The Clifford Lecture: Fire and Ice, Travel and the Natural Sublime in the Age of Enlightenment

This was the James Clifford Lecture delivered at the American Society of Eighteenth-century Studies annual conference, Pittsburgh, 2 April 2016.

When we reached the little plain on Vesuvius, our labours were richly recompensed by the sight of five distinct streams of fire issuing from two mouths, and tumbling wave after wave, slowly down the mountain, with the same noise, and in the same manner, as the melting Glaciers roll into the Valley of Chamouni : indeed, while I contemplated this awful and extraordinary scene, I could have fancied myself transported to the base of the Montanvert, had it not been for the crimson glare and excessive heat of the surrounding scoriae.


Mariana Starke, Information and Directions for Travellers on the Continent (5th edition, revised, Paris, Galignani, 1826), 257.


In the spring of 1814 a consortium of London booksellers published the final, seventeenth volume of John Pinkerton’s A General Collection of the best and most interesting Voyages and Travels in all parts of the World. Many of which are now first translated into English. Digested on a new plan. * In 1804 Pinkerton, a Scottish antiquary, forger and historian, friend and correspondent of Edward Gibbon and Horace Walpole, had published his Modern Geography, which claimed to systematize knowledge of the known world, and his General Collection published a decade later offered its readers a global history of travel from a predominantly European point of view.   Its geographical scope is remarkable.   Beginning with a volume on the Arctic, the North East Passage, and Iceland, it includes two volumes on British travel, and individual volumes on France, on Italy, Spain and Switzerland, and on the northern countries of Germany, Scandinavia and Russia. Two volumes are devoted to Asia, and one to the so-called Asiatic isles – including Australasia.   North and South American travels take up a further three volumes, Africa another two. The final tome in the series includes an annotated bibliography of travel writings that runs to a staggering 255 pages, and a justificatory essay entitled, ‘retrospect of the origin and progress of discovery’.


Pinkerton’s massive work was only one of a series of projects, promoted by the booksellers, to synthesize both the world and its discovery by Europeans. They including William Fordyce Mavor’s General Collection of Voyages and Travels, published in 1800 in 28 volumes, and Robert Kerr’s A General History and collection of voyages and travels.   Similar projects were launched in France, notably Gilles Boucher de la Richarderie, Bibliotheque universelle des voyages, au notice complete et raisonne de tous les voyages ancient et modernes dans les different parties du monde (Paris 1808, 6 vols.) Every group of booksellers in the first decades of the nineteenth century seems to have needed its collection of travels, all of which – at least in Britain – were marketed as part books, appearing in monthly segments, and all of which made certain claims to comprehensiveness.


At one level this phenomenon does no more than to speak to the well-known general fascination with works of travel, but something more is happening here. Pinkerton’s volumes begin with an essay on astronomy in which the entire earth is treated as a scientific object.   The history of the travel accounts he goes on to reprint and eventually examine are then framed as a progressive and increasingly rigorous account of the world, that brings – or so it seems – the entire earth within its orbit.   What we have here is planetary thought, connecting geography, natural history, history and political economy. Nature and culture march in step. Exploration and the account of its achievement merge together into one larger narrative of gradual systematization. The conquest of knowledge and the textual incorporation of territory advance together. * William Mavor takes a similar view: Speaking of the ancients , he writes, “The most monstrous fables disfigured their accounts, and credulity received, with undistinguished eagerness, truth and fable, wisdom and error. It was reserved for modern times to create, as it were, a new region in the world of knowledge; it was reserved for modern times to enlarge our acquaintance with human nature, by carrying our researches into modes of life original and distinct, and separated in all their characteristics from all the systems of civilized Europe.”

