HAMILTON, Sir William (1730-1803). Campi Phlegraei. Observations on the Volcanos of the two Sicilies as They have been communicated to the Royal Society of London

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HAMILTON, Sir William (1730-1803). Campi Phlegraei. Observations on the Volcanos of the two Sicilies as They have been communicated to the Royal Society of London. Naples: sold by Pietro Fabris, 1776-1779.


3 parts, including the Supplement, in 3 volumes. Folio, (18 x 13 inches). Text in English and French. Double-page hand-colored engraved map by Giuseppe Guerra after Fabris and 59 hand-colored etched plates, numbered 1-54 and 1-5, after Fabris (very minor insignificant pale marginal staining to some text leaves). Contemporary Italian half sheep, patterned paper boards, gilt (light rubbing and minor wear to edges).


The Campi Phlegraei, or the 'flaming fields', is the area around Naples in the immediate vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, which throughout history has frequently been engulfed by the violent eruptions of the volcano. In 1764 Hamilton petitioned for and received the post of envoy to Naples. His first wife Catherine was ailing, and the air was to do her good. She opened their two homes, one in Naples, and one in the foothills of Vesuvius, to the great and the good, all visitors on the Grand Tour, as an academy for music, putting on delicate and dignified performances of the harpsichord. The performances of Hamilton's more illustrious second wife, Emma, were rather more dramatic. She struck 'attitudes', or dramatic impersonations of the characters from Greek myth and art, for guests drawn to the Campi Phlegraei by recently discovered Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii (in 1738 and 1748 respectively), which had been simultaneously destroyed by Vesuvius' eruptions in 79 AD and buried by the ash and lava for over one thousand years. King Ferdinand I, who funded the excavation of these towns, was a frequent visitor to the Hamilton home, filled as it was with his extraordinarily fine collections of art and antiquities. Soon the volcano, ruined Greek cities, and the Hamilton home all became curiosities in their own right for the Neapolitan leg of a tourist's travels. Many wished to climb to the volcano's summit - even as it erupted - which it did in the 1770s. Hamilton often accompanied his guests on these ascents, apparently undertaking the journey some fifty eight times, despite the dangers, which were often all too real: Hamilton's good friend the Earl of Bristol, was badly burned in the attempt to reach the crater. In some of these beautiful and dramatic images, Hamilton in his red coat and the artist Fabris in his blue one, can be seen getting very close to the volcanic action.

"Running two villas, a country house at the foot of Vesuvius and his main home in Naples, the money Hamilton received as envoy was insufficient to maintain ambassadorial hospitality and to feed his vast collecting appetite. Briefly returning to London in 1772, he was compelled to sell much of his art collection to the British Museum with a grant given to preserve it in the nation's interest. On the same visit, Hamilton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Having already begun correspondence about the increasingly violent Vesuvius, upon his return to Naples his attention was drawn to challenging commonly held assumptions about volcanic activity by documenting what he saw in its eruptions. The excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii, along with stories of the effects of Vesuvius' eruptions within living memory of Naples' inhabitants, reinforced the view that the volcano was a purely destructive force. However, Hamilton sought to show that in a broader time scale, volcanoes had been responsible for the mountainous landscape and rich, fertile soils that characterised the area. He identified that heat formed basaltic rocks and that the stratified appearance of the land - both in exposed rock faces and in the excavated Roman towns - was due to a build up of layers of ash, lava and debris from Vesuvius.

"Hamilton wrote to the successive Presidents of the Royal Society, Sir John Pringle and Sir Joseph Banks, about his discoveries. The letters were read out at meetings; inviting interaction, they were accompanied by samples of rocks and soil. Seeking to describe rather than theorise, Hamilton published a book of Observations on Vesuvius in 1772; this text was accompanied by five illustrative plates and a map. But Hamilton had ambitions towards creating a more definitive guide to the volcano, to be as aesthetically beautiful as it was intellectually stimulating. Hoping that "such a publication, executed with magnificence in the Royal printing Office, may perhaps, render every other account of the late Eruption superfluous", he aimed to show that lava could emerge from points other than the summit, that cones could collapse, and that the sulphuric gases that emerged from cracks in the ground were linked to volcanic activity.

"Hamilton employed the Anglo-Neapolitan artist Pietro Fabris (fl.1756-1784), to create sketches in situ to illustrate the work. These were then reproduced in prints that were hand coloured individually by local artists by the application of gouache. The process was overseen at every stage by Hamilton. The main text of the work (also translated into French by Hamilton) reproduced his letters as they were communicated to the Royal Society, lending them a sense of authentication.

"The work was published in 1776 as Campi Phlegraei: observations on the volcanos of the two Sicilies. A supplement was produced three years later describing the great eruption of Vesuvius in August 1779. Like the members of the Royal Society who had originally discussed Hamilton's correspondence, its readers were invited to share in the experience of witnessing Vesuvius erupting. This was primarily achieved by the outstanding illustrations that showed the eruptions from different vantage points and depicted various rock samples. The plates proved to be the book's defining feature, more popular than the text itself. Landscape art was popular and many Grand Tourists commissioned paintings of their destinations as a way of commemorating their journey and proving themselves to be seasoned travellers. The plates of Campi Phlegraei provided ready made souvenirs and were often torn out and displayed in their own right. As such, complete copies are rare today.

"The expense of commissioning such a large number of hand coloured plates for the work almost crippled Hamilton. Having funded the publication entirely without subscription, the undertaking put him under huge financial strain. Returning to Britain in 1801, his collection of pictures was sold at Christies for £6000 and his vases for £4000 - and yet his debts remained, many incurred by his second wife, Emma. The cumulative cost of the book, his collections and his entertaining were ruinous to Hamilton" (Ellen Cole, University of Glasgow online).

[WITH]: "Two Letters from the Hon. William Hamilton containing an Account of the last Eruption of Mount Vesuvius." From: Philosophical Transcations 1767, pp. 191-200.
Brunet III, 31 ("Ouvrage curieux et bien exicut"); ESTC T71231 (parts I-II); I. Jenkins and K. Sloan Vases and Volcanoes (London: 1996), "Catalogue" 43; Lewine p.232; Lowndes II, p.989. Catalogued by Kate Hunter