Sir William Hamilton and the Eruptions of Vesuvius

A few weeks ago, on the evening of the 10th April 2020, Anak Krakatoa, a volcanic island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, erupted. The initial eruption, which lasted just over a minute, produced a column of ash 200 metres high and could be heard in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, over 150 kilometres away. Fortunately, despite visible lava fountains and an ash cloud that covered an area of 14 kilometres, no widespread damage was reported.

Anak Krakatoa is considered to be a particularly young volcano having experienced only sporadic activity since its formation in 1883. In contrast, Mount Vesuvius, located in the Gulf of Naples, has erupted numerous times, most notably in 79 AD, causing the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The eruptions that interest us today, however, are those witnessed by Sir William Hamilton in 1767, 1779 and 1794.

Hamilton, perhaps best remembered for his marriage to his wife Emma, a mistress of Lord Nelson, was appointed Envoy Extraordinary to the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily in 1764, a position he held until 1800.[1]

When not preforming diplomatic duties, Hamilton devoted time to his antiquarian pursuits. He became a keen collector of Greek vases and took particular interest in the archaeological excavations which were taking place at Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is likely the history and destruction of these two ancient cities led Hamilton to pursue a new interest, volcanology.

Vesuvius had erupted only a few years prior to Hamilton’s arrival in Naples. By 1765, Hamilton had begun to notice changes in the mountain’s behaviour which would eventually lead to a series of relatively severe eruptions.[2]

Hamilton climbed the mountain over 70 times to monitor the volcano’s activity. On numerous occasions he acted as a guide to visiting dignitaries, including the King and Queen of Naples. During one such visit his friend, Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, badly burnt his arm in his eagerness to observe the volcano.[3]

Hamilton’s work has drawn comparisons to Pliny the Younger who witnessed Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD.[4] He chronicled his observations in a series of letters which were published in 1772. These were so well received that Hamilton decided to produce an illustrated edition with the assistance of the painter Pietro Fabris. The subsequent publication, Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies (1776-79) contained over 50 hand coloured illustrations by Fabris and helped make Vesuvius a Grand Tour must for the adventurous young gentleman.

The images below have been taken from Lambeth Palace Library’s own copy of Campi Phlegraei (Sion Arc Folio E61.1/H18) which came to the Library in 1996 from Sion College. The first image shows the interior view of the crater of Mount Vesuvius, as it was before the great eruption of 1767.

Interior view of the crater of Mount Vesuvius, 1767.
Interior view of the crater of Mount Vesuvius, 1767.

The second image depicts the night of the 11th May 1771 where Hamilton is seen escorting the King and Queen of Naples to a part of Vesuvius where the lava fell down a perpendicular drop before flowing toward the town of Resina. Pietro Fabris has included himself sketching in the bottom left hand corner.

Lava flowing towards the town of Resina
Lava flowing towards the town of Resina

This final image shows the great eruption of Vesuvius from the Mole (pier) of Naples on the night of the 20th October 1767.

Vesuvius from the Mole of Naples, 20th October 1767
Vesuvius from the Mole of Naples, 20th October 1767

Hamilton’s contributions to the field of volcanology were recognised with a fellowship to the Royal Society and the Copley Medal for his paper An Account of a Journey to Mount Etna.

[1]C. Sebag-Montefiore, “The Eruptions of Vesuvius”, Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishops of Canterbury (ed. R. Palmer and M.P. Brown), (London: Scala, 2010), pp. 142-143.



[4]John Thackray, ‘”The Modern Pliny”: Hamilton and Vesuvius’, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection (ed. I. Jenkins and K. Sloan), (London: British Museum Press, 1996), pp. 65-74.

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