Sean Cocco. Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy

By Iacovella, Anna | Italica, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Sean Cocco. Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy


Iacovella, Anna, Italica


Sean Cocco. Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Since the destructive eruption of AD 79, Vesuvius has been a captivating and epitomic symbol not only for Neapolitans but also for many scientists and erudite observers. Similarly, the eruption of 1631 had overwhelming repercussions on the slopes of the volcano bringing many inhabitants to flee towards the sea and the city of Naples and taking many viewers or researchers to discern the naturalistic phenomena.

Cocco sensibly positions Vesuvius scientific reports throughout the early modern historical and literary context from the historian point of view to the expression of human attitudes in connection with nature. The three leitmotifs of cultural observations, symbolic form of Vesuvius, and natural history of volcanology are represented in the introduction through the mediated epistemological commentaries from naturalists. The 1600's volcanic observations are shaped as an identity for the city of Naples and its inhabitants within a European imaging.

The eruptions of Vesuvius contributed to the interpretation of scientific causes and elucidations. In 1638, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher undertook a journey to the south of Italy and Malta. During his journey, Kircher had observed mount Etna and the isle of Stromboli; however, when he ascended mount Vesuvius he envisaged, in his volume Mundus subterraneous, the underground turmoil as the movement of earth's burning core.

The theories advanced from Aristotelian philosophy had brought Ristoro D'Arezzo during the 1280's to observe in his Composizione del Mondo that the astral mutability finds acting "above and below the earth." Later during the Renaissance, many naturalists followed the disposition of Georg Agricola when in his De Ortu Causis Subterraneum (1546) explicated that scientific clarification of earth's phenomena was needed. Fabrizio Padovani correspondingly to Agricola believed "volcanoes as geographical and historical toponyms" (31).

Vesuvius observers during the sixteenth century were underscoring the natural landscape and fertility of the surrounding land of Naples including the humanist and poet Giovanni Pontano and Joris Hoefnagel who painted Vesuvius as surrounding part of the fortified and tranquil city of Naples.

Throughout Watching Vesuvius, Cocco references numerous physicians, philosophers, and historians including Antonio Caracciolo, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, Giuseppe Valletta, Giovanni Maria della Torre, Deodat Dolomieu, William Hamilton, and Ferdinando Galiani among others. …

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