Vesuvius in the Age of Revolution

John Brewer

Mt Vesuvius has been an object of fascination for many years.
Vesuvius in Eruption, by Joseph Wright
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Vesuvius in the Age of Revolution

Volcanic is the first and only book I have written not focused on Britain, the only one that concerns the history of science, and the only one centred on Italy. So why the departure, the urge to explore something new? Restlessness brought on by impending retirement? Dyspepsia brought on by a surfeit of Brexit?  Or just a bucket-list desire to write a book based in my favourite country? Probably all of the above, but serendipity was equally important: working on a project on the Grand Tour, I happened upon a remarkable document, a rather shabby and tattered visitors’ book, that had been kept by hermits at the Hermitage on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Covering the 1820s, it contained more than 2,300 signatures, lots of anecdotes, a running commentary on the sublime thrills of the volcano and numerous remarks, some snide, many complimentary, about fellow travellers. Vesuvius was not just a natural wonder but an important site of sociability. Neapolitans, rich and poor, local guides, and numerous travellers ate and drank the hermits’ food and wine, chatted, flirted and quarrelled with one another, and shared the thrills of the climb and descent of the volcano. The Visitors’ Book was hiding in plain sight in the Harvard University Libraries. How it got there is a mystery, but at some point an American, possibly a member of the Longfellow family, probably a Harvard graduate, bought, was given or stole the book and brought it back home.

In its pages I saw the famous volcano in the Bay of Naples swarming with people: aristos but also shopkeepers and humble Neapolitans; travellers but also guides; women and children as well as men; long distance visitors from the Caribbean, India and the Baltic, citizens and subjects from the Americas and almost every European nation.  People of all nationalities and persuasions and from all walks of life expressed their feelings when confronted with one of the most powerful forces of nature.  Deciphering the entries wasn’t easy: two thousand different handwritings and scribbled signatures, many written while on the back of a donkey, some while drunk on the hermits’ wine.  One German visitor wrote “Veni, vidi, bibi” [I came, I saw, I drank].  But what stood out was the intoxication of the climb, usually described as ‘sublime’, and the importance attached to the visit as an experience shared with family, comrades and friends.  Persistent low-level eruption made the trip hazardous but usually not life-threatening.  This was not a genteel excursion enjoyed by the wealthy Grand Tourist, but a tough climb that involved a lot of sweat and some suffering in the company of locals, guides, soldiers and sailors, amateur scientists, and long-distance visitors brought to Naples by business and warfare as well as a desire to see what Stendhal called the most beautiful place in the world.

Unpicking the threads of this human tapestry was no easy task but led me to think more about travel and tourism in a time of great mobility, and to ask what feelings and conflicts they provoked. I also wanted to know more about how activity on the volcano connected to the Kingdom of Naples, its society and politics, and to the history of Europe at large. My next stop was Naples itself, a much maligned and much misunderstood city, far more complex and inscrutable than the cliches about its crime-ridden chaos.

That said, working in the Naples libraries and archives was a chastening experience.   The amenities and investment in the major research repositories I had used in Britain and the US have no parallel in Naples, nor do they in most of the rest of Italy.  Underfunding is a national blight.  Researching in the Biblioteca di Patria Storia with its rich collections of local history in a blustery and cold Neapolitan winter with no heat in the building, I was kept warm by cups of delicious steaming Kimbo or Passalacqua coffee brought to me by the extraordinarily helpful staff.   Much of their collection on Vesuvius was kept uncatalogued in a large wardrobe in one of the offices.  At the Naples National Library, working in the Napoletana section, I was given a nineteenth-century handlist as the most reliable guide to the collections; it was explained that the on-line catalogue had a long way to go.  Extraordinarily dedicated and well-informed staff worked in very difficult conditions to unlock the secrets of Naples and its volcano.

I was guided to a treasure trove.  Teodoro Monticelli, the secretary of the Scientific Academy of Naples, was not just a Vesuvius buff, but an international networker of extraordinary proportions. His correspondence in the National Library contains thousands of letters from geologists, naturalists and natural philosophers like Humphry Davy, Alexander von Humboldt, Georges Cuvier and Charles Babbage, as well as from diplomats, amateur mineral collectors, archaeologists and local officials. It reveals an extensive international network of Vesuvius enthusiasts from the Americas (Boston, Washington and Rio de Janeiro) and all over Europe. Rocks, lava and crystals, books, pamphlets, diagrams, pictures and maps flowed through the network to and from Naples, often carried by travellers themselves. This was knowledge in motion, created by movement and exchange. Vesuvius had a fascinating life beyond the Bay of Naples.

Procession of St Januarius during the 1822 eruption of Vesuvius

Stepping back from the city and the slopes of the volcano, tracing Vesuvius’s representation in prose and pictures as well as in scientific journals, it became clear that the volcano was close to a Romantic obsession. This was not just a matter of exploring one’s feelings in nature. The volcano, often quiet but prone to periodic explosions was the perfect metaphor or analogy for the dynamics of the geo-political world, fuelling revolutionary enthusiasm and conservative trepidation. During the Terror of the French Revolution, the volcano was seen as proof that in both nature and politics radical destruction led to regeneration, a better new world; in the early nineteenth century this story was rewritten by conservatives as a tale that emphasized the preservative and restorative powers of the volcano. Crucial to this retelling were the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii which have shaped our understanding of Vesuvius ever since. We tend to forget that it was archaeologists and their findings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that revealed the famous eruption of 79AD as a human tragedy.  Before that knowledge of the disaster was sketchy: the destruction of cities was known but the death toll was a mystery.  Much more familiar were the fatalities after the eruption of 1631, the second worst in recorded human history. In the mid-eighteenth century commentators estimated the death toll in 79 AD as a few hundred at most; by the mid nineteenth century the author of a respected textbook estimated fatalities at 250,000. Both numbers are well wide of the mark but show us how perception had changed.  The classical eruption had become the case of human tragedy and natural disaster.

Today, as most guidebooks point out, climbing Vesuvius is a walk not a hike. This is both an advantage and a problem. Advantage because it’s easy, a problem because there’s little sense of the danger which is part of the thrill of reaching the crater of the volcano. The last major eruption of Vesuvius was in 1944 when the Allies entered Naples. The volcano destroyed the famous funicular and more than seventy American planes parked near Pompeii. Today guidebooks urge you, as you stare into the crater, to think about the horrors of an eruption, especially that of 79 AD – the lava pouring down the mountain, the explosions and flying chunks of rock and crystal, the deadly pyroclastic flows – even as all you can see are a few whisps of volcanic gas. They also urge you to look back at the fabulous views of the beautiful Bay of Naples. These are exactly the moves that Romantic guidebooks recommended for the nineteenth-century visitor: contemplate the natural forces of death and the riches of human life; think about their meaning, the fragile nature of human existence and the brevity of one’s own time on earth. It seems like a timely suggestion, especially as we face forces of nature that we have spun out of control.  And it also reminds us, as Volcanic tries to do, that our relations with nature have a complex history, whose recovery is always revealing.

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