Teodoro Monticelli, Vesuvius and Naples

This is an extended version of a paper that I gave to HPS in Cambridge, and to the symposium on Italian Intellectual Networks of the (early) modern period, organized by the Dutch working group for Italian Studies in December 2017.

 

In the Spring of 1820, the British chemist, Humphry Davy, wrote from Rome to thank his friend, the Abate and Cavalieri, Teodoro Monticelli, for his hospitality during a recent sojourn in Naples, concluding his letter by remarking that ”the things that you have done for me, and the things we did together I will never forget”.     Davy and Monticelli had been working for some months on the slopes of Vesuvius, in “votre grande et belle laboratoire” (Davy Letters, 21/2/16) as Davy put it, and in Monticelli’s house, investigating the properties of the mephitic gases and crystals produced by the volcano.   Davy’s presence in Naples was officially linked to the task, given him by the Prince Regent, of finding a way to unroll the carbonized scrolls from Herculaneum which scholars hoped would reveal unknown works of classical literature.   But he was far happier – and more successful – in exploring the volcano with his friend.

 

Humphry Davy is hardly unknown in the annuls of science, but few, even among those who study the history of geology or volcanology, will have heard of Teodoro Monticelli.   Yet Monticelli was a powerful figure in his day as well as typical of the many Italian savants, mineralogists and geologists whose work and focus was as much local as international, or perhaps more accurately, who used the international to further local ends. Like many such figures he stood at the intersection of a large body of local knowledge and the greater scientific community, and, like some of his colleagues, he used the promotion of such connections to further a much larger political project, one that looked towards the establishment of constitutional regimes with an educated and enfranchised public, and even towards an entire peninsula united in a single nation. Monticelli belonged to three different but overlapping networks. One connected Italian savants of mineralogy and geology in Sicily, Naples, Rome, the Tuscan cities, and the towns of northern Italy and the Veneto: Milan, Turin, Bologna, Pavia, Padova.   Like-minded, similarly positioned savants were connected through correspondence, exchange of specimens and shared international visitors. Their relations with the travellers was one way in which they were part of a second network that made up a larger scientific community whose centres were, above all, Paris, but also Berlin and London, and which was sustained by correspondence, travel and intellectual and gift exchange. A third, related but rather different in character, consisted of a generation of Italian administrators and functionaries, nurtured first on French revolutionary ideals and then on the views of the French ideologues and Napoleonic functionaries, who were united in a desire for comprehensive reform in which the sciences – not just ‘natural’, but medical, social and political – would achieve a universal salubriousness. Monticelli, I argue, used the prestige acquired as a vital intermediary in the first two networks not only for self advancement (and protection) but to promote the aims of the third network for scientific reform. Vesuvius was vital to this, providing him with the social and cultural capital to pursue his cause.

 

The volcano and the Bay of Naples gave Monticelli certain advantages.   No site was so spectacular – so sublime – and yet so accessible to the savant and the tourist. In Sicily, the Gemmellaro family presided over Etna, a far more impressive mountain, but it was both more inaccessible and much harder to climb. The savants of the other Italian cities had nothing comparable to offer – no regular eruptions, no vast trove of brilliant crystals and rocks, and (with the exception of Rome) no archaeological remains comparable to those of the buried cities. He was primus inter pares.

 

But let me begin with Teodoro himself. Teodoro Monticelli was born in 1759, the younger son of minor nobility from Brindisi, who, like many a younger son who did not go into the military, entered the church. In Brindisi, Lecce, Naples and Rome he was educated in philosophy and mathematics, and was taught by the followers of Antonio Genovesi, who held the first chair in Political Economy in Europe, established in Naples in 1754. He became a radical Jacobin and free mason in the 1790s, a member of the Societa patriottica napoletana, linked to the private studio of the defrocked priest, Carlo Lauberg, who taught applied mathematics and chemistry for revolutionary ends. Arrested in 1794, he was then released – it was clear he was an ardent Jacobin, but not that he was an active conspirator – but then re-arrested in 1795, when he was offered a bishopric if he would betray his fellow radicals.   Refusing to do so, he spent the next six years first in the Castel Sant’Elmo high above the city (and in a windowless cell) and then as a prisoner on the remote island of Favignana off the north-west coast of Sicily, where he had been sentenced to ten years of confinement. His incarceration probably saved his life: he was not able to be a part of the brief government of the Neapolitan republic set up by the French in 1799, and radically purged by the Borbons and Horatio Nelson.   Freed in 1801 as part of the amnesty negotiated at the Treaty of Florence, he returned to study and work first in Rome (where he first became interested in geology), and then returned to Naples as Professor of Ethics in 1806. With the (second) French occupation of Naples his fortunes flourished, and in 1807 he was made head of the Collegio del Salvatore and a member of the Ministry of Education. In the following year he became permanent Secretary of the Academy of Sciences, was given the title of Cavaliere, and was appointed to the Internal Commission of general Statistics for the Kingdom, responsible for agriculture.

