Vesuvius and Naples: nature and the city, 1500-1700
How do nature and culture influence one another? This dissertation considers the stature of Vesuvius in the religious and political life of early modern Naples, and also the volcano's place in European humanism and science. Humanists, antiquarians, and natural philosophers began to think about volcanoes and their connection to Campania's ancient history when a minor eruption occurred in the Campi Flegrei east of Naples in 1538. Vesuvius erupted after a long dormancy nearly a century later, in 1631. Describing this event, seventeenth-century observers compared their own autoptic experience with the observations of classical naturalists, evidence of the latter's weight and importance well into the seventeenth century. Religion made the volcano a powerful symbol as well. The myth that developed from the natural disaster emphasized the volcano's role as castigator of the city, but it also celebrated the miraculous aegis of a protecting saint, San Gennaro. The awakening of Vesuvius in the 1600s coincided with Spanish oppression of the subject city, social and political unrest, intense piety, religious anxiety, and surging Neapolitan national sentiment. These things conspired to give the volcano much of its symbolic charge, especially in the 1640s, as the punisher of impiety and political tyranny. While the volcano continued to erupt with regularity, much of its real and imagined ferocity faded on the level of learned culture. Natural philosophers' investigations of subterranean heat explained volcanic activity as a vital part of the Earth's inner economy. For this reason, Vesuvius was by the eighteenth century an object of spectacle and scientific curiosity rather than one of rage and fear. This dissertation considers the convergence of humanism, religion, and science in the seventeenth century, when the volcano became an object of intense curiosity as well as a powerful symbol of Neapolitan identity. Its primary intent is to understand a two-way interaction: how nature directly shapes human history, and how the attitudes and proclivities of a given culture create landscape in turn.
- History