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Book of the Month

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October 2007

Sir William Hamilton

Campi Phlegraei

Naples: 1776
Hunterian Bm.1.1-2

Our October book documents the late eighteenth century eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Written by Sir William Hamilton, Britain's envoy to the Spanish court at Naples,  Campi Phlegraei contains fifty four spectacular hand coloured plates by the artist Peter Fabris. It is a wonderful example of a beautifully illustrated scientific treatise from the Age of Enlightenment.

Plate VI
view of the great eruption of Vesuvius from the mole of Naples in the night of the 20th of October 1767

The area around Naples was known locally as the Campi Phlegraei, or 'flaming fields', owing to the frequent and violent eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. From his country house at the foot of the volcano, William Hamilton (1730-1803) was ideally placed to witness and investigate the eruptions of the 1770s. 

The study of volcanic activity in the area had begun in earnest some 150 years previously. Attention was focused particularly on Vesuvius by the discovery of the Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 and 1748 respectively. Simultaneously destroyed by eruptions in 79 AD and subsequently buried by the ash and lava of Vesuvius for over one thousand years, as the volcano erupted again in the Eighteenth Century, these forgotten cities seemed to provide Naples with a sense of continuity with the ancient past. King Ferdinand I funded their excavation, and they became a popular destination for wealthy travellers undertaking the Grand Tour, who were otherwise unable to witness the antiquities of the Greek and Roman empires as Turkish-ruled Asia Minor was largely off limits to European tourists. 


Plate XLI
the excavation of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii

Detail from plate IX
interior view of the crater of Mount Vesuvius, as it was before the great eruption of 1767

As a force in much of the area's history, Vesuvius became a site of interest in itself, with many wishing to climb to its summit - even as it erupted.  Being a diplomat, Hamilton entertained many visitors and frequently accompanied them on the ascent: it was a journey that he undertook some fifty eight times. Despite its dangers (many, including Hamilton's good friend the Earl of Bristol, were badly burned in the attempt to reach the crater), such an excursion became a desirable element of the experience of a visit to Naples. A stay at Hamilton's home, taking in his famous collections of art and antiques, was equally attractive. He was often visited by Ferdinand I, and guests were provided with lavish hospitality.  Hamilton's first wife, Catherine, treated the home as an academy for music, putting on performances on the harpsichord. His second wife, the notorious Emma, showcased her 'attitudes', or dramatic impersonations of characters from Greek myth and art, for guests.   The volcano, ruined Greek cities, and the Hamilton home all became curiosities in their own right for the Neapolitan leg of a tourist's travels.
The son of Lord Archibald Hamilton, a lord commissioner of the Admiralty, and Lady Jane Hamilton, a mistress of the robes to the Princess of Wales, William Hamilton enjoyed a privileged upbringing at the royal court; he came to be considered a foster brother to the later George III.  After a spell in the army, he became MP for Midhurst in Surrey and equerry to the King.  He requested to be appointed as envoy to Naples, arguing that the climate would benefit his first wife's ailing health. He succeeded in securing the position in 1764. With few diplomatic duties to occupy his time, his personal interests in art, antiquities and science were well served by the move. A member of the Society of Antiquaries, Dilettanti and Royal Society of London, like many eighteenth century wealthy gentlemen he set out to collect on a grand scale; his acquisitions spanned everything from Greek vases to contemporary art, as well as geological samples gathered from volcanoes in the vicinity.  Drawing little distinction between the disciplines,  in his pursuit of knowledge he embodied the enlightenment desire to understand all that he encountered.

Plate III
"Every view of Naples and its neighbourhood is beautifull, owing greatly to the variety in the forms of the
different elevations, all of which are either complete cones or portions of cones.  There is great beauty likewise
in the luxuriancy of the vegetation in which they are covered"

Plate XII
 the eruption of 23rd December 1760-8th January 1761.
"The object of this plate is to show, that those who have asserted that the seat of the fire is always towards the summit, or not lower than the middle of the volcano, have been very ill informed"

