Vesuvius and the Buried Cities in the age of Romanticism

Vesuvius and the buried cities in the age of Romanticism


This version lacks images.  If anyone is interested in the full monty, they should email me.



One of the wittiest travel books written about Naples is Le Corricolo [the title refers to a type of Neapolitan carriage], published by the dramatist, journalist and novelist, Alexander Dumas, about his visit to the city in 1835.   In a pause from its breathless dialogue, Dumas turned his attentions to the volcano, Vesuvius, that towers over the Bay of Naples.   He portrayed the smoking mountain as a brilliant actor whose calculated performance gives it bigger billing than its more physically impressive rivals of Etna and Stromboli. “In nature as in art, in the creations of God as in the work of man, in the volcano as in drama”, Dumas writes, “alongside real merit there is reputation”.   Taking advantage of its “admirable position and magnificent mise en scene” Vesuvius burst into prominence in AD 79 and followed this up with more than fifty eruptions, making so much noise and smoke that it “eclipsed” its rivals. Dumas describes the volcano’s dramatic first entry – the debut of its “carriere volcanique” as “a master stroke”: “To wrap the countryside and the sea in a dark cloud; to spread terror and night over a vast expanse; to send ashes to Africa, Syria, Egypt; to eliminate two cities such as Pompeii and Herculaneum; to asphyxiate from a distance a philosopher such as [the elder] Pliny and to force his nephew to immortalize the disaster in an admirable letter – you have to admit that’s not too bad a beginning for a volcano” . But that was just for starters: “From that time Vesuvius never neglected anything to justify the fame it had acquired in such a terrible and so unexpected way. Sometimes bright as a mortar flare and vomiting torrents of lava from nine mouths of fire, sometimes pumping up seawater and throwing out bubbling sprays to the point of drowning three thousand people, sometimes crowning a plume of flames that rose in 1779, according to some calculations, to eighteen thousand feet in height, its eruptions, which one can follow exactly in a collection of colored prints, all have different characters and always offer the most grandiose and picturesque views.”


The fires of Vesuvius, as Dumas well knew, thrived on the oxygen of publicity: “travelers’ tales, the exaggerations of guides, the admiration of the English, who, in their philanthropic enthusiasm, would give over their fortunes and their wives for just one chance to see Naples and its surroundings burning”. Vesuvius, Dumas concluded, “is not just famous, its popular.”


Dumas was, of course, right. By the mid-nineteenth century Vesuvius and the bay of Naples had become ‘popular’, an attraction for travellers and the object of innumerable paintings, prints and lithographs, not just because of the great natural beauty of the Bay – an allure since the time of the Ancients – but in large part because of the uncovering of the hidden cities buried in the eruption of AD 79 (excavations began before the mid-eighteenth century, but their full implications were only revealed in the early nineteenth), and also because of an enthusiasm for mountains, volcanoes and geological phenomena that, before the last quarter of the eighteenth century, was very much a minority taste.   This book looks, as Dumas looked, at the processes by which this natural site became identified as a particular sort of place and, again like Dumas, sees nature and the volcano as an active force, an actor in its own making. At the same time, it does not neglect the human values and processes by which Naples and the volcano were shaped.   But the approach I adopt is rather unusual.   I don’t confine myself to looking at Vesuvius and the buried cities merely as tourist sites or from the point of view of their foreign visitors.   This, as Dumas’ account reminds us, is, of course, an important part of the story, but only a part.   Rather, its very much the claim of this book that the volcano and the buried cities have to be understood as part of a highly contentious history that was both local – about Neapolitan society, politics, science and religion – and international – about the politics of European regimes, the history of the earth, and the place of science in society. The optics here therefore involve closeness and distance: the book begins in Naples with a detailed account of who was on Vesuvius, what they were doing there and how they understood their experiences on the mountain.   Aristocratic Neapolitans, Swiss mercenaries, English entrepreneurs, Austrian and German soldiers, French traders and writers, Italian, English and Danish geologists, American politicians and literati, Russian and German architects and painters, along with a bevy of tourists, local guides and tradesmen all found their way to the slopes of the volcano.   The mountain bubbled and seethed not just with lava, but with men and women whose passions, interests and aims were as disparate as their origins.   The volcano was an end point – no-one climbed Vesuvius to get somewhere else – but it was also often one stopping place in a journey towards some larger end.   And what those visitors wrote, depicted and inscribed, what rocks and lavas, images and engravings they collected and dispersed throughout much of Europe, not only placed Vesuvius and the buried cities at the heart of contemporary debates about politics, science and taste, but helped shape a virtual Naples, untethered from its Neapolitan surroundings, dispersed and displayed in panoramas, dioramas, and exhibition spaces, and re-enacted in public pleasure gardens, as well as in scientific lecture rooms and on the stage. There is no better way of understanding Europe in the age of Romanticism than by viewing it through the lens of the Bay of Naples.


  1. Introduction: Naples, the city and the Kingdom.


This opening survey focuses on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, before the restoration of the old Counter-revolutionary regime in Naples in 1815. I emphasize a number of features of the Kingdom and the city that may not immediately seem to be part of the story but, as we shall see, the volcano and the excavations could never easily be separated from the turbulent history of the region.   Naples had long been in thrall to a foreign power. For many centuries subordinate to the Spanish monarchy, more recently under French revolutionary dominion, for much of the 1820s it was under Austrian military occupation, as well as the client of British and French commercial interests.   It was not just an independent kingdom, though it was certainly that, but also a client or colony, a pawn in the power struggles and commercial interests of militarily and economically more powerful states.   In the post-Napoleonic world its reactionary politics were protected and dictated by the Holy Alliance led by Austria, just as earlier its progressive agenda under Napoleon and his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, King of Naples between 1807 and 1814, had been dictated by the French.   Foreigners dominated its economy: its commerce run by the French and English, its industry, such as it was, by the Swiss. No proper understanding of Naples is possible without the sort of investigation of its foreign communities that I provide here. Naples was what one Italian scholar has called a “multi-city” of diverse populations, comparable to such ports as Bordeaux, Hamburg, Istanbul, Livorno [Leghorn], Trieste and Salonika.


At the same time there were deep political fissures within Naples itself.   One of the most powerful intellectual centres of the European enlightenment, the first to appoint a professor of political economy, and with a tradition of critical thinking in philosophy and jurisprudence, it was also the home of an entrenched Catholic church and of an autocratic monarchy, both made all the more reactionary by the French revolution.   The French invasion of 1799, the establishment of a republic and its subsequent collapse in a bloody counter-coup famously aided by Lord Nelson, the return of French rule (1806-1815) that pushed a reformist agenda on a Gallic model, the restoration of the old regime in 1815, and a further constitutionalist revolt against the restored monarchy in 1820: all of these events polarized Neapolitan society and not just, as the clichéd view often has it, along the lines of a progressive elite (younger sons of the nobility, liberal clergy) ranged against a hide-bound superstitious populace, the famously impoverished and ill-clad lazzaroni, who so fascinated foreign visitors.


So, in many respects Naples exemplified the post- Napoleonic world through much of Europe, marked by a struggle between reactionary authorities, both lay and clerical, terrified of revolutionary resurgence, and radical republicans, like the Italian Jacobins and carbonari who infiltrated the Neapolitan army, hatched their plots in exile in Parisian cafes or at the Libreria Italiana in London’s Soho, or, less fortunately, were incarcerated in the prison camps of the political gulag on such small volcanic islands as Lipari and Favignana,.   Caught between the two were moderate reformers, both autocratic and liberal, many of whom struggled to effect change by compromising with the prevailing powers, seeking to hold office whatever the political complexion of the regime.   Naples, in other words, cannot be understood except as part of a larger international system of ideologically driven conflict, nor without attention to its diverse population, not least its substantial foreign communities.


  1. Vesuvius – whose volcano?


A volcano, it goes without saying, and as Dumas was at pains to point out, is not an inert or fixed object, a stable feature of the natural landscape.   Subject to a timescale beyond human temporality, by turns benign and terrifying, seemingly with a will of its own – at least one beyond human control – Vesuvius, like other volcanoes, was often anthropomorphized, seen as a creature of moods, one that was often dormant, sometimes silent, and occasionally lowering, wrathful, spiteful, and with an uncontrollable temper.   The volcano’s physical appearance was constantly changing – sometimes radically, after a major eruption, but also incrementally, as fissures and flows shifted the shape of its grounds.   For much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was almost constantly erupting at a low level – though there were occasional major eruptions such as those of 1761, 1779, 1794, 1822 and 1834 – so that it was at once spectacular, especially at night when its flames could be seen most clearly, and yet ordinarily not life-threatening: a perfect object of sublime tourism. The experience in 1820 of the Irish novelist and travel-writer, Lady Morgan, was typical. “The mountain”, she wrote, “though it never raged with that fury which adds alarm to admiration, was sufficiently active to excite an incessant interest”.


But how the volcano was seen, imagined, described and experienced also varied greatly according to the values and position of the viewer.   For many Neapolitans Vesuvius was a symbol of their country – often painted into the background of royal portraits, modeled in public firework displays, sometimes seen as the underlying cause of the passionate temperament of the Neapolitan populace. But the volcano of the smallholder cultivating vines on its lower slopes, of the humble guides from Resina (now Herculaneum) who led visitors up the mountain was very different from the volcano of the Neapolitan savant and university professor, the cultivated foreign visitor, or the young soldiers who spent their leisure hours racing up the mountain.   But, overall, the volcano was a source of livelihood for many – the savant just as much as the poor guides.  As a Franciscan friar pointed out to Hester Piozzi, the former Mrs Thrale, “that’s our mountain, which throws up money for us, by calling foreigners to see the extraordinary effects of so surprising a phenomenon.” For others the volcano was a site of recreation, and an object of science.


Often these activities worked together – they made up an economy of Vesuvius – but in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there were fundamental conflicts over how the volcano should be seen.   On the one hand there was a long-standing sense that the volcano was, as one poet put it, the “Mysterious Agent of Eternal Will”, its behaviour a symptom of divine approval or displeasure. The devastating eruption of 1631 – that over three days included violent earthquakes, torrential downpours, mudslides and flooding, as well as two huge pyroclastic flows of deadly burning gas, stream, dust ash and boulders, and three separate tsunamis – led to thousands of deaths, and was the worst eruption since the catastrophe of AD 79 that had destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.   The scenes of devastation and death were a boon to the Counter-Reformation church, which co-opted the volcano to the cause of religious and moral reform. This not only reinforced the cult of San Gennaro – the saint who supposedly saved the city from Vesuvius in 1631 and the liquefaction of whose blood (attempted on three festival days a year) was a sign of good or ill-fortune – but also that of other patron saints, religious orders and fraternities in the city.   Every major eruption prompted huge religious processions and calls for spiritual reform as a way of propitiating for the nation’s and individuals’ sins.


The Church’s volcano was not, of course, that of the Enlightenment. In his remarks on volcanoes in his Theory of the Earth, the Scottish savant, James Hutton, took explicit aim at the traditional Christian view: “Volcanoes are not made on purpose to frighten superstitious people into fits of piety and devotion, nor to overwhelm devoted cities with destruction”. Rather their effect, though ostensibly terrifying and sometimes highly destructive in the short term, should be seen as an example of a benign natural order, their eruptions an instance of a self-regulating nature. As the Baron Holbach put it in the Encyclopedie:   “Les volcans doivent etre regardes commes les soupiraux de la terre, ou comme les chiminees par lesquelles elle se debarasse des matieres embrasees qui devorent son sein…Le volcans sont donc un bienfait de la nature”. The object of the natural philosopher was to chart, understand and, if possible, exploit these natural processes (for example by identifying the properties in volcanic soil that made it so fertile).   This was an aim of most of the many scientists who made their way to and up the volcano, among them Alexander von Humboldt, Gay Lussac, Leopold von Buch, Sir Humphry Davy, Deodat de Dolomieu, Charles Babbage and Charles Lyell.


