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Aesthetic geology – Sir William Hamilton’s ‘Campi Phlegraei’ 14 June 2008

Posted by admin in history of volcanology, volcano culture, volcanoes, volcanological works.

[This article is written as a contribution to Accretionary Wedge #10, ‘Aesthetic Geology’, which is being hosted by Geological Musings in the Taconic Mountains.]

For an article addressing the topic ‘aesthetic geology’ it seems appropriate to look at what is certainly one of the most aesthetically beautiful geological works ever published: Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies (1776).

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), perhaps best-known today as the husband of Emma Hamilton, mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson, was in his own right a skilled diplomatist, a celebrated connoisseur and collector, and a respected natural historian. In his own time he was honoured in particular for his contributions to the study of volcanoes, acquiring the title ‘the modern Pliny’ for his studies of Vesuvius.

Campi Phlegraei (1776) - plate III, view of Naples

Above: Campi Phlegraei, plate III, a view of Naples. This view shows Naples and Vesuvius as a harmonious whole, with traffic on the road and vessels in the bay serving to illustrate the place of the volcano as part of the city’s daily life. The figures reacting to their surroundings draw the viewer in and emphasize the importance of an active engagement with the landscape.

Hamilton arrived in Naples as British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764, and became fascinated by Vesuvius. Shortly after his arrival the volcano went into an eruptive phase that lasted until 1767, giving Hamilton ample opportunity to observe and report upon its behaviour. In 1766 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the core of his volcano studies was contained in a series of letters written to be read aloud at the society’s meetings and published in its Transactions. It was these letters that were collected together into one volume as Campi Phlegraei in 1776. The text was accompanied by fifty-four lavish illustrations, prepared by the artist Pietro Fabris under Hamilton’s direction, and hand-coloured. The resulting volume was very expensive to produce, and placed a great deal of strain upon Hamilton’s always fragile finances, but has become celebrated as one of the great monuments of eighteenth-century science.

Campi Phlegraei (1776) - plate VI, view of the 20 October 1767 eruption of Vesuvius

Above: Plate VI of Campi Phlegraei shows the eruption of 20 October 1767. On the left is the harbour breakwater or mole of Naples, with its lighthouse, and shipping in the harbour. A lava flow is spreading as it descends the flanks of the volcano towards the sea; lightning is visible in the eruption cloud. This night-time view of Vesuvius is one of the most dramatic illustrations in Campi Phlegraei, with the volcano as a grand and sublime object. Yet the peaceful harbour in the foreground suggests that the works of man can co-exist with the volcano.

Hamilton believed passionately in the importance of careful, direct observation of natural phenomena, and Campi Phlegraei is intended to make the various aspects of Vesuvius’s activity available to those unable to see the volcano directly themselves. He ensured that Fabri’s illustrations were as accurate and detailed as possible, reflecting his aim of offering ‘accurate and faithfull observations on the operations of nature, related with simplicity and truth’. The desire to view phenomena directly for oneself, and to form one’s own opinion on the basis of the evidence, can be seen as a central principle of the Enlightenment.

Campi Phlegraei (1776) - plate XII, 1760-61 eruption of Vesuvius

Above: Plate XII of Campi Phlegraei is a dramatic scene of advancing lava flows from the eruption of December 1760 to January 1761. Hamilton used the original caption of this image to argue against those who believed that the seat of a volcano’s ‘fire’ was always near the summit.

One of the fundamental debates of eighteenth-century geological study was whether volcanoes represented peripheral or central phenomena in the structure and workings of the Earth. ‘Neptunists’ argued for the sedimentary origin of all rocks and believed volcanoes were the superficial result of localized combustion, having no geological significance; ‘Plutonists’ saw heat as the most important agent in the history of the planet, with volcanoes as an essential expression of its operation. Hamilton’s observations of Vesuvius, and his reading of the surrounding landscape in terms of the volcanism of the past, led him to the conclusion that volcanoes were a central geological phenomenon, based on a deep-seated heat source, and that there had been volcanic action throughout the history of the Earth. He also saw volcanic action as a positive, creative principle, producing fertility, reshaping the landscape, an agent of re-creation rather than destruction. The illustrations in his Campi Phlegraei convey the grandeur and power of the volcano, but also seek to embody and convey these ideas: they aim to communicate information as well as to inspire wonder. They are an expression of a new scientific aesthetic.

David Constantine, Fields of Fire: A Life of Sir William Hamilton (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001)
Ian Jenkins & Kim Sloan (eds.), Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his Collection (London: British Museum Press, 1996)
Joachim von der Thüsen, ‘Painting and the rise of volcanology: Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, Endeavour, vol. 23, no. 3 (1999), pp. 106-109
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

Sir William Hamilton, Campi Phlegraei – Glasgow University Special Collections Department
Sir William Hamilton, Campi Phlegraei – Georgetown University/Campania Libraries
Campi Phlegraei – from the Science Museum Library

The Volcanism Blog


1. Silver Fox - 15 June 2008

Some very interesting paintings showing the history and eruptions at Naples – great subject, great idea!

2. Alan Sullivan - 15 June 2008

Outstanding post.

3. Fresh Bilge » Campi Phlegraei - 15 June 2008

[…] my Latin teacher used to say. He quotes Milton and he has an eye for art, as he has demonstrated in a post on Sir William Hamilton’s ‘Campi Phlegraei.’ Take a look at this fine presentation. Posted at 11:38 AM | […]

4. David - 16 June 2008

The Italian National Institute of Geofisics and Volcanoloy in 2005 released a DVD with a collection of all sorts of rappresentations of the Vesuvius – from roman times until ther eruptions in the II world war.
I´m not sure if it can still be ordered for free on the Institute, but you can ask directly



(exchange the “add”)

Title: “Vesuvio – tu vuoi che io ti narri…”
Autor: “Giovanni Ricciardi”


5. A volcano tour of Italy « The Volcanism Blog - 16 June 2008

[…] Taconic Mountains…, as well as hosting the current Accretionary Wedge (for my contribution, click here), features a richly-illustrated account of his recent tour of notable Italian volcanoes: Etna, […]

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