 

Monticelli’s early work had been on husbandry – he had written a catechism for small-holding farmers, a treatise on bee-keeping while on Favignana, and an environmental study, Sull’economia delle acque da ristabilirsi nel regno di Napoli [On the restoration/recuperation of the economy of water in the Kingdom of Naples] which some modern scholars see as an early work of Italian environmentalism. As we will see, Monticelli never lost interest in these questions, but from 1808 onwards he published a succession of geological works, including a innovative account of the massive 1822 eruption of Vesuvius, and with a chemist, Nicola Covelli, the Prodromo di Vesuvio, a comprehensive analysis of its rocks and minerals. In these papers he and his colleague measured the fallout of pyroclastic deposits, developed an historical classification of volcanic types, and disagreed with the likes of Humboldt and von Buch over whether volcanoes were the product of processes of elevation rather than eruption. Described by the Duke of Buckingham when in Naples as “the great naturalist here”, and by Alexander von Humboldt as “the learned and zealous observer of the Volcano”, his achievements as a vulcanist were compared by Humphry Davy to those of Horace Benedict de Saussure as a scholar of the Alps. Praise from such savants helped Monticelli establish himself as a key figure in the scholarly and public reception of Vesuvius.

 

Indeed it may well have been for this reason that Monticelli was able to keep his position, despite the change of regimes. The volcano and his association with it, protected him. The intervention of the Austrians had prevented the Bourbons from purging the Muratist administration to which he belonged in 1815, but after the failure of the 1820 constitutionalist revolt in Naples Monticelli avoided the fate of many of his long-standing friends who were dismissed or forced into exile.   The ardent Jacobin had turned into a pragmatist, willing to accept the Restored dynasty because his positions gave him influence and power.   For the last thirty years of his life he was Secretary both of the Societa Reale Borbonica, and secretary of one of the three academies that made up that body, l’Accademia delle scienze. His offices made him the public face of both institutions, the chief correspondent with other academies, libraries and museums both within the Italian peninsula and in Europe and the Americas.   In 1845, on the last day of the meeting of Italian scientists held at the newly opened Observatory on the slopes of Vesuvius (a project he had ardently promoted but whose inauguration he had been too ill to attend) Monticelli died in his eighty-sixth year.   His funeral in Naples was attended by many of the congress’s participants. Posthumous panegyrics are rarely reliable, but they seem to have agreed on his “serene affability”, and his “aura of modesty”.

 

Though Monticelli became an assiduous volcanologist, his horizon was bounded by the Kingdom of Naples, and was largely confined to Vesuvius and the Campi Phlegrei.   He never travelled outside the Italian peninsula. (Though he may possibly have visited Davy in London briefly in 1824.) Unlike most of the important geologists of his generation, he never crossed the Mediterranean into Greece, the Holy Land and Egypt, nor did he make it northwards over the Alps to France and Germany. His concerns were local and his observations were not theoretical but resolutely empirical.   As he and Covelli wrote about the eruption of 1822:

 

We consulted the ancient and modern writers about our volcanoes and the papers of foreign people on the same topics, as well as the most famous authors of Geology and Mineralogy; however having found that geologists are divided into two tendencies, one of which ascribed most external and internal terrestrial phenomena only to waters, and the other one only to fire, we simply tried to study their doctrines, without embracing any one of them; we only intended to give exact reports of things observed by us.

 

To a certain extent this was a characteristic gesture of many geologists of the 1820s who wished to privilege empirical observation over speculative theory. But it is also probable that Monticelli took this position because his prime concern was less to adjudicate between Neptunists and Plutonists than to ensure that, whatever the larger geological narrative, Vesuvius and the Neapolitan kingdoms would feature within it. For, passionate as Monticelli was about mineralogy, geology and volcanism, his first commitment was to realizing a particular vision of Naples.

 

Monticelli was determined to insert Vesuvius (both materially and intellectually) into the international geological narrative, because he saw international interest in the volcano as a means to promote Naples as part of a modern, scientific world.   He wanted this perception to be both local and international.   This involved several interconnected stratagems: acting as a fixer between the volcano, the local scientific community and foreign visitors to Naples; bringing Vesuvius to the attention of a local and international public through the display of collections, accounts of Vesuvius’s activity, and the international circulation of specimens; and finally, protecting and ensuring the status of Vesuvius as a scientific object in the face of criticism and hostility from the local Church and other conservative forces.