Pinkerton (patriotically) sees the accounts of James Cook’s first voyage (1768-71) as a turning point in travel writings:

The voyages of Cook may therefore be regarded as forming an illustrious epoch ; the observations being so candidly and carefully stated, as to excite the emulation of succeeding writers, who have conspired to introduce into the accounts of all countries a superior discernment, and more important topics, than had been formerly traced. Few countries can be named that have not, within the last fifty years, been described in a manner so superior to the former weak narratives, that very few of them retain any other interest, than that of amusement. The old catalogues of pictures and statues, with trifling adventures by sea and land, which were called books of travels, have sunk into obscurity before the new and important works, which illustrate the phenomena of nature, and display the politics and ethics, the agriculture and commerce, the state of the arts and sciences. (17, xxix)


Many of the major genres of travel writing are reproduced in his volumes – narratives of seaborne exploration (Columbus, Dampier, Cook etc), scientific inquiry (Lazzaro Spallanzani, Deodat de Dolomieu), political economy and improvement (Arthur Young), antiquities and natural history (Thomas Pennant), as well as plans, maps and inventories from surveyors like Carsten Niebuhr in the Persian Gulf and Francis Buchanan in Mysore; but there is one conspicuous absence. There are no sentimental journeys in the manner of Laurence Sterne, and precious little that could be described as picturesque or anecdotal.   Pinkerton is interested in system not sentiment. What Pinkerton and his fellow hacks, producing these vast syntheses and systematizations, were doing was to create a global grid for the reader, in which history and geography locate climates, societies and cultures all in relation to one another.  Such claims to universality are, of course, as bogus as those associated with our contemporary cult of globalization, but they speak to the often-made assertion in the period that the greater number of particulars examined, the more robust the science.


Of course, rather like the mission statements of modern universities, Pinkerton’s claims are a mix of wishful thinking, hyperbole and willful omission. They are designed to reinforce the truth claims of travel accounts that many scholars, notably Nigel Leask, have emphasized were deemed to be exceptionally weak, to overlook the lack of coherence of many accounts, which mixed personal narrative with factual enumeration, and to assert a control over the world that was far more fragile and much less complete than Pinkerton’s synthesis might suggest.


But Pinkerton’s account effectively identified what had become an enduring tension or fissure in travel writing. When the English editors of the Genevan artist and naturalist, Marc Theodore Bouritt’s, Description des Glacieres de Savoye originally circulated their translation among friends in the 1770s, they were shocked to find that adding the term ‘picturesque’ to Bouritt’s title meant that “it gave room, it seems for a presumption that it was a mere descriptive Trifle, which though it might delight and entertain the Fancy, could not merit the attention of a man of sense; as if it were indubitably certain, that what is recommended to the Taste, must therefore be unworthy of judgment.”   The editors complained bitterly that “writing has been separated into two distinct classes, the scientific and diverting”, leading them to mount an elaborate defense of accounts, such as Bourrit’s, that they claimed successfully combined both taste and truth.


Such tensions, between narrative and enumeration, vivid description and precise observation, which can be seen as operating between certain genres of travel literature, and which the commercial pressures of travel publishing sought to deny, were more often found within texts, and its these that I now want to explore.   I choose to do so by focusing on two natural environments, those of fire and ice, because such landscapes were widely held to be or held to produce the sensation of the sublime, what Edmund Burke in his Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, dubbed “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”. They were also the sites of some of the most intense scientific scrutiny in the period.   More specifically I have chosen to focus on European mountains, notably the Alps but also the Pyrenees, and on the Italian volcanoes, chiefly Vesuvius but also Etna, because in the period before the French revolution these sites assumed a particular importance both in travel narratives, scientific investigation, and genteel tourism. Together with the accounts of the Pacific Islands and their inhabitants, they were the ground on which there was a determined attempt to ensure that natural philosophical description should become a necessary part of travel literature, and they were the site where a self-consciously heroic view of the natural philosopher as travelling investigator was fully elaborated.   And unlike the South Seas, these European sites were relatively accessible to a class of traveller who could follow in the footsteps of the savant.

In discussing the sublime, my approach is one that is not concerned to trace an intellectual genealogy from its most famous eighteenth century proponents – Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant – but to follow in the path sketched by Peter de Bolla and Andrew Ashfield, which emphasizes the richness and variety of the tradition of sublimity. My treatment, then, follows that of Noah Herringham’s work on geology in treating the sublime, “not as a unitary mode of representation, but as a category animated by culturally specific practices” (Romantic Rocks, 28), in my case specifically travel narratives, tourism and natural philosophy.


