Vesuvius is the only active volcano on mainland Europe and perhaps the most famous in the world. Its most recent eruption was in 1944, the latest in a series of eruptions that began in 1660. By 1737, which saw the sixth of them, it was apparent to a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Naples, who had seen the ‘inextinguishable fires’, that Vesuvius afforded ‘ample matter for reflection and writing’ and for ‘modern philosophers a sufficient subject to employ their thoughts’. By the end of the 18th century, a combination of Enlightenment empiricism and Romantic landscape art had established Vesuvius as both curiosity and metaphor in European and, to a lesser extent, American culture. The eruptions of 1779 and 1794 were described and imitated in light shows and working models across the Continent, and by the turn of the next century Vesuvius was a must-see for any enterprising tourist. Visitors came in considerable numbers, and the quest for the sublime not infrequently toppled into the ridiculous.
The 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos – famous for his size, and for taking all the pens and stationery with him when he left the Board of Trade in 1807 – was lugged up Vesuvius in a sedan chair by relays of guides, one of whom, Salvatore Madonna, was still complaining of shoulder strain as he recalled the ascent years later to Buckingham’s nephew. After the difficulty of the journey up there was a temptation to take the easy – if undignified – way down by sitting back and sliding. Small boys, naturally, pissed into the crater and a number of parties were visibly drunk on the famous local wine, Lacryma Christi. The experience brought out something reckless in even the most serious. William Hamilton, who did more than anyone to further vulcanology as an academic study, made the ascent during the 1767 eruption in the company of the art historian Johann Winckelmann. They were travelling with the Prussian ambassador to Vienna, who had written a guidebook to Sicily, and the ‘libertine pornographer’ Pierre François Hugues, who styled himself baron d’Hancarville. At considerable risk to their lives, the four men descended into the crater, where it was so hot that they decided to take their clothes off and eat their picnic in the nude.
The Marquis de Sade set an only slightly more improbable scene in Juliette on the crater’s edge, and Goethe, who ascended Vesuvius in 1787 with his unenthusiastic companion Johann Heinrich Tischbein, recalled his last sight of it from the palace at Portici, the lava descending ‘along its majestic fiery path’. The drama of the display, set against the peace of the surrounding fields, suggested the extremes of existence that were to recur in Faust. Two years later, with the fall of the Bastille, poets, artists and cartoonists had a ready image to deploy and, coming the year after Britain joined the revolutionary wars, the eruption of 1794 was, at least from a cartoonist’s point of view, fortuitous.
John Brewer’s large and somewhat rambling survey of the cultural significance of Vesuvius begins with an attempt to draw a single thread from this tangled story. He starts with a visitors’ book, now in the Harvard library, which covers the period from December 1826 to October 1828 and includes more than 2300 signatures. The book, like its many lost predecessors and successors, was kept at the hermitage of San Salvatore, a popular stopping point, six hundred metres above sea level, where visitors arrived after the first stage of the climb from Resina. By this point, many of them were in need of their Lacryma Christi. Resina was at the end of the road from Naples, the bottom of a funnel through which all Neapolitan tourists had to pass and where they were greeted with a Hogarthian scene of beggars, mules and would-be guides. The local population was desperately poor. Shelley thought them ‘degraded, disgusting & odious’ while less sensitive tourists were excited by the ‘children in rags, the scabies, the ringworm, the lepers’. Shelley’s friend Lady Blessington, who was rather shrewder, recognised the element of showmanship in this ‘hyperbolical’ performance to a captive audience, most of whom had little means of knowing what they should pay or whose services they might best employ.