 

Let’s look at Monticelli’s strategems.   Almost every important geologist and major public figure who came to Naples between 1808 and 1840 met Monticelli, who frequently accompanied them on an ascent of Vesuvius.   His surviving correspondence is littered with letters of introduction from geologists like Alexander von Humboldt and Humphry Davy recommending savants from Britain, Germany, France, Scandinavia and the New World.   In his dealings with this international clientele, Monticelli was a master of the small significant gesture: at Christmas 1814 he entertained Sir William Gell, who became the greatest English-language expert on Pompeii, at his country house at Bosco Tre Case on the southern slopes of Vesuvius, and took the Englishman on his very first visit to the ruins; he helped Davy on his first visit to Vesuvius in 1814-15, sent him compounds to Rome for his experiments en route to Naples in 1819, and managed all his affairs during the eruption of 1819-20; when an ill-equipped Humboldt arrived in Naples in 1822, from a diplomatic mission in Verona, Monticelli lent him instruments and log tables to pursue his work. When Charles Lyell arrived in 1828, two years before the publication of his path-breaking Principles of Geology he was unable to observe all of Vesuvius, because of its eruptive state – Monticelli provided him with drawings of the parts of the volcano he could not see. He made travel arrangements for William Buckland and his wife in 1826, and made a life-long friend of the Danish archaeologist, Charles Jurgensen-Thomsen, by providing him with accommodation during his visit to Naples in the 1820s.[1]

 

This was typical. Monticelli helped not just geologists, but scientists of every stripe, agronomists, botanists, physicists and chemists, doctors and philosophers, cartographers and geographers, mathematicians and statisticians, and the many amateurs and polymaths who were typical of the scientific culture of the period.  When the Duke of Buckingham, an ardent amateur geologist, arrived in Naples in the spring of 1828, Monticelli offered the services of his secretary as a guide to the volcanic islands that the Duke was eager to visit in his custom-built (and unpaid for) yacht. Buckingham was delighted with Emmanuele Donati’s services – Donati found and identified specimens, supervised an archaeological dig, and, whether on Capri or in Corsica, worked tirelessly on the Duke’s behalf. When the two men parted in Genoa Buckingham gave Donati ten pounds for travel expenses and a gold snuff box, and arranged to pay him fifty pounds. “He is sorry to go”, the Duke wrote, “and I am equally sorry to lose him, as he has been a very active, quiet, unassuming companion, and has been of great use to me.”   But, as we shall see, there was more to Donati than met the Duke’s eye.

 

Monticelli also drew visitors into the scholarly life of Naples. He persuaded Charles Babbage, in Italy to recuperate from the loss of his father, wife and son, to sit on a commission – to which the Catalan geologist, Carlos de Gimbernat also contributed – into the curative powers of the waters of Ischia. He had the chemist and botanist, Charles Daubeny, author or A Description of Active and Extinct Volcanoes (1826), speak about his researches to the Royal Academy of Science.   He even persuaded a rather nervous Christian, Crown Prince of Denmark, an amateur obsessed with geology, to present his findings about Vesuvius to a special session of the Academy. Brokering such events gave the academy greater kudos in the eyes of the court, even as it enhanced its reputation among the foreign visitors and dignitaries who were drawn into its affairs.

 

A central feature of Monticelli’s hospitality was a visit to his collection of Vesuvian lavas and minerals.   On 25 January 1820, for example, Christian, Crown Prince of Denmark, visited Monticelli’s collection with Humphry Davy, describing it as “unique” for “objets volcaniques”; he was also struck by its collection of fossils from Northern Europe which he thought much richer than was usually found in Italy.   Originally housed in Monticelli’s home, the Museum moved to the Palazzo Penne in the centre of Naples in 1825, and at his death contained 6600 specimens from Vesuvius and a further 1400 minerals from other volcanoes in the Azores, Sardinia and Iceland.   This was an entirely separate collection from the royal cabinet of minerals, which had its own curator. Like many others, Christian was fascinated by the collection, which included many volcanic substances that he could not recognize or name. As was often the case, this visit prompted a request that Monticelli put together a collection of “the most interesting specimens” for the visitor.   As the Duke of Buckingham, another passionate aristocratic collector, commented, “the collection of Vesuvian minerals is immense and beautiful, and supplies all of Europe”.