Running two villas, a country house at the foot of Vesuvius and his main home in Naples, the money Hamilton received as envoy was insufficient to maintain ambassadorial hospitality and to feed his vast collecting appetite. Briefly returning to London in 1772, he was compelled to sell much of his art collection to the British Museum with a grant given to preserve it in the nation's interest.  On the same visit, Hamilton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Having already begun correspondence about the increasingly violent Vesuvius, upon his return to Naples his attention was drawn to challenging commonly held assumptions about volcanic activity by documenting what he saw in its eruptions. The excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii, along with stories of the effects of Vesuvius' eruptions within living memory of Naples' inhabitants, reinforced the view that the volcano was a purely destructive force. However, Hamilton sought to show that in a broader time scale, volcanoes had been responsible for the mountainous landscape and rich, fertile soils that characterised the area.  He identified that heat formed basaltic rocks and that the stratified appearance of the land - both in exposed rock faces and in the excavated Roman towns - was due to a build up of layers of ash, lava and debris from Vesuvius. 
Hamilton wrote to the successive Presidents of the Royal Society, Sir John Pringle and Sir Joseph Banks, about his discoveries. The letters were read out at meetings; inviting interaction, they were accompanied by samples of rocks and soil. Seeking to describe rather than theorise, Hamilton published a book of Observations on Vesuvius in 1772; this text was accompanied by five illustrative plates and a map. But Hamilton had ambitions towards creating a more definitive guide to the volcano, to be as aesthetically beautiful as it was intellectually stimulating. Hoping that "such a publication, executed with magnificence in the Royal printing Office, may perhaps, render every other account of the late Eruption superfluous", he aimed to show that lava could emerge from points other than the summit, that cones could collapse, and that the sulphuric gases that emerged from cracks in the ground were linked to volcanic activity.  

Hamilton employed the Anglo-Neapolitan artist Peter Fabris to create sketches in situ to illustrate the work. These were then reproduced in prints that were hand coloured individually by local artists by the application of gouache*. The process was overseen at every stage by Hamilton. The main text of the work (also translated into French by Hamilton) reproduced his letters as they were communicated to the Royal Society, lending them a sense of authentication.  

Plate LIV

gems and marbles from Mount Vesuvius

Plate I, detail III
top of mount Vesuvius with signs of imminent

The work was published in 1776 as Campi Phlegraei: observations on the volcanos of the two Sicilies. A supplement was produced three years later describing the great eruption of Vesuvius in August 1779. Like the members of the Royal Society who had originally discussed Hamilton's correspondence, its readers were invited to share in the experience of witnessing Vesuvius erupting. This was primarily achieved by the outstanding illustrations that showed the eruptions from different vantage points and depicted various rock samples. The plates proved to be the book's defining feature, more popular than the text itself. Landscape art was popular and many Grand Tourists commissioned paintings of their destinations as a way of commemorating their journey and proving themselves to be seasoned travellers. The plates of Campi Phlegraei provided ready made souvenirs and were often torn out and displayed in their own right. As such, complete copies are rare today.

Plate I, detail VI
top of mount Vesuvius, day before eruption

The expense of commissioning such a large number of hand coloured plates for the work almost crippled Hamilton. Having funded the publication entirely without subscription, the undertaking put him under huge financial strain.  Returning to Britain in 1801, his collection of pictures was sold at Christies for 6000 and his vases for 4000 - and yet his debts remained, many incurred by his second wife, Emma. The cumulative cost of the book, his collections and his entertaining were ruinous to Hamilton.

Our copy is from the Hunterian collection. William Hunter (1718-83) was himself an example of a man of the enlightenment, fascinated with science and art in equal measure.  Like Hamilton, he collected widely, and the two entered into a correspondence regarding their collections: Hamilton sold a collection of Greek medals to Hunter in 1774 and sent him an album of anatomical drawings by Pietro de Cortona in 1772; on his part, Hunter sold Hamilton a collection of Greek coins in 1784.  Although we know that copies of the work were given to the Royal Society, Joseph Banks and the King for their libraries, despite their prior relationship and shared interests, Hunter probably purchased his copy. Its high cost ensured that relatively few copies were ever purchased privately, since only the very wealthy could afford it.

Plate XXXI

he area of volcanoes described locally as Campi Phlegraei, or 'the flaming fields'

Detail from plate XXV

Plate XXV
Hamilton at the crater of Forum Vulcani, examining the sulphur and arsenic that emerged from craters near
the source of hot springs

Hamilton's return to Britain in 1801 was precipitated by political events in Naples.  Control of the crown was temporarily seized by French supported rebels who were granted clemency on condition of a return to Spanish rule.  The Spanish crown reneged on their promise and many rebels were executed.  Rather than condemning their duplicity, Hamilton - still a friend of King Ferdinand I - offered no objection. As a representative of the British crown, he was consequently withdrawn for sacrificing Britain's diplomatic objectivity. 

His final days were spent between his homes in London and Milford Haven, living in a menage a trois with his second wife, Emma and her lover, Horatio Nelson.  Having met shortly after his victory at the Battle of the Nile, Hamilton was on good terms with Nelson, complying with his affair with Emma, even after she gave birth to his child. The two were present upon Hamilton's death in 1803, and were acknowledged in his will.

