Treasures Unveiled (7): A Neapolitan work on volcanology

~ Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies (Naples, 1776) ~ 

Continuing our series showcasing a treasury of artefacts from Durham Cathedral’s Collections, we journey into Italy in the later 18th century, in the heyday of the continental Grand Tour, and at the flowering of geology as a discipline.  Our seventh feature in this Treasures Unveiled series is an illustration from a folio on vulcanology.

Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies is a work of Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803) – husband of the famous Lady Emma Hamilton (baptised 1765, died 1815), and an early volcanologist.  It is one of the most valued early printed books in the Cathedral’s collections, and contains parallel texts in French and English.  Volcanoes were enthralling to many at that time, with this fascination frequently expressed in art and poetry.

‘Campi Phlegraei’ collates Hamilton’s letters to the Royal Society, Fabris’s illustrations, and later letters written on the activity of volcanoes.  The sketches were carefully hand-coloured in gouache by local artists before publication (© Durham Cathedral Library)


‘Campi Phlegraei’, or ‘flaming fields’, refers to the area around Naples – so named because of the frequent and often devastating eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, which was more active during Hamilton’s time in Naples than at any other time since Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79).  As British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, Hamilton wrote a series of letters to the Royal Society detailing his observations of the activity of Vesuvius between 1764 and 1767, illustrated by beautiful sketches by the Anglo-Neapolitan artist, Peter (or Pietro) Fabris.  Hamilton’s account, and the samples of salts and sulphurs he sent alongside them, earned him election as a member of the Royal Society.

Sir William Hamilton was a childhood friend of George III (1738-1820), a diplomat – he was British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, 1764-1800 – as well as an antiquarian, early volcanologist and art-collector (his collection of vases is now held by the British Museum).  However, he is now chiefly remembered as the cuckolded husband of  Emma Hamilton, mistress to Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson (1758-1805).

 Further reading:

  • Constantine, David.  Fields of fire: a life of Sir William Hamilton.  Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001

Please visit us again, and continue to travel with us through the delightful landscape of our collections, next time to Lapponia (Lapland)…

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