The contrast between the pious and the Enlightened versions of the volcano is very clearly depicted in the work of the most important artist portraying the volcano in the later eighteenth century, Jacques Volaire, known as the Chevalier Volaire.   Born in Toulon, a pupil of Vernet, who employed him as his assistant for eight years, he lived for eighteen years in Naples, dying there in 1799. During his time in the city he produced a steady stream of pictures of the volcano in eruption, depicting the eruptions of 1767, 1771, 1774, 1776 and 1794.   The work received little official recognition – he exhibited in Paris on only three occasions – but he made a successful living from providing wealthy tourists and local diplomats with paintings of eruptions that his clients sometimes had witnessed.   His clients included diplomats like Sir William Hamilton, the Cardinal de Berni (the French ambassador in Rome), the Austrian ambassador, and Francois Cacault, a consular official in Naples who also traded in pictures for Parisian clients. He sold pictures to Charles Townley and Henry Blundell on their 1777 visit to Naples, to Mrs Piozzi when she was there in the 1780s, to French aristocrats like the tax farmer, Bergaret de Grancourt and Viconte de Saint-Pardoux (on his Grand Tour of 1777), and to monarchs such as Catharine the Great, the Duke of Savoy and Ferdinand IV of Spain.   Many of these paintings were very large, approximately four feet by eight, though he also produced smaller versions of his pictures approximately 15 x 30 inches. Almost all of his works were night scenes – Vesuvian tourism was nocturnal – and many, like the works of Joseph Wright of Derby, who was in Naples in the spring of 1774, and in a manner first developed by the Neapolitan artist, Carlo Bonavia, contrasted the fiery reds and golds of the erupting volcano with the silvery light of the moon.   Most of Volaire’s works claimed to depict a specific moment or event, and sometimes claimed to have been produced on the spot and with a high degree of exactitude. (Only a very few of his paintings were fantasy pictures, such as those that combined the effects of the eruptions of 1771 and 1779.)   But the issue of verisimilitude was, as one might expect, not nearly as prominent as it was to become in the nineteenth century.


Volaire’s pictures, for all their startling effects, were works that told tales that chimed in with the attitudes and beliefs of the philosophical travellers and Enlightened figures who were his patrons and customers. Most, though not all, of Volaire’s paintings adopt one of two points of view: close to the volcano on the so-called Atrio del Cavallo, or at a distance, looking south east towards Vesuvius from the Ponte della Maddalena and the city of Naples.   In the former, as in the painting now in the Chicago Art Institute, inscribed “Vue de l’Eruption du mont Vesuve du 14 may 1771”, we see both the artist and the genteel observers gesturing towards the lava flow in a manner that indicates that they are engaged in observing a natural phenomenon that might inspire sublime feelings, but which does not entail fear.   One recalls the Royal Society’s praise of Sir William Hamilton’s “philosophical fortitude in the midst of the Horrors of Vesuvius”, and their admiration for his “resolution” and “constancy” in observing a phenomenon that he had “so minutely as well as philosophically accounted for and described”.


On the Ponte della Maddalena however, as the painting now in the North Carolina Art Museum depicts, the response is very different.   Neapolitans are fleeing from the eruption, they pray, superstitiously, to San Gennaro, to intercede on their behalf, or hold up his image in an attempt to ward off the danger of the volcano.   The painting depicts a persistent cliché about the Neapolitan populace – that they were superstitious and fearful rather than modern and enlightened.   Volaire’s paintings thus establish the difference and distance between the Grand Tourist or philosophical traveller, who was his patron, and the Neapolitans he depicted.   Volaire’s work was the most conspicuous instance of this topos, but not the only one. It can be found in the work of the German artist Jacob Phillip Hackert, the Austrian Michael Wutky, and in at least one of Fabris’s works for Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei.


The volcano as an Enlightened scientific object may seem very different from Vesuvius as a site of recreation and pleasure, but as both Humboldt and Davy emphasized in epic works written at the end of their careers (Humboldt’s Cosmos and Davy’s Consolations in Travel or the Last Days of a Philosopher), scientific understanding depended upon and did not conflict with an appreciation of the aesthetics of nature. The sense that Vesuvius, like other volcanoes, was less an instrument of God’s wrath than a part of an increasingly legible nature, one that excited the feeling of the sublime, certainly encouraged visitors to the volcano and shaped their responses to it.   Before the last quarter of the eighteenth century volcanic tourism, like that of mountains in general, was poorly developed. It is rare to find, until this date, many remarks about the aesthetic pleasures of Vesuvius, which was usually described as ugly, threatening and repugnant; the term most commonly used about the slopes of the volcano was ‘desolation’ (Musella), but thereafter paeans of praise to its powers and its ‘terrible beauty’ were commonplace.   So commonplace indeed that Dumas, in a characteristically playful and perverse move, refused to give his readers a detailed description of the volcano, referring them to his earlier account of Etna and Stromboli, and to “three admirable pages” by Chateaubriand, who had earlier taken the same route up the mountain.


So Vesuvius was claimed by a whole range of people – polite tourists, local savants, international scientists, pious Neapolitans, painters and writers, local guides, farmers and subjects – and played many different parts – not just Dumas’ flamboyant exhibitionist and terrorist – in many different lives.


III. The Visitors Book: Livre d’Or.


Historians often fantasize about a document or series of documents – a diary densely packed with revealing entries, an intimate journal, a survey full of arcane information, a set of letters that uncovers a passionate friendship or love affair – any special source that reveals what usually remains hidden.   We have only a hazy idea of who visited Vesuvius and with what purpose in mind.   It is easy to think that the volcano was visited by a procession of the famous – writers and intellectuals like Percy Bysshe Shelley, François-René Chateaubriand, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hans Christen Anderson, Henry Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Dickens – painters like Joseph Wright of Derby, Jacques Volaire, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, J.M.W. Turner and Madame Vigée Lebrun – and scientists like Alexander von Humboldt, Humphry Davy and Charles Lyell. Indeed, there is an entire genre of Italian works that reproduces this tourist pantheon.   We are also told repeatly of British, French and German grand tourists who climbed the slopes of the volcano. But precise evidence about who was on what were generally viewed as the increasingly crowded slopes of the volcano has been very hard to come by. Fortunately a remarkable document, Ms Ital. 139 in Harvard’s Houghton Library, records visitors and their comments for the period between 1826 and 1828.   It is the only known survivor of what were a long series of visitors books (known to the French as livres d’or), running at least from the 1770s to 1850s, kept at the so-called Hermitage half the way up the volcano.   The book enables us to move beyond the customary generalities: it provides detailed information about the numbers, nationality, gender, residence, and often age of visitors; and more interestingly, it reveals both shared and different attitudes towards the volcano, as well as the different purposes behind a visit. The book is a large, leather-bound volume that is in poor condition: many of its more than 110 folios have been cut out, or bear the signs of excisions, probably made to remove the signatures of persons of renown. The binding is cheap and serviceable, but the paper is of quite a high quality and has survived remarkably well. It contents are written chiefly in four languages – English, Italian, French and German but there are also entries in Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Russian and Polish.   The entries are often written in an execrable script, there are many errors of vocabulary and orthography (lots of entries were obviously not written in the mother tongue), and the text is interleaved with squiggles, interpolated comments, and the occasional diagram and drawing.   It is a pastiche of commentary produced under far from ideal circumstances: more than one entry was written while sitting on a mule, and many were scribbled by visitors intoxicated by the hermit’s wine.


The numerous entries in the visitors’ book to Vesuvius (over 2,000 in all), making it resemble nothing so much as a modern on-line social media site, contain, like the genre the book prefigures, a fair share of banalities, bad verse and weak witticisms, but they also open a unique window into the sensibilities and feelings that fuelled volcanic tourism in the Romantic era, embody the complex struggles that rent Neapolitan state and society in the early nineteenth century, and bear witness to an exceptionally mobile and fluid world after the huge disruption of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.


The Hermitage, the home of the visitors’ book to Vesuvius, was presided over by ‘the hermit” who was famously importunate in seeking the signatures of his visitors.   The book was well known to nineteenth-century tourists, even before they arrived on the volcano; apart from its mention in personal narratives, it appears in numerous guidebooks.  The hermits themselves were all seen as men of God, sometimes as Franciscans, but were usually described as having a disreputable past. (One had worked as a French hairdresser in London). By the 1820s trade on the volcano was so brisk that it required two hermits. Whatever their origin, faith, morals or past employment, and despite their supposed retreat from society, the hermits were essentially innkeepers. When the visitors arrived at their door, they were usually served with glasses of lacryma Christi, the famous wine made from grapes harvested on the slopes of Vesuvius. Sometimes they were served food (Stendhal, who described the wine as undrinkable, ate an omelet), provided at what Alexander Dumas bitterly complained were exorbitant prices, and they could, if space permitted, spend the evening or night in one of the Hermitage’s rooms. A great many visitors’ to the volcano traveled at night, as the air was cooler and the lava and fire of Vesuvius were more spectacular in the dark; often they ate or rested at the Hermitage before setting out around midnight, returning the following morning for breakfast.


The visitors came from more than one hundred and twenty locations throughout Europe and North America. If we exclude the months of July and August, when there were almost no visitors to Vesuvius because of the summer heat, then over 110 visitors a month climbed the volcano.   There was a high season – during September and October for the Italians and during the winter months up to Easter for everyone else – and the number of visitors shot up when an eruption began, as in March 1828, when 135 people climbed the mountain in the course of three days. (21-23 March). This is hardly mass tourism, but it cannot have entailed the pleasures of solitude. And, of course, the figures do not include the large numbers of guides, at least one for every sightseer (more usually two or three), nor do they usually include the servants who accompanied many of the parties, nor the three gendarmes who were stationed on the mountain.

So, among the visitors to Vesuvius were a number of long distance travelers, of all nationalities, but predominatly British, who we might describe as tourists. However, these were by no means a majority. Most of those visiting Vesuvius were in Naples for other reasons.   A large number were resident in the region, even if only temporarily – by which I mean years rather than months. The frequency with which visitors proudly record the number of times they have ascended the volcano reveals a core of local users of the mountain. The city had a heterogeneous foreign community that the Neapolitan police estimated at about 3,000, which consisted of British and French merchants (who dominated Neapolitan foreign trade), Jewish bankers, Swiss manufacturers in the textile business, German servants, European and American diplomats, and a substantial body of genteel residents and retirees, both scholars and gentlemen and former military men – British, French, Austrian and German. Two active military bodies were prominent. First and foremost were the officers from among the 7,500 Swiss mercenaries in the six regiments that King Francis employed, because he would not trust his own officer class, who had led the 1820 constitutional rebellion. Secondly, there were periodic waves of sailors from the British Royal Navy, which used the port of Naples – together with Malta – as the centre for its operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Visitors to the volcano included professional groups – of artists, architects, engineers, university professors, geologists and the like – as well as foreign businessmen – in shipping, the textile trade and banking, who were in Naples on business.   Finally, there were significant numbers of Neapolitans – including a strong representation of noble visitors – who regularly climbed Vesuvius.   Women made up about 20 to 25% of visitors; children, especially French children were quite common; family parties were the norm; and a remarkably large number of visitors were quite old – in their 60s and 70s.


Contrary to the Romantic cliché of the virtues of solitude, the ascent of Vesuvius was all about the climb as a shared, exhilarating, exhausting and hazardous experience – one whose dangers intensified romantic friendship. So, the most striking feature of the journey up Vesuvius was its importance as a means of expressing and solidifying important attachments – between men and women of the same nation, among groups of men, like army officers and sailors, who depended on one another for their safety both on and off the volcano, among friends and acquaintances, among families, and between lovers or husbands and wives.   The idea, as one French woman put it, was to “venire ensemble”. This explains why so many of the visitors to the volcano traveled in groups – six Italian professors of “lettore”, the entire Caracciolo clan of Neapolitan aristocrats, Rothschilds from three different cities, six geologists (obviously on a professional mission), groups of Italian gendarmes, Sardinian courtiers, Jewish merchants, British, Austrian and Swiss army officers, doctors, engineers, architects, a party of four French artists in May 1828, sailors from HMS Asia, HMS Pelican and HMS Mastiff, as well as the groups of families and relatives and co-nationals.   Occasionally this sense of collective solidarity was reinforced in the visitors’ book by framing, bracketing or putting a group in a box, like the “noisy Paddys” who climbed the volcano in September 1828, though few went as far as a large French party of visitors who pictured themselves as a constellation of names, like a map of the heavens.