Pinkerton’s travel narratives, especially those dealing with mountains, whether of ice or fire, are littered with the language of the sublime, usually used at the beginning and/or end of a description, bracketing a detailed account. This framing, which establishes a degree of separation between what is described as sublime and the author/viewer, reinforces the sense that sublimity is best felt or described by the subject at a distance.   Hence the frequency with which the adjective sublime was applied to the noun ‘prospect’.   Travel narratives, intended to draw in the reader, are rarely the site of precise usage and critical distinction, and Pinkerton’s selection is no exception; it is replete with clichés of the sublime.   Typically, wonder, admiration and awe is provoked by objects described, for example, as “undoubtedly formed for astonishment and delight, and …the source of the sublimest ideas”.   The same phrases recur: “awful grandeur and gloomy greatness”, “imposing majesty”, “dreadful” (Arthur Young); “immensity”, “darkness”, “unbounded prospects”, “fear and pleasure” (Coxe).


A common feature of all these descriptions is their invocation of the cliché that the sublime is unrepresentable, an assertion usually made just before the author embarks on a long description.   The Reverend William Coxe, author of the highly successful Travels in Switzerland, was particularly egregious in this regard.   Time and again he tells his reader, “I have not yet met with such astonishing scenes of wildness, horror, and majesty, as occurred in this day’s journey.”, only to add that, “Description generally fails in representing the most ordinary exhibitions of nature; how inadequate then must it be to the singular combination of sublime objects, which I shall now attempt to delineate?” Similarly, Patrick Brydone in his extremely successful A Tour Through Sicily and Malta, first published in 1774, regales the reader with an astonishingly vivid rendering of the sublimity of the Sicilian volcano of Etna (a description that was repeatedly reprinted in the magazines), while ruefully confessing of its summit that “here description must ever fall short, for no imagination has dared to form any ideas of so glorious and so magnificent a scene”.   One cannot help thinking that such professions are a none too covert way of promoting the literary skills of the author.

Overall, Pinkerton’s authors leave three major impressions. First their language is promiscuous. One hears echoes everywhere of a raft of authors on the sublime, not just Longinus and Burke, but Joseph Addison, James Thomson, Lord Kames, Archibald Alison and Hugh Blair. And secondly, the travellers describe a wide variety of relations between the feelings of the sublime, and those prompted by other aesthetic categories such as the beautiful or the picturesque: quite often the sublime is treated as a sort of beauty; on some occasions, the different affects are elided, as when sublimity is treated as “lovely” or “enchanting”.  In short, there is nothing philosophically rigorous in these evocative descriptions. Thirdly, most accounts, and notably those that were commercially successful, combine – albeit in a rather awkward manner – the aesthetics of travel and scientific observations.   This might be expected in such works as those by savants – Horace Benedict de Saussure on the Alps, Lazzaro Spallanzani on southern Italy and Sir William Hamilton on Vesuvius. Savants needed the sublime to propagate science.   But this sort of juxtaposition was equally common in more general travel writing.   Brydone’s account of his travels in Sicily and up Etna is peppered with calculations of temperatures and heights and barometric pressure. Coxe’s account of Switzerland marries quotes from Virgil with an extremely detailed discussion of the evidence for the height of Mount Blanc as compared with other mountains both in Antiquity and in the rest of the world, contrasting unproven assertion with modern measurement: “conjectures”, he writes, “are now banished from natural curiosity”.   By the 1760s and 1770s travel writers clearly felt an obligation to gesture – and sometimes even more – to forms of scientific description.

