In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the final ascent to the summit of Mount Vesuvius was across crumbling, slippery ash: at every stop you slipped backward, and the wind, the steep slope, and the sulfurous fumes made it painful to breathe. Professional guides tied belts around visitors’ stomachs and dragged them on. The alternative was a sedan chair, equally hard work for the guides. It took a team of twelve men, changing every ten minutes, to lug the corpulent Duke of Buckingham—the “gros marquis”—to the top.

It was rash to go it alone. In 1834 the Swiss teenager Catherine-Valérie Boissier, a future novelist, proudly declined assistance, and while the guide mocked her foolishness she stumbled on, suffocated by smoke, blinded by cinders, and deafened by the roar of the crater. Finally she gave in and accepted help. But the way down, too, was a “torrent of suffering.” Her dress caught on the rocks, her shoes were torn, and her feet were cut and burning. Her guide came to her assistance, invoking the Virgin. She remembered that she cried when she reached safety: “How blessed I am, on leaving this work…with what joy I threw myself on my knees, stammering words of gratitude.”

Boissier suffered more than most, but her account evokes the mixture of fear and euphoria felt by many visitors, as well as the interplay between condescending tourists and local guides. Volcanic, John Brewer’s rich study of the place of Vesuvius in the Western European imagination, is strewn with anecdotes and irresistible quotations, and one of its most original elements is the way he brings the guides to the forefront. For them the volcano was more than a spectacle, it was a livelihood. Local people insisted that it was “il nostro Vesuvio.” A Franciscan friar explained to Hester Thrale Piozzi, a writer and friend of Samuel Johnson, 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.” Its eruptions pervaded Neapolitan history, folklore, and faith; its lava-enriched soils sustained farmers; its interest to scientists, artists, and writers and its lure as an attraction contributed to the region’s cultural and financial wealth.

Most of the guides came from the towns of Resina (modern Ercolano) and Torre del Greco, on the slopes of the mountain. As well as acting as porters and pulling people to the summit, they were experienced at judging seismic activity and approaching danger, thus keeping their charges safe. They were well organized and led by a head guide, who subcontracted the work and set prices, a relief to visitors bothered by haggling. The holder of this powerful position in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Salvatore Madonna, kept his own book of recommendations from celebrities—aristocrats, nobles, and scientists—and his name appeared in guidebooks, memoirs and news reports, novels and short stories.

Madonna was following the pattern established by the knowledgeable guide Bartolomeo Pumo, who made sixty-eight ascents in the late eighteenth century with the British ambassador Sir William Hamilton, a pioneer of Vesuvian studies. Hamilton was the author of significant early accounts of the volcanic activity of the Bay of Naples, from his lavishly illustrated book Campi Phlegraei in 1776 and its Supplement in 1779 to his detailed account of the dramatic eruption of 1794. In Volcanic Brewer adopts a thematic arrangement. This cleverly marshals the intricacy of his subject, but it does lead to some topsy-turvy chronology: although Hamilton’s name is often invoked, we have to wait for the final chapters on geologists and antiquarianism to learn in any depth about his contributions.

“The fulcrum of this study,” Brewer writes, is the 1820s, sixty years after Hamilton arrived. It was a hectic decade in Naples. In 1820 the Bourbon King Ferdinand was forced to agree to a constitution, which was swiftly overturned the following year with Austrian help. In 1822 the most powerful Vesuvian eruption of the century occurred, and another spectacular display followed in 1828. The publication of a substantial catalog of Vesuvian minerals and crystals piqued scientific inquiry, and a flurry of new books appeared on Herculaneum and Pompeii—the latter had been the focus of intense excavations since the late 1740s, while at Herculaneum, discovered by chance in the early eighteenth century, serious digging had also been underway for many years.

By the 1820s the itinerary for visiting the mountain was firmly established. For the less aristocratic set, it started with a wild dash in an overloaded carriage from Naples; then at Resina came the hiring of guides in the chaotic, scrambling crowd—carefully staged, thought Lady Blessington, and “sufficiently tattered to satisfy the most ardent admirer of the picturesque.” After this came a gradual climb, usually on horseback or mule, through lanes shaded by mulberry and chestnut trees to fields where old lava flows cut through crops and vineyards. At last the travelers reached the heights, a “transition from fecundity to barrenness.” Many would have been inspired by Madame de Staël’s well-known description in Corinne ou L’Italie (1807):


At a certain height birds are no longer seen, farther on plants become very scarce, then even insects find no nourishment. At last all life disappears, you enter the realm of death, and the slain earth’s dust alone slips beneath your unassured feet.

