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.

Classical authors including Hesiod (7th-8th century BC), Pindar (c.518-438 BC) and Virgil (70-19 BC) made Etna the prison where Zeus had buried the defeated giants (or in some versions the Titan Typhon), or alternatively the location of the smithy where the Cyclopes worked under the direction of Hephaestus. Others, such as Lucretius (99-55 BC) sought to offer more empirical explanations for Etna’s eruption, speculating, for example, about the interaction of superheated wind and sea water in subterranean caverns – an explanation which Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), would echo, in the volcanic catastrophe of his ‘lyrical drama’ Prometheus Unbound (1820).

During the eighteenth century, Etna played a key role in debates about the age of the earth and the agencies of geomorphic change: observation of its past lava flows and present eruptions was central to the formulation of arguments about the uniformity of geological processes acting over ‘deep time’ (see Duffy, Landscapes of the sublime, 78-80). The antiquarian and natural philosopher William Hamilton (1730-1803) and the traveller and natural philosopher Patrick Brydone (1736-1818) made detailed studies of Etna, publishing their findings in Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other volcanoes (1772) and Voyage through Sicily and Malta (1773) respectively. Both men were guided in their researches by a local Jesuit canon, Giuseppe Recupero (1720-78), who projected, but never published, his own study of the volcano: over half a century later, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), the English Opium-Eater, in his essay ‘System of the Heavens’ (1846), recalled Brydone’s account of Recupero and poked fun at his ‘collusive evidence from layers of lava’ against established chronologies of earth history based on the work of the Irish Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656), whose Annales Veteris Testamenti (1650) had proposed a date for the creation of the earth on 23 October 4004 BC.

The German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) made a partial ascent of Etna during his visit to Sicily in the spring of 1787, publishing an account of it in his Italienische Reise (1816-17). British romantic-period poetry, too, often engages with Etna. Anna Seward’s (1742-1809) poem ‘Mount Etna’ (published in 1807, though written earlier), for instance, is an explicit and detailed response to Brydone’s account of that volcano in his Tour, and Seward also makes extensive use of volcanic imagery to illustrate what she sees as the destructive effects of industry around Colebrookdale, in the English midlands. The natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) had already used volcanic imagery to celebrate technological progress in the same areas in The Economy of Vegetation, the first part of his Botanic Garden (1791). Percy Shelley mentions Etna in his ‘Ode to Liberty’ (1820), where he draws upon speculation by natural philosophers like Hamilton and Brydone about the interconnectedness of volcanic activity to image the spread of political revolution across Europe:

England yet sleeps: was she not called of old?
Spain calls her now, as with its thrilling thunder
Vesuvius awakens Aetna, and the cold
Snow-crags by its reply are cloven in sunder (ll. 181-4)

Lord Byron (1788-1824) – like Shelley, a frequent user of volcanic imagery – in Canto 8 of Don Juan (1824) invokes Classical stories about Etna in his account of the siege of Ismail (1790), when ‘the whole rampart blazed like Etna, when/ The restless Titan hiccups in his den’ (ll. 55-6).

In addition to the myths about defeated giants and divine smithies, Classical authors had also made Etna the setting for the death of the Greek philosopher Empedocles (c. 494-435 BC), who supposedly threw himself into the crater. The story is recalled at length by Brydone in his Tour and was, of course, made the subject of a dramatic poem, ‘Empedocles on Etna’ (1852), by that great Victorian poet and critic of Romantic literature with his own anxieties about the relationship between religion and science: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888).

Date: 500000 years ago

Creator: uniform geological processes operating over deep time

Media: Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), Die eruption des Ätna (18th century), oil on canvas, 96cm x 132cm

Media rights: Wikimedia Commons (Ätna.jpg). Original at Gatchina Palace and Estate Museum (Russia)

Object type: Stratovolcano (active)


Brydone, Patrick , A Tour through Sicily and Malta (London, 1773)

Dryden, John,  A Voyage to Sicily and Malta (London, 1776)

Duffy,  Cian, The landscapes of the sublime, 1700-1830: ‘classic ground’ (Palgrave, 2013)

Hamilton, William, Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other volcanoes (Naples, 1772)