Of course, although they use the language of the sublime, there are important (and obvious) differences in nearly all accounts between descriptions of glacier covered mountains and fiery volcanoes.   The volcano, at least when erupting, is characterized by loud and unexpected noises (usually compared to cannon fire), and by movement – of lava and ash – and agitation. It was an image of instability: almost all accounts reiterate that what made the ascent of a volcano difficult was not its height (though in the case of Etna at 10,990 feet [3,350m] and more than twice the height of Vesuvius (4,202) this was a problem), but the quantities of ash and clinker that your feet sank into, rending the climb, as one commentator put it, more arduous than any climb ever.  The goal of a volcanic ascent was to observe the crater, a bubbling, burning, viscous, mass of indeterminate depth, a sort of fluid barrier between the atmosphere and the underworld.   In contrast, Mount Blanc, indeed all high snow covered mountains, were characterized as what the Genevan patrician and savant, Horace Benedict de Saussure, called “an abode of cold and silence”. Though avalanches and glaciers (often compared to lava flows) were signs of movement and mobility, on the whole the mountains were associated with a sort of massive, adamantine illegibility. Perhaps this is what Voltaire was thinking about when he wrote to volcanologist and savant, Sir William Hamilton in Naples, memorably contrasting the “eternal calm” of his beloved alps with volcanoes “full of caprice…too lively, that often become angry without reason”.   Volcanism was less about grandeur, about an adamantine monumentality or stability, which often entailed a certain static quality, than about violence and (e)motion.   Sublime action rather than sublime being.   And if one of the themes of the alpine sublime was imperviousness, the activity of the volcano – the outpouring of its innards, the extrusion of its viscera – entailed a certain active liminality, in which the interior secrets of nature were (threateningly) exposed. (Romantic rocks, 32.) It is not surprising that, although both the Alps and volcanoes were co-opted by the French revolutionaries, that the volcano – a sudden violence force of destruction that nevertheless had regenerative power – was much the most common metaphor and analogy with political and social change, and that fear of volcanic eruption also became a metaphor for fear of Revolution.

All of which is to say that the sublime feelings primarily though not exclusively associated with volcanoes were those of fear and danger, whereas those of high mountains were awe and exaltation, what the Swiss naturalist, Jean De Luc, described as “a kind of sensation of immensity it is impossible to explain”.   Whether in the form of a Rousseauian reverie on a pristine natural order or as a piece of natural theology, accounts of the Alps expressed the transformative spiritual effects of mountain air.   As Bourrit put it in his New Description of the Alps, “only one idea remains, but it is strong, it is the Sovereign of nature, who seizes all the faculties of your soul, His idea is sublime; nothing distracts; only he reigns here: that one feels is so strong, so transcendent, that one feels oneself changed. Neither the temples where one gives adoration, nor the view of its altars, produces nearly as profound a feeling of his presence.”

A further difference in accounts of the alpine and volcanic sublime is that alpine sublimity was figured as solitary, whereas volcanic sublime was – somewhat unexpectedly – figured as social.   Saussure’s comment during the first evening of his unsuccessful attempt of 1785 to climb Mount Blanc is often cited: “the repose and profound silence which reigned in this vast expanse, enlarged still further by the imagination, inspired me with a sort of terror; it appeared to me that I alone had survived in the universe; and that I saw its corpse stretched out at my feet.”   The reader would hardly know that the Genevan stood only a few feet from a cabin that contained eighteen sleeping men.   Leaving St. Gotthard nearly a decade earlier, the travel writer and cleric William Coxe commented that “I frequently quit my party, and either go on or before, or loiter behind, that I may enjoy uninterrupted, and with a sort of melancholy pleasure, these sublime exhibitions of nature in her most awful and tremendous forms.”

In contrast, the Vesuvian sublime was never that of the isolated individual confronting nature, but an experience that was emphatically social. In fact to ascend the volcano alone was seen as a diminished experience. There was a long history of male sociability on the mountain, and this sense that the experience of Vesuvius, and especially of an eruption, was an event that should be shared with one’s closest friends.   When the English painter, Joseph Wright of Derby finally made it up Vesuvius in 1775, his biggest regret was the absence of his friend, the clockmaker and geologist, John Whitehurst – “I wished for his company when on Mount Vesuvius, his thoughts would have centr’d in the bowels of the mountain, mine skimmed over the surface only; there was a very considerable eruption at the time, of which I am going to make a picture. ‘Tis the most wonderful sight in nature”.

