Since my return to this country, in January 1773, I have continued with aſſiduity my obſervations upon Mount Veſuvius, and the many ancient Volcanick productions in this Neighborhood.
This week’s Inspiring Illustrations come from the magnificent Campi Phlegraei by Sir William Hamilton and Pietro Fabris, published in three parts (Parts I & II and a Supplement) in 1776 and 1779. Hamilton was a diplomat and antiquarian, and an amateur geologist and volcanologist. He was appointed as British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples from 1764-1800, placing him squarely in the midst of some of the most turbulent volcanic activity of the 18th century. Campi Phlegraei (translated to ‘Fields of Flame’, the name given to the volcanic region surrounding Naples) is the culmination of Hamilton’s years of observations of the volcanic activity of the region surrounding Naples.
Hamilton was welcomed to Naples by the 1766 eruption of Mount Etna, and a year later with another eruption from Mount Vesuvius. Hamilton began systematically studying Vesuvius from the day he arrived in Naples: writing to Sir John Pringle, president of the Royal Society, he notes that “I have attended particularly to the various changes of Mount Vesuvius from the 17th of November 1764, the day of my arrival at this capital.” Hamilton scaled the slopes of Vesuvius nearly 60 times and documented its daily activity for almost two decades.
Vesuvius, and the surrounding active volcanoes and calderas, entered into a stage of almost continuous activity in the 18th century – Vesuvius itself erupted in 1707, 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779 and 1794. This allowed Hamilton to not only examine volcanic activity up-close and in-person, but also to study the immediate and long-term effects of sustained volcanic activity on a region’s geological structure. Hamilton submitted his findings in a series of letters to the Royal Society who elected him a fellow in 1772. Hamilton continued to carry out his observations and in 1776 he published his letters, along with these magnificent illustrations, in two parts. Following the 1779 eruption of Vesuvius, Hamilton published an accompanying Supplement with a further description of the event illustrated with five further plates.
Hamilton was as interested in the effects of volcanic activity on the region as he was in the volcanoes themselves. Indeed, many of the plates describe geological studies of the region which reveal layer of volcanic strata and islands created by volcanic activity. Also, the excavations of Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum began in the second quarter of the 18th century, revealing the incredible devastation caused by the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. These archaeological sites piqued the interest of Hamilton as a warning of the damage that could be caused by the contemporary volcanic eruptions.
Hamilton enlisted Pietro Fabris to produce the paintings which the engravings in Campi Phlegraei are based on. Fabris worked very closely with Hamilton who accompanied him on all of his sketching trips. Hamilton is often depicted in these engravings as a figure wearing a red coat and with a cane, and the artist has even inserted himself in plate 38 (above, detail left)! Hamilton describes the execution of the plates as:
“executed with such delicacy and perfection, as scarcely to be distinguished from the original drawings themselves”
This large and expensive two part book was published in 1766, and sold originally for 60 Neapolitan ducats (£10 10s or roughly £400 in today’s currency). The Supplement was published in 1779 following the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius. St Andrews copy comes from the collection of Sir Steven Runciman who bequeathed his collection of almost 4000 books on the Near and Middle East to St Andrews in 2000. This volume bears the bookplate of Auchincruive (left), a country house and estate in South Ayrshire. This estate belonged to Richard Oswald in the 18th century, who was probably responsible for its purchase. This work was featured in the University of Glasgow’s Book of the Month thread in 2007, and can be viewed in whole from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.