These signs of solidarity were not just a matter of professional or national identity; they were, as many remarks make clear, closely bound up with the idea of friendship, especially among the young male visitors to Vesuvius. The Swiss soldier, Grutther, wrote of his journey with “his dearest friend, Joseph Villarosa”; in February 1828, Luigi Boncaglia of Imola described the struggle of climbing the volcano in snow and high winds with “mio ottimo Amico”, Giacomo Morelli of Verona.   Guiseppe Konig, a Swiss soldier whose brother was also serving in Naples, and who was often on the mountain, emphasized on more than one occasion that he climbed “not just for the spectacle of Vesuvius, but for the company of true friends”. His friend, Raffaele Garzia, confessed that his apprehension of the mountain was dispelled by the “perfect company” of the two brothers. Three Italian aristocrats described themselves as “tutti e tre”; another Italian, though disappointed in the view because of fog, was gratified to be “in unione di amabile compagnie”, while a party of French and Italian climbers in January 1828 wrote of “la grande satisfaction de la bonne compagnie”. To climb Vesuvius alone was generally seen as a diminished experience.


So the Visitors’ Book seems to reveal an international community of visitors collectively engaged in a highly scripted performance, an enactment of romantic feelings of the sublime. But it reveals much more.   When a fully-fledged eruption began in March 1828 the disturbances of nature produced disturbances among the ever-growing number of visitors.   The British started quarreling with the Swiss; the Francophones with the Anglophones, the Swiss with the Neapolitans, and especially with the guides. Insults and national clichés were strewn through the book, including a rather ugly vein of anti-Semitism aimed at the Neapolitan Rothschild family. The conflict among the tourists on the volcano was, in fact, a rehearsal of a larger political conflict that was embedded in the history of southern Italy.   The presence of so many Swiss in Naples was explained by the recently failed constitutional revolution of 1820, which had been led by liberal aristocratic army officers.   The Rothschilds had bankrolled the Austrian invasion of Naples that had ended the liberal revolution.   Many Neapolitans were in exile in Britain; and the British community in Naples was both liberal and a strong supporter of Italian unification. The abuse by the Swiss officers of the Neapolitan guides, who they claimed were cowards, afraid of the eruption, recalled the cowardice of the Neapolitan army when faced by its foes in 1820. In short, politics and the everyday intruded into the visitors’ shared experience, disrupting its pleasures.


The common story of what we might call ‘sublime friendship’ was undercut by conflicts and differences in politics and nationality. And the idea of friendship was also inflected in complex ways.   The striking difference between Italians, especially Neapolitans, and other visitors, is their dense presence on the volcano in the months of September, October and November, whereas most visitors climbed the volcano in the Spring. But then the Neapolitans were on Vesuvius more often than not to celebrate saints days – especially that of San Gennaro – by feasting together on the mountain.   They often climbed to the summit and peered, like so many visitors, into the crater, but eating and drinking in and around the Hermitage, or celebrating Mass in its tiny chapel was their main purpose.   Their entries in the visitors’ book reveal how well these visitors knew one another: they consist, as often as not, of gently satirical, finely drawn portrayals of the members of a party, depicting their foibles, fears and oddities; they are suffused with an intimate affection. In this they differ from the German language entries – written chiefly by Swiss, German and Austrian soldiers – many of which are suffused with nostalgia for their homeland, and which adapt German ballads and drinking songs to comment on the volcano and the pains of displacement.   Friendship was important to these young men far from home, but was expressed in the boistrous form of drinking contests and races up and down to the summit, with times carefully recorded in the Visitors’ Book.


There were many sides to the experience of climbing Vesuvius revealed in the remarkably rich vein of story-telling that runs through the visitors’ book.   Much of the comment is anecdotal and personal, reminding us of how broad generalizations about motive, feeling and intent fail to capture the complexity of what was an intense experience.   But the challenge is to connect these stories to larger historical narratives and this I do in sections IV on the politics of volcanoes: vulcanology, revolution and reform in Europe and Naples, and section V, A dialogue with the dead: Vesuvius, the buried cities, and counter-Revolution.

  1. 1. The Politics of volcanoes: Vesuvius and Revolution.


As we have seen, Enlightened notions of volcanoes in general, and of Vesuvius in particular, stressed the importance of volcanic activity in helping achieve the equilibrium of a self-adjusting ‘nature’.   Short-term disaster and destruction were, in the long run, beneficial and regenerative; the failure to appreciate this was usually seen as a sign of ignorance and superstition. It is remarkable how often descriptions in scientific journals of eruptions, such as those sent by Sir William Hamilton to the Royal Society in London, also included accounts of popular fear and superstition, apparently as a way of underlining the difference between modern science and old-fashioned irrational beliefs.   These descriptions tacitly refer to the view of some skeptics that it was the sort of trepidation and panic produced by natural disasters like volcanic eruptions that was the common origin of all religions; uninformed fear was exploited by priests for their own religious ends.

These views of course served the anti-clerical agenda of the Enlightenment, self-consciously positioning them as progressive, but the radical tinge to volcanism was made much brighter by French revolutionaries, and especially the supporters of the terror, who drew an analogy between volcanic eruption and the processes of violent regeneration that radicals believed to be necessary to produce a better world. The sentiments are well captured in the popular play staged in 1794, Barra, ou la mère républicaine, in which the message of the play was that

“The revolutions of governments, like great crises in nature, topple everything, in order to regenerate everything. Sorrow, no doubt, for those who are struck by the explosions of one or the other volcano! But, while children and fools hit the wall that they blindly collide with, wise men submit with grace to the imperious law of necessity. Happy! For from the midst of chaos we are plunged into, one can see…the emergence of order and perfection.”

Probably the most frequently performed play of the Terror, Le jugement dernier des rois, written by the republican atheist, Sylvain Maréchal, and first performed almost immediately after Marie Antoinette’s execution, portrays a volcanic island inhabited by a single French political exile, a victim of royal persecution, who has taught its ‘savage’ inhabitants not to fear the volcano nor to countenance monarchs or priests.   A rock bears the inscription, “It is better to have for a neighbour/ A volcano than a King/ Liberty….Equality.”   Here a party of sans culottes incarcerate all the monarchs of Europe along with the Pope – on the stage, the parade of shackled rulers was almost invariably the most popular part of the play. Incapable of productive labour or of feeding themselves, they soon begin to quarrel, but their altercations are abruptly ended by a volcanic eruption, a massive on-stage explosion, that consumes them all.   The play was performed in every major city in France, had more than 100,000 viewers, and a print run of 20,000 including an edition of 6,000 for distribution to troops in the Revolutionary army.   It was only the most conspicuous instance of the frequently reiterated view that Revolution was a natural phenomenon, albeit facilitated by human intervention, and that volcanic eruptions were the perfect model of natural, revolutionary processes because they were regenerative as well as destructive.


The analogy persisted into the nineteenth century. So when the Catalan geologist, Carlos de Gimbernat, wanted to celebrate the uprisings and Revolutions of 1820 in Spain and Naples, he made stamps to plunge into the soft lava of Vesuvius and make medals to distribute to friends.



The French aristocrat the Duc De Levis, on his visit to Vesuvius on 12 September 1827, was immediately reminded of the analogy between Revolutionary and volcanic force.   Originally sympathetic to the Revolution, he had fled to England in late 1791, but his mother and three sisters had been guillotined.   As he watched the volcano, he recalled in the visitors’s book the terrible destruction of men and things he had witnessed, and reflected on the willingness of man to countenance such enormities as long as their desires were satisfied.    In 1830, when Europe was again convulsed in Revolutions and uprisings, Marianne Talbot, a genteel English woman resident of Naples, made frequent comparisons in her journals between political turbulance and the threatening rumblings of the volcano. In short, the connection between volcanoes, Vesuvius and revolution was commonplace, even amongst those who feared the return of Revolutionary violence.   The smouldering and sometimes quiet volcano seemed very much like the hidden political energies in favour of radicalism and reform that always threatened to rupture the fragile surface of the early nineteenth-century conservative political consensus.




Of course, there was a countervailing view of the volcano.   Comparing popular political energy and its revolutionary power to a process of natural destruction which was not aberrant, but part of a self-regulating order, was anathema to the counter-revolutionaries, conservatives and Christians of the 1820s and 1830s, fearful of resurgent reformism, popular protest and political revolution. There were therefore powerful reasons for them to appropriate volcanic eruption to the orthodox Christian and conservative camp, but, as we shall see in part V, this reassignment of volcanic power was achieved by focussing not on contemporary eruptions (where the Revolutionary analogy was obvious), but by turning back to the past, treating the famous eruption of AD 79 as a case of divine punishment for polytheism, libertinism, luxury and excess.


  1. 2. The politics of volcanoes: Geology, Vesuvius and Naples.


Vesuvius was an important site of scientific investigation because, as Alexander von Humboldt remarked, it was almost constantly erupting (and therefore producing scientific material), was conveniently located near a major city, and was small enough that it could be climbed in a few hours.   Dubbed by many ‘the laboratory of nature’, it was the beneficiary of changes in geological science which from the late eighteenth century had come to recognize that a single diluvian explanation of the earth’s history was grossly inadequate, that igneous rocks were to be found almost everywhere, and that therefore the role of fire and of volcanoes was far more important in understanding the earth than had previously been thought. By the 1820s, European scientists knew of almost all of the world’s volcanoes, including those in the Americas as well as Asia, but Vesuvius, in part because of its famous classical eruption, but also because of some hard lobbying by Neapolitan savants, was tantamount to a site of pilgrimage for geologists, and almost every major figure in the field spent time on the mountain, gathering specimens and measuring temperatures and magnetic fields. There was a constant procession of well-known geologists who spent time on the mountain and in the Bay of Naples examining its volcanic action, cooperating with local savants who had spent much of their lives Vesuvius-watching.   Before 1815 there was a steady flow of French and German visitors (Von Buch, Humboldt and Gay Lussac in 1805, for example), after 1815 there was a flood of Brits: Sir Humphry Davy (1814-15, 1819-20, 1823?), William Buckland (1816), John Playfair (1817), G.Paulette Scrope (1822), Charles Daubeny (1823-4), the young James Forbes, Charles Babbage, and Charles Lyell (all in 1828).   These men spread scientific knowledge of the volcano through their numerous publications in the journals of learned societies in Paris, London, Berlin, Edinburgh, Copenhagen and Philadelphia.


Such men of science were doubtless mindful of the analogies frequently made between volcanic activity and political revolution, but their concerns were different.   All of them were trying to understand the processes by which volcanic action worked – something that they agreed required repeated and careful observation and measurement – and many were also concerned about what contribution these researches might make to the vexed question of the history of the earth, and the means by which it had come to assume its present form.   These issues are sometimes framed as a struggle between virtuous Vulcanists (who saw igneous forces as vital to a history of the earth that extended back into deep time) and reactionary Diluvians (who saw water and particularly the Flood as crucial to a terrestial history confined to Biblical time).   But by the early nineteenth century most geologists recognized that the history of the earth was greater than that of Biblical time, even when they were committed to a theory of inundation, and there were a complex range of positions towards the agents of change, often entailing both water and fire.