Similarly, Sir William Hamilton, the British attaché, vulcanologist and antiquarian who did more than anyone else in the English-speaking world to propagate Vesuvius’s volcanic activity, wrote to the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, that his greatest disappointment was not to be able to share with him the experience of the 1778? eruption: “I long’d for you, [David] Solander and Charles Greville, for tho’ I have some company with me on these expeditions sometimes yet they have in general so much fear & so little curiosity that I had rather be alone”.   Perhaps Hamilton was thinking back to the most important homo-social moment of the northern Enlightenment in Italy, which occurred during the eruption of October 1767, when Hamilton, the great antiquary and scholar, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the libertine pornographer, the Baron d’Hancarville, together with Baron Riedesel, the author of an important travel guide to Sicily, collectively, and at considerable risk, descended into the volcano’s crater. The heat was so fierce they were forced to strip naked, while they dined on a picnic of pigeons they roasted in the lava streams.

If the sense of male friendship and solidarity was in part a function of shared danger, this was also one of the circumstances that enhanced romantic love between men and women.   Of course it is not just danger that fuelled romantic passion. It was the power and force of the volcano itself, the way it ignited the energy and the enthusiasm that fuelled desire and romance. The French artist, Madame Vigee Le Brun, climbing Vesuvius in 1790, wrote to her friend the architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart, “For a while I became Vesuvian, so much do I love this superb volcano. I believe that he also loved me, because he celebrated and welcomed me in the most grandiose manner”.   This sense of the volcano as a stimulus to desire had a long pedigree.   Sir William Hamilton described how in December 1770 during what he called “quite a lady’s eruption” he fell for a young woman [Lady Hampden] who was half his age: “nothing can express the glorious scene of Saturday – There were numberless Cascades of fire, the Scoria of the Lava formed arch’d bridges from Space to Space and the Lava ran rapidly under these arches whilst we stood upon them with great security. Mrs. Hampdens beautifull face lighted up by the reflection of the fiery Streams was not a circumstance to be forgot – I was half in love with her before we went to Vesuvius but her courage & the passion she has taken for my favourite object here, has quite undone me.”

The question for the savant however (even one as ardent as Sir William Hamilton) was still that of how these descriptions of mountains as sites of (different sorts of) emotional intensity connected with a more deliberate and colder discourse associated with the tasks of scientific observation.  Observation, as Lorraine Daston has emphasized, was central to scientific practice in the Enlightenment, and entailed an active engagement of the senses and intellect. As the Genevan pastor and botanist, Jean Senebier commented in L’art d’observer (1775), : “attention alone renders the observer master of the subjects he studies, in uniting all the forces of his soul, in making him carefully discard all that could distract him, and in regarding the object as the only one that exists for it at that moment”.   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe endorsed this view that scientific investigation demanded painstaking attention: “As soon as an observer gifted with acute senses happens to pay attention to objects, he becomes both inclined to make observations, and excellent at them”. The aim, however, was not to observe individual curiosities – the modern savant was very concerned to distinguish himself from the casual collector and admirer of naturalia – but to use particulars to reconstruct a picture of nature and, above all, to understand its laws, identifying what Daston calls “uniform particulars” to create a system.   So when Saussure ran into Hamilton’s nephew, Charles Greville, a lifelong collector of gems and crystals, at the St Gotthard pass in 1775, he dismissed him because “he was not a serious student and did not attempt to generalize”.  This did not, by the way, prevent the British Museum from paying £xxxxxx for his collection in 1


In short, a grid of local facts was to be turned into a global view of nature. This entailed precision, repetition and comparison in order to construct a general object – not Vesuvius or Etna or Stromboli – but volcanoes, not Mount Blanc, Dome du Gouter or Mont Buet, but Alpine mountains. So scientific knowledge depended, in the first instance, on a mass of detailed observations such as those of Vesuvius undertaken between 1779 and 1794 by Padre Antonio Piaggio at the behest of Sir William Hamilton, or those which Saussure undertook at the summit of Mount Blanc in 1787, when he measured temperature, air pressure, magnetic field, humidity and the colour of the sky using thermometers, a hygrometer, electrometer, two barometers, and a cynometer.   Such findings were written in notebooks, sometimes later redacted for publication, and included diagrams, measurements and numbers, often produced by instruments such as thermometers, hygrometers, barometers and theodolites.    Such knowledge was not, as Daston points out, intended to prove but to discover – to produce rather than test hypotheses about nature through patient discernment.

