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Vesuvius in the Age of Revolutions

John Brewer



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Yale University
22 December 2023
A vibrant, diverse history of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples in the age of Romanticism


Vesuvius is best known for its disastrous eruption of 79CE. But only after 1738, in the age of Enlightenment, did the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii reveal its full extent. In an era of groundbreaking scientific endeavour and violent revolution, Vesuvius became a focal point of strong emotions and political aspirations, an object of geological enquiry, and a powerful symbol of the Romantic obsession with nature.


John Brewer charts the changing seismic and social dynamics of the mountain, and the meanings attached by travellers to their sublime confrontation with nature. The pyrotechnics of revolution and global warfare made volcanic activity the perfect political metaphor, fuelling revolutionary enthusiasm and conservative trepidation. From Swiss mercenaries to English entrepreneurs, French geologists to local Neapolitan guides, German painters to Scottish doctors, Vesuvius bubbled and seethed not just with lava, but with people whose passions, interests, and aims were as disparate as their origins.

Imprint:   Yale University
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 235mm,  Width: 152mm, 
ISBN:   9780300272666
ISBN 10:   0300272669
Pages:   544
Publication Date:  
Audience:   Professional and scholarly ,  Undergraduate
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Active

John Brewer is emeritus professor of humanities and social sciences at the California Institute of Technology and a faculty associate of the Harvard University History Department. His books include Pleasures of the Imagination, which won the Wolfson History Prize and was shortlisted for the National Book Awards.

Reviews for Volcanic: Vesuvius in the Age of Revolutions

“Best of all, Volcanic succeeds by showing the enduring draw of Vesuvius... This is a polyphonic chorus of different voices and stories guided by such a stylish documentarian… momentous and spellbinding.” —Caroline Eden, Financial Times   “[An] endlessly fascinating microhistory… [Brewer’s] baroque prose is perfectly apt for his romantic subjects, all of whom were obsessed with the sublime.” —Pratinav Anil, The Times “Brewer offers a series of lively pen portraits, interspersed with sociological sketches and glimpses of politics, science, painting, antiquarianism and more. . . . An extremely learned and companionable guide.”—Seamus Perry, Literary Review Listed in New Statesman’s Best Books of the Academic Presses, 2023 “[A] brilliant study. . . . Such humility and respect for the natural world has never felt more apt nor urgent.”—Jacqueline Riding, Country Life “Brewer’s sweeping account is an enjoyable read rich in rigorous original research, thoughtful analysis and engaging storytelling. Like those travellers scaling the slopes under the watchful eyes of Salvatore Madonna, we couldn’t hope for a better guide.”—Emily Brand, BBC History Magazine “This is an exceptional book, a master class of historical writing, imagination and insight.”—John A. Davis, author of Naples and Napoleon “Vesuvius was a dramatic natural curiosity few travellers engaged in the Grand Tour could resist. By tracing the steps of visitors, guides and naturalists, Brewer writes a fascinating history of marvel and knowledge, strong emotions and leisure.”—Pietro Corsi, author of Science and Religion “In Volcanic, John Brewer animates the Vesuvius of the Romantic era, from the tourist throngs and guides who made the volcano their business, to the movers, shakers, savants and scientists whose works and lives intersected around this grand, natural laboratory. This is a rich, entertaining and illuminating account of the cultural milieu of continental Europe’s liveliest volcano.”—David Pyle, author of Volcano: Encounters Through the Ages “In this magnetic, densely populated, account of Vesuvius, Brewer moves at ease between the intensely close-focus and the universal. The volcano, nerve-wracking yet thrilling in its unpredictability, mesmerised individuals and even mirrored political reverberations in Europe and beyond. Brewer has captured Vesuvius in its Romantic entirety: he has written a remarkable book.”—Gillian Darley, author of Vesuvius: The Most Famous Volcano in the World

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