The concern of savants and geologists from Naples was not primarily with the geological debates of the early nineteenth century or the grand narratives to which the history of the earth has been attached.   This was in part because they saw the investigation of Vesuvius as a political and intellectual project whose ends were not primarily to discover the forces that explained the history of the earth, but to ensure that the Vesuvian case – the case of what was always referred to as “our Vesuvius”, nostro Vesuvio – and the data it provided were recognized as vital to a modern understanding of the earth.   What mattered was the presence of Vesuvius in the grand narrative rather than the nature of the narrative itself. Thus at the beginning of the study by Teodoro Monticelli and Nicola Covelli of the largest Vesuvian eruption of the nineteenth century, that of 1822, they wrote: “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”.


Monticelli was the most important native geologist of the early nineteenth century in Naples.   His career was devoted to the promotion not just of Vesuvius, but to the idea that the study of the volcano could help further a view of the Kingdom Naples as a modern, progressive society devoted to scientific exploration rather than characterized by superstition. Teodoro was the younger son of minor nobility from Brindisi, who went, like so many younger sons, into 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. By the 1790s he had became a radical Jacobin, associated with the private studio of the defrocked priest, Carlo Lauberg, which taught applied mathematics and chemistry for revolutionary ends. Arrested in 1794, released, and then arrested again in 1795, he spent the next six years first in gaol and then as a prisoner on the remote island of Favignana off the north-west coast of Sicily.   Freed in 1801 as part of the amnesty negotiated at the Treaty of Florence, he studied and worked first in Rome (where he first became interested in geology), and then returned to Naples as director of the Royal College in 1806.   With the French occupation of Naples his fortunes flourished, and in 1808 he was made permanent Secretary of the Academy of Sciences and a professor at the University of Naples.   His early work was on husbandry, bee-keeping and irrigation systems as mechanisms for modernization and improvement, but from 1808 onwards he published a succession of works on Vesuvius, including a innovative account of the 1822 eruption, and, together with a chemist, Nicola Covelli, the Prodromo of Vesuvius, a comprehensive analysis of its rocks and minerals.   Described by the visiting Duke of Buckingham as “the great naturalist here”, and by Alexander von Humboldt as “the learned and zealous observer of the Volcano”, Monticelli was the key figure in the scholarly and public reception of Vesuvius.


We get a clear sense of the Neapolitan context of Monticelli’s geological and mineralogical work from his Prodromo della Mineralogia vesuviana of 1825. Its dedication to the king is a survey of all the scholarly and scientific institutions in Naples, its cabinets of minerals, physics, chemistry, zoology and pathology and their importance to German, French and English visitors, as well as a powerful plea for the teaching of the useful sciences, promoted through observation and experiment. It asserts what Neapolitans tried to embed as a commonplace of Vulcanism: that Vesuvius, because of its ease of access and constant eruptive state was simply the best place (and here they were thinking globally) to uncover the secrets of Vulcanism.


But Monticell never confined himself to volcanology. Under both the French and Restoration regimes he sat on commissions on statistics, public instruction (he had a long-time interest in Pestolozzi’s educational methods and gave volcanic specimens to Pestolozzi schools), as well as commissions on arts, manufactures and industry, bridges and roads, waterways and forests, and the development of steam navigation.   His career path – of radical, then administrator under the French occupation, and then reformer when the Bourbons were restored – was one paralleled by many friends and colleagues. They all had to tread a fine line: they liked the French reforms (many served as Intendents in the provinces), but not the foreign presence; they were committed to a more modern Naples after 1815, but had to work under an absolutist ruler.


Monticelli was determined to insert Vesuvius (both materially and intellectually) into the international geological narrative, because he very much wanted Naples to be seen as part of a modern, scientific world, containing institutions to sustain it.   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.  From the 1790s, when chemical experiments on the minerals and gases of the volcano became much more common, there was hostility from conservatives who claimed that such investigations were hubristic and futile, creating the impression that science could somehow harness forces whose destiny was decided by God.   To interfere with these was viewed as an act of modern hubris.


Against this perception, rooted in the religious culture of Naples, Monticelli opposed the collective power of the international scientific community.   Almost every important geologist and major public figure who came to Naples between 1808 and 1840 met him, and he frequently accompanied them on an ascent of Vesuvius.   His surviving correspondence is littered with letters of introduction, from the likes of Alexander von Humboldt to Humphry Davy, for savants from Britain, Germany, France, Scandinavia and the New World.   Monticelli was a master of the small significant gesture: at Christmas in 1814 he entertained Sir William Gell, who was to become the greatest English-language expert on Pompeii, at his country house at Bosco Tre Case on the south slopes of Vesuvius, before taking the English érudit on his very first visit to the ruins; in 1820 he orchestrated the visit of the Crown Prince of Denmark, a passionate geologist who became a lifelong friend and correspondent, to Vesuvius and gave him the use of his laboratory at the foot of the volcano; when Humboldt arrived in Naples in 1822, from a diplomatic mission in Verona, Monticelli lent him instruments and log tables to pursue his work. When Lyell arrived in 1828, he couldn’t observe the volcano in its entirety, 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 frequently dealt with the logistics of the Davy family.   When Davy and his wife left Naples for Rome in the Spring of 1820, he wrote to Monticelli,”the things that you have done for me, and the things we did together I will never forget”. Monticelli also offered the services of his secretary to the Duke of Buckingham who was bent on a survey of all the volcanic islands of the Mediterranean. What Buckingham did not realize is that, Emanuele Donati, was not just a geologist but a carbonaro, who used the trip to meet with fellow radicals at their different stopping points.


Monticelli also drew visitors into the scholarly life of Naples. He persuaded Charles Babbage to sit on a commission – to which the Catalonian geologist Carlos de Gimbernat also contributed – into the curative powers of the waters of Ischia, and 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.   In part this was to draw on foreign expertise, and acquire kudos by association, but it was also a deliberate attempt to shape the perception of visitors about the intellectual life of Naples itself.   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. 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.


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”.


One way to ensure Vesuvius’s place in the grand narrative of geology was not through a process of concentration, but 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.   Monticelli received minerals from Etna, Trieste, Udine, southern England, the lower Rhine, Norway, Bohemia, and Baltimore; he supplied minerals not just to London, Paris and Copenhagen, but to Jena, Dresden, Turin, and Philadelphia.   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, 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, and the Institut Historique), Scandinavia (Copenhagen, Helsingfors, Uppsala, Stockholm), Russia (St.Petersburg), as well as in the New World in New York, Washington (the National Institute for the Promotion of Science), Buenos Aires, Rio di Janeiro, and Mexico City.


Monicelli contributed to the circulation of knowledge in other ways. He wrote detailed accounts of almost every significant eruption of Vesuvius between 1813 and the 1840s, many of which were published in learned journals in Germany, Switzerland, Paris and London. These narratives were complemented by his analytical work, of which the most important was the Prodromo that he published with Nicola Covelli.   The Prodromo is a work that connects the particular specimens of Vesuvius – the physical samples that he and others collected and were contained in his collection – to a much larger scientific world.   On the one hand, as we have seen, Monticelli framed the book firmly within the realm of local, Neapolitan science. The Prodromo was published in Italian, though it would have been perfectly easy to have produced it in French, given Monicelli’s facility with the language, which he used in much of his research correspondence. The unique minerals discovered on the volcano were all given names with local associations – Christianite, after the Danish Prince, Breislakite, after the Roman geologist, Scipione Breislak (one of the first savants to examine volcanic gases), Davina, after Humphry Davy, and Biotina, after the French physicist, Jean-Baptiste Biot, who had worked with Monticelli during a visit to Naples in 1825. But, at the same time, each entry for a particular mineral followed a standard format: their geometric structure, their physical and chemical characteristics, the varieties of determinate and indeterminate forms; their dimensions; effect of light on them; their arrangement and distinguishing features.   At the same time, Monticelli and Covelli adopted the taxonomy of the French crystallographer, Rene Just Hauy, and used his work to prepare abstract diagrams of the crystals and their variations that enabled readers to compare the Prodromo’s findings with specimens from far afield.   They created a sort of matrix, at once local and universal, within which to place their findings, a combination of circulating objects, texts and abstractions.


Such strategems had, of course, been used in scientific and intellectual communities for hundreds of years; they were the modus operandi for the dissemination of knowledge.   Neapolitan savants like Monticelli were therefore following a familiar path.   But for them Vesuvius and the information it revealed, while fascinating in their own right, also mapped out the route that they wished to follow towards a modern Naples.



  1. Enter the Romans: the buried cities and Vesuvius.


The gradual discovery of the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii famously had an enormous impact on European taste, launching a neo-classicist aesthetic in art, architecture, dress and personal adornment that swept the Continent.   It also had a profound effect on how Vesuvius was understood. Here, the earliest excavations at Herculaneum were less important than those that proceeded apace from the 1760s, when the site of Pompeii was fully identified.   Herculeanum remained largely buried, covered by a thick, largely impenetrable cover of more than twenty meters of ash and pumice, on which rested much of the town of Resina.   As a source of remarkable antiquities it surpassed what was later unearthed in Pompeii, but its attraction as a place to be visited and imagined as a living city was inhibited by its subterranean obscurity, by the need to travel, as visitors complained “through damp, cold passages, without light or fresh air”, marked by a darkness that was “too deep to be dispelled by the feeble glare of a few torches”.   Herculaneum remained an antiquarian’s dream, but for other visitors it was a stygian cave when compared to the open buildings and bright skies of Pompeii.   These soon eclipsed the earlier site as the most easily imagined and accessible buried city, one whose excavation made it comparatively easy for visitors to imagine both a complete antique environment, and the terror and suffering inflicted on the population by Vesuvius’s spectacular eruption in AD 79.


The process of identification with the Pompeian victims was a gradual and complex one that unfolded over decades rather than years. It required a redefinition of antiquity that embraced everyday life as much as the heroic; it needed to be able to see that an entire environment, and not just a few artifacts, were being exposed to public view; and, by juxtaposing human and object remains of the ‘city of the dead’ (a phrase attributed to Sir Walter Scott, though it preceded him), poets, artists and writers (less usually antiquaries) fashioned stories about the final hours of the city that fed back into versions of Roman life and culture.


Before the French revolution, the visitors to Herculaneum and Pompeii were chiefly fascinated by the surviving artifacts, excavated from the sites, many of which had been removed from their place of discovery and placed in a series of rooms in the nearby palace at Portici.   These objects of everyday life conveyed an entirely different sense of classical culture – and one seemingly much closer to the present – than that conveyed by the great works of classical civilization, whether textual or in the form of antiquities.   They sat well with the general sense that classical erudition was no longer the sole or even primary vehicle to understanding, but at best an aid to the imaginative reconstruction of the past. Objects – ordinary objects – were more eloquent than texts, and the story that they told was not aesthetic but what we today would call ‘ethnographic’.   As Stendhal put it, before the object “one has the sense of being transported into antiquity, and so long as one has the habit of trusting only one’s eyes, instantly knows it better than any scholar”.   When Winckelmann wrote in 1752? about the household objects found at Herculaneum, he praised them for their beauty and taste, treating them as aesthetic objects.   A half century later the poet and dramatist August Creuze de Lesser preferred the Pompeian “instruments of all the mechanical arts” – “observers cannot get enough of them” – to classical statues.   Twenty years earlier Charles Dupaty, a deputy from the parlement of Bordeaux, contemplating the loaves of bread that had survived since the eruption of AD 79, commented, “We are astonished and delighted that something so perishable (eggs, bread…) has escaped so many centuries after what happened at Herculaneum. We like to see a grain of corn triumph over time just like the bronze statue, and share eternity.”   A young, unidentified American, someone well versed in classical literature and history, who frequently referred to Dupaty in his journal of 1796-7, captured perfectly the shift in sensibility: “In the heroic character of illustrious people one hardly can realize any of their scenes of domestic life. There is a natural curiosity in wishing to see every thing that has been rendered famous by its connection with them but we can’t easily imagine or it does not readily occur that those people have wants & feelings like ourselves. Here in beholding such objects evidently the relics of some great calamity one feels for the sufferings of humanity and the ravages and desolation caused by a destructive conflagration are at once brought to the mind. We may be astonished in viewing the prostrate Columns of Superstitious Grandeur or the fallen monuments of Ancient Magnificence but here the heart is softened and acknowledges its connection with the great family of mankind.” Perhaps, he concluded, “it is the most interesting collection of Antiquities in the world, & enables one to form a juster idea of the arts and sciences, domestic and ornamental of the ancients, & of their customs & manners than the most labored descriptions – indeed, it should be seen, not described.”


