The Lure of Volcanoes

By Hamilton, James | History Today, July 2010 | Go to article overview

The Lure of Volcanoes

Hamilton, James, History Today

The recent eruption of Iceland's glacier-covered Eyjafjallajokull volcano has created havoc across Europe but it has also attracted groups of tourists eager to witness the excitement of the explosion first hand. James Hamilton looks at how volcanic activity in Iceland in 1783 and elsewhere elicited similar reactions and stimulated the creative powers of artists and scientists.


In June 1801 Sir William Hamilton, the retired, diplomat who had represented British interests: in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies for 36 years, offered a set of important diaries to the Royal Society. These had been kept, at Hamilton's expense, by Father Antonio Piaggio, who had recorded in words and drawings the day-to-day activities of Vesuvius between 1779 and 1794. Piaggio, who lived at the foot of Vesuvius, always rose at daybreak, and took his observations several times in the day'. In a letter inserted into the first volumed of the diaries, Hamilton wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society: 'No man was ever more ready with his pencil as his masterly sketches testify nor no man was ever more attached to truth.'

During his service as British Envoy in Naples, 1764-1800, Hamilton had one of the most significant and colourful lives of any diplomat of his period. Not only was he (relatively briefly) the cuckolded husband of Emma, Lady Hamilton, but he also amassed one of the greatest private collections of antiquities, books and manuscripts, now split between the Royal Society, the British Museum arm the British Library. Demands upon Hamilton of a diplomatic nature were intermittent, his contacts manifold, and as a result he had plenty of time to explore archaeological sites in Italy and private and royal collections of art and antiquities across Europe. Furthermore, he was able to indulge and pioneer his amateur interest in science and in particular in volcanology.

During Hamilton's tenure in Naples, Vesuvius entered one of its cyclical periods of intense activity. Sir William and his first wife Catherine lived quietly at Portici, with Vesuvius an entertaining feature in their view. But using his own close observations of the volcano and later with the help of Piaggio and others, Hamilton wrote a series of informed letters on the unfolding of the 1760s-70s eruption cycle and sent them to the Royal Society. The letters were published from 1776 to 1779 as Campi Phlegraei, 'Fields of Fire', after the area around Naples extending as far to the east as Vesuvius.

Hamilton also employed the English-born Neapolitan artist, the 'most ingenious and able' Peter Fabris, to produce 59 gouaches 'of every interesting spot, described in my letters, in which each stratum is represented in its proper colours'. These were engraved to illustrate the volumes. The illustrations have a remarkable fidelity to what was actually to be seen-the shocking beauty of the violent, invading red and orange lava, blanketing with demonic carelessness the lower slopes of the mountain and rendering its inhabitants either dead or miserable. They also depict, as Hamilton suggested, the cooled lava itself and the magnificent colours and textures that the polished rocks present.

But Hamilton did not just look at Vesuvius and pay others to do so for him. He energetically and courageously climbed up and round the volcano. The more active Vesuvius seemed to be, the keener was Hamilton to climb to the crater, sometimes spending the night on its slopes:

I passed the whole day and night of the 12th [March 1765] upon the mountain and followed the course of the lava to its very source; it burnt out the side of the mountain within half a mile of the mouth of the volcano, like a torrent, attended by violent explosions ... large stones thrown onto it with all my force did not sink, but making a slight impression, floated on the surface, and were carried out of sight in a short time ... with a rapidity equal to that of the river Severn, at the passage near Bristol. …

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