The hermitage was calm by comparison. It had begun life as a refuge from plague but by the 1820s was in effect an inn staffed by a number of ‘hermits’ who provided food and drink and some accommodation. The hermits puzzled visitors, especially the British, for most of whom Roman Catholics in general and monks and nuns in particular were unfamiliar outside the pages of Gothic fiction. Many of the Vesuvian hermits had surprising and, in some cases, shady pasts. One was rumoured to have murdered his predecessor. Another, Father Pietro, reminded Hester Piozzi that they had met in London during his earlier career as a coiffeur when he had done her hair. The visitors’ book offered to the motley and transient population of tourists, notables and students of natural philosophy is filled with a predictable mixture of banalities and a few worthwhile observations. Some people were rude about other people’s comments, some were struck by seeing the names of friends or, on a repeat visit, their own earlier entries. Robert Pike took the opportunity to mention that he was ‘from London’ and a ‘patent self-adjusting truss manufacturer and merchant’.
The book is a rare survival that brings us close to contemporary experience, but its scope is necessarily limited. Brewer’s plan to use it as ‘a database and as a finding aid’ works – up to a point. Graphs, maps and a bar chart show the nationalities, professions and rough ages of the visitors, and the ratio of men to women. The British are the most numerous, with the Italians some way behind. Neapolitans, Brewer explains, came to visit in a different spirit, notably on religious festivals. Surprisingly perhaps, there were more Americans than Belgians, and the majority were young, born between 1800 and 1810. Whether this reflects the overall composition of the visitors, or merely of those who thought it would be fun to sign the visitors’ book, is unknowable. The big fish Brewer catches is Charles Babbage, who came in 1828. Despite being on what was supposed to be a rest cure, he and a friend had themselves lowered on ropes into the crater. Their guide, the resilient Madonna, declined to join them. But all Babbage appears to have written in the visitors’ book is his name. For most of the signatories, of whom little more is known, Brewer is at a loss. ‘Why did they choose to climb the volcano? We will probably never know,’ he admits, as he reaches the limits of his material.
But we are still only in the foothills of this very long book, the rest of which is taken up with the ramifications of the volcano as subject and idea during what Brewer has chosen to call the Age of Revolutions. He is never quite clear what this is. The ‘fulcrum’ is the 1820s, presumably because of the visitors’ book, though these were years of relative peace in Europe, but Brewer covers a period of about a century from the 1740s, when nobody knew how volcanos formed, to the 1840s, which saw the establishment of the first scientific observatory on Vesuvius. Built on the site of the former hermitage, and still standing, it marked the dawn of vulcanology, a symbolic replacement of religion by science, though the first director, Macedonio Melloni, was tactfully vague on the point of divine creation in his inauguration speech. It did him little good. Soon after the observatory opened its doors, early in 1848, Italy was caught up in the wave of revolutions that spread across the Continent. When the monarchy was restored in Naples, Melloni, a known radical, was fired.
For the most part, however, the wider political upheavals of the period had little direct effect on the daily comings and goings at the volcano, though they greatly affected the national composition of visitors. Nevertheless, it would have helped to have more explanation of this complicated and turbulent period in Naples’s history, as it was catapulted from Spanish rule to French, monarchy to republic and back again, by turns occupied, liberated, formally united with Sicily and, after 1830, subject to the first stirrings of the Risorgimento. Brewer’s laconic allusions to the historical context are more tantalising than helpful. There are passing references to major events: in the background to his discussions of geology and theories of the sublime, we get occasional glimpses of the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV fleeing to Sicily hotly pursued by Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat, who takes the throne until he in turn is forced to flee. Brewer’s is a thematic rather than a chronological account, but even broad themes need to be understood historically.
Some of his language is gratingly anachronistic. To talk of ‘Admiral Nelson’s pogrom’, or of the Nazarene artists as ‘a collective’, confuses rather than clarifies the picture. It’s difficult to know what to make of an assertion such as this:
In the hands of revolutionaries like Joseph Fouché and the Abbé Grégoire, the rather bland remark of the English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, that ‘the richest vineyards and the sweetest flowers always grow on the soil which has been fertilised by the fiery deluge of a volcano’, became a rallying cry for the purgative destruction that they believed necessary to make a better world.