 

So one way to ensure Vesuvius’s place in the grand narrative of geology was through a process of dispersal: to distribute samples of the volcano to schools, cabinets, academies, universities and laboratories. Monticelli was big in the rock business.   Visitors to his collection were given samples, but Monticelli, either for a fee or as part of a system of gift exchange, also distributed larger collections of minerals all over the world. Quite often he was solicited for samples, often in return for election to an academy or in response to a gift of samples from other geological sites.   Thus Charles Frederic Bachmann, the Director of the Jena Mineralogy Society, accompanied news that they had awarded Monticelli with a diploma with a request for specimens of Vesuvian rocks.   Monticelli received minerals from Northern Europe: Copenhagen, Stockholm, Norway, southern England, the lower Rhine, Bohemia and Geneva. From the Mediterranean: Marseilles, Trieste, Udine, Catania, and Malta, and from the new world: Mexico, and Baltimore; he supplied minerals not just to London, Paris and Copenhagen, but to Jena, Dresden, Marseilles, Turin, Philadelphia, Middlebury Vermont, Washington and Rio de Janeiro, as well as to several Italian museums and collections.

 

The circulation of these material objects worked through a network of exchange and information (letters, offprints and books) that included more than one hundred and fifty correspondents in Germany (Berlin, Jena, Gottingen, Freiburg, Dresden, Heidelberg and Bonn), London (the British Museum, the Royal Society and the Geological Society), Paris (the Academie des Sciences, the Ecoles des Mines, Musee d’histoire naturelle, and the Institut Historique), Scandinavia (Copenhagen, Helsingfors, Uppsala, Stockholm), Russia (St.Petersburg), as well as in the New World in Vermont, New York, Washington (the National Institute for the Promotion of Science), Buenos Aires, Rio di Janeiro, and Mexico City.

 

Some of these transactions were at the behest of rulers, diplomats and government officials, others were often facilitated by diplomatic staff who arranged to shepherd valuable specimens through ports and customs. Some were simple commercial transactions with mineral and rock dealers in London, Freiberg, Gottingen, Heidelberg and Vienna. But most of Monticelli’s transactions were either with Academies and Museums, or, on a much smaller scale, with private individuals, often in response to gifts – as small as a single rock – or to direct requests for a few specimens. Many grew out of contacts first made in Naples.

 

The entire range of such exchanges, small and large, personal and official, can be followed in the on-going development of the relationship between Humphry Davy and Monticelli.   In February 1816 Davy sent some Cornish minerals to the Abate because, as he wrote to his mother, when he had been in Naples, Monticelli had been “excessively civil” to me and “gave me a very fine collection of minerals from Vesuvius”. Three years later, when Davy returned to Naples, Monticelli gave him “a list of substances wanting for his collection”, and Davy wrote to Faraday in London asking him to arrange a reciprocal gift, which he would pay for. Monticelli had already put together another “magnificent collection” for Davy, which the Cornishman asked the Abate “to send to the Royal Institution”, suggesting that if they had any duplicates that were on Monticelli’s wish list they should give them in exchange. Back in London in the autumn of 1820, and newly appointed at the President of the Royal Society, Davy received from Naples two cases of minerals, samples of sea salt, and several bottles of wine.   Davy, on his part, told Monticelli that he was waiting for a means of safe passage before sending him a number of precious stones from Ceylon, which were later brought to Naples by William Hamilton, the British envoy.

 

The scale of these exchanges changed radically in June 1821 when Davy first proposed that the British Museum buy Monticelli’s entire Vesuvian collection. As he made clear from the outset, they were only interested in his volcanic specimens, not in his collection as a whole. By the following spring Davy had Treasury approval to pay £500 for the collection – he had consulted Henry Fitton Secretary of the Geological Society and Lord Compton on the fairness of the price – and designated Compton, who was then resident in Rome, to ensure that the right rocks reached London. (Back in the summer of 1819 Compton, then in England, had received a shipment of minerals from Monticelli, and had reciprocated with a gift of British specimens.)   After some negotiation – Monticelli persuaded the British government to pay for the packing and shipping – the deal went through, and the collection arrived in London some time in 1823.

 

It is not clear how much of Monticelli’s collection was acquired by the British Museum, but the sale must have left a gaping hole. Why did he sell such a large part of it and why, indeed, did Davy broker the transaction? Monticelli’s collection was his private property, not the possession of one of the academies or of the crown. He had been complaining bitterly a few years earlier about how costly his Vesuvian ventures had become. Writing to Paolo D’Ambrosio, the Neapolitan envoy in Copenhagen, he complained that he had “lavas, tuffs, pumices, volcanic glasses, scoriae and sublimations” that would have filled a dozen cabinets but “I have no room to house them and no money to make them [the cabinets] each costs at least 16 ducats. I have become poor from frequent expenses…It is cheering for me, the admiration shown by the crowd of foreigners who come to visit it. But …[I] keep on living philosophically and with every kind of hardship”. However justified – and there was certainly an element of special pleading in Monticelli’s comments – we don’t know if Davy was conscious of Monticelli’s financial plight or was interested in helping him, or perhaps even taking advantage of his circumstances. In their correspondence the two men only spoke of the contribution to science the purchase would make.   But Davy was very direct with his Italian friend: he made clear that if he wanted more than £500, the deal would fall through. In their correspondence there was a significant shift – Davy began writing in Italian, shifted to French (in which he was more comfortable) and ended up describing the final deal in English. Whatever the case there seem to have been significant benefits for the Abate. The detailed list of materials, probably drawn up and certainly in the hand of his colleague, Nicola Covelli, served as the basis for the Prodromo di Vesuvio that they jointly authored and was published in 1825, while Monticelli himself was now well enough off to buy the substantial Palazzo Penne in the centre of Naples and to use it to exhibit his remaining collections which, it is claimed, eventually numbered some 16,800 minerals, fossils and rocks. (where? Lower figure earlier)

