Volcanoes, Science, and Spectacle in the Romantic Period

In 1787 Emma Hart (soon to be Lady Emma Hamilton) wrote home to England: “We was last night up Vesuv[i]us at twelve a clock, and in my life I never saw so fine a sight. . . . We saw the lava surround the poor hermit’s house, and take possession of the chapel, notwithstanding it was covered with pictures of Saints and other religious preservatives against the fury of nature. For me, I was enraptured.”[1] Mount Vesuvius, just outside the royal capital of Naples, erupted “with obliging frequency” in the late eighteenth century (as Roy Porter memorably put it).[2] Vesuvius loomed over Europe, inspiring research in natural history and antiquities, a whole genre of painting and other new techniques of illustration, a rich allegorical language for political upheaval, and a booming tourist trade. Emma Hart’s enraptured account reveals her as a new kind of stakeholder in both the pioneering volcanology and the Grand Tourism associated with her soon-to-be-husband, Sir William Hamilton, the “Volcano Lover” (as Susan Sontag called him).[3] It also reveals the tourism, science, and art of this region as a political arena, in which northern European intellectuals and artists appropriated conventions of fieldwork and visual representation from a thriving Neapolitan intelligentsia and used these discourses to expose what they saw as the superstitions of a feudal Catholic regime. Often drawing on Hamilton’s research, other investigators such as Nicolas Desmarest in France, Rudolf Erich Raspe in Germany, and John Whitehurst in England discovered evidence of extinct volcanoes that confirmed the global significance of Vesuvius and its larger neighbor, Mount Etna. Whitehurst never left England, but the painter Joseph Wright of Derby, Whitehurst’s friend and one of the most influential northern European exponents of the volcanic veduta (“view”), painted a portrait of Whitehurst that shows an erupting volcano through the window of the naturalist’s study. Farther afield, naturalists on the voyages of Cook, Bougainville, and other Pacific explorers established that Tahiti, Hawai’i, and scores of other islands were of volcanic origin. The prominence of Vesuvius in this exhibit (4 of 9 images) reflects the large body of visual material available, but it is important to remember that another volcano, Mount Tambora on Sumbawa, Indonesia, created just as profound an impact on European Romanticism when it erupted in 1815, causing the famous “year without a summer” (1816) through the sheer volume of ash that it ejected into the atmosphere. [NH]

Works Cited in the Introduction

[1] Emma Hart, Letter to Charles Greville, Hamilton and Nelson Papers, The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents Formed by Alfred Morrison, second series, vol. 10 (London: 1882-93), pp. 130-31.

[2] Roy Porter, The Making of Geology (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977), 123.

[3] Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover (New York: Vintage, 1992).

See Further Reading

Further Reading

Chard, Chloe. “Picnic at Pompeii: Hyperbole in the Warm South,” Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum, ed. V. C. Gardner and J. L. Seydl (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 115-32.

Ferber, Johann Jakob. Travels through Italy, in the Years 1771 and 1772. Described in a series of letters to Baron Born, on the natural history, particularly the mountains and volcanoes of that country. Trans. Rudolph Erich Raspe. London: Printed for L. Davis, 1776.

Hamilton, James. Volcano: Nature and Culture. New York: Reaktion Books, 2012.

Hamilton, Sir William. Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies. 2 vols. Naples: Pietro Fabris, 1776. Online at: http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/search/collection/cpo

Hamblyn, Richard. “Private Cabinets and Popular Geology: The British Audiences for Volcanoes in the Eighteenth Century.” Transports: Travel, Pleasure, and Imaginative Geography, 1600-1830. Ed. Chloe Chard and Helen Langdon. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996. 179-205.

Heringman, Noah. “The Style of Natural Catastrophes.” Huntington Library Quarterly 66 (2003): 97-133.

Humboldt, Alexander von. Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein. Braunschweig: Schulbuchhandlung, 1790.

Krafft, Maurice. Volcanoes: Fire from the Earth. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Taylor, Kenneth L. “The beginnings of a geological naturalist: Desmarest, the printed word, and nature.” Earth Sciences History 20 (2001): 44-61.

Toscano, Maria. “The Figure of the Naturalist-Antiquary in the Kingdom of Naples: Giuseppe Giovene (1753-1837) and His Contemporaries.” Journal of the History of Collections 19 (2007): 225-37.

Whitehurst, John. Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth. 2nd ed. 1786. New York: Arno Press, 1978.

Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. “The Volcano Lover: Climate, Colonialism, and the Slave Trade in Raffles's History of Java (1817).” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 8 (2008): 33-55.

Wood, Karen. “Making and Circulating Knowledge through Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei.” British Journal for the History of Science 39 (2006): 67-96.

See Overview of Images

Overview of Images in the Exhibit

The exhibit begins with a watercolor by Hannah Palmer, Street of Tombs, Pompeii, painted in 1838 during the artist’s honeymoon trip with her husband, the painter (and disciple of William Blake) Samuel Palmer. This watercolor sketch dramatically positions an excavated portion of the ancient Roman town against a smoking Vesuvius, reminding viewers of the eruption that buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabia in 79 CE. Our second image is a Capriccio Landscape (1791) by the English landscape artist Paul Sandby, which positions an ominously smoking volcano, loosely based on Vesuvius, somewhat improbably in a rugged mountain landscape that resembles Wales more closely than the mountain’s actual Neapolitan setting. Column of Smoke Issuing Thirty Miles High from Vesuvius was engraved by an unknown hand for Richard Phillips’s Atlas of Nature (1823). As is typical for the print culture surrounding volcanoes, this engraving is a remediation of earlier images and may be traced back to Xavier della Gatta’s 1794 watercolor Eruption of Vesuvius. The fourth image is a page scan of the printed text of Sir Joseph Banks’s journal of the 1772 eruption of Mount Hecla in Iceland, first published in William Hooker’s Journal of a Tour in Iceland (1811). Our next image depicts the first residence of Napoleon after he was exiled to the volcanic island of St. Helena in 1815. The Briars, St. Helena is a lithograph by C. Graf—possibly based on an earlier drawing—first published in Lucia Elizabeth Abell’s Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon (1844). The next two images are taken from Sketches of Vesuvius (1833) by the British mountaineer and geologist John Auldjo. The first of these is an engraved and colored map differentiating lava flows from a series of historic eruptions, based on Auldjo’s research. The second image is a lithograph showing Auldjo at work in the midst of an eruption. Our last two images—another large colored map and a pair of landscape engravings—are taken from Samuel Hibbert’s History of Extinct Volcanoes of the Basin of Neuwied on the Lower Rhine (1831), based on extensive fieldwork by Hibbert and his wife Charlotte in a region first identified as anciently volcanic by Alexander von Humboldt in his first publication (1790). The scientific character of this last source is meant to underscore a loose sort of progress—a kind of unfolding dialectic rather than a chronology, as the relative dates of our first and last images should make clear—from “spectacle” to “science” as Romantic categories for understanding volcanoes. [NH]


Noah Heringman, Matt Hendrickson