It is notable that before the nineteenth century the emphasis of commentators is less on Pompeii (and Herculaneum) as environments – places of living – than on the objects that identified classical civilization as every bit as prosaic and ordinary as modern everyday life. This is partly explained by the early wholesale removal of the highest quality images and artifacts from the sites where they were discovered, a move encouraged by the Neapolitan monarchy’s desire to control its cultural treasures, but also by an attitude that saw the sites as sources of cultural booty, but not of value as historic environments.   But, as Goran Blix puts it in his study of the cultural politics of Pompeian archaeology, this was about to change: “Between 1750 and 1830, Pompeii is transformed from a grave to be robbed into the image of a lost civilization; in the process, a sweeping change has occurred – in the nature of the objects exhumed, in the value attached to the artifacts, and in the gaze of the beholder.”   It took time for this to happen not least because the work of excavation was unsystematic, haphazard, often crude rather than conservationist, and often interrupted because of political conflict or the financial difficulties of the Crown.   Important buildings were unearthed in the 1760s and 1770s – the Porta Ercolano, theatre, Temples of Isis and Escapulus, the house of the Gladiators, house of the surgeon and the house of Diomedes – but it was only in the early nineteenth century that a proper sense of a complete civic environment was revealed. During the French occupation, Caroline Bonaparte, the wife of the King of Naples, Marshal Murat, made clear that she wanted to delimit the perimeter of the city, establish its exact dimensions, name individual dwellings and streets, and establish inventories of dwellings’ contents. As Sir William Gell’s map of 1817 makes clear, such a task remained far from complete, but it turned Pompeii itself into an object of inquiry and interest, and not just a container or hunting ground for antiquities.



The role of architects and archaeologists was vital to this process. In 1809 Queen Caroline employed the French architect, Francois Mazois, to conduct and publish an accurate survey of the city, which eventually appeared as Les Ruines de Pompei, published between 1824 and 1838. Mazois’s magnum opus was only one of a growing number of illustrated books, prints and engravings, that made it altogether much easier to understand Pompeii as a developed urban environment. Jacob Phillip Hackert, the German artist who enjoyed the patronage of the Neapolitan court, and who had painted a number of pictures of Vesuvian eruptions, produced a series of views of Pompeii between 1792 and 1794 that were widely circulated after his brother had engraved them.   Franceso Piranesi published his engravings after his father’s drawings in Antiquities de Pompeia in 1804 (check). In the second decade of the new century, Carl Theodor Muller produced a series of lithographs based on works by the Swiss artist, W.J Hubner, which were published collectively as Collezione di vedute pittoresche dell antica citta di Pompeia. These views became the model for many subsequent prints of Pompeii in the nineteenth century.   By the 1830s there were a number of architectural works, including Pompeiana; the Topography, Edifices and Ornaments of Pompeii, published between 1817 and 1832 by the English antiquary, Sir William Gell, Delineations of the celebrated city of Pompeii (1818), by the engineer James Patison Cockburn and the engraver William Bernard Cooke, and Suite des Vues Pittoresque des Ruines de Pompeii of the architect Henry Wilkins, published in Rome in 1819. After the restoration of the monarchy, French architectural students who won the Grand Prix de Rome, were required to complete a “restauro”, a plausible drawing of how a classical building might once have looked. Pompeii was a favourite subject. In 1824, for example, Felix Emmanuel Callet producing drawings of the forum of Pompeii both in its (imagined) former and present state.



Félix-Emmanuel Callet, Comparison between ruins and reconstructive hypotese of the Forum, 1823.


The effect of these architectural and archaeological investigations, many using such technologies as the camera lucida, was twofold. Their publication enabled both visitors and those at a distance, those who had never seen Pompeii, to imagine the city as a whole, an ensemble of streets and buildings that had once been a living urban environment. As the Russian poet, Konstantin Nikolaevic Batyushkov, remarked after his visit to Naples in 1819 (he made four trips to Pompeii and two to Vesuvius), Pompeii was the “cemetery of an entire city”, and not just a set of ruins. This vision was very much enhanced by the practice, in the manner of Callet, of accompanying detailed drawings of buildings and streets with imagined versions of them prior to the eruption of AD 79, scenes that included the presence of Romans going about their daily business. As Blix puts it: “The major publications of engravings from Pompeii testify to the instant and un- canny character of archaeological resurrection: Saint-Non, Francois Mazois, William Gell and [much later] Carl Weichardt all drew sumptuous recreations right beside their drawings of the actual ruins.”


Temple of Isis.

The sense that Pompeii was the cultural artifact, rather than the objects within it, underpinned both the increasingly frequent complaints about the removal of findings from the site, and the competing suggestion that the city should become a museum in its own right. Pompeii became a sort of microcosm of the ancient world: Bulwer Lytton’s sententious description in his best-selling novel, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) captures what had become a cliché:

Pompeii was the miniature of the civilization of that age. Within the narrow compass of its walls was contained, as it were, a specimen of every gift which luxury offered to power. In its minute but glittering shops, its tiny palaces, its baths, its forum, its theatre, its circus – in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice, of its people, you beheld a model of the whole empire. It was a toy, a plaything, a showbox, in which the gods seemed pleased to keep the representation of the great monarchy of earth, and which they afterwards hid from time, to give to the wonder of posterity”.


The view that the integrity of the buried cities should be maintained dated back to the critics of the early excavations (and removals) from Herculaneum. As early as 1739 Charles de Brosse had written to a friend that “by excavating and leaving everything in place, the city would become an unequalled museum”, a thought that at that point was nothing more than a fantasy.   But, from the 1760s, when the scope of Pompeii became increasingly apparent, there were more frequent calls for conservation by antiquaries like Sir William Hamilton.   In the 1770s, Dr John Moore suggested that Pompeian houses should be fully reconstructed and have their roofs restored. Such longings – for such they were – were even more frequent in the nineteenth century.   Chateaubriand had complained in 1826 about the removal of ordinary things from Pompeii, saying that if they remained in situ they would comprise a museum “della vita privata del populo romano”.   Few however, went as far as J.M. La Riche, author of Vues des Monuments antiques de Naples (1827), who suggested that local people should dress in antique costume in return for being housed in restored Pompeian buildings, or as Louise Colet, the writer and lover of Flaubert, who suggested that the entire city should be covered with a huge glass dome, somewhat in the manner of the Crystal Palace. Nevertheless at least one English genteel tourist was reported as having spent several days, dressed in Roman costume, staying in one of Pompeii’s less dilapidated buildings.























Fragonard, Travellers viewing a skeleton at Pompeii, 1775.


But if what we have been describing is a living antiquity – a world of utensils and furnishings, mundane activities such as cooking, drinking, eating and selling, of work and leisure – into which viewers and visitors could project themselves through a process of recognition of what was familiar (in more senses than one), Pompeii was also, superabundantly, a place of death.   By the early nineteenth century, the number of bodies/skeletons of Vesuvius’s victims that had been recovered in Herculaneum was relatively small (the large number of bodies on the beach at Herculaneum were only discovered in the 1970s).   The body count in Pompeii was much, much higher. In the 1760s and 1770s, new excavations there led to the discovery of bodies on a variety of sites – in the gladiators’ barracks, the Temple of Isis, the Villa of Diomedes – that attracted international attention. As Andrew Wallace Hadrill has explained, this was also the moment at which, for a variety of reasons, there was a decisive shift in the pattern of interest, away from the buried city of Herculaneum, which had revealed such spectacular hidden treasures, and towards Pompeii, whose more easily uncovered remains exposed the life and death of antiquity. As he memorably puts it: “The memory of Herculaneum was buried, with its backfilled tunnels; now Pompeii was the place to let the imagination run riot. Instead of dark tunnels and charred timbers, the visitor could meet ancient life” – and, we might add, death.(378) [1]


The discovery in 1766 of what proved to be the gladiators’ quarters, with a cache of arms, thirty-four bodies, including several women with jewelry, and four men with their legs manacled to the floor, sparked a fascination with their fate. The Emperor Joseph II’s stage-managed visit to Pompeii in April 1769, which involved the (re)exhumation of a female skeleton in an underground room in the quarters, subsequently named after the Emperor, was symptomatic of a new interest in human remains, whether skeletons, such as those found in the gladiators’ barracks, or human impressions in the volcanic ash. Examining the female skeleton, Joseph purportedly “for a long time…stood reflectively before these tokens of an intense human drama” (A Recover.174).   The wealthy French tax farmer, Bergeret de Grancourt, visiting the same spot several years later, wrote, “in the room downstairs where they must have done the washing, we could see all the implements, the stove, the washtub etc….and a heap of volcanic ash upon which rested the skeleton of a woman, as if, having tried to escape from the choking ashes coming in from all sides, she had finally fallen backwards and died.”


These remains were, I believe, the first to be the subject of a sententious narrative, appropriately written by Sir William Hamilton.   In his account of these discoveries, sent in a letter to the Society of Antiquaries in London, and published as Account of the Discoveries at Pompeii in 1777, Hamilton writes of the washerwoman (he has ascribed this identity to her solely on the basis of her presence in the room) as waiting “for death with calm resignation, and true Roman fortitude, as the attitude of the skeleton really seems to indicate”.   He goes on to add, “It was at my instigation that the bones were left untouched on the spot where they were found”.   Hamilton’s concern to have the scene remain in tact is as much about preserving the story he has constructed as it is about the conservation of the room.


Between 1771 and 1774 at the suburban villa usually referred to as the Villa of Diomedes, a further large group of skeletons was found – more than twenty women and children in the cellar, as well as a male figure under the portico surrounding the garden, holding a key and a lot of coins, and who was quickly identified (on the basis of the keys) as Diomedes.   Francesco La Vega, the director of the excavations, cut and removed from the cellar several of the impressions of human forms in the lava that were transferred to the museum at Portici. The bones remained, many of them stolen by later visitors.   But one set of impressions, though they no longer survive, had a lasting effect on the narrativization of Pompeii. Charles Dupaty described the fragments as follows: “one [impression] represents half of her bosom, which is of exquisite beauty; another, a shoulder, a third a portion of her shape, and all concur in revealing to us that this woman was young, and that she was tall and well made, and even that she escaped in her shift; for some pieces of linen are still adhering to the ashes.” (Ant Recov.175) Admired by many male visitors including Chateaubriand (1804), this fragment inspired Gautier to write his novella of necrophilic fetishism, Arria Marcella (1852), in which a young man falls in love with the impression of the hip and bosom of a Pompeiian victim from the Villa of Diomedes.[2]


It was not until the 1860s that the practice of making plaster of Paris casts of the victims became common, and thereby revealed their death agonies in all their vivid enormity, but from the beginning the remains made more and more visitors conscious of the terrible details of human suffering. In a report to the Royal Society in 1795, William Hamilton wrote of one skeleton: “having engaged the men that were digging to take off the piece of hardened tufo, that covered the head, with great care, and, as in a mold just taken off in plaster of Paris, we found the impression of the eyes, that were shut, of the nose, mouth and of every feature perfectly distinct”.   These fragile impressions, though they often crumbled to dust, had a more powerful effect than the skeletons themselves and prefigured the famous plaster of Paris casts made by Fiorelli after the Risorgimento.