On the summit eager guides sold oranges and cooked eggs on the hot lava. While daring boys pissed over the edge, some bolder investigators, like the British mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage, descended into the crater with ropes, weighed down with heavy barometers and other instruments. Before the final trek up, and again on the way back, the climbers rested at the tree-shaded Hermitage of San Salvatore, a “halfway house to heaven,” as one visitor put it. Here they were regaled with glasses of Lacryma Christi wine and local food—pasta, roast veal, sausage, and “most excellent frittata.” Here, too, they signed the visitors’ book, often after a few bottles of wine.

Brewer’s idea of a multidimensional study of Vesuvius was sparked, he tells us, by the discovery in the Harvard archives of one of these books, covering almost two years, from December 1826 to October 1828. The large, leather-bound volume, its pages marred by excisions, squiggles, and drawings, contains over 2,300 signatures and is full of impromptu personal stories, in different European languages, “whose immediacy conveys a powerful sense of ‘being there.’” Visitors themselves pored over it to find celebrities—Stendhal was delighted to see the signatures of Staël and August Schlegel—though most wrote off the contents disdainfully as “silly verses” and “trash.” Yet if the tone is often flippant, the book is also, Brewer notes, a record of anxiety, a defiance of mortality in a place of danger.

The eager volcano climbers gave addresses stretching from St. Petersburg to Rio de Janeiro. The British predominate, followed by the Italians, French, and Germans, with a smattering of Americans. They are mostly men, but there are plenty of women, and families with children, particularly from the Neapolitan aristocracy and the British merchant community in Naples. While foreign visitors preferred to come in the spring, the locals chose September and October, holding family parties on the mountain and celebrating the autumn festivals and saints’ days. As Brewer looks at all these different groups in turn, his canvas becomes crowded—sometimes overcrowded—by the stream of backgrounds and biographies. But busyness and diversity were true of the mountain itself.

Some groups, like a band of pupils from Eton, seem at first to be following the aristocratic youths of the eighteenth century on their Grand Tour. Yet those days were past: these latter-day Grand Tourists—like Tennyson’s beloved Arthur Hallam—were often traveling with their families, in an atmosphere far from the hedonistic libertinism of their forebears. Other groups that Brewer singles out include military men—especially Swiss soldiers, who acted effectively as the king’s private troops—as well as doctors and natural historians. Botanists, biologists, and geologists were there, and environmental scientists like Salvatore De Renzi, who published a remarkable survey of the region’s climate, soil, agriculture, water supply, and commerce in a search for the causes of cholera and malaria.

Artists also flocked to Naples. Some came from afar, like Robert Weir, the Hudson School artist from New York; others, such as Charles Eastlake, Penry Williams, and Keats’s friend Joseph Severn, were studying and painting in Rome. A few were based in Naples, notably Thomas Uwins, who lived there from 1825 to 1832. Many of these artists, chafing at academic requirements, demands for portraits, or the dominance of history painting, turned to genre scenes, exploring the landscape and life around the Bay of Naples. Here they felt free. When the artist William Havell visited Uwins in 1828, they rented a cottage at the foot of Vesuvius and carried pistols to deter bandits. “We live,” Uwins wrote lyrically, “most romantically”:

We have every object we can wish for study. The beautiful bay with its lovely islands lies at our feet, and the whole mountain vomits fire and smoke over our heads. If we walk out, we are in a moment amongst the most voluptuous vineyards, witnessing the labours of the peasant, and listening to his songs of gladness.

This idealized portrayal of rural life, ignorant of its harsh reality, was typical. Paintings abounded of pipers, dancing peasants, fishermen, and street urchins. But what purchasers really wanted was the fire and smoke of Vesuvius, as depicted, for example, in the superb painting of the eruption of 1828 by the Austrian artist August Kopisch. In paintings, too, the usual depreciation of local people appeared. A model had been set by the French painter Pierre-Jacques Volaire, who lived in Naples in the late eighteenth century. In his dramatic scenes, while cultured investigators gesture with urbane interest at the boiling lava, superstitious peasants flee headlong down the slopes toward the statue of San Gennaro, their protector.


