Ambassador who became a volcanologist – literature and lectures

A fragment of the history of culture and science from the 18th century: William Hamilton’s accounts of Mount Vesuvius.

Naples, a bustling southern Italian city at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, has always been a melting pot of cultures. This term was created at the end of the 18th century, today we would call it multicultural. Naples was such a melting pot, especially as it was a magnet for artists such as Caravaggio of Lombardy and his Dutch followers from Utrecht, then in the Baroque era.

William Hamilton arrived at the court of the King of Naples in 1764 as an ambassador to the British royal family with a military and political career. The diplomat plunged into the colorful Mediterranean life he had never known before – and absorbed it. His second wife, the much younger, legendary Lady Emma Hamilton, soon belonged to the illustrious Gulf of Campania society. She became famous as a performer of ancient statues and paintings as living images.

In Naples, William Hamilton was confronted with enormous enthusiasm for antiquity: reports were pouring in from everywhere about new finds of painted Greek vases, which were discovered in central, and most of all in southern, Italian tombs, and soon were displayed and sold to the City. Hamilton established quite a collection. What was not lost by the sea is now in the British Museum in London.

He himself took care of the publication of the first collection: the author of the text was the French archaeologist Pierre-Franois Hugues Baron d’Hancarville, for the illustration Hamilton engaged leading engravers of the time. Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, who traveled from Rome to Naples with Goethe in 1787, contributed to the publication of the second collection. These editions, in several magnificent volumes, for the first time documented the ornaments of ancient vases in “unfolding”. They migrated to European princely courts, vocational schools and academies. The real run was created within a few years. Greek ceramics have been used in the design of porcelain, furniture, wallpapers and murals.

The other side of Hamilton’s interests, however, remained underexposed, although he also documented them in a richly equipped edition. Hamilton also became a volcanologist. The Scientific Book Society has now published his nature reports on tna and Vesuvius in German translation under the title “William Hamilton’s Volcanoes”, along with extensive explanations and commentaries on the cultural and historical context in an exemplary edition.

Hamilton’s Palace was on the shores of the Gulf of Naples, and when he opened the curtains in the morning, he saw Mount Vesuvius. The daily sight made him climb the mountain 58 times. In addition, there were cuts in Sicily and Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands. Pyromania was part of the impetus. Hamilton saw several eruptions in 1766, for example in May 1771 when the king and queen of two Sicily were there. The mountain also spat in 1774, immortalized in a painting by the German landscape artist Jakob Philipp Hackert, again in 1787, painted by Giovanni Battista Lusieri. Prince Anhalt-Dessau was so inspired by his visit to Hamilton that he built a miniature of Mount Vesuvius in his landscape park that could be artificially erupted.

Several texts were created from the ambassador’s geological expeditions. The issue of “Campi Phlegraei – Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies as one be were bekoned to the Royal Society of London” in the three-volume edition (1776-1779), with drawings by the English-Italian artist Pietro Fabris, went to research

In English and French, Hamilton presented the work in his own translation in two columns. aesthetics and the mighty force of nature are alive in the text and panels. The researcher analyzed the smoke from the volcano, the frequency of “outbursts from within the mountain” (which he still heard in Naples six miles away), the salts and minerals in the hole, the direction and color of the lava, its change as the slag was absorbed and the rock. He took samples, tested the depth of the crater, and discussed whether the lava flow could be redirected. The diplomat became a real researcher.

The German edition of these magazines is recommended not only to experts. Anyone with an interest in cultural history learns how (natural) scientific progress often goes hand in hand with social change, and is increasingly on the agenda as new eras begin: in this case, bourgeois modernity.

Oliver Lubrich / Thomas Nehrlich (eds.): William Hamilton’s volcanoes – natural relations from the fiery mountains of Tna and Vesuvius. Translated from English by Johanna von Koppenfels. The Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2021.272 pages, 100 euro.

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