 

Davy and Monticelli continued to correspond after the sale of 1823 – exchanging gifts of food, writings and a few specimens – but they never met again. Davy was preoccupied with Royal Society business and then was hampered by ill health. He wrote frequently to Monticelli in 1827-8 when he was recuperating in Rome, promising that they would renew their researches on Vesuvius together. But this, as Davy knew, was wishful thinking; he was too ill for such strenuous activity. The last surviving letter he wrote to the Abate was in February 1828 from Terracina, half way between Rome and Naples. He never made it further south, and died the following May.

 

The transactions between Monticelli and Davy reveal the complex interplay of self-advancement and camaraderie, vanity and idealism, cooperation, collective endeavor and ambition, that informed dealings among the savants fascinated by the minerals, rocks and fossils that promised to reveal the secrets of the earth. While royalty, grand aristocracy and public figures of renown seem almost to have demanded Monticelli’s help (and specimens) as of right – in much the manner that Alexander von Humboldt did in 1822 – and though there was certainly a thriving market for geological specimens of all sorts, most of the scientists he dealt with engaged in a polite game of give and take that was a way of nurturing relationships that were (at least ostensibly) of mutual benefit.

 

Monticelli was an exceptionally amenable and hospitable colleague, who went out of his way to help the many foreign visitors who came through Italy in pursuit of learning, aiding, as we have seen, not just geologists and mineralogists, but those interested in archeology and antiquity, agriculture and economics, literature and art. In this respect he was little different from the many savants and friends within Italy who acted as hosts to an itinerant army of international savants. Stefano Borson in Turin, Fillipo Nesti (1807-) in Florence, Luigi Canali (1759-1841) in Perugia, Marco Antonio Fabroni (18 ) in Arezzo, Paolo Salvi (1798-1871) in Pisa, Carlo Giuseppe Gismondi (1769-1824) in Rome, Carlo and Mario Gemmellaro in Catania and Franceso Ferrara (1767-1850) first in Catania and then in Palermo – all of them shared many of the qualities and characteristics of Monticelli. Most of them combined a university professorship with the custody and nurturing of local natural history collections. Borson became professor of the Sardinian mining school at Moutier after teaching mineralogy at the University of Turin. His massive catalogue of the Turin collections, almost entirely his own work, included 9866 specimens: 6027 minerals, 1486 rocks, 748 marbles and pietre dure, and 1605 fossils.   Nesti taught in Florence and curated the zoological and mineralogical collections in the Museo di fisica e storia natural in Florence, which he proudly showed Cuvier when the latter visited in 1809. Similarly, Paolo Salvi was professor of Geology, Canali Professor of Physics and Chemistry and Gismondi Professor of mineralogy; all three presided over important local collections. Gismondi oversaw two.   Nearly all of these savants were polymaths: Canali in Perugia collected meteorological observations and built an observatory; Gemmellaro was a literary figure and an expert on coins and archaeology; Ferrara was a professor of physics, who wrote extensively about archaeology, history, natural history and antiquities.

 

That said, the ambit of their researches and publications was confined to their localities.   Gismondi was a figure of enormous stature but only ever published a single article, on the subject of minerals in the vicinity of Rome; Borson travelled extensively in France, but limited his publications to studies of Piedmont. Even a well-travelled savant, like Gemmellaro, who served as a surgeon in the British army and navy and who attended Humphry Davy’s lectures on geology at the Royal Institution in London, focused his attentions on Sicily and Catania. As Pietro Corsi has pointed out, the object of such studies was to feed local information – observations and collections – into some of the larger scientific issues, while retaining a strong sense of place. Many of these scholars used local informants to collect materials.   Just as Monticelli regularly employed two men to collect crystals from Vesuvius, the Florentine Fillipo Nesti, trained contadini in the Valdarno to recognize and conserve fossil finds.