Although shunned by the court and made a pariah by the press for his bizarre domestic arrangements, Hamilton's place in history is not overshadowed by his private life.  Not only remembered as a collector and diplomat, through Campi Phlegraei his place in posterity as a scientific author is assured  The book itself even perpetuates his memory as he appears in many of its illustrations.  Insisting upon accurate detail, Hamilton accompanied Fabris when he made the sketches: Hamilton is shown in many of the plates as the figure in the red coat; Fabris, meanwhile, also often included himself as the figure in blue at an easel - or, as in the illustration shown to the right, laboriously carrying his equipment up the hill.

Since Hamilton closely supervised Fabris' sketches and their reproduction throughout, little can be taken to be accidental.  The figures depicted not only focus attention but also offer a sense of the relationship of the people to the landscape, ensuring that the volcano is seen as an environment in which people lived and worked rather than as a purely destructive force.  The primary purpose of a plate may be to demonstrate the strata of the rocks or the lush vegetation, but it also shows everyday activities such as locals hunting, or fishing boats in the bay with plumes of smoke emerge ominously from the summits in the background.     

Plate XL
 the volcanic composition of the strata of rock and soil at Peperino Quarries. 
Hamilton believed that the strata were "exactly similar to those that compose the strata under which
 the ancient town of Pompeii is buried"

 In a night view of 11th May 1771, Hamilton is seen escorting the Sicilian Majesties to a part of Vesuvius where the lava fell down a perpendicular drop before flowing toward the town of Resina.  The plate description states that:
"the original drawing for this plate was taken that night on the spot" - in fact, Peter Fabris has included
 himself sketching in the bottom left hand corner.

The spectrum of Napoli society is acknowledged through the paintings, as it was in contemporary writing by tourists in the area.  As Italy's largest city, Naples was incorporated into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies upon conquest by the Spanish crown in 1738.  The rapid growth of the city, combined with the imposition of Bourbon rule, left a chasm between rich and poor, the two groups having little contact.  In different plates, peasants hunt, workers move rubble from the excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, and the King and Queen are seen at the edge of the crater of Vesuvius accompanied by Hamilton. Echoing the contemporary literary observations of Grand Tourists in Naples, Campi Phlegraei became part of a body of travel literature. Hamilton, meanwhile, was included in the narrative descriptions of Naples written by Johann Goethe, William Beckford and Samuel Boswell, demonstrating how he became a part of the phenomenon that he tried to describe. 
The book was also studied by those who wished to appear cultured or who had a serious interest in the science of vulcanology. In admiring the marvellous illustrations today, it is easy to forget the contemporary impact the book had upon science: its meticulous documentation of the changes in the appearance of the mountain was truly groundbreaking in opening up the study of vulcanology to those in libraries where copies of the work were kept and who could not actually witness the eruptions for themselves.

Our copy of Campi Phlegraei will be on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Hunter: man. medic and collector exhibition from mid October 2007 through to January 2008.

Detail showing Fabris sketching

*Gouache: A method of painting with opaque colours ground in water, and mixed with gum and honey so as to form a sort of paste. Also, a painting executed in this way, and the pigment itself [Oxford English Dictionary]

Edward Chaney, "The Grand Tour and Beyond", Oxford, China and Italy: writings in honour of Sir Harold Acton on his eightieth birthday edited by Edwards Chaney and Neil Ritchie, London: Thames & Hudson, 1984, pp.133-160 Fine Arts A7483.A3 OXF 

Christopher Hibbert, The Grand Tour London: Methuen London, 1987 History CS66 HIB 

Clare Hornsby, "Introduction, or Why Travel?", The Impact of Italy: The Grand Tour and Beyond edited by Clare Hornsby, London: British School at Rome, 2000, pp.1-18 History PW10 HOR

Paul Franklin Kirby, The Grand Tour in Italy 1700-1800 New York: S.F. Vanni, 1952 History PW16 KIR 

Carlo Knight, "Sir William Hamilton's Campi Phlegraei and the Artistic Contribution of Peter Fabris", Oxford, China and Italy: writings in honour of Sir Harold Acton on his eightieth birthday edited by Edwards Chaney and Neil Ritchie, London: Thames & Hudson, 1984, pp.192-208 Fine Arts A7483.A3 OXF

Mark Sleep Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803): His Work and Influence on Geology Annals of Science, (Vol. 25, No. 4, December 1969), pp.319-338

Karen Wood, Making and Circulating Knowledge Through Sir William Hamilton's Campi Phlegraei British Journal for the History of Science, (Vol. 39, No. 1, March 2006), pp. 67-96


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Ellen Cole, Graduate Trainee, October 2007