The skeletons, the impressions in the ash which revealed the death agonizes of the volcanoes victims – all apparently so striking, so intimate and shockingly revealing of the feelings of those who died centuries earlier, profoundly affected how visitors saw the volcano and their presence under its shadow, exciting a deep sense of sympathy and compassion for these ancient victims.  As Harriet Dennison wrote in her journal in 1816: “what an awful scene it must have been! The very thought of what the people must have suffered makes one shudder”.   She was echoing the sentiments of many others. Dr John Moore remarked, “It is impossible to view these skeletons, and reflect on this dreadful catastrophe, without horror and compassion”, a sympathy that was reinforced by evidence that the volcano’s victims were not just the heroes of classical antiquity, like the Elder Pliny, but ordinary citizens going about their everyday activities – working, baking bread, attending the theatre – before they were immolated in the sudden eruption.


This sense of identification reinforced an awareness that, though the volcano might now be an obligingly incandescent object of sublime taste, it would one day again exercise its unstoppable capacity for destruction: what happened in AD 79 would certainly happen again.   The excavation of the past revealed an impending future, binding together the visitor and the volcano’s victims.   Jane Home, daughter of a West Indian planter, the wife of the future Lord Wedderburn, wrote that “From the top [of Vesuvius] there is the most heavenly prospect of the Campagna Felice, but one is struck with horror to see what beautys what fertile plains Vesuvius has yet to destroy when one sees in the heart of these rich Meddows streams of antient Lava – upon the whole it is more dreadful than pleasing to see”. Mrs Piozzi made the connection explicit: “How dreadful are the thoughts which such a sight suggests! How very horrible the certainty, that such a scene might be all acted over again tomorrow; and that, who today are spectators, may become spectacles for traveler s of a succeeding century, who mistaking our bones for those of the Neapolitans, may carry some of them to their native country back again perhaps.” There was a growing sense even among the most transitory of visitors that in contemplating both the volcano and its classical victims, they were contemplating the inescapable fact of their own mortality. Vesuvius, as Lady Blessington remarked, was “like a sleeping giant in grim repose, whose awakening, all dread”.


  1. Dialogue with the Dead: Vesuvius and the buried cities, depiction and narration



Before the French revolution, most of the bodies found at Pompeii were viewed with a mixture of sympathy and horror.   The story in which they were placed was one of victim-hood and loss.   But in the early nineteenth century, commentators began to embellish on the findings of artifacts and human remains constructing narratives about the circumstances of the eruption in AD 79 and sententious stories about the lives of the victims.   They were helped by the paucity of surviving accounts of the events of AD79. In effect all that most narratives could draw on were the two famous letters written twenty five years after the eruption by the younger Pliny to the historian Tacitus, accounts that focused on the death of his uncle, the elder Pliny. But in the era after the fall of Napoleon, there began a veritable orgy of storytelling about Pompeii.   As Jon Seydl puts it in his rehearsal of the events of the 1820s that contributed to what he calls “the Last Days phenomenon”, “This sequence of events should not be understood as a teleological chain of influence as much as a cascading cultural shift in which accounts of Pompeii move from a focus on mass destruction to more particularized stories that culminate in the cataclysm.” It is striking how discoveries made in the 1760s and 1770s only receive the full narrative treatment after 1815. Only in the Eighteen-teens did the presence of a female skeleton in the gladiators’ barracks spawn a story of a lover’s tryst.   Similarly the remains at the Temple of Isis became a story about priests sharing a final meal, and one of them seeking to hack his way to escape with an axe.   Most famously, a small niche on the left exterior side of the Porta Ercolano, first excavated in 1763, had become, according to Mariana Starke in 1802, “the sentry box of the guard”, where, according to Sir William Gell in his Pompeiana (1817-19), “was found a human skeleton, of which the hand still grasped a lance. Conjecture has imagined this the remains of a sentinel, who preferred dying on his post to quitting it for a more ignominious death, which, in conformity with the severe discipline of his country, would have awaited him.” Ant.Rec.141   The original record of the excavation of the gate makes not mention of any skeleton, and from a very early date the niche was identified as a tomb or altar, but by the early nineteenth century and for the following forty years, the story of the soldier rooted to his post was to remain one of the most frequently told stories of the last days of Pompeii.


As several commentators have noticed, in the early nineteenth century it became comparatively unusual to see the sorts of representation of contemporary volcanic eruptions produced by Volaire and his Enlightenment colleagues in major exhibitions and collections.   Such depictions lived on as tourist souvenirs and as part of the portfolio of many local Neapolitan artists such as those of the Posillipo school, but, as Nicholas Daly has pointed out, “many representations…focus less on the spectacle of the volcano per se, and more on the collision of the volcano with humanity, and the moment of destruction and preservation.”   In fact there is a marked shift away from the depiction of contemporary eruptions and towards the portrayal of the historic eruption of AD 79.   This is partly explained, of course, by the progress of the excavations of the buried cities and the richness of their findings, but this, of itself, cannot explain the shift.   When the largest eruption of the nineteenth century took place in 1822, it was used in London to promote Burford’s panorama of Vesuvius and Pompeii, not the contemporary explosion. The same was true of the Vauxhall Gardens transparency of the following year, and of John Martin’s huge canvas at the Egyptian Hall depicting the Destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii exhibited in the Egyptian Hall in 1822.


In this explosion of Vesuviana, across a whole variety of media, the volcano became not the prime object of interest but a sort of deus ex machina in a moral tale or fable.   Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1835) remains the best known of series of literary works that included Thomas Babington Macaulay’s prize winning poem Pompeii (1819), Edwin Atherstone’s verses, The Last Days of Herculaneum (1821), Thomas Gray’s novel, The Vestal, or a Tale of Pompeii (1830), and the American, Sumner Lincoln Fairchild’s lengthy and lurid The Last Night of Pompeii (1832).   But the last days and their tales of woe and misfortune were also a favoured topic of academic painting.



In 1812 the skeletons of a woman and three small children were discovered, together with a quantity of jewelry, near the Mammia tomb.   Joseph Franque, a French painter living in Naples, recreated the moments before their death in his Scene During the Eruption of Vesuvius exhibited at the Paris Salon in March 1828.   The painting was based on an elaborate report of the find by the French antiquary, Aubin-Louis Millin, who combined breathless narrativising with a detailed description of the artifacts found at the site:


“A mother fled, dragging after her a part of her family: two daughters, and an infant whom she clutched in vain against her breast. There was no longer any hope; still gasping for breath in the midst of swirling clouds of burning cinders, and pressing against the walls of the portico, they fell exhausted by fatigue and suffering. The ash covered them, burying them all in the same tomb; their remains were mingled, and almost indistinguishable from one another. One could almost see this unfortunate family embracing one another in their last breath”.   Franque’s painting is a characteristic mix of accuracy and licence. The jewelry precisely follows the excavation report, for example, representing a curled serpent’s ring on the daughter’s right hand, but it places the family in a chariot rather than an alcove, and adds a mirror, chest and lyre, signs of wealth but also vanitas symbols.


Franque was a Professor in the Academia dell Belli Arte in Naples, and it is possible that his painting, which was completed in 1826, was seen by a young Russian artist, Karl Briullov, who was to produce what became the most famous of all the visual representations of Pompeii’s final days, The Last day of Pompeii, painted between 1827 and 1833.   Briullov had come to Naples with his brother, Alexander, who was trained as an architect and had an abiding passion for Pompeii. The two, like many artists before them, had been sent to Italy on scholarships – in this case awarded by the St.Petersburg based Society for the Encouragement of Artists – for a four year visit to the peninsula. Karl, willful, brilliant and supremely talented, had been the star pupil at the St. Petersburg Academy, showered with medals and prizes, but had quarreled with its Director. Together with Alexander, he turned to the recently founded Society, which was not an Academy with fixed rules, but a body of the great and good (including patrons and collectors) who wished to encourage the arts in Russia. The brothers had arrived in Rome in May 1823.


At first, Karl followed the usual path of an artist visiting Italy: he copied Old Masters – though few were so ambitious as to take as their model Raphael’s School of Athens – he worked on a couple of history paintings, but he also executed a number of private commissions, chiefly genre paintings and sketches of Neapolitan life that he sent back to clients in Russia.   But his ambitions changed in 1827. In that year he resigned his stipend from the Society, which had grumbled about the content of his picture, Italian Midday, the portrayal of a voluptuous, vivacious and smiling peasant woman admiring a bunch of grapes she appears to have plucked from a vine. “The aim of any artist”, they wrote to him, “should be to portray a model with gracious proportions whereas your model could not be considered gracious since she belongs to the lower class.”   (They had not complained about his Italian Morning, which had portrayed an altogether more patrician and classical (though bare-breasted) woman at her morning toilet.)   Karl was able to forego their stipend and dismiss their complaints as a plea for empty uniformity because in 1827 he met the extremely beautiful, very rich, notorious heart-breaker, Countess Yulia Samoilova, who, whether or not she was his lover, became his admirer, muse, and patron, funding and fuelling what became a powerful mutual attachment.   She accompanied the two brothers to Naples in 1827, though there is no evidence that she climbed the volcano.


Alexander Briullov, Bivouack on Vesuvius, 1824.



The sources of Karl’s fascination with Vesuvius and Pompeii are hard to disentangle.   His brother was one obvious influence – he had sketched out a restoration scheme for Pompeiian baths as early as 1826, had certainly visited the city before his trip with his brother, and is known to have excited Karl’s interest with descriptions of the archaeological site.   There is some suggestion – in the form of surviving sketches, supposedly dated to 1824 – that the brothers may even have been together in Naples and on Vesuvius, shortly after their arrival in Italy. Briullov had also seen in Florence a performance of Giovanni Pacini’s opera, L’Ultimo Giorno di Pompei, whose spectacular climax included a reenactment of the eruption of AD 79 with vivid visual effects, and temples and buildings that crashed onto the stage.[3] Possibly it was after this performance that Count Anatole Demidov, the rich Russian industrialist and art collector who lived for much of the time in Florence, commissioned Karl to produce a Pompeiian picture.   Whatever its origin, Karl’s interest in the subject quickly developed into an obsession.   He spent the next six years working on the painting, producing his first sketches in 1827, studying documents and artifacts in Naples museums before beginning the painting itself in 1830.   The huge canvas – approximately 15 x 21 feet (456.5x 651) was first exhibited in Rome, and then in Milan, where it was seen by the British writer, Bulwer Lytton, and Paris, where it won the Salon’s First Gold Medal, before reaching its destination, St Petersburg, in August 1834.




Briullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii was a triumph: it excited the praise of Italian and Russian critics (the French were lukewarm), gained him election to the academies of Bologna, Milan and Florence, and the praise of the public who crowded to see the canvas when it was publicly displayed.   For Nicolai Gogol, Briullov’s painting was “one of the most brilliant phenomena of the nineteenth century”; Sir Walter Scott, “having contemplated it in silence for more than an hour” declared it an “epic in colours”. The painting made Briullov’s reputation – the Tsar summoned him back to Russia to be Professor of Painting at St Petersburg – but it also marked his apogee.   Profoundly depressed after its completion, he never again created a history painting that either satisfied him or commanded the same sort of public success.   He spent years on a large painting of The Siege of Pskov, a patriotic history painting, but abandoned work on it in 1843. Back in Russian he became a fashionable portrait-painter, a caricaturist, and an habitué of literary, musical and artistic circles, but never really fulfilled his earlier promise as a history painter.   In 1849 he left Russia for good, spending his last three years chiefly in Italy, producing portraits and the many genre scenes that seem to have been his special passion.