 

In the manner of Monticelli, these local savants were endlessly hospitable and helpful to visitors. When the Duke of Buckingham stayed in Gemmellaro’s house outside Catania during his visit to Etna, he recalled that “my bed he insisted on putting up in his own library, which he made mine during my stay”.   (The Sicilian was rightly proud of his extensive book collection and probably wished to show it off.)   Buckingham was suitably impressed, praising his host as “a good mineralogist and mathematician, … acquainted with many of the scientific men in Europe, and with the best philosophical instruments in use.”   In return for Gemmellaro’s hospitality Buckingham gave him “a mineralogical case, with instruments, telescope, thermometer, compass, &c, put up in it”, concluding that “And thus we parted with this amiable and scientific man, who, having made the natural history of the mountain his study, makes his knowledge available by the most splendid hospitality to strangers.”

 

We should not be too panglossian about these relationships.   Buckingham was often critical of the collections he visited and the savants he talked to. After dining with Professor Borelli a mineralogist at the University of Turin who worked closely with Borson, Buckingham expostulated, “It is extraordinary how ignorant these philosophers are of everything out of the immediate range of their pursuits. Many of the most interesting localities Borelli did not even know by name.”   Similarly he was dissatisfied with the mineral collection “arranged after the system of Brogniart, by Mr Borson”, complaining that “Its collection of volcanic materials is paltry, and not separated from the rest.” (Borson promptly after Buckingham’s departure wrote to Monticelli, asking him for specimens from Vesuvius.) At Naples Buckingham’s complaints also focused on the local nature of the collections. After praising Monticelli’s Vesuvian collection, he grumbled that “His general collection is meager and bad.” Local strength was parsed by Buckingham as a general weakness.

 

Conversely, the Italian savants, though they desperately wanted foreign visitors to draw on their local expertise, often felt a certain superiority towards them, because their guests were bound to be less knowledgeable of local conditions. In Catania Gemmellaro used his local knowledge to jealously guard his intellectual independence.   In the 1820s a number of Neapolitan intellectuals mounted a campaign to dispel what they saw as the often superficial and frequently misinformed foreign misapprehensions about both the volcano and the kingdom that surrounded it. Someone like Leopoldo Pilla, a protégé of Monticelli’s (though they were to fall out later), who became professor of geology at Pisa, and who died on the battlefield fighting for the revolution in 1848, started a series of publications, Le Spectatore del Vesuvio, designed to reveal the scientific value of Vesuvius to foreigners, whose visits, he argued, were too brief, too superficial, and too dependent on other accounts to be properly informed.  He was particularly disparaging of the very successful guide written by Canadian geologist and alpinist John Auldjo, the Sketches of Vesuvius, published in Naples and London in both English and French. In 1827 Gabriele Quattromani produced the Itinerario delle due Sicilie (also published in a French edition), as the first “Mappa Statistica” of the Two kingdoms with the overt object of rebutting most foreign accounts which he dismissed as “romanzi” (novels.) Much of the data the Itinerario contained came from reports of commissions on the Neapolitan infrastructure to which Monticelli had contributed.   This concern with the outsider’s point of view was persistent: the argument for the publication of Monticelli’s various papers into two volumes of collected works in 1844? was that it would increase their visibility among foreigners.

 

This was all the more important after 1815 because of the delicate position that science and new knowledge occupied in the world of Restoration absolutism.   Under the French, Neapolitan savants like Monticelli had assumed positions of power, quite often taken administrative office and promoted legal and educational reform (though with mixed success). His close friend, Francesco Ricciardi, count of Camaldoli, had been Minister of Justice, another, Melchiorre Delfico, had, like many other Neapolitans, served as a regional intendent in the newly constructed government of the provinces. The revival of the Royal Academies, including that of science, the establishment of new chairs in the University, the foundation of the Academia Pontaniana, a body of the great and the good, and the promotion of the Istituto d’Incoraggiamento, which had as its explicit purpose the application of the sciences of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and economics to government administration and to the economy, especially agriculture: all this helped shape a reformist agenda that drew in Neapolitans, even when they were unhappy about French interference, and about the terrible economic burden placed on the Kingdom by its obligations to pay for French armies. These institutions also helped shape an elite in the French manner, a body of administrators, technocrats and scientists, of which Monticelli was an important member. In particular there was a large overlap between the membership of the Academy of Sciences, the Academia Pontaniana, and the Istituto d’Incoraggiamento. Monticelli, Cuoco, Delfico were members of all three.