Much investigation, as several savants recognized, was repetitive, dull and unexciting; nevertheless skilled observation became increasingly associated with the idea of genius, with virtuosity and ingenuity, both in fashioning more precise instruments and in deftly recording nature.   Tabular results may have been prosaic and routine, but their recovery and constitution, especially when it put the observer at risk or in danger, was not. The heroic genius of the savant, embodied in a figure like Saussure, shifted the site and nature of sublimity which now lay in the actions of the philosopher rather than in the materials he surveyed. The engraving after the painting of Saussure by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, which as Martin Rudwick points out, was circulated throughout Europe, embodies this juxtaposition, in which the sublime sky and mountains are depicted together with Saussure and his instruments of science: a miner’s hammer, collecting bag, clinometer, hygrometer, and telescope.   Cian Duffy has made this same point more abstractly: “one effect of the remediation of the encounter with the ‘natural sublime’ to the general public through many of the cultural texts…is that the sublime which the individual describes becomes implicated with their own persona through the act of description.”

Perhaps then the narrative that combined sublime reflections on nature’s powers and majesty and scientific facts was largely unproblematic.   Perhaps the translators of Bourrit were right when they argued that science and aesthetic pleasure were compatible. After all the most commercially successful – best-selling – travel accounts were often a combination of the two. The spectacle of natural philosophy was not just enacted, as Simon Schaffer reminds us, in the lecture theatre and public exhibition spaces, but also in the textual descriptions of making observations in the field, descriptions that gave general epistemic authority to such accounts. We can see this very clearly in the carefully orchestrated self-fashioning of Sir William Hamilton as a volcanic savant through a whole series of publications for very different audiences between the mid-1760s and 1790s, or in the flurry of rival accounts of the Alps published by De Luc, Burrit, Raymond, Dr. Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Saussure.   Almost all of these accounts, even when quite technical, were reproduced in a whole range of contemporary periodicals, and not just in scientific publications. They were not just contributions to knowledge but rival claims for scientific ‘genius’.


The context of these works was commercial and touristic as much as scientific.   Both the Alps and Vesuvius (Etna was, at least at this time, too remote) fostered well developed tourist industries in the last quarter of the century.   As a Franciscan friar pointed out to Hester Piozzi, the former Mrs. Thrale, when she visited Naples in 1785, “that’s our mountain, which throws up money for us, by calling foreigners to see the extraordinary effects of so surprising a phenomenon.” Vesuvius boasted a well developed system of guides, a souvenir lava and rock trade, and a vast array of pictures and models for the visitor; in Chamonix, at the foot of Mt Blanc, there were no hotels in 1760; but there were three well appointed inns by the 1780s. Visitor figures to Chamonix rose from a meager 30 in 1772 to 2,000 in 1785. Jacques Balmat, who together with Dr. Paccard was the first to reach the summit of Mt. Blanc was financially rewarded by the Sardinian authorities who ruled the region because, in the words of the Sardinian envoy in Geneva: “this [ascent] is regarded in the area as an epochal event which will attract even more foreigners and the curious to the Glacieres”.


Curiosity, wonder, aesthetic appreciation – these were the feelings that were known to draw the traveller or tourist to the spectacles of fire and ice on the slopes of Vesuvius and Mt Blanc, but how was he and she to be persuaded to see nature as the savant intended, not just as an emotional stimulus but as part of the order of things?  One way to achieve this was for savants to portray the sublime and aesthetics more generally as both the precursor and stimulus to a more sober analysis.   As John Playfair, the Scottish mathematician and natural philosopher put it in his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth(1802): “as soon as he [the savant] has recovered from the general impression made by the novelty and magnificence of the spectacle before him, he begins to discover the footsteps of time”.   Similarly Brydone on Etna: “the senses, unaccustomed to the sublimity of such a scene, are bewildered and confounded, and it is not till after some time, that they are capable of separating and judging of the objects that compose it.”


