Author: Sean Cocco | Publisher: Chicago University Press, 2012
Mount Vesuvius has been famous ever since its eruption in 79 CE, when it destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii and Herculaneum. En Sean Cocco reveals in this ambitious and wide-ranging study. In Watching Vesuvius, Coconut argues that this investigation and involvement 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 how the later eighteenth-century representations of Naples. Vesuvius painting and painting in the shadow,
Review (by Bruno Vecchio):
The volume of Sean Cocco is placed in the vein of studies which – from the particular point of view of the historian – investigate the cultural impact that entities and natural events have on society, on the border between “natural places and ideas” (p. 3). This is a trend that has recently enjoyed a marked fortune, thanks to a cultural turn of which the volume of Simon Schama, Landscape and memory (1995) is relevant in historiography, not surprisingly cited by the author (and considered by him as a cultural reference point together with Clarence Glacken and Fernand Braudel, pp. 17-18). The discovery or rediscovery – not in theory, but in the practice of research – of the fact that nature can be the object of cultural studies as well as of naturalistic studies, has gradually gained the attention of readers even non-specialists in history or social sciences; and it is with this audience – as well as of course with academics – that the Cocco volume can also be successful.
As for the landscape, here too an eminent case is presented in which nature arouses in society ideas whose presentation and evolution helps to better understand society itself.
If this – as seems undeniable – is the purpose of the volume, it is not strange that the events that most closely concern the history of science are not enough to Cocco. The author lets it continuously reveal itself; but you also see some specific steps; like the one in which he disputes the point of view of the Sigurdsson volcanism historian on the scarce importance of the Vesuvian eruption of 1631 for the purposes of the progress of volcanology (p.22): history of science and history of cultural contexts find for Cocco their recomposition into a single reality (p.3).
The area considered by the study is that of Naples, not only as a place close to Vesuvius (and therefore in principle linked to it by that community that derives from coexistence, and a potential privileged observatory on it) but also as a capital of an important kingdom and one of the major cities of Europe in the period considered; hence the city from which the collective representation of the volcano is formed in the “Republic of Letters”, and with it the overall representation of the volcanoes of Southern Italy, with the metonymies they give rise to.
The period considered is that from the late Renaissance to the age of the full Enlightenment; this period is reported by the author at the two extremes 1631-1779, marked by two Vesuvian eruptions.
In 1631 a paroxysm took place, more or less like that of 79 d. C. (although less famous), and equally sudden, as it comes after a long quiescence of the volcano. To put it another way, on December 17, three lahars descended from the mountains probably bury 6000 people only in the city of Torre del Greco, the existing cone disappears – dragged from the lahar to the sea – and the top collapses to 500 feet more in low (pp. 65-67).
The paroxysm of 1779 is instead practically harmless, so much so as to give rise to the coeval, satyrical booklet “Spaventosissima descrizione …”, by Ferdinando Galiani (pp. 231-233). In turn, the time span of the Coconut exam is a subperiod of a wider period from 1631 to 1944, during which Vesuvius showed almost continuous activity.
The extremes of 1631 and 1779 are therefore dictated by social and non-volcanological criteria: although it is contestable as it is any periodization, they still apply – Cocco writes – to effectively illustrate the evolution of cultural attitudes towards Vesuvius (pp. 226-228 ).
If we wish to summarize this evolution synthetically, we can do so by indicating as starting condition that for which the knowledge of the volcanic phenomena proceeds from the Aristotelian system. This system, however, presents particular gaps in this field (due to the scarce opportunities for deepening that the philosopher had had about the volcanoes, p. 144), so it is easy to alter it with clarifications based on empiricism (as Giorgio Agricola did for example in 1556 , p.28). On the other hand, the theories underlying volcanism – and in general the sciences of the earth – are clearly less risky from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy than the astronomical ones, as they do not call into question the overall constitution of the universe (pp. 99 -100, 170-172): which makes the debate better than innovation, and it would make it even more so if it were easy in this regard to accumulate adequate empirical observations and to draw correct inductions; something that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is not, or is not enough (pp. 101-102).
