The Portland Vase, £5.00
Gift of Sir William Hamilton
On loan from the Natural History Museum BM 80138A, 80138(77), 86374(11), 86374(12), 86374(19), 86374(27), 86374(33), 86374(36)
Enlightenment: Natural world
Rocks and minerals from Mount Vesuvius
Fom Mount Vesuvius, near Naples,
Collected in about 1768-79
Volcanic rocks collected by Sir William Hamilton
The study of volcanoes was central to eighteenth-century discussions concerning the age and formation of the earth. One of the key figures in that discussion was Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), who collected these samples from Mount Vesuvius.
Hamilton first arrived in Naples in 1764 as George III's Envoy and remained there for 36 years. He soon became fascinated, even obsessed, by Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in 1765. Hamilton had no previous knowledge of geology, but he thought it was important to record everything he saw. He wrote regular reports on the volcano's activity for the Royal Society in London and sent samples of the lava and other material from the volcano to the British Museum. These arrived in four batches between 1768 and 1779.
In 1776 Hamilton published his findings concerning the volcano in Campi Phlegraei, the title of which refers to the 'flaming fields' caused by the molten lava. The book contained many beautiful hand-coloured illustrations that Hamilton commissioned from the artist Pietro Fabris. It also outlined Hamilton's theory that volcanoes build up the land rather than destroying it, suggesting that the earth might be of a very great age if it was formed in this way.
Most of the rocks Hamilton collected are dolomite or derived from dolomite and many have been cut and polished. Presumably Hamilton employed local masons to prepare them.
D.T. Moore, 'Sir William Hamilton's volcanology and his involvement in Campi Phlegræi', Archives of Natural History, 21:2 (1994), pp. 169-193
I. Jenkins and K. Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir Willi (London, The British Museum Press, 1996)