Macaulay was writing in 1824, in an essay on Dante. He wasn’t born at the time of the revolution. Grégoire, who supported the trial but opposed the execution of Louis XVI, is today most famous for his speech to the French Convention in 1794 in which he coined the term ‘vandalisme’ and appealed for the destruction of property to cease. Brewer’s survey is full of interesting facts and insights, but as it ranges wider and wider, chapter headings such as ‘Vesuvius and Naples in Time, Space and History’ become all but meaningless. Gillian Darley’s Vesuvius (2011), though not in Brewer’s bibliography, succeeds better in its more modest format as an exploration of the volcano as cultural phenomenon.
Few people reacted to the fall of the Bastille with the promptitude of the Earl of Exeter, who (according to the Gentleman’s Magazine) went straight to his library, removed the works of Voltaire and the French Encyclopédistes and had them destroyed. Still, the 1789 Revolution caused a sharp and widespread reaction against Enlightenment philosophy and the promise of perfectibility. Brewer’s book would be more coherent if he acknowledged the exceptions. He might have made more of Hamilton’s career, which not only informed understandings of Vesuvius but embodied the empirical pre-Revolutionary mindset for which methodical enquiry sat naturally with classical ideals of taste. Hamilton successfully petitioned for the post of British envoy-extraordinary to the Spanish court in Naples, ostensibly to benefit the health of his first wife, Catherine. But friends who knew his passion for collecting art and antiquities suspected other motives. As Horace Walpole put it, ‘he is picture mad and will ruin himself in virtu land.’
The posting, which lasted until 1800, has been described as a 35-year grand tour. Hamilton spent beyond his means on Roman vases, as well as paintings by Titian, Holbein and the many others that flooded the European market as the French aristocracy sold up. But to the surprise and irritation of Walpole and other friends, he also became fascinated to the point of obsession with the volcano. His official duties were not onerous. At the beginning of his posting he had to keep an eye out for Jacobites plotting against George III from the safety of the Neapolitan court, while towards the end the threat was posed by Jacobins, who might draw Naples into an alliance with France, but there was still time for a glittering social life. He and Catherine entertained all the distinguished visitors to Naples. An account of 1770 describes the 14-year-old Mozart playing to them against an accompaniment of volcanic explosions.
Hamilton’s observations were relayed to the Royal Society in the standard form of letters to the president. The first one earned him election as a fellow. He employed an elderly monk from Resina, Padre Piaggio, to make daily illustrated notes on the volcano for fifteen years, recording weather conditions, the size and shape of smoke clouds and any other visible phenomena, including changes to the shape of the crater before eruptions. Hamilton’s own measurements were combined with experiments in electricity, which was thought at the time to be implicated in volcanic activity. His enthusiasm rubbed off on many of his visitors, who carried the latest news of Vesuvian experiments with them across the Continent and to America. His investigations culminated in a book describing the ‘fields of fire’ or Campi Phlegraei, as he titled his ‘observations of the volcanos of the two Sicilies’. He spent more than £1300 producing the edition, adding a supplement to cover the eruption of 1779. It was one of the most lavish and expensive publications of the 18th century, marking both a high point and a dead end in Enlightenment vulcanology.
Hamilton’s book was too specialised for most gentlemen’s libraries and too expensive (and artistic) for many fellows of the Royal Society. It was his archaeological finds and purchases at Herculaneum and Pompeii that fed the dawning Romantic sensibility. He had been collecting classical vases before he left England, but in Naples what he coyly called his ‘lumber room’ became a world-class collection. He published an account of it in four volumes, handsomely illustrated, and it set a fashion for interior decoration in the ‘Etruscan’ style. Josiah Wedgwood’s new factory in Staffordshire began making copies of the most famous specimens. As a phenomenon, the combination of connoisseurship, fashion, industrialised production and commerce was unprecedented, the expression of a particular historical moment that straddled two diverging but not yet separate cultures. Walpole had hoped there might be some compensatory artistic potential in his friend’s boring hobby and was disappointed to learn that lava was too brittle to mould, but the vases more than made up for it. Not only beautiful in themselves, they gave the volcano a sense of historical immediacy and narrative interest.
