British and Irish travelers to Italy outside of the Dictionary, and one question for the future could well be whether and how to work to incorporate it in our database.

The Dictionary presents a certain number of uncertainties and inconsistencies in the presentation of information that we are working to structure and resolve according to our research agenda (while always documenting our decisions). Our objective is to maximize the richness of the Dictionary’s text for digital approaches, so as to enable new research and to expand the understanding of the crucial role of the Grand Tour of Italy in eighteenth-century cultural and political history.

The Grand Tour Project is the result of a collaboration between numerous individuals and organizations at Stanford University and beyond. Significant contributions were made by many in the Humanities+Design Lab and at the Spatial History Project, both part of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA). Several graduate and undergraduate students have helped over the years, and the “People” page allows you to appreciate just how much of their work went into making this project possible. Our workshop series represents an important extension of our project as it brings our work to an eminent group of scholars for whose input we are deeply grateful. The project has benefitted from funding from the Mapping Republic of Letters collaboration, the Stanford Faculty Dean of Research Funds and a New Directions Fellowship from the Mellon Foundation.