For the savant (Brewer’s umbrella term for the diversity of inquiring scholars), the volcano was a natural phenomenon, to be regarded with awe but not with irrational fear. By the 1820s this educated detachment was also the required stance for the cultured tourist. The definition of the “sublime,” in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), was swiftly applied to Vesuvius. As early as 1761 Margaret Grenville was satisfied that Vesuvius “perfectly answered Mr Burke’s idea of the sublime.” By the 1820s Burke’s terms had been elaborated and neatly codified in travel literature: a landscape of vastness, wildness, and power provoking terror and admiration was “sublime”; scenery of smooth, harmonious order was “beautiful”; variety, oddity, and roughness were “picturesque.” Uwins’s view from his rooftop conveniently embraced all three: sublime volcano; beautiful, peaceful bay; and picturesque peasant life.

Although often used in a casual, lazy way, these terms told visitors to Vesuvius not only what to expect but how to react. Brewer moves elegantly from definitions to responses. There were, it was agreed, different manifestations of the sublime: the Alps were massive, static, and silent, while the volcano was violent, mobile, unpredictable, and disturbing: “The outpouring of its innards, the extrusion of its viscera—entailed a certain active liminality, a crossing of boundaries in which the interior secrets of nature were (threateningly) exposed.” This vitality and boundary crossing applied as well to the feelings of those who witnessed it. As the visitors’ book entries show, climbing the volcano provoked both unexpected friendships and feverish hostilities and squabbles, both personal and national, reminding us of the adjective “volcanic,” meaning hot-tempered, erratic, overemotional. And, of course, Vesuvius’s inner heat and turmoil, climactic eruptions and cascades of fire, inevitably “fuelled the erotic.”

Sometimes, however, viewers were disappointed. They did not feel quite enough. Lady Morgan was dismayed when her response was totally blunted by an encounter with a bevy of “English dandies” flirting and gossiping above the crater, an experience compounded by meeting acquaintances from Paris and being forced to chatter of parties and invitations. She had traveled there “in the vain hope of snatching at a new and a strong sensation (the great spell of existence)—of meeting Nature, all solitary and sublime, in the awful process of one of her profoundest mysteries!” But it was impossible to appreciate the spectacle properly: “There was no awe mingled with its contemplation!”

While Vesuvius was a touchstone of the sublime, it also provided political clichés: volcanoes simmered and smoldered, before erupting and altering the landscape forever—or at least until the next time. Despite Brewer’s subtitle, revolutions and regime changes happen offstage in the book: his concern is with the volcano’s place in political rhetoric and representation. A volcanic farce, The Last Judgment of Kings, complete with an explosion, he notes, was staged in Paris two days after Marie Antoinette was guillotined in October 1793. Six years later, in 1799, when Napoleon overthrew the Directory and took power, he told the Council of Five Hundred, “Representatives, you are not surrounded by ordinary circumstances. You are sitting on a volcano.” Such phrases became a commonplace. Radicals could “justify the sweeping political and social transformations of revolution” by citing the Enlightenment notion of “erupting volcanoes as benign agents restoring the balance of nature.” Conservatives could use them to portray radicalism as a seething, subterranean force of destruction.

The significance of the volcano rippled outward. One of the most important groups in the visitors’ books were the natural philosophers, including chemists and pioneers of the new science of geology. The savants who climbed the volcano in the 1820s included Babbage, Alexander von Humboldt, Alexandre Brongniart, Humphry Davy, James Forbes, and Charles Lyell. Here the relationship between visitors and local people was more positive: guides helped scientists to understand the processes of lava flow and eruption and to find eagerly sought-after minerals—while also making a good trade selling minerals on the side—as international visitors worked to establish the importance of Naples as a respected hub of information.

By then volcanoes had been identified from Iceland to Sumatra, Siberia to Peru. Vesuvius was dwarfed by Chimborazo in the Andes and mild compared with Tambora in Indonesia, whose eruption in 1815 sent streams of ash circling the globe, causing the notorious “year without a summer.” But for European geologists Vesuvius had supreme advantages, because it was almost constantly active and easy to access. Its repeated eruptions, said Humboldt, always gave something new to study, while for Davy it was “the grand laboratory of nature.”

