This volume with 120 sensational engravings is William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, ou Observations sur les Volcans des Deux Siciles. [Phlegraean Fields, or Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies]. This is the second or De Luxe edition of the work published between 1798 and 1802 in Paris by Chez Lamy, Libraire, Quai des Augustins. The work detailed erupting volcanoes as well as volcanic rocks and landscapes. It was also the first time the view was taken that volcanoes are forces of creation not just destruction as observed by Hamilton.
This is considered an “édition de luxe” of the work has 60 etched aquatint plates with original hand-coloring and an additional 60 of the same plates without color. The text is in French with many having the accompanying English translation. There is letterpress half-title, two engraved titles in color and without. The work is bound in near-contemporary purple half morocco over marbled paper boards by P. F. Heyne of Antwerp, is binder’s ticket is on the front pastedown. Flat spine is gilt with Arabesque foliate motifs surrounded by pointillé and gilt fillet borders, titled in gilt. There is a watermark in the front free endpaper reading CH.I.DE LIAGRE & CO.
The majority (59) of the plates are after Pietro Fabris. The doublepage plate is by Le Vacher after Alex Danna. The uncolored etchings are on woven paper and hand-colored on laid paper. Hamilton described the images as “executed with such delicacy and perfection, as scarcely to be distinguished from the original drawings themselves” (Part I, p. 6, Philosophical Transcations 1767).
Campi Phlegraei is known as the “flaming fields”. It is the area around Mount Vesuvius and Naples which had seen frequent violent eruptions. More people began visiting this area as the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum were performed at the funding of King Ferdinand I. The King frequented Hamilton’s home due to this fascination and that it was filled with Hamilton’s noted collection of art and antiquities. This peaked interest in volcanoes led to many travelers visiting his home, and it was noted that Hamilton himself climbed Vesuvius 58 times despite all the dangers it presented. In some of the images of this work, Hamilton is seen in his red coat, and the artist Fabris is in the blue one, both getting perilously close to the volcanic action.
Sir William Hamilton was the British ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800, during the city’s golden age. An avid antiquarian, Hamilton assembled one of the world’s finest collections of Greek and Roman antiquities. In addition to his duties as ambassador, Hamilton was also renowned as a knowledgeable guide and congenial host to the visiting English ‘Grand Tourists’. With infectious enthusiasm he would extol the wonders of Naples and the beauties of arts of the ancient world, inspiring in many of his aristocratic visitors a genuine love of the antique. This new-found enthusiasm found its expression in the new style of neo-classicism and in the collections of antiquites which found their way to many of the stately homes of England.
Hamilton developed an interest in volcanoes while living in Naples. He became a member of the Royal Society in 1766 and submitted to them many detailed and technical observations of volcanic activity in Naples and Sicily. Some of these illustrations were used to create this present work. The work included not only views of the Volcanoes erupting, but rocks and landscapes. In particular details of the area as it was in 1760s and 1770s as witnessed by Hamilton.
“Running two villas, a country house at the foot of Vesuvius and his main home in Naples, the money Hamilton received as envoy was insufficient to maintain ambassadorial hospitality and to feed his vast collecting appetite. Briefly returning to London in 1772, he was compelled to sell much of his art collection to the British Museum with a grant given to preserve it in the nation’s interest. On the same visit, Hamilton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Having already begun correspondence about the increasingly violent Vesuvius, upon his return to Naples his attention was drawn to challenging commonly held assumptions about volcanic activity by documenting what he saw in its eruptions. The excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii, along with stories of the effects of Vesuvius’ eruptions within living memory of Naples’ inhabitants, reinforced the view that the volcano was a purely destructive force. However, Hamilton sought to show that in a broader time scale, volcanoes had been responsible for the mountainous landscape and rich, fertile soils that characterised the area. He identified that heat formed basaltic rocks and that the stratified appearance of the land – both in exposed rock faces and in the excavated Roman towns – was due to a build up of layers of ash, lava and debris from Vesuvius.
“Hamilton wrote to the successive Presidents of the Royal Society, Sir John Pringle and Sir Joseph Banks, about his discoveries. The letters were read out at meetings; inviting interaction, they were accompanied by samples of rocks and soil. Seeking to describe rather than theorise, Hamilton published a book of Observations on Vesuvius in 1772; this text was accompanied by five illustrative plates and a map. But Hamilton had ambitions towards creating a more definitive guide to the volcano, to be as aesthetically beautiful as it was intellectually stimulating. Hoping that “such a publication, executed with magnificence in the Royal printing Office, may perhaps, render every other account of the late Eruption superfluous”, he aimed to show that lava could emerge from points other than the summit, that cones could collapse, and that the sulphuric gases that emerged from cracks in the ground were linked to volcanic activity.
“Hamilton employed the Anglo-Neapolitan artist Pietro Fabris (fl.1756-1784), to create sketches in situ to illustrate the work. These were then reproduced in prints that were hand coloured individually by local artists by the application of gouache. The process was overseen at every stage by Hamilton. The main text of the work reproduced his letters as they were communicated to the Royal Society, lending them a sense of authentication.
“The work was published in 1776 as Campi Phlegraei: observations on the volcanos of the two Sicilies. A supplement was produced three years later describing the great eruption of Vesuvius in August 1779. Like the members of the Royal Society who had originally discussed Hamilton’s correspondence, its readers were invited to share in the experience of witnessing Vesuvius erupting. This was primarily achieved by the outstanding illustrations that showed the eruptions from different vantage points and depicted various rock samples. The plates proved to be the book’s defining feature, more popular than the text itself. Landscape art was popular and many Grand Tourists commissioned paintings of their destinations as a way of commemorating their journey and proving themselves to be seasoned travellers. The plates of Campi Phlegraei provided ready made souvenirs and were often torn out and displayed in their own right. As such, complete copies are rare today.
“The expense of commissioning such a large number of hand coloured plates for the work almost crippled Hamilton. Having funded the publication entirely without subscription, the undertaking put him under huge financial strain. Returning to Britain in 1801, his collection of pictures was sold at Christies for £6000 and his vases for £4000 – and yet his debts remained, many incurred by his second wife, Emma. The cumulative cost of the book, his collections and his entertaining were ruinous to Hamilton” (Ellen Cole, University of Glasgow online).