The Mediterranean has intrigued explorers, writers, and scholars for centuries. Its allure extends beyond its geographical expanse, encompassing the interplay between culture, history, and the human imagination. In this article, I delve into the historical approaches to travel and writing in, of, and around the Mediterranean, uncovering the various elements that have shaped our understanding of this iconic region.
Constructing the Mediterranean as an intertextual space
Travel writers, particularly in the early modern period (from the 17th to the 18th centuries), used the Mediterranean as a canvas upon which they cast narratives rich in sensory detail. These narratives transported readers to the region's diverse landscapes, from tranquil coastlines to ancient ruins, bustling marketplaces, and vibrant communities. Through their literary depictions, writers invited readers to experience the Mediterranean as an intertextual space where the histories of numerous civilizations converged.
Travelers in different periods adopted varying approaches. Some embraced the romantic spirit of adventure, seeking encounters with the unknown and unscripted risks that the Mediterranean presented. Others, however, took on the role of tourists, embarking on structured tours that deliberately distanced them from potential risks, ensuring a more predictable and comfortable exploration of the region. At the core of early modern Mediterranean travel writing lies the concept of "otherness." The authors employed this concept to project a sense of exoticism and unfamiliarity, enticing readers to explore the unknown facets of the region. This also lent a certain authority to the writer as someone able to tame the exotic spaces about which they wrote. Through this process, the Mediterranean became a sensory journey, with descriptions evoking the flavors, sounds, and ambiance of the locales visited.
The Grand Tour, a significant cultural phenomenon of the 17th to 19th centuries, represented a transformative journey undertaken by young European aristocrats. This educational pilgrimage typically encompassed several European countries, with a particular focus on Greece and Italy, and was considered an essential rite of passage for the elite. The Grand Tour aimed to provide these aristocrats with a comprehensive education in art, culture, and classical antiquity, fostering their refinement and cosmopolitanism. Travelers explored the architectural wonders of ancient Athens and Rome, admired Renaissance art in Florence, and revelled in the vibrant cultural scenes of cities like Paris and Venice. Some even travelled as far as present-day Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. As they embarked on this odyssey, they engaged with the rich fabric of Europe's historical and artistic heritage, returning home with a deeper understanding of the world, its diverse cultures, and their place within it. The Grand Tour's impact extended far beyond the individual travellers, influencing European literature, art, and intellectual discourse, while also contributing to the construction of a shared European identity.
As a result, an enduring theme in Mediterranean travel writing is the author's personal journey. Authors infused their narratives with their own identities, perspectives, and experiences. These writings extended beyond geographic exploration; they served as windows into the author's character and worldview. Prominent figures like Madame de Staël, Chateaubriand, and Lamartine, renowned in French literature, embarked on Mediterranean journeys that not only documented their encounters but also revealed their worldliness and deep engagement with classical culture. These travel accounts transcended mere geographical descriptions, offering insights into the authors' intellectual and emotional connections with the Mediterranean.
The three authors often linked geography, philosophy, and tourism to construct the Mediterranean as an attractive destination for the 19th-century French aristocracy. All were deeply inspired by classical Greek and Roman culture, which was also being leveraged in this period for European nation-building. European claims to be the heirs of glorious classical civilizations domesticated the foreign and made these exotic travel experiences more accessible to the writers’ audiences.
Notwithstanding the different travel approaches (romantic and adventurous or safe and structured), certain elements remained constant in Mediterranean travel writing. Authors consistently employed rhetorical devices such as vivid descriptions, engaging anecdotes, hyperbole, and digressions to immerse readers in their experiences. These narrative techniques created immediacy and enabled readers to vicariously share in the authors' Mediterranean explorations. And, while the travellers were all writing works focused on the self, they also reflected, more generally, a European approach to the Mediterranean and indications of early Orientalism.
Historical travel writing on the Mediterranean serves as a valuable literary lens into the past. These narratives attempted to capture the Mediterranean's historical, cultural, and geographical complexities, with early modern authors adding their unique perspectives to this enduring literary tradition. Each narrative is a testament to the timeless allure of the Mediterranean, inviting readers to engage with the region's multifaceted identity through the eyes of those who have ventured into its embrace.
The Mediterranean as a frontier: bridging east and west
Another significant theme in the historical exploration of the Mediterranean is its role as a frontier. This vast expanse of water has served as a natural border, separating Europe from the Middle East/Asia, and North Africa. The Mediterranean has not only been a geographical boundary but also a cultural and historical demarcation, marking the divide between East and West, North and South, Christianity and Islam, the Occident and the Orient.
In the early modern period, the Mediterranean underwent a transformation from a region characterized by a relatively balanced power dynamic to one where the power of Europe gradually surpassed that of the Ottoman Empire. European travellers of this era, as reflected in historical accounts, often assumed the role of observers while the inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin became the objects of their narratives. This shift in perspective mirrored the evolving power dynamics of the time, and it is a theme that resounds throughout the exploration of the Mediterranean.
Beyond travel writing, thalassology offers another lens through which to explore the Mediterranean's historical significance. This approach recognizes the Mediterranean not merely as a geographical feature but as a dynamic force shaping human history.
Thalassologists examine the sea itself as a historical actor, influencing the development of societies along its shores. The Mediterranean, with its vast expanse and unique geographical features, has been a catalyst for economic and cultural integration. Historical writers such as Hugo Grotius, Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, Georg W. F. Hegel, and Jules Michelet have transitioned the historical study of the sea from an early concern with its borders and laws to research that recognized the sea as an historical actor in its own right. In particular, Hegel saw the sea as integral to the spirit and rational development of Europe. For him especially, the main attribute of "uncivilized" or "unevolved" regions was their isolation from the sea. Through this example, we can see how certain geographical studies have been informed throughout history by politics, environmental studies, and theology. Scholars who subscribe to these theories claim that Europe and its inhabitants are defined by the continent’s geography, implying that European identity has been so profoundly influenced by the "terrestrialized sea" that historical studies are increasingly overshadowed by the "thalassological imagination."
Various historical approaches to the Mediterranean invite us to reimagine this iconic region as a complex, multifaceted entity. It is not merely a geographical expanse but a realm where human imagination, culture, and power dynamics have converged and continue to shape our understanding. Over time, the identity of the Mediterranean has been irrevocably constructed by the works written about it. Whether through the vivid narratives of travel writers or the analytical lens of thalassology, the Mediterranean remains a compelling subject, a bridge between diverse cultures and histories, and a reservoir of untold stories waiting to be explored. As we navigate the shores of history, we uncover new facets of this captivating region that transcend time and place.
1 Chard, Chloe. 1999. “Pleasure and the Language of Travel Writing” in Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour: Travel Writing and Imaginative Geography 1600-1830. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Mendelson, David. “The Idea of the Mediterranean in Early Nineteenth-Century French Literature”.
2 Mediterranean Historical Review 17:1 (2002). 25-48.
3 Wick, Alexis. “Thalassomania: Modernity and the Sea” in Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.