Understanding volcanic activity was seen as essential in debates about the nature and formation of the earth’s crust, particularly between the Neptunists, who saw water as the essential agent, and the Plutonists, who regarded fire as preeminent and suggested that rocks had been solidified from molten lava, a theory seemingly confirmed by basalt outcrops across Europe. Since Hamilton’s time, meticulous accounts of eruptions had been produced by local eyewitnesses, both guides and scholars, particularly doctors, “polymathic intellectuals who made up part of the enlightened elite of late eighteenth-century Naples.” Many of these, combined with the reports of visiting scientists, were sent to the Royal Society in London and circulated throughout Europe, and the reputation of Naples grew still further after the Bourbon government established a royal mineralogical museum there in 1802.

Volcanic is a long but tantalizing book. I would have liked to know more about what precisely these reports contained and exactly what such research added to understanding of seismic activity. Brewer’s interest, however, is more general: to demonstrate “how scientific knowledge is made in a complex and messy world,” by personal exchange and discovery and by the growth of institutional structures and correspondence. The messiness is illustrated by contrasting chapters on two ardent vulcanists, the French aristocrat and libertine Déodat de Dolomieu—after whom the Dolomites are named—and the modest, diplomatic Neapolitan Teodoro Monticelli. Both lived tumultuous lives and were imprisoned for long periods by the Bourbon regime. But while Dolomieu was devoted to field study, “total and unbounded commitment to curiosité as a practice of rigorous observation,” Monticelli, known for his superb personal collection of minerals, was a “facilitator, intermediary and fixer.” As secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Naples from 1808 until his death in 1845, he brought together Italian experts and visiting natural philosophers and professors, creating a network of correspondence that placed the Bay of Naples at the heart of international vulcanist discussion. Just before his death he ensured the building of an observatory on the mountain.

A tour of Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples, and the Campi Phlegraei—the “fields of fire,” the great area of volcanic activity west of Naples—was seen as essential, especially as the region allowed investigators “to connect the historical and the geological record,” combining natural and human history and classical myth. At the various volcanic sites around Naples, George Julius Poulett Scrope could imagine himself happily “geologising in the extinct craters of the Elysian fields, with a Virgil in one hand and a hammer in the other.”

The first wave of excavations and publicity at Pompeii and Herculaneum, devastated in the eruption of 79 CE, had concentrated on buildings and artifacts. A Neapolitan inventory of Pompeii in 1755 included 738 frescoes and 1,647 objects—tools, musical instruments, rings and bracelets, vases and cooking pots—providing a new, accessible antiquity. But as more skeletons were discovered and graphic impressions of bodies were found in the ash, interest turned from the surroundings to the people who had perished in a moment. From this standpoint, Vesuvius was not “sublime” but “both the destroyer and conservator of a classical world.” And the threat was not confined to the past. “How dreadful are the thoughts which such a sight suggests!” wrote Piozzi. “How horrible the certainty, that such a scene might be all acted over again tomorrow.” The spectators of today might, she realized, “become spectacles for travelers of a succeeding century” who would take their bones back as souvenirs.

More and more tourists flocked to the streets of Pompeii and made the climb up Vesuvius, as the journey to the summit became ever easier. In 1844 a road to the new observatory was built, allowing travel by carriage right up to the hermitage, while a railway to the royal palace at Portici carried passengers to the slopes. Finally, in 1880, a funicular to the summit cut the last hard ascent from an arduous hour and a half to a comfortable twelve minutes. This finally destroyed the influence of the independent guides. In 1887 the firm of Thomas Cook took over the funicular, and after fierce battles the guides became employees.

One didn’t even have to go to Naples to experience the Vesuvian spectacle: the new technologies of panoramas and dioramas let one shudder in safety. You could see Vesuvius “in full roar and torrent,” declared Blackwood’s Magazine, within yards of a hackney coach stand, an experience that freed one from, among other things, the awfulness of Italian cookery and “that epitome of abomination, an Italian bed.” Intertwined with the story of Vesuvius is the myth of progress, which, like the panorama’s virtual travel, drives a wedge between humanity and nature, imparting a complacent, cushioning, deadening sense of safety, an illusion of nature tamed.

John Brewer is renowned for making telling connections among public spaces, social and political movements, shifts of taste, and private experience, notably in The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1997). Volcanic is his boldest book yet, an open-ended exploration of a site where archaeology, science, history, myth, art, and the tourist trade all intersect. Each chapter is fascinating. Together they create an absorbing collection of the different kinds of narratives people told—and still tell—to make sense of a phenomenon spectacularly beyond human control.