Volcanic: Vesuvius in the Age of Revolutions by John Brewer - review by Seamus Perry

Seamus Perry

Lava Louts

Volcanic: Vesuvius in the Age of Revolutions


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The origins of this study lie in John Brewer’s discovery, in Harvard’s Houghton Library, of a tatty visitors’ book which once belonged to the hermitage of San Salvatore on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The book, which covers a couple of years in the late 1820s, eloquently testifies to a busy tourist trade. Drawing on this information as well as a remarkable number of contemporary memoirs and letters and writings that he has hunted down, Brewer has produced a diverting and voluminous account of life led in the shadow of the famous volcano in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The total impression is very miscellaneous, but then that is rather Brewer’s point. ‘Society, in its broadest sense, met cheek and jowl with living nature and reacted in a variety of different ways’, he says, which doesn’t so much state a thesis as declare the absence of one. This modesty of purpose turns out to be nothing but enabling: Brewer offers a series of lively pen portraits, interspersed with sociological sketches and glimpses of politics, science, painting, antiquarianism and more. You feel that the book, already long, could have gone on endlessly.

The Harvard visitors’ book contains over two thousand signatures of people who stayed in guest rooms at the hermitage, full of trepidation about their forthcoming climb, or, having made it to the top, full of jolly triumph as they returned to Naples. They were often full of booze, for the hermitage, as Brewer describes it, was a bibulous institution: ‘veni, bibi, vedi, bibi’, wrote one cheerful German. More scrupulous visitors were less than impressed by this entrepreneurial variation on monastic life. ‘His whole manner was that of an official of the bar rather than of the altar’, said James Fenimore Cooper of one of the hermits, but without the hermits’ help, travellers like Cooper would have found their pursuit of grand scenery very difficult. The clientele the hermits catered to was very diverse – lots of Brits, Italians and Germans, a sprinkling of Americans like Cooper – and, to judge by the messages they left in the book, they were not an especially high-minded bunch. ‘I didn’t find a thought that deserved to be recorded’, said the novelist and Catholic apologist Chateaubriand. Another Frenchman lamented that it should be ‘a singular property of Vesuvius to inspire more vulgar comments than any other mountain in the world’. The contribution of one English visitor suggests the justice of his remark: 

Good Friar you ask me to write in your book
But will you think of me when in it you look,
Vesuvius we found in excessive good nature
And I thought to leap in the Crater. 

The author of these memorable couplets added in apology: ‘Written in haste on the back of a Mule/So I pray all ye Poets don’t think me a Fool’. According to Brewer, jokes about asses and backsides were popular.

‘That’s our mountain,’ a wordy Neapolitan told Hester Piozzi, ‘which throws up money for us, by calling foreigners to see the extraordinary effects of so surprising a phenomenon.’ The hermits were only one part of a flourishing and lucrative Vesuvius service industry that visitors encountered as they began their ascents. As Brewer says, what the industry was ‘selling was a sublime experience’. Making your own way up the mountain to see the extraordinary effects was perilous, but help was at hand. Your first encounter upon arrival would be with a disorganised horde of vociferous guides, all offering their services. The spectacle seems to have been distinctly off-putting: the poet Shelley, generally a friend of humanity, thought these particular humans ‘degraded, disgusting & odious’. Degraded or not, some guides became celebrities: Salvatore Madonna (‘il capo cicerone’) was well-known for his narrative skills and general charm, as well as for his knowledge of the territory, and he even appeared in guidebooks as a colourful feature of the scene to be looked out for. Madonna seems to have been a professional type, but untrustworthy guides were not uncommon. The hot tip was to pay them only once you were back at your lodgings: cash in advance could lead to tourists being abandoned. One alarmed English visitor, convinced that his party’s guide was out to get them, heard the man mutter that ‘we are all heathens, we have no church, no pope, no saints, no Virgin Mary, no holy year, no hope of salvation, and no God’. In general, the prospect of sublime transport seems to have had little effect on entrenched prejudices. If the Europeans found the English stuffy, godless and ‘tight-fisted’, then the English were quite as pleased to find their preconceptions about the backwardness of the Catholic south fully confirmed.

What emerges very clearly from Brewer’s book is how far off the mark any idea is of young toffs on the grand tour relishing the grand feelings of solitary mountaintops. Solitude was the last thing you would find: the top of the volcano was crowded with families and groups of blokes daring one another to jump closer to the lava, and the more bubbly the crater appeared, the more populous the crowd. Part of this crowding was due to the relative accessibility of the volcano. Vesuvius was legendary as a place of wild disturbances, but it is not a very tall mountain and its proximity to Naples made it a much easier prospect than Etna. It was, as Brewer says, ‘small and suburban’. A railway line to the foot of the mountain opened in 1839, with special trains put on from Naples during eruptions. As years went on, surmounting it got easier and easier: a carriage road had been built by 1844. Then a funicular railway up the mountain was constructed, soon taken over by the enterprising son of Thomas Cook. The guides, fearing for their future, occasionally dug up the tracks and threw wagons into the crater, but the two sides eventually came to an agreement.

Among the more respectable tourists toiling to the top were scientists, who were less interested in the thrills than in the data the volcano might provide. Charles Babbage, now famous for inventing the precursor of the computer, interpreted a doctor’s order to travel south to have some rest as an opportunity to climb the famous mountain, which he did, remarkably, with a load of instruments, including a sextant, several thermometers, a tape measure and ‘one of Troughton’s heavy barometers, strapped to my back looking like a cupid’s quiver’. Humphry Davy also scaled its heights, subsequently addressing his London lecture audiences optimistically about the role of volcanos in the geological life of the planet: ‘the most terrible of the ministrations of nature in their ultimate operation are pregnant with blessings and with benefits’. These were days of now-forgotten wars between rival groups of geologists, and Brewer expertly places the evidence provided by Vesuvius within their spats.

Faced with the spectacle of the seething crater, Davy described it as ‘the most awful and the most sublime of the phenomena belonging to our globe’, which strikes the rather dutifully sublime note that Vesuvius seems to have elicited. It is slightly dispiriting to hear how lacklustre were most of the responses to this extraordinary sight. ‘I do not mind dying, but I want to see the Alps and Vesuvius first’, one heady commentator is quoted as saying. ‘I was overpowered by the inconceivably mysterious spell of the subterranean working’, another visitor remarked. The art inspired by Vesuvius is not much better: the immense The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov, which sold in 1834 for forty thousand francs, looks from the reproduction here like a simply dreadful painting. 

Still, Brewer is a historian, so such judgements are hardly his concern. He is an extremely learned and companionable guide (‘but we must take our leave of the hermitage and proceed on our climb’). The character of his book is perfectly encapsulated by his description of the scene across the Bay of Naples: the ‘richness, plenitude and variety of the prospect made it a major Romantic attraction’.

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