A vibrant, diverse history of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples in the age of Romanticism
“Momentous and spellbinding.”—Caroline Eden, Financial Times
“Endlessly fascinating.”—Pratinav Anil, Times (UK)
Vesuvius is best known for its disastrous eruption of 79CE. But only after 1738, in the age of Enlightenment, did the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii reveal its full extent. In an era of groundbreaking scientific endeavour and violent revolution, Vesuvius became a focal point of strong emotions and political aspirations, an object of geological enquiry, and a powerful symbol of the Romantic obsession with nature.
John Brewer charts the changing seismic and social dynamics of the mountain, and the meanings attached by travellers to their sublime confrontation with nature. The pyrotechnics of revolution and global warfare made volcanic activity the perfect political metaphor, fuelling revolutionary enthusiasm and conservative trepidation. From Swiss mercenaries to English entrepreneurs, French geologists to local Neapolitan guides, German painters to Scottish doctors, Vesuvius bubbled and seethed not just with lava, but with people whose passions, interests, and aims were as disparate as their origins.
About the Author
John Brewer is emeritus professor of humanities and social sciences at the California Institute of Technology and a faculty associate of the Harvard University History Department. His books include Pleasures of the Imagination, which won the Wolfson History Prize and was shortlisted for the National Book Awards.
“Best of all, Volcanic succeeds by showing the enduring draw of Vesuvius. . . . This is a polyphonic chorus of different voices and stories guided by such a stylish documentarian. . . . Momentous and spellbinding.”—Caroline Eden, Financial Times
“A splendid work of historical archaeology. . . . Mr. Brewer writes as a literary and art critic as well as a historian—and he writes beautifully.”—Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal
“An entertaining social history. . . . [Brewer’s] account rests on the rare survival of a visitors’ book from 1826–8. . . . A fascinating and complex story, reflected by the mountain, itself an icon of destruction and renewal.”—Suzi Feay, The Guardian
“[An] endlessly fascinating microhistory. . . . [Brewer’s] baroque prose is perfectly apt for his romantic subjects, all of whom were obsessed with the sublime.”—Pratinav Anil, Times (UK)
“Vigorous and vividly detailed . . . deep scholarship sparked by serendipity.”—Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Times Literary Supplement
“Brewer offers a series of lively pen portraits, interspersed with sociological sketches and glimpses of politics, science, painting, antiquarianism and more. . . . An extremely learned and companionable guide.”—Seamus Perry, Literary Review
Listed in New Statesman’s Best Books of the Academic Presses, 2023
“An absorbing study by a master historian, Volcanic chronicles our fleeting attempts to comprehend, control and shape an unmasterable force of nature.” —Jeffrey Collins, The Australian
“This is an exceptional book, a master class of historical writing, imagination and insight.”—John A. Davis, author of Naples and Napoleon
“Vesuvius was a dramatic natural curiosity few travellers engaged in the Grand Tour could resist. By tracing the steps of visitors, guides and naturalists, Brewer writes a fascinating history of marvel and knowledge, strong emotions and leisure.”—Pietro Corsi, author of Science and Religion
“In Volcanic, John Brewer animates the Vesuvius of the Romantic era, from the tourist throngs and guides who made the volcano their business, to the movers, shakers, savants and scientists whose works and lives intersected around this grand, natural laboratory. This is a rich, entertaining and illuminating account of the cultural milieu of continental Europe’s liveliest volcano.”—David Pyle, author of Volcano: Encounters Through the Ages
“In this magnetic, densely populated, account of Vesuvius, Brewer moves at ease between the intensely close-focus and the universal. The volcano, nerve-wracking yet thrilling in its unpredictability, mesmerised individuals and even mirrored political reverberations in Europe and beyond. Brewer has captured Vesuvius in its Romantic entirety: he has written a remarkable book.”—Gillian Darley, author of Vesuvius: The Most Famous Volcano in the World