Popularizers of science like Humphry Davy, who gave the first series of lectures in England on geology in 1805 at the Royal Institution, were emphatic that “the beauty, the majesty and the sublimity of the great forms of nature have their effect in the imagination rather increased than diminished by being connected with the view of philosophy” (13).   As he went on to explain, “the imagery of a mountain country, which is the very theatre of all science, is in almost all cases highly impressive and delightful, but a new and higher species of enjoyment arises in the mind when the arrangements in it, their harmony and subserviency to the purposes of life are considered.”   Davy wants both the sublime and the beautiful. If, on the one hand, he is pointing to the beauty and harmony of nature, he is also pointing out that the capacity to see things scientifically enhances sublimity. As he says, “To the geological enquirer every mountain chain offers striking monuments of the great alterations that the globe has undergone. The most sublime speculations are awakened, the present is disregarded, past ages crowd upon the fancy, and the mind is lost in admiration of the designs of that great power who has established order in which at first view appears as confusion”.   The words echo those of Bourrit on the top of Le Buet a quarter of a century earlier: “By contemplating these enormous monuments to the decay of the universe, thoughts are moved back many centuries and fixed on an imposing antiquity so well attested in this place”. Davy is playing a subtle game here, one that seeks to combine the aesthetics of confusion and deep time with an assertion of what is key for him, the order of nature, which can only be seen scientifically.

But as Adam Smith realized natural philosophy was just as easily understood as a process of demystification in which sublime feelings of fear and awe were dispelled by an understanding of the beauties of the connected system of nature. “Thus”, he writes in his Essays on Philosophical Subjects, “the eclipses of the sun and the moon, which once, more than all other appearances in the heavens, excited the terror and amazement of mankind, seem now no longer so wonderful, since the connecting chain has been found which joins them to the ordinary course of things.”… “Philosophy”, Smith argues, “by representing the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects, endeavours to introduce order into the chaos of jarring and discordant appearance, to allay the tumult of the imagination, and to restore it, when it surveys the great revolutions of the universe, to that tone of tranquility and composure, which is most agreeable in itself, and most suitable in its nature.”.   Just as he saw the market, so Smith sees the economy of nature as a beautiful system.   Davy, for all his confusion, concurs: At the end of his tenth lecture he explained, “Even the most terrible of the ministrations of nature in their ultimate operation are pregnant with blessings and with benefits. Beauty and harmony are made to result from apparent confusion, and all the laws of the material world are ultimately made subservient to the preservation of life and the promotion of happiness”.

It is this commitment to understanding system and to searching out order that distinguishes the rigorous natural philosopher from the traveller with only desultory curiosity; it is also what and makes his activity sublime.   In an astonishingly self-congratulatory remark in his preliminary discourse to Voyages in the Alps, Saussure gives himself almost God-like qualities: “What language can reproduce the sensations and paint the ideas with which these great spectacles fill the soul of the Philosopher? He seems to dominate above our Globe, he discovers the sources of its motion, and to recognize at least the principal agents that effect its revolutions.” Placed at the summit of the highest mountain in Europe, where “I saw placed under my eyes those majestic summits …I seized their relation to each other, their connection, their structure, and a single glance cleared up doubts that years of labour had not been able to dissolve.” Saussure is jostling for status on the summit with an all-seeing God.

As part of a progressive narrative of modernity, the natural philosopher not only contrasted himself with the unsystematic inquirer, but even more prominently with ordinary people who lack education.   Kant, in his discussion of the natural sublime in his Third Critique contrasts the response of a Savoyard peasant, whom he concedes is good and intelligent but also uncultured, to that of Saussure himself. According to Kant, the response to the Alps and Mount Blanc of Saussure, who uses his “soul-stirring sensations” for “the instruction of men”, is quite different from that of the Savoyard peasant, who “in the indications of the dominion of nature in destruction, and in the great scale of its might,… will only see the misery, danger, and distress which surround the man who is exposed to it”.