The eruption of 79 ce had long been known from Pliny, but with the excavations of the mid-18th century the lost cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum began to re-emerge in recognisable detail. For the generation that shared with Dr Johnson a growing taste for history writing that eschewed the ‘huge canvasses’ of David Hume in favour of more intimate details ‘applicable to private life’, the emerging streets and houses and the evidence of ‘customs and manners’ which were at the same time both ancient and familiar, transformed the experience of visitors. Hamilton became known as ‘the modern Pliny’, and intrinsic to his modernity was his engagement with social history and the material culture of the past. As Goran Blix has written, Pompeii was transformed between 1750 and 1830 ‘from a grave … into the image of a lost civilisation’. After 1789, visitors such as Germaine de Staël, who had witnessed the overthrow of an entire social order and come personally close to death, recognised not only the power of the place, but a city in the aftermath of catastrophe. In her novel Corinne, she describes the experience of standing at the crossroads of the ancient city, where it seems possible that someone may appear at any minute. ‘The very semblance of life in this place,’ she wrote, ‘makes one all the more sad at its eternal silence.’
The artistic possibilities of vulcanology expanded with the eruptions of the 1790s. In a period of experiment that would culminate in the invention of photography, there was a mania for light shows. Panoramas, cosmoramas, the Paris dioramas of Louis Daguerre and de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon made various uses of projection, oil lamps, transparencies, moving shutters and, in Regent’s Park, a rotating auditorium to create scenes in which Hannibal crossed the Alps or clouds passed over the moonlit ruins of Holyrood. Vesuvius was the perfect subject. Lava flowed; smoke floated. In 1825, Giovanni Pacini’s opera The Last Day of Pompeii was premiered in Naples and went on to tour the Continent. In London, an eighty-foot-high model of the Bay of Naples erupted nightly at Vauxhall Gardens and theatres deployed special effects that were sometimes only too realistic. In April 1827, according to the teenage Augustus Pugin, a fire that ‘originated in some sparks from a representation of Mount Vesuvius … lodging among the scenery’ left the Royalty Theatre ‘totally destroyed’.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii, published in 1834 and inevitably later dramatised, marked something of a departure. It spoke with the condescension of posterity that would characterise, in Britain at least, the later 19th century’s view of the lost city. Pompeii was looked at as if it was a wax model. ‘In its minute but glittering shops, its tiny palaces, its baths, its forum, its theatre, its circus – in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice … you beheld a model of the whole empire,’ Bulwer-Lytton wrote. ‘It was a toy, a plaything, a showbox.’ The Victorians, who invented the domestic aquarium and enjoyed conservatories, stuffed animals and plants in Wardian cases, were accustomed to observing nature through glass. They did something similar with history when making such selective comparisons between their own empire and that of Rome. Their Pompeii was fascinating but, unlike Madame de Staël, they generally felt no threat from the implications of its rise and fall. The gods who had destroyed it had kept it in representation ‘hid from time’ and now had revealed it to ‘the wonder of posterity’, a posterity which was increasingly confident that most mysteries would yield to modern methods of inquiry.