 

But this positive, reformist environment and its proponents, though it survived the Restoration, came under suspicion from the Crown and the Church. Neapolitan monarchs, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, were eager to win the international prestige that came with the support and development of science and technological innovation. Certainly, the Bourbons were not hostile to new technologies.   Naples, after all, had the first steamship service and the first railway in Italy. (It also had some state of the art panopticon prisons). But the rulers wanted, like the panopticon, to exercise surveillance and control; they were terrified of unleashing the forces of reform and of liberalism, especially those that might produce political change.   This was one reason (though clearly not the only one) why Monticelli and his colleagues were so eager for international recognition and involvement; it bolstered the argument that ‘science’ helped promote Naples and the prestige of its rulers. The list of visitors to Vesuvius touted by Monticelli included savants of the calibre of Humboldt, Buch, Davy and Lyell, but he also often enumerated the large number of Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses who made the pilgrimage up the mountain. From all points of view the Crown Prince of Denmark was the ideal visitor – unalloyed royalty but also a passionate enthusiast for the new science of geology.

 

Looking outward was a way of looking in.   This is very clear in Monticelli and Covelli’s Prodromo della Mineralogia vesuviana published in 1825. Its dedication to the king, written in the deferential not to say fawning language of such prefaces, praises the monarch’s achievements as a patron of the arts and science. Surveying all the scholarly and scientific institutions in Naples – its academies, cabinets of minerals, physics, chemistry, zoology and pathology – it attributes their success to royal munificence. At the same time it underscores their importance to German, French and English visitors, and uses them to advocate the teaching of the useful sciences, promoted through observation and experiment.

 

There was, of course, a deep ambiguity in claiming that scientific investigation, including that of Naples’s greatest foreign attraction, Vesuvius, enhanced the prestige and cache of the nation, an equivocation neatly concealed in the term ‘nation’.   Did such a term refer – as any autocratic ruler, however enlightened, would assume – to the dominion of the Prince, or, as many, like Monticelli, fervently believed – to the body of people. It was possible, indeed, in the context of Restoration Naples, desirable to fudge the issue of who was the beneficiary of science.

 

Monticelli was in a good place to do so. As Secretary of the Societa Reale Borbonica, Secretary of the Academy of Science, one of the founding members of the Academia Portanana, and as a member of government bodies investigating education, steam navigation, Bridges and Roads, waterways, forestry and hunting, he was very much the royal functionary. But in his writings what emerges is a larger vision of science and learning that harks back to his Jacobin and French roots. What one sees is not a kingdom, but an environment, both natural and human, of great potential and abundance (a trope about Naples that goes back to Pliny), whose failures are attributable to a misuse of resources. Wasteland, swamps and marshland, deforestation and erosion: all were obstacles to farming and cultivation, as well as hazards to the health of livestock and human inhabitants.   Monticelli was obsessed with what is best called ‘good husbandry’, promoting schemes to drain marshland, reclaim wastes and to canalize and control water flow, and set up tanks and other means of water conservation.   What was important was not maximizing profit or making short-term gain so much as securing the long-term well being of the rural community, making nature yield its bounty. Medical science and the investigation of public hygiene were crucial to this process; environmental degradation went hand in hand with endemic diseases, most notably malaria. Part of the reform process involved opening up access to resources, hence concern with the development of a better infrastructure of roads, waterways and bridges – but also the breaking up of monopolies, always a problem in a society that remained quasi-feudal and corporatist.

 

Such analyses were not couched as criticisms of authority – indeed, in one sense, they emanated from authority itself – nor could they afford to excite the attentions of the censor. And their ability to secure change, much less reform, was seriously limited. When Monticelli republished his Sull’economia delle acque da ristabilirsi nel regno di Napoli in 1821 (just as the new constitutional government had created a free press), he complained bitterly that its first edition of 1809, under the Muratist regime, had been largely ignored. As John Davis points out, the parlous state of Neapolitan finances and the intractable problems posed by the intervention of central powers in local power struggles, made it exceptionally difficult to implement reform, even when the regime was willing.

 

For most reformers the greatest political stumbling block came in the realm of human capital rather than natural resources.   Figures like Monticelli viewed education as the means by which human resources could best be mobilized.   Instruction was to dispel ignorance, create skills, eliminate poverty and enhance wealth. As the report of the commission on reorganizing public education, penned by Vincenzo Cuoco eloquently put it:

“Only education will enable us to retain our ancient greatness and       ancient glory. Nature has bestowed on us all the capital we need. We        do not lack for industries, but we do lack the knowledge to develop    them; yet this, too, education can provide.”…The purpose of       educating the masses is to make possible communication between the          many and the few.”

Hence the reformers’ fascination with education methods, especially those of the Swiss educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, with his commitment to accessible and universal education, and with the Bell and Lancaster systems of schooling which, by training pupils to teach their peers, promised to reduce the cost of education and make it more accessible to the poor. Monticelli was particularly interested in Pestalozzi and sent collections of Vesuvian minerals to Pestalozzi schools. (others elsewhere….)