It is striking how often apparently ‘scientific’ reports penned by savants include accounts of the responses of indigenous peoples, usually dubbed ignorant, superstitious and fearful.   Hamilton’s reports of volcanic eruptions on Vesuvius usually included stories (for which there was very little philosophical justification) of popular turmoil and terror, and of the invocation of the relics of St Gennaro, to save the city of Naples from its sins. Such narratives set up an explicit contrast between a vision of natural disaster as divine retribution for human sin, and eruptions as an example of a benign natural order, their occurrence a part of a self-regulating nature. This was the message that Davy offered his lecture audience as the climax of his geological survey.   “Volcanoes when superficially examined appear rather as accidents than as orderly events in our system. But when they are accurately considered, it will be found that their effects are not unimportant in the economy of things and that they bear a distinct subservience to the general harmonious series of natural operations (136)…the earthquake and the subterraneous fire have their uses in our system. They at first terrify and destroy, but a few years only pass away and their desolating effects disappear; the scene blooms with the fairest vegetation and becomes the abode of life”.

So the act of overcoming fear in the face of the erupting volcano was never simply a matter of physical security; it also depended, as Adam Smith understood, upon a cognitive move in which understanding and knowledge dispelled fear based on ignorance.  The savant had every reason to play up the difficulty and danger of his investigations, as long as his fortitude was made clear, a determination that grew out of scientific curiosity, his determination to extract the system of nature from his researches.


This contrast between the savant and the superstitious layman can be seen very clearly in the work of the most important artist portraying Vesuvius in the later eighteenth century, Jacques Volaire, known as the Chevalier Volaire. He arrived in Naples in 1767 and, apart from brief excursions, remained there until his death 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, 1779 and 1794.   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 1785-6, 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 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.)

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 mai 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”. Or Simon Linguet’s description of Giovanni Mario della Torre as a savant avec “une attention et un courage rares”.  Here we see the figure described by David McCallam: “when the intrepid savant faces down the terrible danger of the volcano, the volcano yields to him not only its secrets, in the form of scientific data, but also its sublimity”.

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 Pietro Fabris’s works for Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei.

The construction of the heroic savant marginalized or obliterated those who were deemed to be of restricted vision – either because unable to transmute the local into the general, or to see beyond their superstitions.   Thus, as we see, it was a commonplace among travellers that the Neapolitan lazzaroni were either indifferent to or terrified of their volcano, despite the fact that savants’ visits to the volcano could only be made with local guides, and their safety only ensured by their local expertise. Similarly, a comparable process of erasure happened in the case of Mount Blanc. Jacques Balmat, a smallholder and crystal hunter (note not collector) and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, a doctor, both from Chamonix, were the first to reach the summit of Mount Blanc, but their achievement was immediately downplayed, portrayed as a preparatory expedition to the ascent of the savant, Saussure.   Saussure’s swiftly published account of his own expedition (which included Balmat who was vital to the ascent) circulated first as a brief relation and then in much longer form, and overshadowed the achievements of Balmat and Paccard.   When Immanuel Kant published his Physical Geography in 1802, he declared, “Saussure was the first mortal to climb the summit of Mount Blanc”.

As we have seen what may at first sight have seemed a weakness on the part of natural philosophy, its dryness – what Brydone called “its cool and tasteless triumphs”, associated with “the hard and impenetrable temper of philosophy” – was successfully overcome by savants and scientists in the second half of the eighteenth century. They did not fight the powerful expressions of feeling associated with the sublime, which might have threatened to overshadow their precise descriptions and data. Instead they made such feelings the handmaiden of science, while crafting themselves as heroic, sublime figures enduring danger and discomfort in the pursuit of philosophical truth. Their sublimity derived from their actions in nature, including the prosaic activities of measurement and precise description that seemed so removed from an aesthetic that spoke of boundless horizons, obscurity and darkness.   Narratives such as those of Saussure and Hamilton were never just philosophical interventions; they were also guarantors of intellectual and social prestige, spread through publications designed to claim priorities for their authors, and often to secure their places politically.   They also, as we have seen, excluded or downgraded others who were in fact a part of the story.   As we have learned repeatedly, narratives of modernization and progress are often of great benefit to their proponents; for others, they are much more of a mixed blessing.




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