Mount Vesuvius

Painting showing the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Gulf of Naples, Italy (40°49N’ 14°26’E)

Description: Located just outside the Italian city of Naples, the volcano Vesuvius was one of the most spectacular instances of the ‘natural sublime’ typically visited as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Vesuvius was in a more-or-less constant state of activity throughout the Romantic period and had a least six significant eruptions between 1774 and 1822. In a letter of December 1818, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes it as ‘after the glaciers [of the Alps] the most impressive expression of the energies of the nature I ever saw’ and his response is visible in the volcanic landscapes and imagery of Prometheus Unbound (1820). (1) Influential Romantic-period travel writing, such as A Classical Tour through Italy (1812) by John Chetwode Eustace (1762-1815) and Remarks […] During an Excursion in Italy (1813) by Joseph Forsyth (1763-1815), offered extended descriptions of the volcano and its environs for the increasing numbers of tourists who visited as well as information about the latest speculations in natural philosophy. Eruptions of Vesuvius were made the subject of numerous paintings, including celebrated works by the British artists Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), by the German Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), and by the Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729-99), who died in Naples. They were often depicted in panoramic exhibitions in London and other European capitals – and, of course, they feature in countless works of fiction, poetry, and drama by authors across Europe. Arguably, Vesuvius drove the explosion (if the pun may be forgiven) in the use of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in Romantic-period cultural texts right across Europe as metaphors and similes for everything from poetic inspiration to political revolution. Hence Lord Byron (1788-1824) no doubt had Vesuvius in mind when he lamented, in the thirteenth canto of Don Juan (1823), what he saw as the clichéd ubiquity of volcanic imagery: ‘I hate to hunt down a tired Metaphor –/ So let the often-used Volcano go;/ Poor thing! how frequently be me and others/ It hath been stirred up, till its Smoke quite smothers’ (ll. 285-8).

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Mount Etna

The Eruption of Etna (oil on canvas)

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Sicily, Italy (37°45.3N’ 14°59.7’E)

Description: With a current elevation of c.3350m (as of June 2019), Mount Etna is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of the island of Sicily. Etna was much less frequently visited during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the more accessible Vesuvius, outside Naples, the usual terminus of the European Grand Tour (the main route to Sicily was via boat from Naples). The mountain had nevertheless been ‘famous from all antiquity for its vomiting up fire’, as John Dryden the younger (1688-1701), the son of the poet, reminds us in his posthumously-published Voyage to Sicily and Malta (1776). During the Romantic period, Etna and its eruptions were made the subject of many paintings and panoramas and featured also in numerous works of prose, verse, and drama produced and consumed across Europe.

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A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Description: This is a copy of the 1822 edition of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes in its original board covers, containing an account of an ascent of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Five hundred copies of the Guide were printed, selling for 5/- (25p) each. This copy is of a size that could be carried on a tour. Wordsworth’s Guide was deeply influenced by his travels in Europe, in particular his experience in 1790, when he (then twenty years old) walked through France to the Alps with his friend Robert Jones. The history of this account of the ascent of Scafell Pike suggests in addition how Rousseau’s influential depictions of the Alps affected how the landscape of the Lakes was experienced.

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