 

Science was one thing, but education was another, especially after the failed constitutional revolution of 1820. Moderate as were the changes introduced in 1820 – freedom of speech and of the press, and the creation of a freely elected legislature – they produced the fierce backlash that had been avoided in 1815. The biggest changes after 1821 came in the army, but the educated classes were also badly hit. They had, after all, provided many of the seventy-two mainland delegates to the legislature: eight were professors of ‘science’ and nine were doctors.   Public employees and teachers were purged, students at the University of Naples were rusticated. The Catholic church’s powers over education were enhanced; censorship returned; a Junto for public education was established.   The Minister of Police railed that “the fanaticism of innovation was spread by books. These were the source of the poison that was present in the guise of reform, regeneration, progress and freedom. It was in this way that the spirit of revolution brought desolation to our people, undid morality and destroyed religion.”

 

Monticelli was closely allied to and personal friends with many members of the regime of 1820-1, but he survived. The next ten years of his career were unquestionably the most active. He moved to the Palazzo Penne, entertained many foreign visitors, became rector of the university, and, after the accession of Francis in 1825, was extremely active on governmental commissions. He seems to have played a double game. It is the nature of such things that they are hard to prove, but there are telling signs – all Vesuvian – that even as he ingratiated himself with the court, he remained, at the very least a sympathizer and fellow traveller with the constitutional reformers.

 

Monticelli used the fruits of Vesuvius – some of its most beautiful gems and crystals – as gifts to gain favour at court. Working through Caterina de Simone, the Queen’s lady in waiting, who was notorious for taking bribes and gifts from clerics and civil servants, he gave the Spanish wife of Francis I, Maria Isabella, several gifts of gems, including a collection of jewel studs; he was even invited to a royal audience to offer his opinion on a gem stone necklace she had acquired. Monticelli was not a rich man, and he would never have been able to afford the sort of gems that he gave the royal consort, but, because of the identification of the kingdom with the volcano, he could present the products of Vesuvius as a patriotic act, one in which the Spanish born princess could share by the public display of the gems.

 

Yet even as he was ingratiating himself with a royal consort who was terrified of carbonari, he was sending his secretary, Emmanuele Donati, with the Duke of Buckingham on a tour of the Mediterranean. Donati, who, as we have seen, was greatly admired as a geologist by the Duke of Buckingham, was also a carbonaro. He was arrested on his return to Naples, accused of making contact with fellow radicals on his journey, and suspected of involvement in the Cilento insurrection of June 1828, a rising of a number of carbonari factions in the mountains south of Salerno. (As a rather shocked Duke of Buckingham was to discover, and as Monticelli knew to his own cost, almost every inhabited volcanic island in the Mediterranean was not just a vulcanologist’s paradise, but a secure site where political prisoners were exiled and incarcerated.) How involved Donati was with the plot is unclear, though he did meet with a group of carbonari in Malta who the government believed to be behind the rising. At all events, Donati was forced into exile, and ended up living in lodgings in London’s Tottenham Court Road. It had been the value of his technical knowledge about volcanoes that had enabled him to embark on a journey that proved his political undoing.

 

As in his secretary’s case, for Monticelli Vesuvius, geology and politics were intertwined. One of the Vesuvian objects he included in the collection that he sold via Humphry Davy to the British Museum was a piece of dark grey trachyte lava that has been pressed into a mold to create an impression that reads, “Alliance of Thunder and Liberty Sealed with the burning lava of Vesuvius. March 1820 by C. Gimbernat”.   This was not just a transformation of nature into culture, but of nature into politics. Gimbernat was a Catalan geologist, a liberal whose father had been fired on political grounds from the medical school he founded in Madrid, and who had worked with Monticelli and Davy on the slopes of Vesuvius in 1819-1820. His lava medal celebrates the acceptance by Ferdinand VII of Spain of the liberal Spanish Constitution of 1812 in March 1820, an event that helped precipitate the constitutional revolution in Naples in July of that year, a revolution that also adopted the Spanish constitution.   Gimbernat may have learned how to make such medals from the Duca de la Torre who had made a number of such medals in the 1790s and who was also on Vesuvius during the eruption of 1819-20. Such lava medals were to become common in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – two from the 1930s celebrate Mussolini and Hitler – and many, as in these examples, carried a political message. Gimbernat, in fact, made a series of medals, a collection of which now survives in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Barcelona, most of which celebrate the revolutions of the 1820s.

 

The care with which Monticelli’s collection for the British Museum was assembled, along with its detailed inventory, leaves no doubt that the inclusion of this political slogan was deliberate not accidental. Nor was its inclusion without risks. After 1821 the possession of any item that seemed to embody or express sentiments and ideas associated with the Carbonari was punishable by a mandatory ten years of exile. A part of Vesuvius served, once again, to send a political message.

[1] M becomes a member of the Society of the Antiquaries of the North in Copenhagen in 1844.

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