Gradually Vesuvius as metaphor and spectacle was giving way to the volcano as object of scientific study. Brewer gives short but interesting biographies of two of the first vulcanologists, the French nobleman Déodat de Dolomieu, after whom the Dolomites are named, and the Neapolitan Teodoro Monticelli, secretary to the Royal Academy of Sciences. Both men experienced ‘the age of revolutions’ from the sharp end. In 1800, they were in prison, Dolomieu in Sicily and Monticelli on the island of Favignana. Dolomieu was an aristocrat, a passionate amateur geologist until the 1789 Revolution and the Terror deprived him of his fortune. It was then that his vast collection of lava and rock samples and his international reputation came to his aid. As a lecturer at the newly founded Conseil des mines, he was pleased, if disconcerted, to find that his gentlemanly pastime was now providing him with a métier and a living. But an unhappy experience on Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, and France’s failure to honour the treaty Dolomieu had negotiated on its behalf with the Knights of Malta, led to his imprisonment in wretched conditions. Joseph Banks was among those who petitioned for his release, a fact which testifies not only to Dolomieu’s standing but also to the international solidarity during the years of the revolutionary wars among the antiquaries and natural philosophers for whom Brewer uses the apt term ‘savants’.
In contrast to Dolomieu’s extensive travels, Monticelli stayed close to Vesuvius for thirty years, not always voluntarily. Having been a keen supporter of the French Revolution and refusing to betray his fellow radicals, he was in prison on and off under the Bourbons, sometimes on the mainland and sometimes on the volcanic islands. Freed in 1801, he returned to Naples as a professor of ethics and became ‘a passionate promoter of il nostro vesuvio’, in touch with students of mineralogy and geology across Italy. Brewer offers a pie chart of his correspondents by discipline, though at a time when ‘archaeologist’ and ‘chemist’ were fluid terms the chart isn’t as illuminating as his account of Monticelli’s correspondence with Humphry Davy. Monticelli’s collection of samples, sketches and observation of eruptions only went so far, however, towards understanding the nature of volcanos and their formation. It wasn’t until the next generation that the scientifically minded discovered what Vesuvius was and what it implied about the age of the Earth.
George Scrope’s passion for volcanos began with a visit to Naples when he was twenty. Returning a few years later, he caught the eruption of 1822 and was so impressed he embarked on a research tour, returning to England with enough first-hand knowledge to make him the Geological Society’s chief vulcanologist. While the Romantic view of Vesuvius, whether in Faust or the Vauxhall Gardens, saw it as a unique phenomenon, a spectacle, for the scientists it was a specimen, a comparator for investigations into the nature of volcanic activity. Newtonian physics had long since opened up space, but for calculating the age of the planet there wasn’t much to go on beyond mythology and the Old Testament. ‘Time! Time! Time!’ Scrope exclaimed in his Geology and Extinct Volcanos of Central France. If, he argued, there had been volcanos in France that were already extinct by the time the Romans came, then the Earth must be more than the current estimate of six thousand years old. It was necessary to keep extending the view of the deep past and ‘to make almost unlimited drafts upon antiquity’. Geology of France contained accurately plotted longitudinal profiles of lava layers.
Where Hamilton’s artistic renditions had failed to convince, Scrope’s work engaged a lay as well as a scientific audience in Britain and abroad. These were heady years in the history of science and they are brilliantly elucidated in another omission from Brewer’s bibliography, James Secord’s Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ (2000). Secord is director of the Darwin Correspondence Project and his book explores the dense cultural context in which the new disciplines of geology and archaeology interacted with art and literature, theology and popular journalism. There was much more to it, socially and scientifically, than Brewer’s passing reference to ‘the slow march towards Darwinian evolution’ suggests. Scrope’s friend and fellow secretary of the Geological Society, Charles Lyell, made the big breakthrough in the campaign to ‘free science from Moses’. His Principles of Geology of 1830-33 drew on Scrope in arguing that the Earth was much older than Biblical time allowed. He proposed instead that it had been formed slowly by the repeated effects of earthquakes, sedimentation, erosion and volcanic eruption, and while there might be occasional catastrophic episodes, there were no such determining events as divine creation or the Flood. This theory of ‘uniformitarianism’ made an impression on Darwin, who was 21 when the first part of Lyell’s work appeared, and found that it ‘altered the whole tone of one’s mind’. After the decades of observation and painstaking collection of specimens there wasn’t a march but a sudden rush, out of which vulcanology emerged as a modern science.
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