The power and effect of Briullov’s painting in part derives from its size, but also, as Gogol observed in an essay devoted to the picture, from its composition and illumination.   The early sketches for the composition are far more compressed, the space of the figures far more confined, than in the final version of the painting. Briullov stretched the space occupied by the figures, opened up the sky by pushing back the tumbling buildings, and made the whole into a series of brilliantly illuminated vignettes, each of which, although they contributed to the whole, could be viewed or read as discrete representations with their own story and moral.   On the right we can see the younger Pliny pleading with his mother to escape the city (Briullov has transposed the scene from Misenum to Pompeii itself); next to them two young men, one a soldier, carrying a man, presumably their father, in a desperate attempt to take him to safety (some have suggested that the figure represents the Elder Pliny); in the lower centre lies a dead mother with her child, while close by is an open bundle of her scattered possessions, including a key and a mirror; above her, a pagan priest looks back towards the volcano, his left arm wrapped around his possessions. On the left of the canvas is a Christian priest and close by him, a mother and her two children.   On the steps of the tomb to the left (the painting is aptly set in the Via dei Sepolcri), surrounded by panic-stricken figures, we can see the head of Briullov himself, and above him a box containing paints, brushes and a palette.  The painting is full of allusions to figures and poses derived from Raphael, Poussin and classical sculpture, deliberately placing its creator within a long classical tradition, but it also connects the antique and the present, not only in the figure of Briullov himself, but in several female figures whose faces are those of his beautiful patron, Yulia Samoilova.


Some scholars have placed Briullov’s painting in the context of what has been termed ‘the school of catastrophe’, the effloresce of writing and painting in the 1820s depicting epic disasters from classical and Biblical history. Works by J.M.W. Turner, John Martin, and Francis Danby of the plagues of Egypt, the Deluge, the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and of the apocalypse, portrayed all-powerful natural forces overwhelming a sea of stricken humanity. No doubt Briullov’s picture fits into this pattern, but it was also different. As Gogol pointed out, when he contrasted Briullov’s painting to Belschazzar’s Feast (1820), and The Fall of Nineveh (1829), works by the English artist, John Martin, “in which great catastrophes are presented in fearsome grandeur”, The Last Day of Pompeii combined epic scale with an intimacy that could not be felt in the British pictures: “The overall impression from these [English] pictures is striking and is full of an exceptional unity; but…They are like distant views; they only convey a general impression. We are aware of the terrible position of the crowd, but we cannot see the person on whose face would be expressed the full horror of the destruction that he himself is witnessing.”   Turning back to Briullov, Gogol concluded that, “the concept that is here presented to us in distant perspective is suddenly placed full-square before our eyes by Briullov…and we ourselves seem to be caught up in its world.” These sentiments are echoed in the words of another of Briullov’s commentators, Bulwer Lytton, whose novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, may well have been inspired by viewing Briullov’s picture in Milan. “This picture is full of genius, imagination and nature. The faces are fine, the conception grand…the most natural touch is an infant in its mother’s arms: – her face impressed with a dismay and terror which partake of the sublime; the child wholly unconscious of the dead event – stretching its arms toward a bird of gay plumage that lies upon the ground struggling in death, and all the child’s gay delighted wonder is pictured in its face. This exception to the general horror is full of pathos, and is the true contrast of fine thought.” Lytton seems to have misremembered the scene, or to have viewed a version that was later altered – in the extant verison of the picture the mother lies dead, the child looks stricken, there is no bird – but the overall effect is clear; catastrophe is rendered domestic and intimate, and therefore all the more touching.


This is why, in Gogol’s crucial phrase, we are not so much outside observers of the scene; rather “we ourselves seem to be caught up in this world”.   Briullov represents a very specific time and place – 24 August AD 79, the via dei sepolcri outside the gates of Pompeii – and, like other painters of the catastrophic school, goes to considerable lengths to secure a degree of historical accuracy – his figures refer to particular skeletons found in the city, the tombs and artifacts match surviving objects – but it is the sense that we share in, or are a part of this disastrous scene that is vital to its power.   This requires not only a sympathetic attachment to the inhabitants of the ancient world, but also a sense that the viewer’s future might also involve catastrophic misfortune.   At the very simplest level we might think of such identification as an awareness of human frailty and mortality, a reminder – like the mirror, a vanitas symbol that lies at the bottom centre of the painting – of the brief and transitory nature of human life.   But, and here Briullov is far from alone, it is the sense of the precipitous, sudden and violent intervention of an unstoppable force, its brutal intrusion into the rhythms and patterns of everyday life, that make this event so terrifying. Briullov renders graphically what the narrator in Madame De Stael’s novel Corinne finds so shocking: “everything…is preserved in a frightening way…The amphorae are still prepared for the next day’s banquet; the flour that was going to be kneaded is still there…Nowhere else can be seen so striking a picture of the interruption of life.”[4] (Bk 11, ch.4, 198-9). It is not just about death, but about a particular sort of death, one that seems to entail the destruction not just of individuals, but the obliteration of the very fabric of life – of kin and family, work and play, and of religious faith. It is this that makes the buildings and artefacts of Pompeii, in Constanze Baum’s happy phrase, ruins of suddenness rather than ruins of duration; there is none of that gentle erosion and decay we might associate with the sublime Roman ruins depicted by Piranesi, just violent and savage destruction.   So, if, on the one hand, the viewers of Briullov’s painting needed to understand the classical world as akin to their own – a view largely fashioned through the excavations of the destroyed cities – they also needed a sense – not uncommon in the age of Revolutions – that massive destructive change was an experience that they might have to endure.   The young future Russian socialist, Alexander Herzen, saw the force of the Vesuvian eruption depicted by Briullov as analogous to the unstoppable absolute power of the Russian Tsar over his people: “On an enormous canvas the crowds closely packed, terrified people, in disorder, trying vainly to save their lives…they will perish under the force of a wild, senseless, merciless power…against which any resistance is futile. The inspiration for this force Briullov took from St Petersburg”. Such analogies between natural and political force were, as we have seen, common in the early nineteenth century, though they more usually referred to the powers launched by the French Revolution.


Vesuvius was important, not as a modern sublime spectacle but as both the destroyer and conservator of a classical world. What are we to make of the extraordinary proliferation of narratives and moral vignettes about the destruction of Pompeii?   A great many of the stories – whether Gray’s or Bulwer Lytton’s novels or the verses of Fairchild – depict the eruption of AD 79 as providential punishment for the sins of Pompeii: a city of slavery, greed, luxury and debauchery, a pagan, polytheistic culture given to sexual excess.   This providentialist narrative is one that links such depictions to catastrophes depicted in the Bible, and rendered so vividly by the likes of John Martin, JMW Turner and Francis Danby: the fall of Nineveh, Belshazzar’s Feast, the plagues of Egypt, and the destruction of Sodom.   Thus Fairfield in his The Last Night of Pompeii claims that we should feel “little regret and less astonishment at the terrible overthrow of cities as excessive and not so venial in their crimes as Gomorrah”. Lytton follows suit: as the volcano showers the city, a Christian cries, “Behold! The Lord descendeth to judgment! He maketh fire come down from heaven in the sight of men! Woe! woe! Ye strong and mighty! … Woe to the idolater and the worshipper of the beast!   Woe to ye who pour forth the blood of saints, and gloat over the death-pangs of the sons of God!”   Pompeii is sin city.


This connection is made even more explicit by the importation – for which there is no historical evidence – of Christians into these Pompeiian narratives. Repeatedly Christians are portrayed as victims – of pagan priests, or imperial persecution, or abstract injustices, rescued, like other virtuous characters, at the very last minute by the action – the eruption – of the Volcano. Glaucus avoids death in the amphitheatre in Bulwer Lytton, the innocent virgin avoids rape by the priest of Isis in Fairchild; the virtuous wife in L’Ultimo Giorno di Pompei is spared from being buried alive.   The volcano does not just chastise the wicked; it also aids the virtuous and Christian.   Even when it causes their death, as in Briullov’s painting or Gray’s novel, it shows them as having the sorts of virtue that will grant them ultimate salvation.   We are presented with antithetical views of life, crudely associated with stock characters: the cruel and sexually predatory pagan priest, memorably Arbaces in Bulwer Lytton; the miser scrambling for gold on the ground or hugging his riches to his chest (see Briullov); the cowardly pagan – all these contrasted with the mother seeking to protect her child, the children seeking to protect elderly parents, or the loving couple holding one another in their arms.   Destruction is the result of pagan sin; the embrace of Christianity offers redemption and a future. A certain Christian view has, then, in the 1820s high-jacked the volcano and the city of the dead.


But there was also something else going on in these narratives of Pompeii. For if Vesuvius represents a destructive force, there is also way in which the recuperation of the buried cities constitutes a sort of resurrection, a triumph not only over the forces of revolution, but an occasion for the assertion of continuity, of historical survival in the face of terrible forces. The language of resurrection, survival, and continuity was used repeatedly, sometimes before the aftermath of the French revolution, but much more frequently thereafter. Charles Dupaty talks of the “triumph over time” of a grain of corn at Herculaneum; a generation later, Felicia Hemans, in her verse on the mold of a mother and child, exclaims:


“Oh! I could pass all relics/ Left by the pomps of old,/ To gaze on this rude monument,/ Cast in affections mold./ Love, human love! What art thou/ Thy print upon the dust/ Outlives the cities of renown/ Wherein the mighty trust!”


In quite a common image, Thomas Gray in The Vestal compares Pompeii to the story of sleeping beauty, a beautiful creature in slumber waiting to be awakened not with a prince’s kiss, but by the shovel of the archaeologist. Gautier’s novella, Arria Marcella, is also about the effect in the present of something from the distant past –

“the curve of a breast has survived through the centuries when so many empires have vanished without leaving a trace”. Human flesh triumphs over the lava and ash that destroyed it.   For Bulwer what survives is not flesh but the Christian soul. At the end of The Last Days, Glaucus, writing of his conversion to Christianity, asserts, “We know that we are united in the soul, as in the flesh, for ever and ever!   Ages may roll on, our very dust be dissolved, the earth shrivelled like a scroll; but round and round the circle of eternity rolls the wheel of life – imperishable – unceasing!”    Goran Blix, in his study of the politics of archaeology perfectly captures the appeal of Pompeii in the early nineteenth century: “this city embodied a contradiction that lay at the heart of archaeology’s power of enchantment: it had been abruptly annihilated and just as suddenly resurrected, and this stark contrast of violence and redemption provided an irresistible melodramatic script for the comprehension of history; while conceding that history was a violent process that littered the past with vibrant cultures, it also dissociated ruin and amnesia and suggested that lost worlds might leave imperishable traces. Loss and memory were cemented into a single felicitous narrative at Pompeii.”


The frieze that adorned Berlin’s Neues Museum when it opened in 1855 encapsulates these stories about Pompeii.   Executed by the sculptor, Hermann Schievelbein, it portrays the destruction of the ancient city, drawing directly on Briullov and Bulwer rather than on the historical record.   But Pompeii is not just an end, it is also a point of origin, a beginning, portrayed both by the line of Christians retreating from the city, and the group of Pompeiians who, having fled the town with numerous artefacts, present them to the architect of the Museum, Friedrich Andreas Stuler, and its first Director, Ignaz von Olfers.   The place of the frieze, between ancient and more recent works of art, establishes it as a link in a historic chain of development in which the Christian era succeeds that of the ancient world.   The presence of Christians in the destruction of Pompeii, here as elsewhere, was vital to the themes of resurrection and historical continuity, while the gifts to Stuler and Olfers underline the importance of the museum as a conservator of the past.






VII Virtual Vesuvius: the volcano goes viral.


When the Duke of Buckingham visited Naples in 1828 he witnessed two eruptions of Vesuvius. The first occurred on the mountain itself, the second took place in the famous opera house of San Carlo in Naples at the end of a performance of Pacini’s Il Ultimo Giorno di Pompei, “the last scene of which”, the Duke recorded in his journal, “is a beautiful representation of the eruption of Vesuvius, taken from the life”.   Buckingham’s experience was in no way unusual; by the middle of the nineteenth century, there had been hundreds of re-enactments of volcanic eruptions, and especially of the eruption of AD 79, staged in a variety of media across Europe.   Such large-scale spectacles were performed frequently in London and Paris, but also in Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and New York. Major eruptions produced clusters of these events, as in 1779, 1805, 1822 and 1835.   At a time when entrepreneurs of spectacle were experimenting with new media in the context of the theatre and the public lecture room, as well as creating entirely new ways of representing nature, such as the panorama and diorama, versions of Vesuvius and Pompeii were one of Europe’s greatest visual attractions.


