Volcanic, by John Brewer

Amy Chandler

A fascinating portrayal of a dangerous and breath-taking spectacle
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John Brewer’s historically rich Volcanic: Vesuvius in the Age of Revolution takes readers on a fascinating journey through the history of Mount Vesuvius. Brewer carefully plots the changing attitudes towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius through the lens of the Sublime and Romanticism. While also exploring the changing relationship between the guides and tourism, which sheds light on the consumerism that the volcano was subject to during the eighteenth century and the jaunts of the Grand Tour. Volcanic begins with analysing the rise of tourism and the visitor’s desire to experience a range of emotions such as fear, delight and awe when treading a treacherous path towards a volatile force of nature. Brewer sensitively includes the narrative of all members of society not just those who could afford such a trip, but the guides and communities involved. The meticulous research regarding the history of the volcano and its relationship with the locals, the tourists, scientists and government reveals a bigger picture of social, economic and politics that manipulated the culture, history and image of the volcano. Volcanic cleverly re-evaluates the perception of Vesuvius as a destructor and transforms the site into a place where religion, science, art and leisure intersect.

Brewer creates a colourful depiction of life and death under the watchful gaze of Vesuvius and details the growing fascination with a deadly force of nature. The excellent and detailed inclusion of accounts, images and historical context animates the voices of the past, which immerses the reader into an alluring and dangerous depiction of Vesuvius. Excerpts from the visitor book invites multiple voices into the conversation with eyewitness accounts of what it was like to travel to the mountain, as if the reader were stepping in the footsteps of those long gone travellers. The complaints, elation and trivial notes left by the travellers are relatable to modern readers suggesting human behaviour appears to not change over time. Furthermore, Brewer comments on the rise of travel agents like Thomas Cook that disengaged visitors from an ‘authentic’ experience through ensuring English speakers were at every main stop of the journey that detracted little, and had no engagement with the locals.

Brewer poignantly writes, “The volcano erases cities; nature buries culture. But Vesuvius both destroys and conserves a single unique moment; it arrests time.” These words capture the heart of Volcanic and the outlines why Vesuvius has become a site of spectacle, awe and commodity throughout history. The overarching discussion of experience and de-sanitizing a site of cultural importance, changes shape throughout the book through the political agenda of revolution, commodity and tourism and the novelty of a city frozen in time. These ideas highlight the modern exploitation of cultural sites in the name of tourism that undermines the value of the past. Volcanic is a fascinating portrayal of a dangerous and breath-taking spectacle with an enduring legacy by deconstructing and reconstructing the volcano as a multi-faceted force of nature that is also a site of cultural, historical and social importance.

Volcanic: Vesuvius in the Age of Revolutions by John Brewer is published by Yale University Press.