A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy
University of Chicago Press
Mount Vesuvius has been famous ever since its eruption in 79 CE, when it destroyed and buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But less well-known is the role it played in the science and culture of early modern Italy, as Sean Cocco reveals in this ambitious and wide-ranging study. Humanists began to make pilgrimages to Vesuvius during the early Renaissance to experience its beauty and study its history, but a new tradition of observation emerged in 1631 with the first great eruption of the modern period. Seeking to understand the volcano’s place in the larger system of nature, Neapolitans flocked to Vesuvius to examine volcanic phenomena and to collect floral and mineral specimens from the mountainside.
Watching Vesuvius, Cocco argues that this investigation and engagement with Vesuvius was paramount to the development of modern volcanology. He then situates the native experience of Vesuvius in a larger intellectual, cultural, and political context and explains how later eighteenth-century representations of Naples—of its climate and character—grew out of this tradition of natural history. Painting a rich and detailed portrait of Vesuvius and those living in its shadow, Cocco returns the historic volcano to its place in a broader European culture of science, travel, and appreciation of the natural world.
Sean Cocco is associate professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Watching Vesuvius explores the question of Vesuvius as an object of study in the early modern science of volcanism from the investigations and opinions of humanists and naturalists in the late Renaissance to the early eighteenth-century philosophizing on volcanoes and the development of geology later in the century. Wound around this history of science, Sean Cocco weaves a deep cultural history of the relationship between nature and culture in the theories and practices of the peoples in the city of Naples. Vesuvius stands as a brooding reality and multivalent metaphor in local Neapolitan perceptions, contested political rivalries, and foreigner stereotypes of Neapolitans. The juxtaposition of the dormancy and eruptions of Vesuvius make the volcano an iconic symbol of the city of Naples between mountains and the sea known for its sharp contradictions of beauty and danger, fantasy and fear, creativity and destruction, action and inaction, faithfulness and revolt, high and low, rich and poor, good and evil, and the power of heaven and earth.”
— John A. Marino, University of California, San Diego
Watching Vesuvius, Sean Cocco beautifully captures the early modern Neapolitan fascination with the volcano. A barometer of religious anxiety and political discontent, Vesuvius was also a magnificent, alarming, and complex spectacle that testified to nature’s ability to dramatically reshape the local environment. In this original book, Cocco eloquently reconstructs the meaning of nature for early modern Neapolitans and other witnesses to Vesuvius’s eruptions. He brings to life a forgotten world of naturalists observing, explaining, and living with one of the world’s ancient and famously active volcanoes.”
— Paula Findlen, Stanford University
Watching Vesuvius expertly situates the volcano in the larger political and cultural context of the early modern period, in which the volcano and the city of Naples would become increasingly intertwined and nature would be summoned to explain culture, and vice versa. As Sean Cocco persuasively demonstrates, a scientific analysis of Vesuvius required both close observation and the cultivation of the imagination, since what caused the volcano was invisible to the eye. The early modern study of Vesuvius led to the development of volcanological nomenclature, derived from the study of the lava flows that were eventually recognized as the key to understanding volcanic activity. Cocco’s engaging writing and his mastery of a variety of perspectives on Vesuvius guide the reader along the path of multiple generations who sought out the volcano and pushed the boundaries of scientific understanding as they traveled. Scholars in a number of fields, from cultural history, to the history of science, to the history of Naples will find this intellectual journey of great interest.”
— Caroline Castiglione, Brown University
Watching Vesuvius deftly unites the history of science, politics, culture, and the environment. Sean Cocco reveals a continuous tradition of volcanology from the 1630s through the late eighteenth century, a tradition whose rhythms were shaped by the rhythms of Vesuvius itself. Intermittent, violent eruptions beginning in 1631, punctuated by periods of uneasy quiescence, shaped Neapolitans’ understanding of their own character and outsiders’ interpretation of political unrest in the viceroyalty. The book sparkles with insights on the connection between ideas, landscape, and identity.”
— Brian W. Ogilvie, University of Massachusetts Amherst
“Historian Sean Cocco looks anew at Vesuvius to reveal how early responses to it shaped modern volcanology. Now monitored closely—as befits a looming risk to at least a million people—in Renaissance and Baroque Naples the volcano was just becoming a focal point for scientific appreciation. Cocco argues that a combination of the city’s cultural traditions and the chain of eruptions that kicked off in 1631 helped to avert the early modern scientific eye from sky-gazing to the earthly wonders of geology.”
“Sean Cocco’s rich new book uses Vesuvius as a focal point for exploring the histories of natural history, travel, observation, imaging, astronomy, and many other aspects of the places and identities of early modern history. . . . Scholars and enthusiasts of the urban and political history of Europe will find much of interest here, as will readers interested in the history of vernacular understandings of nature.”
— Carla Nappi, New Books in Science, Technology, and Society
“There is no geological event more dramatic than a volcanic eruption, nor one that evokes so many questions about the Earth’s composition and history. This book is about history’s most famous volcano: Mount Vesuvius on the Italian peninsula. . . . The thesis of historian Cocco is that the wonder and danger of Vesuvius was critical to the development of natural science in Europe, and that it formed a complex connection between culture and nature for Renaissance humanists. . . . It is a historical and cultural work with a science theme. Recommended.”
— M. A. Wilson, College of Wooster, Choice
“Cocco has provided a valuable account of how [Vesuvius] came to have the scientific and cultural visibility it has for Neapolitans and the wider world alike.”