On the one hand, these shows drew on the use of spectacle in the many scientific lectures that were popular throughout Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Humphry Davy, long before he had actually seen a volcano in action, ended his lectures on geology, first in delivered in 1805 at the Royal Institution, with a simulated eruption. “I remember with delight”, one spectator remarked, “the beautiful illustration of his theory exhibited in an artificial volcano constructed in the theatre of the Royal Institution. A mountain had been modeled in clay, and a quantity of the metallic bases introduced into its interior; on water being poured on it, the metals were soon thrown into violent action – successive explosions followed – red hot lava was seen flowing down its sides, from a crater in miniature – mimic lightnings played around, and in the instant of dramatic illusion, the tumultuous applause and continued cheering of the audience might almost have been regarded as the shouts of alarmed fugitives of Herculaneum and Pompeii”.   This was not the only working model on show in London that year. A M. Du Bourg used a model of Vesuvius with a nightly eruption of lava to promote the sale of his cork models of classical buildings at the Crown and Anchor on the Strand, and the so-called London Museum opened its doors with a Vesuvian eruption. These simulations, held in doors, were soon eclipsed by outdoor eruptions of a large scale, such as those held in Vauxhall Gardens during the seasons of 1823 and 1826 and at the Surrey Zoological gardens during the summers of the 1830s and 1840s.   Some of these used illuminated transparencies that were shown at night, but others were huge pyrotechnic displays that normally ended an evening’s entertainment. By the 1830s these events had spread to the provinces, staged in Southampton, Liverpool, Hull, as well as in Dublin and Edinburgh.


Vesuvius also proved a popular subject matter for the panorama, a 360 degree immersive representation which was invented by the Scottish artist, Robert Barker, who opened the world’s first dedicated panorama building in Leicester Place in 1793.   By the early nineteenth century there were panoramas in almost every European capital. Their versions of Vesuvius almost invariably refrained from representing contemporary eruptions (even though their occurrence helped stimulate interest in the volcano); Robert Burford, the partner of the Barker family, staged Vesuvian panoramas in 1822, 1824, 1825, and 1848, all of which took the classical eruption and the ruins of Pompeii as their subject matter. The performances in the pleasure gardens similarly referred explicitly to AD 79.


The problem for the panorama, as a visual device, was that it (comprehensively) represented a single moment in time.; it was static.   The use of natural top lighting to illuminate the image gave the viewer a certain sense of temporal change, but what was seen lacked the verisimilitude conveyed by motion – not just temporal change but change through time.   This problem, eventually solved as we shall see by ‘moving panoramas’, huge, lengthy canvasses that were rolled past a stationary audience, was in the first instance addressed by artists in the theatre, scene painters who experimented with a mixture of mechanical and optical devices to simulate motion and the passage of time.


Philippe De Loutherbourg, a French academician who was employed by the actor and theatre manager, David Garrick, as a scene painter at Drury Lane theatre, was the most innovative stage set designer of the period, using coloured lantern slides, Argand lamps and transparencies to create unprecedented effects. He went on to develop the so-called Eidophusikon, a machine that, through the use of back-lit scenery, semi-transparent colours on strips of linen, models, and special light effects, together with “a winding machine” was able to simulate motion and movement through time.  De Loutherbourg is, of course, credited (or condemned as) the person who transformed London staging, enveloping actors in a complex machinery of scenery and illusion that achieved unprecedented verisimilitude.   His innovations were largely responsible for the transformation of the nineteenth-century theatre with its preference “for show over sentiment”, and for the importance (reflected in salaries and the attention they received on playbills) of artists, like Clarkson Stanfield, who staffed ‘the spectacle departments’ of theatres in London and Paris.   The techniques that he mastered were behind the Dioramas opened in Paris and London by Louis Daguerre and Karl Gropius (both scene painters) in Berlin, though the diorama relied on the manipulation of natural rather than artificial light.   By the 1830s it was commonplace to end performances of Pacini’s Ultimo giorno di Pompei and Daniel Auber’s grand opera La Muette de Portici, both fequently performed works throughout Europe, with a grand finale featuring a Vesuvian eruption. Pixerecourt’s drama Tete de Mort ou les ruines de Pompeii, enjoyed one hundred and sixteen consecutive performances in Paris in 1827-8, every one of which ended with an eruption that completely engulfed the stage.


By the 1850s rival moving panoramas, sometimes called cycloramas, offered their visitors a tour through Europe that culminated with a trip to Vesuvius.   Reichardt’s Tour of Europe shown in London’s Baker Street took two hours to scroll through 30,000 feet of canvas, travelling “one thousand miles in less than two hours”, before arriving at the volcano.   The rival “Gigantic moving panorama of Europe” mounted by the American J.R. Smith, concluded with “the ascent of Vesuvius; interior of the crater; eruption of Vesuvius”; it also enabled spectators “to assist” at the excavations at Pompeii.


These extravagant displays of Vesuvius and Pompeii were part of the commodification of the sublime in the early nineteenth century.   They sold the experience of shock and awe, the feeling that visitors had experienced on the slopes of Vesuvius, for a fee, placing their customers in the comfort and familiarity of theatres, dioramas, panoramas and pleasure gardens.   They tamed nature, freed viewers of the dangers and discomforts that many Vesuvian visitors experienced, but they did so by creating a visual experience whose effect depended upon its realism.   The claim was repeatedly made by the creators of these sensational simulacra that the dress of the Pompeiians, the jewelry they wore and the implements they carried, like the devastation of the volcano itself, were rendered with such detail and accuracy as to persuade the viewer that they were present – immersed in the experience of volcanic destruction. Panorama artists claimed to have made their drawings from “the very spot” where the action occurred (Robert Burford was on Vesuvius in 1828 making drawings for a new panorama); catalogues supplied with such exhibitions referred to the researches of antiquarians like Sir William Gell, and to the last findings from excavations.   No lesser authority than Alexander von Humboldt conceded that the panorama was “almost substitute for traveling through different climes. The paintings on all sides evoke more than theatrical scenery is capable of because the spectator, captivated and transfixed as in a magic circle and removed from distracting reality, believes himself to be really surrounded by foreign nature”.


But the ‘shock of the real’ was despised by many critics, artists and writers, for precisely those qualities of verisimilitude that excited its spectators.   John Constable dismissed the Diorama as “without the pale of art as its object is deception”. For romantics like Coleridge and Wordsworth, the hyper-realism of these new forms of representation – what they both called “the tyranny of the eye” – crushed reflection, overpowered with their immediacy, and were hostile to what they most valued – the power of the imagination. Violett-le-Duc condemned Daguerre’s invention because “the diorama stinks of the machine”.


The sense that these new realist technologies were a juggernaught that rode over the sensibilities of the artist and the aesthete was well founded, but failed to recognize the shifts in audience and purpose they embodied. The object of these spectacles (at least ostensibly and in the publicity that surrounded them) was not aesthetic but didactic – not pleasure but knowledge – hence the importance of accurate detail and clear delineation.   They were not intended for the art connoisseur, the sort of patron who had commissioned Volaire’s Vesuvian landscapes, but for a less affluent, more bourgeois audience made up of families, and therefore of women and children. At the same time, such spectacles used new techniques to capture their viewers. As Tom Gunning, who describes these events as “attractions”, emphasizes, they involved “direct stimulation and shock of display, the inciting of visual curiosity and pleasure, and the solicitation of attention through surprise and astonishment”.  It was this combination of sensation and sober instruction that so repelled the Romantic critics.


But these new illusions and spectacles had the effect of enshrining Vesuvius and Pompeii in an itinerary of polite tourism that was sustained by virtual travel.   They not only presented a technologically manufactured experience, subordinating the experience of the Bay of Naples to modern science, but thereby made it accessible to a much-expanded spectatorship.   As Blackwood’s Magazine explained in 1824:


Panoramas are among the happiest contrivances for saving time and expense in this age of contrivances. What cost a couple of hundred pounds and half a year half a century ago, now costs a shilling and a quarter of an hour. Throwing out of the old account the miseries of travel, the insolence of public functionaries, the roguery of innkeepers, the visitations of banditti, charged to the muzzle with sabre, pistol and scapulary, and the rascality of the custom-house officers, who plunder, passport in hand, the indescribable desagremens of Italian cookery, and the insufferable annoyance of that epitome of abomination, an Italian bed.


The new forms of representation not only revealed Vesuvius and resurrected Pompeii, they transported these and other sites directly to the viewer.   As The Times commented in April 1830:


“Thanks to the contrivances of modern ingenuity, the ‘long drawn aisles and fretted vaults’ of the Cathedral at Rheims are now fixed snugly in the Regent’s-park, and the rocks of Mont St. Gothard, torn from their old foundations, are reposing quietly in the same vicinity. All this is owing to the magic pencil of Messrs. Daguerre and Bouton, who, if they have not given us the realities of these magnificent objects, have at least given us imitations of them so wonderfully minute and vivid, as to appear more like the illusions of enchantment than the mere creations of art.


Virtual Vesuvius and Pompeii were the precursors of a new sort of tourism that Thomas Cook was soon to exploit.   As Mr Booley explained in an article in Dickens’ Household Words of 1850, the new sorts of travel, virtual or otherwise, were intended to open up the world to the less advantaged:


“It is very gratifying to me,’ said he, ‘to have seen so much at my time of life, and to have acquired a knowledge of the countries I have visited, which I could not have derived from books alone. When I was a boy, such travelling would have been impossible, as the gigantic-moving-panorama or diorama mode of conveyance, which I have principally adopted (all my modes of conveyance have been pictorial), had then not been attempted. It is a delightful characteristic of these times, that new and cheap means are continually being devised for conveying the results of actual experience to those who are unable to obtain such experiences for themselves: and to bring them within the reach of the people – emphatically of the people; for it is they at large who are addressed in these endeavours, and not exclusive audiences….. New worlds open out to them, beyond their little worlds, and widen their range of reflection, information, sympathy, and interest. The more man knows of man, the better for the common brotherhood among us all.”




As Mr. Booley’s remarks show, Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples and the buried cities had become, by the 1850s and 1860s, a common cultural property of bourgeois Europe – one property amongst many in the itineraries of tourism.   The development of the steam boat and the steam train – technologies in which the Kingdom of Naples was a pioneer – and the organizational skills of Northern European Protestants like Mr. Thomas Cook and Herr. Carl Stangen both of whom smoothed the passage of visitors into the Mediterranean meant that, though the volcano and the cities remained objects of geological inquiry, and tied in complex ways to the communities that surrounded them, they had acquired a different valence, one that seemed less rooted in the ways of science and religion, and more in tune with the commercialization of a new Italian, national culture.



[1] He might have been thinking of the comment made by the neo-classical architect and popularizer of Pompeiian designs, William Adam, about Herculaneum: this town “once filled with temples, columns, palaces, and other ornaments of good taste is now exactly like a coalmine worked by galley slaves who fill in the waste rooms they leave behind.”


[2] Compare Felicia Heman’s altogether more materal and less sexualized verse of 1828, “impression of a woman’s form, with an infant clasped to the bosom, found at the uncovering of Herculaneum”:

“Oh! I could pass all relics/ Left by the pomps of old,/ To gaze on this rude monument,/ Cast in affections mold./ Love, human love! What art thou/ Thy print upon the dust/ Outlives the cities of renown/ Wherein the mighty trust!”

[3] Giornale delle Due Sicilie 21/11/25 on the performance in Naples: poi in modo straordinario l’ultima scena presentate un quadro per quanto grandioso altretantto desolante e terrible, la distruzione della citta sotto la pioggia di cenere e lapilli in mezzo all’inordamento delle fiumane di fuoco che tra boccavano dal Vesuvio”. ”

[4] Cf earlier remarks of another female author, Hester Piozzi: “these are the things to strike [and] terrify those who examine them”. (Corr. 1, 176-7).

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