And yet to define the cultural condition of the time from which the volume starts, other elements must be called to the rescue. This is the reason why, at the beginning of the period considered, scientific observation (in this case: the observation of the volcano) is variable but significant, substantiated by historical knowledge: “historia and cause were fundamentally linked” (p. 83, but also see pp. 96-97). The “discourse” on the volcano is also – if not above all – a re-reading of the documentary sources on the volcano in the past (starting from the famous letter of Pliny the Younger at Tacitus, page 31). This attitude will gradually fade, but it is initially strong. And it will certainly lessen on the basis of the increase in the observations made possible by the multi-secular activity, as well as the Vesuvius, of other volcanoes, neighbors (see G.’s studies). A. Borelli  on Etna; pp. 156-165) and overseas; but also on the basis of another process, which marks modernity, and which is very observable at the end of the period considered by Cocco.
It is a question of the progressive progress of conviction, of Galilean filiation – and here exposed with the words of Hevelius, Selenographia, 1647 – that empiricism itself is not sufficient for the reconstruction of facts, because processes only partially reveal traces in the facts themselves. ; therefore the observation of the evidence is insufficient, it is a mediated cognitive process (page 149). It follows that the testimony of the “ancient” near and far, doubly mediated, is doubly inadequate.
We trust that these hints are sufficient to perceive that the book of Cocco, through the succession or juxtaposing of the ways of looking at Vesuvius, builds a narration of how culture evolves in Naples between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries; and in particular a narration of how the Neapolitan debate gradually becomes part of a scientific-cultural debate on a European scale: see pp. 179-181, 188-191, 205-209. Obviously it is not possible here to enter into the details of this narration; but we can not pass in silence at least one more aspect of it: the metonymies that concern the volcano.
A rich range of symbolism attributed to Vesuvius emerges from the Cocco narration. The use of nature and its phenomena in the political discourses of the Christian West is perhaps known above all in the version, where the catastrophe is punishment for the sins of men (where catastrophe means eruption, earthquake, flood, but also plague or revolt); and Watching Vesuvius also confirms the presence of the phenomenon in Naples (for example pp. 129-133). But already in 1620 this image contradicts what it proposes (in an anonymous letter addressed to the new viceroy Borgia) the comparison between the afflictions of the “political body” of Naples and those of nature (p.47). And finally, with a complete overturning of traditional meanings, Camillo Tutini, in his pamphlet written by the exile of Rome after the failure of the uprising of Masaniello (1647), he “engages” the wrath of the volcano to assert the legitimacy of the rebellion (pp. 127-134): a position that will have great fortune in the eighteenth century. But it should be added that here Cocco cleverly places this collective proposal of volcanic metonymy in an even wider range of images, those that designate Naples (and not only its volcano) as a symbolic entity: Naples as Arcadia (the image is by Giovanni Pontano 34), as a heavenly place, and at the same time as a “place inhabited by devils” (topos whose cross dates back to the XIV century, pp. 11-12); Naples is a true heir in the West of Athenian “freedom”, and in any case a casket of republican virtues (as in the propositions referable to the seventeenth Academy of the Oziosis; pp. 119-124), which is a city that risks regressing along the path of civilization, returning to the condition of the brutes of Giambattista Vico (like P. Napoli Signorelli, 1784, pp. 226-227).
Overall, Cocco makes a significant reading of the story told, based on an original use of sources and careful consideration of existing studies.
The writer is led to grasp many similarities between the story told by Cocco (at least for the eighteenth century) and that narrated by Augusto Placanica in the book Il filosofo e la catastrofe (1985); a book in which, similarly to what Cocco has done, we investigate – for the same South of Italy hosting the volcanoes, and in reference to 1783 – the impact of another cataclysm, the great earthquake of Calabria, on consciences and visions of the world.